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The Daring Mountaineers of Derwen and Caerdeon

Author: Professor John Morgan-Guy & Clare Kirk

Sir Charles Evans (1918-1995) and Bill Tilman (1898-1977) were two of the most outstanding mountaineers of the 20th century. And each of them has a connection to one of our Welsh churches.

At St Philip's chapel in Caerdeon, Gwynedd, the massive four-part bellcote-cum-chimney contains three bells, which can all be rung from a single rope, operated from a large wheel in a shelter on the north side of the church. For many years, Caerdeon's bells were rung by Bill Tilman. Tilman was no stranger to ropes, having scaled some of the world's highest mountains and sailed some of its most treacherous seas.

Major Harold William Tilman was born in Cheshire on Valentine's Day, 1898. During WW1 he joined the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, and was given a commission to the Royal Field Artillery. Tilman fought at the Somme and was twice awarded the Military Cross for bravery. In WW2, he volunteered for service, and saw action at Dunkirk and in North Africa and the Middle East before being called on for special service ... After being dropped by parachute into Albania behind enemy lines and then helping to save the city of Belluno from destruction, Tilman was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, and the keys to that city.

Between the wars, Tilman spent more than a decade as a coffee planter in East Africa. There, in the late 1920s, he formed a climbing partnership with fellow planter Eric Shipton. Together, they made pioneering climbs at Mount Kenya and the Ruwenzori. In 1930, they were disappointed by a close but failed attempt to reach the top of Kilimanjaro. However, in 1933, Tilman reached the summit alone, and soon, both mountaineers were achieving climbs to record-breaking altitudes.

Bill Tilman Everest

Bill Tilman, Tibet (China), 30 May 1935. Mount Everest Expedition 1935. Photo by L.V. Bryant. © Royal Geographical Society (with IBG).

In the 1930s, Tilman and Shipton joined forces again for several expeditions in the Himalayas. In 1936, Tilman was part of a team that was the first to reached the summit of Nanda Devi (25,643 ft). It remained the highest summit climbed until 1950. In 1938, Tilman led an expedition to Everest; his team succeeded in reaching 27,200 feet without oxygen.

Bill Tilman on Nandi Devi
Bill Tilman on Nanda Devi, India, Mount Everest Expedition 1936. Photo by Royal Geographical Society. © Royal Geographical Society (with IBG). 

After his distinguished military and mountaineering careers, many more adventures followed: Tilman took up deep sea sailing, making the the first longitudinal crossing of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, circumnavigating Africa and voyaging to the Antarctic.

During the last 30 years of his life, while completing dozens of expeditions on land and sea, Tilman lived at Bodowen, a Regency villa overlooking the Mawddach Estuary, just 1.5 miles from Caerdeon Chapel. We're not sure when he began to ring the bells at this rugged, Alpine-esque church hidden in the mountains between Barmouth and Bontddu. Perhaps as he turned the wheel it was as if he was at the helm.

In 1977, Tilman, together with local doctors Dr. Robert Haworth and Dr. Merfyn Jones, founded the Three Peaks Yacht Race, a multi-sport endurance event combining sailing with running over the highest peaks Wales (Yr Wyddfa/Snowdon), England (Scafell Pike) and Scotland (Ben Nevis), which still takes place annually, starting from Barmouth.

Not long after the inaugural race, Bill Tilman joined the crew of the En Avant from Southhampton to Rio de Janeiro. Tragically, en route to the Falkland Islands, the vessel and its crew disappeared — all, including Tilman, were presumed lost at sea.

Derwen in Denbighshire really is in the heart of Wales, and at its heart is the 13th century church of St Mary, much altered in the 15th, and which came into our care in 2002. It will have been well known to one of the most remarkable Welshmen of the 20th century, Sir Charles Evans.

Robert Charles Evans, known as 'Charles', never knew the father he was named after; he was killed in the final months of WW1, the year in which his son was born. So the infant Charles grew up in Derwen, with his mother's family. His maternal grandmother was Elizabeth Tudor — the Tudor royal family had originated in Denbighshire. It was an intensely Welsh household; indeed, he spoke only Welsh until the age of six.

Robert Charles Evans and his mother Edith Lloyd Evans (nee Williams) at Pentre, Derwen, 1921, in the home of his uncle, Owen Tudor Williams (via FindMyPast)

Education at Shrewsbury School and later at University College, Oxford followed, and these fostered his two lifelong passions: mountaineering and medicine. The former was fostered by a master at the school; the latter his chosen career. He qualified B.M. and B.Ch. in 1942, and was immediately pitchforked into the turmoils of the Second World War, seeing service with the R.A.M.C. in the Far East. So it was not until 1947 that he was able to settle into civilian life, and develop his speciality. He became a neurosurgeon in Liverpool, gaining his F.R.C.S. in 1949. 

And all the time the lure of the world’s mountains was never far away. When the opportunity arose, he travelled widely, climbing some of the world’s most challenging peaks. Indeed, it was jokingly said of him that he spent at least as much time half-way up a mountain somewhere as he did in his operating theatre! Then there was the greatest challenge of all – Everest. The highest mountain in the world, and still unconquered. No surprise, then, that, as one of Britain’s most respected and experienced climbers, Evans was chosen by John Hunt as his deputy for the 1953 assault on the mountain. With his companion, Tom Bourdillon, Evans was selected to make the attempt to climb the south summit of the mountain (28,700 ft), and this they successfully accomplished – the first climbers to do so. From there it was planned to try for the main peak.

Bourdillon and Evans leave Camp IV for their attempt on Mount Everest, 1953. © Royal Geographical Society (with IBG). 

It was a highly demanding and treacherous route that they would have to take, and the two men, realising that their oxygen supply would not be sufficient, wisely though sadly decided to turn back. They were within a tantalising 300 feet of the ultimate goal. It was a chivalrous thing to do. Three days later, and by a different route, Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing succeeded in reaching the summit. Everest had been conquered. Back home the news broke of their triumph; it was the day of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in Westminster Abbey. 

Charles Evans and Edmund Hillary after Hillary's and Tenzing's ascent of Everest, 1953. © Royal Geographical Society (with IBG).

It was by no means the end of Evans’s life as a climber, but it was drawing to a close. In 1955, this time as leader, Evans led the successful expedition for the conquest of another of the world’s highest and unclimbed mountains, Kangehenjunga. Once again his chivalrous nature came into play; in respect for the holiness of the mountain, he stopped short by six feet of the summit.

During the 1950s, while Evans attempted these pioneering climbs, he lived at Gwylfa, an elevated house in Derwen with views of the Clwydian and Berwyn mountain ranges. In this small rural community, he was visited by several sherpas, including Da Tenzing.

Evans ‘retired’ in 1957 — he was now 49 — but kept in touch with the world of climbing; from 1967-70 he was President of the Alpine Club. He also, perhaps unexpectedly, determined on a change in career. In 1958, to the surprise of many, he accepted the position of Principal of University College of North Wales, at Bangor, a post he was to hold for a quarter of a century, overseeing – sometimes in the face of opposition – the development of new departments, and laying the foundation of what was to become Bangor University. The fears of some, that the expansion of numbers would see the dilution of the essential ‘Welshness’ of the college proved groundless. His work was recognised; he was knighted in 1969, and elected Senior Vice-Chancellor of the University of Wales, a position he held until 1973. 

Unfortunately, the years at Bangor were overshadowed by the onset of incurable illness. He was diagnosed with the still incurable Multiple Sclerosis – ‘M.S.’ – which he faced with the same determination and courage as he had shown in conquering mountains. His latter years found him confined to a wheelchair, and slowly he lost the use of his limbs. No longer able to climb, for as long as possible, and with the aid of his wife, another experienced and respected climber, he pursued his hobby of sailing, Bangor being well-sited for this, on the shores of the Menai Strait (Afon Menai). He retired from his ‘second career’ – as successful and fulfilling as the first – in 1984, finally dying in a Nursing Home at Deganwy in 1995. He was buried at Bron y Nant Cemetery in Colwyn Bay. 

Derwen was where it all began and where Sir Charles Evans, the chivalrous and courageous mountaineer should be remembered. The peaceful church of St Mary, silent sentinel over its community for many centuries, is a good place to do just that. 

Portrait of Charles Evans, 1953. © Royal Geographical Society (with IBG).

Further reading

Aboard Mischief with English Mountaineer Bill Tilman

Tilman and Shipton’s travels in Africa

Bill Tilman: Turning the page once again on old adventures

Sir Charles Evans in Rhewl and Derwen

An obituary of Sir Charles Evans in the Journal of the Alpine Club