We’re currently in southwest Wales, staying in the town of Fishguard and walking part of the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path with friends. South Wales is beautiful and has a fascinating history, so I’m really glad we’ve made it here before we leave the UK.
On our way to Fishguard, we made a few quick visits to places which played important roles in the political and industrial history of Wales. First stop was Newport, where in 1839 a large demonstration in support of the Chartist movement took place. (Chartism was a working class movement that sought the extension of the vote to all adult males, rather than only those who owned property.) Troops opened fire on the demonstrators, killing around 22 of them. Several Chartist leaders were subsequently sentenced to death for treason for involvement in the ‘rising’, but their sentences were subsequently commuted to transportation to Australia. Newport’s role in the Chartist movement is commemorated by a set of statues near where the demonstrators were shot, and was also formerly commemorated by a mural that, controversially, was destroyed by the local council in 2013.
From Newport we drove through part of the Valleys, the former coal-mining and iron-working region that is synonymous with the industrial history of Wales. Today, coal-mining has almost entirely ceased in Wales, as in the rest of Britain, and the mines have passed into the realm of heritage. We drove through Blaenavon, which has been declared a World Heritage site for its role in the production of coal and iron, and stopped briefly at the Big Pit – formerly a working coal mine, now the National Coal Museum, where visitors can be taken down the mine shaft by a former coal miner.
Unfortunately we didn’t have time to go into the museum, and drove on to another important industrial town, Merthyr Tydfil, where we visited Cyfarthfa Castle. Cyfarthfa Castle was built in 1824-25 as the mansion of William Crawshay II, owner and manager of the nearby Cyfarthfa Ironworks. The Crawshay family left the house in 1889, and in 1908 it was bought by the local council, becoming a museum. Today, the museum has a fascinating split personality. The upper floor largely displays art, and artefacts illustrating the life of the castle’s wealthy owners; the lower floor represents the life and political struggles of the working people of Merthyr Tydfil.
The town has a radical history, from the Merthyr Rising of 1831 to the miners’ strike of the 1980s. The Merthyr Rising, prompted partly by William Crawshay’s decision to lower his workers’ wages, started with an attack on the debtors’ court and escalated into a riot which was put down by troops from a Scottish Highland regiment, who killed around 20 civilians and wounded many more. The Rising is believed to be the first occasion on which the red flag was flown in Britain. A number of leaders of the Rising were sentenced to transportation to Australia, and one was executed for allegedly stabbing a soldier. The Rising and its martyrs have been commemorated ever since, and on the day we visited a festival of music and politics called Merthyr Rising 2017 was taking place.
Heading further west into Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire, we entered the heartland of another outburst of popular protest, the Rebecca Riots of 1839 to 1843. These riots were triggered by charges at toll gates which, coming on top of other taxes and charges which poor farmers could ill afford, were seen as excessive. The riots were named for their mythical leader, ‘Rebecca’, and male rioters sometimes dressed in women’s clothes. One incident in the riots was an attack on the workhouse in the town of Narberth, where we stopped for dinner.
Lower Fishguard, where we have been staying, was formerly a port and centre of the herring industry. One of its claims to fame is that it was used as location for the films of Under Milk Wood (1971), with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, and Moby Dick (1956), starring Gregory Peck. The model whale from Moby Dick is rumoured still to be in the sea off Fishguard.
Fishguard is mainly known today as the location from which the ferry for Rosslare in Ireland departs, although in fact the ferry leaves from the neighbouring town of Goodwick. Historically, it is known for its connection with the ‘last invasion of Britain’ in 1797, about which I’ll write separately.
The wider Pembrokeshire area has other interesting historical associations. The stone for Stonehenge is believed to have come from Pembrokeshire’s Preseli hills, and Pentre Ifan is an astonishing neolithic monument capped by a stone that appears to teeter precariously on the tips of three supporting stones.
Nearby is Nevern church, home to a magnificent 10th-century Celtic cross.
Further away from Fishguard is St Davids, which has the distinction of being Britain’s smallest city (on the basis that a city is a town with a cathedral).
While we were looking round St David’s Cathedral, a rehearsal was going on in the cathedral for a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore that evening, which was a nice bonus. Saint David, the patron saint of Wales, is supposed to be buried at the cathedral, and his shrine was a major place of pilgrimage in medieval times. Saint David is said to have been baptised by Elvis, which may explain why Wales is known as the Land of Song…
One thing that is very noticeable in Wales is the presence of the Welsh language, which is the strongest of all the Celtic languages. All official signs, and most unofficial ones, are in Welsh and English. A bit under 20% of the Welsh population speak Welsh, although the proportion varies in different parts of the country. English is the primary language, but you do hear people speaking Welsh around where we’re staying – just today I heard an old man breaking into Welsh when talking to staff at the local council office. Another thing that strikes me is that old gravestones are written at least partly in Welsh – by contrast, in areas of Scotland that were formerly predominantly Gaelic-speaking the old gravestones all seemed to be in English.
New Zealand has been trying to learn from the Welsh experience in keeping a minority language alive: in fact, a group of Maori language students have been visiting Wales while we’ve been here, having already visited Ireland and Scotland.