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Champagne & Sheep: A Poetic Tour of Wales

by Norm Goldstein

Sir Thomas More, asking about the medallion with a red dragon worn by Richard Rich, was told it was for Wales. “For Wales?” he responds. “Why, Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world. … But for Wales!”
– From Robert Bolt’s play, “A Man for All Seasons”

What do you make of a country that has an onion as its national emblem?

Where:

The Prince of Wales isn’t Welsh?

The sheep baa-dly outnumber the people – 11 million to 3 million – in about 8,000 square miles, about the size of New Jersey?

The names of places are too long and have too many consonants and are virtually unpronounceable for visitors?

Yet, it is a place where, it is said, the people have music in their blood – and poetry in their soul. Author Jan Morris, who has adopted Wales as her home, says being a poet is a characteristic Welsh condition. “The company of poets is the nobility of this nation,” Morris has written.

We set out for a glimpse of this literary ancestry in ten days of driving – stay on the left! – through the country from its eastern border with England, across South Wales and up to its northwest coast. We found it a marvelous place to visit  – maybe Britain’s best-kept secret.

Weather permitting, that is. Soggy is generally the most accurate description of Welsh weather, with rain a possibility at any time, winter or summer. An oft-used saying has it that when elsewhere it is summer, it is winter in Wales. Sun, however, was in abundance on our journey in mid-June, warming us as much as the welcome we received wherever we went. It was as though Wales was putting on a show for us.

After a short visit to Bath, just fifteen miles or so from Bristol, for a glimpse of the settings made famous in Jane Austen’s novels (and a taste of the Roman bath water), we drove across the sleek span – a one-way-toll bridge – over the Severn to Tintern on the Wye river. Walking around the ruins of Tintern Abbey, it was easy to understand the solace poet William Wordsworth felt in this Wye Valley setting in 1793. He was to immortalize it in the poem bearing the abbey’s name, written after a return visit five years later:

Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
That on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.

The natural wonders he recollected – the sounding cataract, the tall rock, The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood– are painted there still, offering similar repose to 21st century visitors. Wordsworth, of course, was English, and most readers of “Tintern Abbey” are surprised to learn that Tintern is indeed in Wales. The abbey itself is but ruins. There is construction to resurrect part of it, but for the most part it is just a site (and a sight) only for those interested in ancient architecture. The true lure is the surrounding scenery.

From Tintern, we traveled north to Hay-on-Wye, the Town of Books. Every year, in late spring or early summer, they hold the Guardian Hay Festival of Literature here in this stunning Wye Valley of mid-Wales. There could be no better setting for a gathering of writers, poets, and musicians, for this Town of Books has some thirty secondhand bookshops, many side-by-side, giving Hay its appropriate sobriquet. Overlooking them all is Hay Castle Books, which sells some of its wares on the honor system – just leave the 30 or 50 pence. Then there are the niche stores: Murder and Mayhem, Cinema Bookshop, The Children’s Bookshop, Mostly Maps, The Poetry Bookshop. Also, Bookends, Boz Books – and Outcast, tucked away behind a side street of a side street, offering secondhand books on psychotherapy and human relations.

We missed the festival by a couple of weeks, but were fortunate in some ways. The Hay residents, who appreciate the business it lures, were quite happy to return to their peaceful ways when it was over. And we were able to wander about the quaint streets without the crowds. (Still better, we walked around on a Sunday, when most places were closed and saved a good deal of book-buying money.) We stumbled upon a friendly restaurant near our rooms, Three Tuns, which claims to be Hay’s first house and oldest pub, with a history going back to the 16th century. The food was more modern and surprisingly good. (I say “surprisingly” because Wales doesn’t have the reputation as a center of cuisine, but this thinking may have to be revised somewhat.) The lamb faggot was just fine; don’t let the name throw you off. But we didn’t try the national dish, cawl, which is a thick, chunky soup of meat and vegetables, often served with a wedge of cheese – too “top heavy” for the warm weather.

We had arranged a one-night stay in Hay-on-Eye at a bed-and-breakfast – Gwely a Brecwastin Welsh – irresistibly named Rest for the Tired, and next door to a bookstore, of course. The bed-and-breakfast was our home of choice on this trip, made simple by the help from the numerous information centers throughout Wales. Following the dotted i signs aided us with directions, local restaurants and sights. For a small charge of 2 pounds, accommodation reservations were arranged anywhere in the United Kingdom. Ours rooms cost 60 or 70 pounds a night (for two), with the typically hefty breakfast of cereal, fruit, eggs, bacon, sausage, tomato and coffee or tea and toast.

We meandered (there seemed to be few, if any, straight roads through the hills and mountains) south from Hay-on-Wye, through the mid-Wales Brecon Beacons National Park, a magnificent magnet for hikers and bikers, to South Wales, which includes the major cities of Cardiff and Swansea and is the more populated of the Welsh areas. (We were told this is why most tourists prefer the north.) Driving was, in itself, an adventure, a combination of new experiences for those accustomed to highways or autobahns. “Wrong-side” driving lanes and narrow roads were reasons we decided against any night driving and cut down on pub calls in the afternoons.

Nonetheless, daytime driving provided memorable views and photo ops. The valley in South Wales was at one time the heart of the country’s coal mining communities, as described in Richard Llewellyn’s book (and movie), How Green Was My Valley(which was actually filmed in California because of World War II). But it’s all gone now, replaced by farming, forestry – and tourism – and an occasional sign for a local mining museum. (Many of the miners, incidentally, migrated to the United States, settling in similar coal mining areas such as eastern Pennsylvania, where there are telling place names like Bryn Mawr, Nanty Glo and Balacynwyd.)

This part of South Wales (and a little west) is Dylan Thomas country. He was born at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive in Swansea, the nation’s second largest city to the capital of Cardiff, on October 27, 1914. (Mary Balogh, incidentally, the popular romance writer, was also born in Swansea.) Schools here are named for Thomas, the favorite-son poet. In area bookstores his writings are outnumbered only by the books about his life. Thomas wrote much about his early days in Swansea in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, A Visit to Grandpa’s, A Child’s Christmas in Wales, and the poem, “Fern Hill.” He attended a private school in nearby Mirador Crescent and the Swansea Grammar School, where his father was senior English Master. Today, Swansea remembers him with the Dylan Thomas Centre in the Maritime Cultural Quarter and an annual Dylan Thomas Festival in the fall. Its permanent exhibition contains manuscripts, books and original sound recordings and follows his life from his birth to premature death at age 39.

But it is elsewhere that we found more of the soul and sense of this master of word-sounds.

According to local lore, the young Thomas, then a budding newspaperman for The South Wales Daily Post, did much of his drinking at pubs in Mumbles, just to the south of Swansea. It was probably the darker attractions of the docklands that brought him there, where he recalled “the moccasined trappers from Hudson Bay, off Mumbles Road” in A Child’s Christmasin Wales. It was in Mumbles that he got his early experience in theater, as a member of the amateur Little Theatre Company – and in drinking. Many of the Mumbles stories detail where he drank, much like tales of where George Washington slept in the United States. Certainly, the Mermaid on Mumbles Road was a favorite of his. That old hotel burned down some time ago; it is now a fine restaurant.

We stayed at the Coast House bed-and-breakfast on Mumbles Road, the main avenue. Len and Janet Clark have run it for thirty-two years, have heard stories that Thomas stayed there at times, but say they have found no evidence of it. We booked a room facing the bay and stayed an extra day to enjoy it. Mumbles (Mwmblesin Welsh) is a splendid spot (in good weather) on Swansea Bay, enticing strolls along the promenade, relishing an ice cream cone or a light lunch outdoors at Verdi’s, or dining at Castellemare with its magnificent view. (An odd Italian influence.) Daylight at this time of year in Wales lasts from before 5 a.m. to after 9 p.m. and the weather cooperated so that visitors could be outdoors, walking, shopping or eating all the long day.

With Dylan’s voice still resonating in our ears, we set out for Aberystwyth on the west coast.  It is the home of a branch of the University of Wales and of the National Library. We were told that about 65 percent of the people there, including young schoolchildren, speak Welsh, far beyond the one-fifth national average. Welsh is a most unusual language, akin to Gaelic, but unique. An 18th-century visitor reportedly wrote about a traveling companion who “having got a Welsh polysyllable into his throat was almost choked with consonants.”

Here, we parked the car and hopped on to a train for a three-hour trip north. Trains were a great way for us to see Wales, since we were flexible enough to adjust to railroad schedules. There are a myriad of choices, of train types and routes, including the Snowdon Mountain Railway, which is a narrow-gauge system that goes up to the summit of Mount Snowdon, the highest mountain in England and Wales. Our train followed the rocky west coast, with its stretches of sandy beach where campers set up, past seaside villages and farms with gamboling sheep and grazing cattle.

We resisted the temptation to go farther north just to see Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. The name of this small town was conjured up by the village council so they could have the longest railway station name in Great Britain. It means “St. Mary’s Church in the hollow of white hazel near a rapid whirlpool and the Church of St. Tysilio near the red cave.” It is usually shortened to Llanfair P.G.

There was an hour-and-a-half layover to change trains on the way back. Two couples, obviously more familiar with the schedule than we were, sat out on the platform, popped open a bottle of champagne. They brought their own glasses and some mouth-watering snacks to pass the time until boarding.  We watched, wistfully, thinking that our next trip to Wales that we’d do the same.