When we think of the UK, many of us conjure up images of English gentlemen, cream tea and scones, Scottish bagpipes and haggis, and Irish music and Guinness (even though Ireland isn’t part of the UK). These three nations have done a great job of exporting their culture over to the States and worldwide.
But what about Wales and the Welsh? Perhaps we’ve heard of Richard Burton, or Dylan Thomas; maybe we’re aware of vague references to castles and mythology. But otherwise, this part of the UK, which is the smallest of the nations, often gets overlooked. If you’re planning a trip over to the UK any time soon, there are quite a few reasons why Wales, or Cymru (“kem ree”) as it’s known in its native language, is worth visiting.
Firstly, yes, they have their own language, which is spoken by about a third of the population. Get ready to be bombarded by road signs, menus, forms, and just about everything else written in two languages, English and Welsh. If you’ve never encountered Celtic languages before you may well be surprised at how exactly unlike English the Welsh language is. At first it looks incomprehensible — but ask any Welsh person to pronounce it for you, and you’ll soon realize that indeed it probably is incomprehensible! But, there is a beauty in hearing it through the medium of poetry or music, two things that the Welsh are known for.
One place that’s definitely worth visiting is Laugharne (Talacharn), where the finest modern poet of Wales, Dylan Thomas, did all his writing, before succumbing to an over-indulgence with alcohol in New York in 1953. The town is thought to have been used as the inspiration for his famous poetic radio “play for voices,” Under Milk Wood, which was dramatized as a movie in 1972 starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Laugharne itself, though small, is beautiful enough, sitting as it does on the Taf estuary, and it’s definitely worth taking a look at the boat house where Thomas dd his writing.
From Laugharne, the next area to head to is Pembrokeshire, situated in the south west of Wales. Its entire coastline is designated as a national park, the only one of its kind in the UK. The atmosphere of the county is unique, and language plays a part. Much of the culture here has been “English” for a long time. There is even a boundary called the Landsker Line which separates the southern and more English part of the county, sometimes known as “Little England Beyond Wales,” from the northern and more Welsh part.
Pembrokeshire has a myriad of interesting and scenic places worth visiting. Here are just a few that really stand out. St. David’s, one of the smallest cities in the world, houses a fine cathedral. The settlement itself is about 1500 years old, and the cathedral has been re-built numerous times. Nearby is the beautiful stretch of beach known as Whitesands Bay, where parts of the 1940 movie The Thief of Baghdad were filmed.
One other place worth a visit in Pembrokeshire is Caldey Island, just off the coast of the rather touristy town of Tenby. It houses a monastery, complete with monks; and is also home to a rich variety of wildlife, especially birds and seals. You can access the island via a ferry from Tenby, which is a fun journey in and of itself.
Moving further up the coast, away from Pembrokeshire, we find the Vale of Rheidol Railway, a narrow gauge rail line that takes in some breathtaking views. It runs for about twelve miles between Aberystwyth, the largest town in mid-Wales (still very small) to Devil’s Bridge (Pontarfynach). The trains are steam locomotives, and when you reach the Devil’s Bridge end it’s only a short walk to some remarkable and rather stunning waterfalls. Aberystwyth itself may not be the most beautiful of seaside towns, but there are some decent restaurants.
Moving north and inland a little, we have to take a look at Snowdonia, another national park in such a small country. This is where the bleakness of Wales really starts making you believe in elves, wizards, dragons, and magic. The highest peak, Snowdon (Yr Wyddfa) is only 3,560 feet, small by American standards. But, don’t let that fool you. If you intend on climbing the peak, you may get lucky and be rewarded with some of the most wonderful views stretching out right across Wales. Or the weather might turn, as it has a habit of doing, and you might find yourself trying to climb a slope that has now become a river beneath your feet, with almost zero visibility. Fear not though, as there is another way to the top via the Snowdon Mountain Railway.
Heading south again, after traveling through the “Green Desert of Wales,” an area of almost unspoiled beauty, we reach the Brecon Beacons, the third of the national parks of Wales. These rugged slopes offer great walking and climbing opportunities, and have also been awarded the status of being an International Dark Sky Reserve, meaning that if the weather holds, the night time sky is absolutely alive with stars. The scenery s absolutely stunning, as with much of Wales.
On the edge of the Beacons, indeed on the edge of Wales itself, is an unusual place that’s well worth a visit. The small town of Hay-on-Wye is home to about 2,000 people and about 25 bookstores, selling a variety of secondhand and antiquarian books. It’s the kind of place where a little browsing can turn into hours, and before you know it, you’ll be wondering how on earth you’re going to get all those books back to the States! In May and June, it’s also home to the world-renowned Hay Festival, which attracts writers from all over the world.
This was a brief tour of only a fraction of what Wales has to offer. South of Brecon we find the industrial southeast, made up of the “valleys” and the capital city of Cardiff. In the nineteenth century, this area was one of the busiest industrialized zones in the world. Other areas of note include the Elan Valley in mid-Wales, and the Gower Peninsula in South Wales.
You might also be pleasantly surprised to note that Wales has had a hand in gifting us some of America’s greatest and not so greatest, with presidents Jefferson and Nixon having Welsh heritage, and jazz pianist Bill Evans, Howard Hughes, and even Britney Spears and Brad Pitt claiming some Welsh heritage in there somewhere.
Wales will leave you pleasantly surprised and enchanted. And you may find it a welcome break from all the stereotypes and cliched tourist spots in the rest of the UK. So, Croeso i Gymru! (Welcome to Wales!) and here’s to hoping you discover something magical and wonderful on your ventures into the Welsh heartland.