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Blog : Posts tagged with ‘Cymru’

Buildings in the landscape

Or, a trip to a museum

Only the other day, I wrote about heading out to visit a castle now that outdoor tourist attractions in Wales are starting to open up again. And now, along comes another post about it! This isn’t going to become a blog purely about days out I’ve taken, honest.

For the past few years, we’ve gone every spring to the museum at St Fagans, just west of Cardiff. If you’re from South Wales you will undoubtedly know of it, but I was always surprised, when we lived only just over the water in Bristol, how many English people don’t. Sain Ffagan Amgueddfa Werin Cymru, or St Fagans National Museum of History,* is a museum of Welsh buildings and Welsh life on a grand scale. It was founded back in the 1940s, modelled on the Skansen museum in Stockholm: the grounds of an aristocratic stately home, St Fagans Castle, were slowly filled with exemplars of vernacular Welsh architecture, dismantled and re-erected.

The museum also has indoor galleries, in a huge 1960s-era brutalist building which—after a full refurbishment a few years ago—is a gorgeous example of the period with a wonderfully light and airy atrium space. Naturally, none of that is open at the moment. Nor are the interiors of the historic (or replica) buildings themselves. However, given that visitor numbers are being carefully limited, this does mean that we had a great opportunity to explore the grounds in detail. I should have brought my Proper Camera, because normally you don’t get to take photos with nobody else about quite as easily.

Rhyd-Y-Car Terrace

Rhyd-Y-Car Terrace

This is Rhyd-Y-Car Terrace, one of the museum’s highlights, showing the changes in a typical urban terrace over two hundred years. If nothing else, when you can go inside, it gives parents the opportunity to say “look, this is what houses looked like when I was small,” as their children gaze at a 1970s microwave, an early VCR and a model of a plate of fish fingers. The buildings themselves came from Merthyr Tydfil; railway nerds might remember that Rhyd-Y-Car Junction was the point where the Brecon & Merthyr Railway met the Great Western Railway just outside Merthyr station.

The gardens outside the terrace are similarly reconstructed and appropriate to the period of each cottage, with vegetable plots and outside toilets gaining sheds, pigeon lofts and air raid shelters, before being replaced with grass and a greenhouse.

Rhyd-Y-Car Terrace

You might remember, back in the mists of time a few paragraphs ago, I said that we always tend to go to St Fagans every spring. The reason for that is: being a museum of Welsh life, it has its own sheep farm—with added geese, ducks, cows and porkers too—and every year lambing season turns into a bit of an event, complete nowadays with the lambing sheds being broadcast online on the museum’s “LambCam”. By April though lambing season is pretty much over: we could see the lambs in the fields, but not many were left indoors. Still, this one seemed happy to see us.

Sheep

Other signs of spring were everywhere too: the ground carpeted with primroses and celandines, bluebells starting to appear in the woods, and the daffodils still in strong flower. I watched this bee flying round, scratching under grass and leaves apparently trying to dig a hole, before giving up and trying another spot.

Bee

I think she’s a queen buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris), possibly looking for somewhere to start her nest.

* Translation note: the Welsh name doesn’t mean “Museum of History”, but it could mean “Welsh Folk Museum” or “Welsh People’s Museum”. The Welsh name has stayed the same over the years whilst the English one has changed a few times: road signs off the motorway direct you to the “Museum of Welsh Life”.

We now resume your regular programming

I'll explain the pun later

With travel now allowed within Wales, and places starting to open up, we can now go out and visit castles and suchlike again. Cadw, the Welsh historic monuments service, are starting to open up a number of their sites to carefully-controlled numbers of prebooked visitors at sites where it’s feasible. You can’t see the fantastic Victorian Gothic interiors of Castell Coch, but you can go and visit many of the famous castle ruins of Wales, the most famous being the “Edwardian subjugation” castles of the North. Caernarfon or Conwy are a bit far for a day trip from here, though. Instead, we set out for somewhere a bit more local, and walked through the complex arched gateways of Castell Rhaglan, Raglan Castle.

Castle Gateway

Raglan covers a large area but is rather unusual in that its keep is a moated hexagonal tower outside the main castle bailey, with a high-level bridge linking the two—in fact, in the Tudor period, it might even have been a bi-level bridge. The various levels and arches give you fantasically complex views that are almost like the works of Piranesi.

Raglan Castle

Raglan Castle

Raglan was still a sumptuous residence all through the Tudor period, right up until the Civil War. In the Stuart period, it even had a fountain powered by some form of steam engine, which must have predated the machines of Papin or of Savery. The upshot of this today is that, compared to the castles of North Wales I mentioned earlier, it has parts of rather more modern construction. There are substantial chunks rebuilt in brick, for example; finely-detailed stone carvings; and rooms with large rectangular windows. Nevertheless, it is still a ruin: in the Civil War its aristocratic owners naturally supported the King’s side, and as a result the castle surrendered to General Fairfax in the summer of 1646. The castle was made uninhabitable, and sadly, its library destroyed. It still today has no roof to speak of, few floors, and many stone stairs leading nowhere.

Raglan Castle

Raglan Castle

Raglan Castle

Raglan Castle

In the Tudor and Stuart periods the castle was surrounded by several terraces of formal gardens, which also no longer survive. Indeed, even if the castle had survived the Civil War, the gardens would no doubt have been lost to changes in aristocratic taste in any case; very few Tudor houses have had their original gardens survive continuously. The castle today is surrounded by the rough, rounded-off and grassed-over remains of the terraces, scattered with picnic benches, and with a shed and a Nissen hut tucked away in a discreet corner. Nevertheless, you can still look out from the castle across the rolling farmland that surrounds it, over to the Blorenge and the Sugar Loaf on the horizon.

Every castle needs a shed

Looking towards the Sugar Loaf

I must go back again some time with the Proper Camera, to take a photo which shows the Sugar Loaf as clearly as it stands out to the naked eye. Moreover, if the Sugar Loaf disappeared from sight, as it did when we were there, you know it’s time to seek shelter before the weather reaches you.

Incidentally, if you read the subtitle at the top of this post, you might still be wondering where the pun is. It’s not a very good one, but it is a bilingual one. My Welsh vocabulary is slowly improving; and all day, I had the same thought going around in my head, that if I was commissioning shows at a Welsh TV station I’d have one every day called “The Raglan Programme”, just because its title would be Y Rhaglen Rhaglan. I’ve done better, I have to admit.

Ar lan y môr

And more than once, too

As it was Easter weekend, we took a couple of trips out. “To the beach!” shouted The Child Who Likes Fairies, so to the beach it was.

Firstly, on Friday, to Aberogwyr or Ogmore-By-Sea, a small seaside village at the mouth of the Afon Ogwyr (River Ogmore). it has a rocky shore of cliffs maybe only ten or fifteen feet high, with many paths and gulleys down through them to the pebbly beach. There isn’t much in the way of sand, especially as we arrived at high tide.

On the slipway

The rocks are interesting, though, with smoothly-eroded limestones overlain by a strange array of breccias. At their lowest are rocks consisting of an amalgam of limestone pebbles, as if a beach or riverbank from a few million years ago had been frozen exactly as it was. Above them are huge, rough black slabs looking for all the world like pieces of modern concrete or tarmac. If you told me that back in the Triassic, dinosaurs had worked out the basics of civil engineering, I’d now believe you.

Interesting rocks

Interesting rocks

Ogmore-by-Sea is at the eastern side of the mouth of the River Ogmore. “Can we go to that beach over there?” said The Child Who Likes Animals, pointing to the far bank of the river. Over there, is Merthyr Mawr Warren, a vast area of sand dunes stretching from the western riverbank to the town of Porthcawl, with a long, broad stretch of sandy beach, Traeth yr Afon, facing on to the sea. So, today, we went to Merthyr Mawr.

At Ogmore-By-Sea, you can park your car at the top of the cliffs and amble down onto the shingle in a matter of seconds. Merthyr Mawr is a bit more of an expedition. The car park itself is by Candleston Castle, a ruined fortified manor that is about a mile or so from the sea. It’s an interesting place in itself, though.

Candleston Castle

Walking the mile through the dunes to the beach itself is quite the exercise. Merthyr Mawr Warren has the highest dunes in Britain, the second highest in Europe. Because the paths through the dunes are frequently disturbed, they tend to be the areas with the softest sand. It becomes something of a slog, and you lose sight of all the wonder in the landscape, the unique flora and fauna that goes towards making it a very special place. Nevertheless, we managed to stop and watch huge numbers of solitary bees of some kind, going in and out of their burrows.

Walking through the dunes is also very disorientating; you start to wonder where you are, whether you are trapped and going around in circles. Nevertheless, if you pay attention to the details, you can begin to see how the dunes vary. Further from the shore, they are more stable, the sand is darker in colour, and there are entire bushes and trees holding the dunes together. Towards the sea, the largest plants are clumps of marram, and the sand has ever more fragments of shell in it. Eventually, breaching the final crest, you slide down onto the beach.

Merthyr Mawr Warren

Traeth yr Afon is a very different prospect to the other side of the river. Open, windy, relatively deserted. Horses and riders gallop along through the firm sand at the shoreline. There is no coffee van, no lifeguard’s tower, no car park. Just the wind blowing fine sand along the surface, and the constant roar of the breaking waves.

Traeth yr Afon

Beach horses

Windblown sand

Which beach is better? That’s a matter of personal choice—and of your mood on any given day. Walking through the amazing dunes, allegedly so sandy and un-British they were used as a filming location for Lawrence of Arabia, is certainly hard work, compared with a beach that’s practically in a village. Walking along a deserted, windswept sandy shore, though, is generally just much more my taste. On the other hand, broad flat windswept dunes don’t also have fossil beds to go hunting in (for that, in the Vale of Glamorgan, you really want the beaches a few miles further east). There are always choices; it’s not a competition. We had two very different days out this weekend, but both were to amazing places.

Original footage

In which we consider moving to the mountains

The other day I was rather pleased to discover, on YouTube, a documentary from the 1970s that I’ve known about for a while but had never before seen. The Campbells Came By Rail is a documentary about the everyday life of Col. Andrew Campbell.

Colonel Campbell had a long and successful career in the Black Watch, largely overseas, policing the crumbling corners of the British Empire. Coming out of the Army in the early 1960s, he became county solicitor for Merionethshire (as was). At auction, he bought an equally-crumbling manor house in the northern fringes of the county, which he had fallen in love with at first sight. Its name was Dduallt.

Map of Dduallt

If you’re a regular reader—or paid attention to the title of the documentary—you may well be ahead of me here. Dduallt,* when Campbell bought it, had no vehicular access, but it was alongside the Ffestiniog Railway. At the time, the Ffestiniog were not operating services over that stretch of track; so the Colonel bought a small Simplex locomotive and had a small siding built alongside his new house. The railway let him park his car at the nearest station, Tan y Bwlch, and run himself up and down by train.

The Colonel at Tan y Bwlch

The documentary shows him picking up his loco and a brakevan from Tan y Bwlch and heading off up the line to show the filmcrew round his home, describing it as part of his normal daily commute from the county council offices. Off he heads, past the cottage at Coed y Bleiddiau, up to his own Campbell’s Platform, where he puts the train away.

Shunting at Campbell's

Unlike a modern documentary, you get to see all the detail of the Colonel putting the train staff into a drawer lock, working his groundframe, and then a demonstration of how to use an intermediate staff instrument,** including a spin of the Remote Operator dynamo handle to make sure the section is clear and the instruments free.***

Intermediate METS instrument

As I said above, when Campbell moved into Dduallt, the railway wasn’t operating over the stretch of line past his house. By the time the film was made, that part of the railway had reopened to traffic, and it must have been difficult on a busy summer day to find a space in the timetable for the Colonel to run down to Tan y Bwlch in the daytime. Further north, the railway was rebuilding a couple of miles or so of line that had been drowned by a reservoir, and Colonel Campbell had provided invaluable help. For one thing, he allowed the railway’s civil engineering volunteers to use one of his buildings as a hostel provided they helped restore it, which they did complete with a large London Underground roundel sign on one wall. For another, he was a licenced user of explosives, so was called out each weekend to blow up rocks along the path of the new line. If you look in the background of the documentary you can see a couple of wagons carrying concrete drainpipes are sat in Campbell’s siding, no doubt waiting to be used on the new line.

Eventually, Campbell did get a roadway built to the house, zigzagging steeply up the side of the vale, but only in the last few months of his life. He died in 1982, the same year that the Ffestiniog Railway completed its 27-year reopening process. The Ffestiniog went through a number of significant changes in the early 1980s, and the loss of Colonel Campbell was one of them. He is still an iconic figure to the railway, though, so watching the documentary was a fascinating opportunity to have some insight into who he was, what he looked like, what his mannerisms were. In particular, the upper-class Englishness of his accent startled me somewhat, given he was on paper a Scot. That, I suppose, is what being an interwar colonial Army officer turned you into. There is a whole thesis that could be written on colonialism and the Ffestiniog, given that it was funded in the 1830s by Irish investors and re-funded in the 1950s by English enthusiasts—and considering the long, bitter and quixotic arguments the railway had with Cymdeithas Yr Iaith Gymraeg in the 1960s and 1970s, arguments characterised by a tone of disingenuous legalistic pedantry on the railway’s side. It’s certainly far too complex a topic to be summarised within this single blog post. In the documentary, Campbell was very clear that after ten years of living at Dduallt he still felt himself to be an outsider; indeed, he gives you the feeling that he didn’t think he would ever truly belong to the land and to the house in the way that his farming neighbours did.

The Ffestiniog Railway is a very different place now, with a very different attitude to the local community. Dduallt has changed hands a few times since Campbell’s death, most recently just in 2020 after sitting on the market for some years. Its final price was a bit over £700,000, less than the sellers wanted but somewhat more, I think, than when Colonel Campbell picked it up at auction. It’s in rather better condition now, of course, not to mention rather more photogenic when shot on a modern camera. Apparently, if you go there (and the Ffestiniog will start running trains past it again next month) you can still see parts of the aerial ropeway that linked the house and its station back in the 1970s.

The documentary is certainly a moment in time, and that time has now moved on. Nevertheless, if you know what the railway is like now, it’s a fascinating watch. If you don’t, maybe it will entice you to visit. It’s certainly worth it.

* The famous-but-controversial railway manager Gerry Fiennes once said that the best way to pronounce Dduallt was by sneezing, which is cruel but more accurate than pronouncing it as if the letters were English.

** Technically speaking it’s a “miniature electric train staff”.

*** The Remote Operator handle and indicator is a Ffestiniog peculiarity, developed to enable the railway to operate with unstaffed token stations and traincrew-operated signalling equipment. There is more information about it in this video about one of the Ffestiniog’s signalboxes.

Onwards and upwards

Or, a trip up a mountain

As I said last week, things are slowly opening up here once more. Last week we could travel locally; from today, in Wales we can travel for leisure anywhere in the country so long as we don’t enter or leave it. I was somewhat tempted to spend the whole day driving to Porthmadog and then back again, just because I could, even though it would be an entirely pointless and childish thing to do.

It dawned bright and sunny, and The Child Who Likes Fairies immediately said: “can we go to the beach?” Naturally, I expected the beach would be packed, as would all of the standard inland tourist honeypots: Cwmcarn Forest, the Sugar Loaf, Pen y Fan, the Blorenge. “The Welsh Government are asking people to avoid flooding beauty spots,” said the news on the radio. I looked at a map, and picked a mountain overlooking Cwmbrân instead.

Mynydd Twyn-Glas is the mountain between Cwmbrân in the Eastern Valley and Crumlin in the Western Valley. It’s really just a slight rise in a broad-shouldered plateau, named Mynydd Maen on its south and Mynydd Llwyd on its north; and the whole, being common land, is also known as Mynydd Maen Common. The southern flank drops off sharply into steep-sided ravines thickly and densely covered with plantation conifers, the southernmost being the aforementioned Cwmcarn Forest. Being traditionally common land it’s now open access land. Despite this, I was surprised just how quiet it was: birds, bees, a handful of off-road bikers and another handful of dog walkers. We wandered across the open moorland, just above the edge of the forest, occasionally shouting into the trees and hearing the echo back from the other side of the ravine.

The ravines dropping away from Mynydd Twyn-Glas

A line of pylons strides across the moor, linking the upper valleys with the power stations of Newport. The wind whistled through them with an eerie note, singing the minor-key chord of a distant angelic choir.

Pylons

We saw a distant, intriguing stone slab, looking for all the world like a gravestone in the middle of the moor. Naturally, we headed straight for it.

Not a gravestone

B H
Boundary of Minerals
Settled by Act of Parliament
1839

Apparently there a few of these stones scattered at intervals through the area: the Act in question is 2 & 3 Vict. c. 38, “Sir Benjamin Hall’s, Capel Leigh’s and others’ estates: exchange of mines and land”. Sir Benjamin Hall MP is the “B H” of the stone: MP for Marylebone for over 20 years, he played a significant role in improving British public infrastructure, and is also possibly the man who Big Ben was named after. However, despite his important role in the history of London, his background was always in South Wales, his maternal grandfather (and source of his wealth) being the Merthyr ironmaster Richard Crawshay. The other side of the stone, incidentally, has “C H L” for Capel H Leigh.

Closer to the summit of the mountain, we found another stone. This, however, is much simpler.

LUP

On top is a simple cross, and on the other side, other letters.

PP

This is a boundary between parishes, rather than mineral owners, hence I suspect rather less money was spent on it. Llanfrechfa Upper Parish, on the one side; Pontypool Parish, on the other.

Finally, we reached the summit. Being a plateau, there wasn’t a dramatic view, just gently shelving moorland. In the distance, the Severn shined silver, down by the wetlands and the mouth of the Usk. England faded away into mist. The big difference—the sign we had reached the summit—was the strength of the unobstructed wind blowing across the mountain.

The Children

“I’m freezing!” said The Child Who Likes Fairies.

“Maybe next time we go up a mountain,” I said, “you’ll wear more layers of clothes like I said you should.”

“I’m never going up a mountain ever again,” she replied. “Ever.”

“What if next time we want to go in the mountains,” I offered, “we find a train that goes near some mountains and look at them out of the window?”

“As long as it takes us back down the mountain again once we’re at the top,” she said. And that, I think, is probably a fair bargain.

Liminal territory

Or, a trip to the wetlands

With pandemic restrictions slowly starting to ease, people in Wales can now start to travel about a little bit more, so long as they stay within five miles of home. We took the opportunity to head to one of the local nature reserves, Newport Wetlands, by the mouth of the Usk.

Newport Wetlands

The coast from Cardiff to Chepstow is the stretch of anciently-reclaimed marshland known as the Gwent Levels. They are very important ecologically and archaeologically, having been reclaimed from the sea several hundred years ago. Ah, so you might think, the Newport Wetlands are a surviving non-reclaimed portion of the Caldicot Level, that has somehow lasted a couple of thousand years without being taken as farmland? Not so. The Newport Wetlands are reclaimed, reclaimed from industry.

The corner where the River Usk meets the Caldicot Level has, since the 1950s, been the site of the Uskmouth Power Stations. Over the years a whole family of power stations has been built here, generating electricity in various different ways, but for the first few decades the major power source was coal, brought in by rail. The burning of coal powder creates a lot of very fine ash which can be somewhat difficult to find a use for, and is fairly hard to move without accidentally creating a sandstorm. To get it away from the power stations it was mixed with water and pumped as a slurry into “ash lagoons”, giant industrial waste lakes where the ash could be left to slowly turn into clay.

Newport Wetlands

In this century, the power stations stopped burning coal, and the ash lagoons were returned to nature. Rather than abandon them to nature in-the-raw, though, or return them to farming, they were seeded with reeds and turned into a carefully managed and curated wetland nature reserve. They are liminal spaces, therefore, across multiple boundaries. Not just land-versus-sea, but also industry-versus-nature, human-versus-wild. Notably, because the ash lagoons were built by surrounding a patch of land with embankments and then filling the enclosed space with slurry, the wetlands are now several metres above the sea on the one side and the reclaimed marshland on the other. Some careful and cunning hydrological management must be going on to ensure that the wetland reedbeds stay wet and at the sametime the fields below them stay dry. And, of course, the pylons still stride proudly across from the power station’s fields of high-voltage switchgear.

Newport Wetlands

Newport Wetlands

At the moment, with all facilities other than the car park closed, the wetlands are a quiet, almost ghostly place. Peaceful, with not even many birds in sight yesterday. The wind blows through the reeds and the tide gently splashes in across the mudflats; one of those cunning, powerful tides that mocks you with the gentleness of its splashing as it outruns you across the mudflat. We stuck to the paths, peered through the slats to see what birds we could see, and enjoyed being more-than-walking-distance from home for the first time in a few months. The overhead cables hummed with power, a cormorant flew over the top of us, and a bumblebee carefully surveyed the land around.

Newport Wetlands

Newport Wetlands

Newport Wetlands

Photo post of the week

Signs that spring is on the way

Work has stolen and sapped all of my energy this week. I’ve still found time, though, to go out walking; and although the weather has been bitterly cold there are signs that spring is coming. The trees are full of songbirds, too.

Pylon

I’m entranced by this fallen electricity pylon, lying on its side battered and derelict, its structs bent and broken like some ancient reptilian fossil. My own local beached plesiosaur. I keep watching it from different angles; I really should come by with the Proper Camera.

Mynydd Machen

Similarly, I keep watching Mynydd Machen from different angles. I can see it from my window; sometimes invisible, sometimes flat and two-dimensional in mist, sometimes so bright and bold I could reach out and pick it up. On the wide-angle phone camera, though, it always looks small and disappointing.

Railway line

There will naturally be a proper railway history post at some point; I just need to put it together and decide exactly what I want to say, other than “this railway is much older than all those fancy modern upstarts like that one from Manchester to Liverpool”.

Grey cat

And finally, all cats are grey, as The Cure once upon a time said.

The colour of water

Or, the mountains and the lowlands

When I was younger, when most of the books I had were ones The Mother had bought from the local library’s “Withdrawn Stock” pile, one book she bought me was a 1960s beginners guide to going camping. I probably still have it, somewhere, although I’m not sure exactly where. It didn’t assume you would be going purely for the sort of camping we did, where you stayed on nice regular smooth green pitches, oh no. It covered the whole gamut from that sort of camping to wild camping, cycle touring, canoe camping, mountaineering, any sort of camping you might imagine. From it, I learned tips I’ve never come near to trying in real life, such as how to light a petrol stove,* or how to cook meat by strapping it to your car’s engine. I learned that in Scotland, you may have to sign the Poisons Register at your local chemists in order to buy meths, and that if you’re worried about camping near wild animals you can buy a tent to pitch on top of your car’s roof. One factoid from this book has stuck in my mind ever since, because of its gnomic inscrutability.

Do not drink Alpine river water—it contains powdered granite.

What effect does powdered granite have on the body? Why is it so dangerous? As there was no explanation at all, I have been left wondering ever since. As a child, I even wondered if maybe it would somehow turn you into stone, your skin going grey and hardening as the powdered granite flooded your arteries. I’ve still never been to the Alps—although I have camped along parts of the Rhine, which I suppose is still Alpine river water in a certain sense even when you’re a long long way downstream—but if I do, I’m sure subconsciously I’ll be treating the river water as if the slightest amount ingested could be fatal.

I’ve been thinking about that when going out for walks around the local area. When I lived in Bristol the local river was generally quite murky, full of silt and algae. The slightest rain and it would be a turbid brown colour. The river here is crystal-clear, and if you can’t see the bottom it’s a deep sea-green.

River

It always flows dangerously fast. If it rains, it rises, and going by the rubbish in the trees it can easily rise ten feet above its regular level. As soon as the rain stops, it only takes a day or two to start falling and for the water to clear again. Within a week there are gravelly banks and shallows, although with the strong currents always there a few feet away.

River

Is this water clear because it’s falling off the South Wales mountains, down from the fringes of the Brecon Beacons southwards, rather than soaking through the Gloucestershire soil? Or it it irredeemably toxic? I wouldn’t have thought so, and I’m sure the water is a lot cleaner than it was one or two hundred years ago. Moreover, is this what Alpine river water looks like? As I walk along the riverbank can I fantasise that I am walking along some Swiss mountain stream packed to the gills with powdered granite that will strike me down at the slightest sip? It’s rather unlikely (and the geology here is probably very different), but it’s a nice thought. It is, at least, another reminder that I’ve moved from the lowlands and I’m now in the mountains, if only in their foothills.

Over the weir

Wales is not a principality

But what is it?

As it’s St David’s Day, and the shops are all full of daffodils and Welsh cakes, I thought it might be worthwhile writing something about the history of Wales, possibly even a chain of posts. And the obvious starting point for that is: well, what is Wales?

Back when I was at primary school, we had a few very traditionalist lessons about the history and geography of Britain, and one of the things stated as fact, without meaning or explanation, was that Wales is a principality. Lots of people think this, and lots of people take it for granted, and you still hear “the Principality” used to refer to the country now and again. As you might have noticed, Wales won a rugby match at the Principality Stadium the other day, but that’s named through a straightforward business deal rather than anything more ancient or romantic. But, is Wales a principality? No, not really, not in any meaningful sense. Has it ever been? No, not unless you take “Wales” to mean something rather different to what it does today. But what are the reasons for this misunderstanding? Simply put, this all comes out of the fact that the nature of the Welsh state when it existed does not fit comfortably with what you might call the English pattern of history, the pattern which takes the 19th-century nation state as the ultimate ideal form of political division and judges all historical change against it.

What is a principality, then? Essentially, a monarchy ruled by a prince. There is, of course, a Prince of Wales; but he doesn’t really have very much to do with Wales itself. His vast personal income isn’t from Wales, it’s from the tenants and the business of the enormous Cornwall estate, spread across a huge chunk of south-west England and not really a Cornish affair at all. Much as he sends interfering letters to government ministers behind the scenes, he doesn’t have any formal role to play in government, certainly not any role specific to Wales. The UK is a monarchy in that its monarch signs all its laws (and makes sure any she disapproves of don’t even reach Parliament to be debated), and appoints its government, but the Prince of Wales doesn’t have any say in the matter. Laws passed by the Senedd are signed off by the Queen in the same way that laws passed by the Westminster Parliament are signed off by the Queen. The Prince of Wales? Sits around, running his business empire, slowly curdling with frustration knowing that he has reached retirement age with the whole world seeing him as a sort of semi-comic understudy. Wales is clearly not a principality in any functional or meaningful sense.

Was Wales ever a principality, in reality? Well, parts of it were. Only, though, if you go back a rather long time. Even then, as I said, Wales does not fit very well into the English pattern of history, because it followed a very different history to England.

Everyone in England thinks of England as a unitary, unified, single state that has been around for a literal eternity. That has, indeed, been the truth for a very long time. England came together as a single unified state well over a thousand years ago, but it did so largely for one very specific reason: to define itself in order to save itself. England became a unified single country in response to “the Danelaw”, the control of most of the country by Danish and Norwegian settlers who almost wiped out the English kingdoms that resisted them. The surviving anti-Dane English aristocracy rallied and unified, producing a single kingdom of England with its centre of gravity forever fixed firmly in the South. France to some extent has a similar history: the power of the early Frankish kings around Paris rose significantly just as they had to defend themselves from Danish incursions up the Seine. In Ireland, the Norwegians ended up founding a new capital city, and in Scotland the Norwegians ruled a huge (if marginal) chunk of the modern country for about four hundred years or so. I’m aware, by the way, that I am simplifying swathes of historical argument here, thousands and thousands of pages of academic debate into one paragraph for a surface-skimming blog post. Real historians: please don’t write in. Wales simply didn’t face the same Scandinavian pressure as the rest of Western Europe. The Danes and Norwegians sailed round the coast, and gave names to many of the important coastal bits (step forward Swansea, Anglesey and Fishguard), but don’t seem to have settled in the concentrated, forceful, focused strength-in-numbers way that they did around the mouths of the Seine, the Liffey or the Humber.

There’s also the economic determinism argument about Welsh history. Put simply: it is that the geography of Wales is distinctly different to that of England in a way that, in the pre-modern period, made it hard to unify. There are still constant complaints in Welsh politics that North-South travel is too hard and that Cardiff is too distant from Holyhead to rule it effectively or to understand its needs. There is often a call that the fact there is no North-South rail link entirely within Wales is somehow a failure of Welsh politics or of English centralism, skipping over the fact that it is a fundamental problem with Welsh geography, and that the only entirely-within-Wales links from South to North were for their whole existence extremely marginal links.* Similarly, the A470 links Cardiff with Llandudno but it is in no sense a coherent and sensible route, just a mixture of cross-country links all coloured in with the same pencil on a map so that somebody could indeed claim that there is a single South-to-North road.** The point here is that, in an age when everyone depended on food grown pretty close-by for their regular staples, and when local kings depended on a personal warband of big burly followers as an army, it was just too difficult in a country like Wales to gather together sufficient force from your own core estates and project that force into a different part of the country, to do that in any sort of way that stuck. Each of the small medieval Welsh kingdoms has this core area which could act as the motor of a pastoral economy: Ynys Môn for Gwynedd, for example, or the upper Severn valley (as pictured here a few weeks back) for Powys. Each also has a belt of less hospitable land protecting it from the others. It therefore shouldn’t be surprising that the history of medieval Wales is a history in which for a short time one of these kingdoms was able to assert itself over some or all of the others, but such assertions barely lasted more than a single reign. Or so the theory goes, at any rate; we should always be suspicious of such straightforward determinism, if you ask me. Note, too, that these were kingdoms, with kings. Not principalities.

When all those Danes who had settled at the mouth of the Seine invaded England very successfully in the eleventh century, they stopped short of invading Wales. Or, rather, their kings stopped short of invading Wales in a controlled and centralised way. However, rich and important landholders were allowed to invade Wales on their own account; and as long as they still recognised the English king as their overlord, they were effectively sovereign in their Welsh estates. This means that later medieval Wales was much more like medieval Germany in its political structure than anywhere in England or Scotland: a patchwork of relatively small states, each independent, quite martial, at each other’s throats from time to time, but most generally recognising a kind of “imperial” overlordship. It’s in this period that the Welsh leaders’ titles start to slip downwards, from king to prince. Over the course of this “marcher” period—and again I am enormously oversimplifying here—the tendency was for both types of state, both Welsh-ruled and English-ruled, to both coalesce and grow more accepting of the King of England’s overlordship. By the thirteenth century the family of the kings of Gwynedd had reached the point of taking over all of the other Welsh-ruled microstates—about two-thirds of the land area but only half the population, because the invading English lords had naturally headed for the economically best bits—and at this point they started to use the title “Prince of Wales”. Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffudd was promptly rubbed out very thoroughly by the English, with most of his family aside from one brother who Anglicised his name,*** moved East, and settled down as a quiet provincial landowner on the border of Kent and Surrey. His territory became something in-between, not part of England, but not as independent of England as the Marcher lords, with strict rules to prevent the Welsh from holding any sort of political power unless they could very definitely be trusted.

So that was the Principality of Wales: most of the Welsh-speaking people didn’t live there, and it wasn’t really ever ruled by a Welsh prince. It lasted until Tudor times, when Henry VIII shut down the last of the Marcher lordships and integrated all of Wales into his kingdom, with the aim of removing almost all Welsh political distinctiveness. It then disappeared, except in name. Wales is not a principality, and huge chunks of the modern country were never part of the principality that arguably did exist.

Will Wales ever be a principality? Well, never say never. The UK today is clearly on a path towards fragmentation; there is a tremendous energy in the UK’s extremities towards fission of the country into multiple separate parts. You don’t have to travel far in Wales right now before you see a pro-independence banner, sticker or graffito.

Independence sticker in Newport

Although the breakup of the UK is probably now inevitable, the exact form that it will take is still impossible to predict. It’s a fair bet, though, that when Wales does become independent, it will be the first time in history that a single unified and unitary state of Wales has existed; and secondly, that it will not be a monarchy of any form. Republican sentiment is already much higher in Wales than elsewhere in the UK, and this is likely to increase as support for Welsh independence increases. Wales is not a principality, and Wales is not going to be. Cymru am byth!

* Firstly, the Manchester and Milford Railway. As its name suggests it was originally meant to be a lucrative main line linking the ever-churning Satanic mills of Manchester with the Atlantic harbours of West Wales. It ended up as a sleepy rural byway linking Carmarthen with Aberystwyth. Secondly, there was also the Mid-Wales Railway which linked Brecon to Newtown via Rhyader; from Brecon you could get to either Swansea via Neath, or to Newport or Cardiff via the vertiginous Brecon and Merthyr Railway. With either of these routes, to truly get North you had to either reverse once or twice and head up the coast to Caernarfon and Bangor, or give up on the whole avoiding-England lark and go the other way via Oswestry.

** It must be a South-to-North road because of its number. If it was a North-to-South road its number would start with a 5, because Llandudno is north of the A5 and West of the A6.

*** From Rhodri ap Gruffudd to Roderick Fitzgriffin.

Photo post of the week

More bits of countryside

The ongoing February, which feels as if it is the longest month of the past 12, is sapping my writing energy. Hopefully the oncoming spring will sort that out: today I saw my first queen bumblebee of the year flying purposefully around the neighbourhood looking for a spot to start her nest. This post is something of an appendix to the previous, with a few more photos. I’ve been repeating previous walks, but this time with the good camera.

Countryside

Countryside

Railway

I’ve been repeating previous walks, but this time with the good camera, which is why regular readers might spot some similarities. At some point I will tell you much, much more about the history of this particular railway, but not today.

Railway

It was built in the 1820s, as a plateway; I suspect that low wall on the right was put there in the 1890s when it was widened from single to double track.

Church

River

Hopefully as the weather warms and the seasons change, my writing energy will come back too.