Charles Darwin entered Shrewsbury School 200 years ago, in 1818, at the age of nine. His mother had died one year before and he joined his older brother, Erasmus, at the School.
It is known that the curriculum consisting largely of classics, theology and mathematics did not thrill him. Indeed, even after leaving Shrewsbury, his study of science through medicine at the University of Edinburgh had little appeal for him. It was through Natural History in the Plinian Society at Edinburgh that he really started to develop a deep interest in academic life. Here – and later crucially at the University of Cambridge – he found himself fascinated with two characters, later to become his friends, who were pivotal in shaping his interest in the world: Henslow, a Botanist and Geologist; and Sedgwick, a Geologist. Their mentoring and careful guidance allowed Darwin to blossom as a scientist. His interest in the natural world was obvious, but the gentle ways by which he could be shown the skills and techniques for understanding the origins of processes and landforms across the world stemmed from excellent teaching by Henslow and Sedgwick.
After graduating from Cambridge in 1831, Darwin was encouraged by Henslow to accompany Sedgwick on a trip to North Wales, starting from Shrewsbury. On this one-month fieldtrip, Darwin investigated the ‘Old Red Sandstone’ deposits stretching from Shropshire right across Snowdonia and through to Anglesey. Darwin struggled with his geology – then a subject very much in its infancy – but he persevered under the superb tutelage and guidance by Sedgwick. However, by far the most memorable part of the fieldwork for Darwin was his experience at Cwm Idwal next to the Nant Ffrancon valley. That truly stunned him.
Darwin notes in his autobiography:
“We spent many hours in Cwm Idwal, examining all the rocks with extreme care, as Sedgwick was anxious to find fossils in them; but neither of us saw a trace of the wonderful glacial phenomena all around us; we did not notice the plainly scored rocks, the perched boulders, the lateral and terminal moraines.”
On this visit, Darwin missed the glacial environment completely. It may seem surprising now that one of the greatest minds in Natural History and the greatest geologist of the time could both miss what is now obvious to a trained geographer. Fifteen years later Darwin would recognise that “a house burnt down by fire did not tell its story more plainly than did this valley. If it had still been filled by a glacier, the phenomena would have been less distinct than they now are.”
Today, Shrewsbury School Sixth Form geographers replicate Darwin’s trip to North Wales at the beginning of their course. Whilst we cannot afford the luxury of a month-long expedition, we make the most of a full day exploring the very same landscape that our most famous Salopian visited. With the benefit of nearly two centuries of in-depth research in glacial-geology, the understanding of the Nant Ffrancon and Cwm Idwal landscape is much improved. Nevertheless, the core reason for visiting is to enthuse our geographers with the same sense of awe and wonder that Darwin experienced, associated with being able to explain and marvel in the creation of environmental phenomena.
Another famous Old Salopian, Michael Palin, noted earlier this summer that “Geography is a force for broadening the mind” and that the feature of his geographical studies at school that most inspired him “was being taken from the School into the local area to look at nature”. At Shrewsbury today, Geography is a very popular option both for IGCSE and Pre-U, and ten students have begun Geography degrees this autumn at a number of top institutions, including Oxford and Cambridge. With day and residential fieldtrips planned for the rest of the year, Salopians can look forward to having the opportunity to deepen their knowledge and widen their curiosity in the world, much as Palin did. The Geography Faculty can only hope that we are the ‘Sedgwicks’ and ‘Henslows’ for our current ‘Darwins’. We hope that that our lessons and fieldtrips provide the opportunity for the current generation of Salopian geographers to leave the School eager to learn still more about the complexities and diversities of the world in which we live.
Head of Geography