Yesterday the Olympic Torch crossed the Monnow Bridge to enter Wales, as
so many invaders have done, via the soft lush borderlands of Monmouthshire, progressing through the south-east of the country to end up in the capital, Cardiff. Today the torch will be carried through the industrial heartlands of the valleys and down to the sea at Swansea. As it goes it will pass by all those scenes that spring to mind when one thinks of the country -clichés , perhaps, but clichés become clichés because they are, or were true.
Here are just a few of them in no particular order of importance:
Castles: We have a greater density of castles along the border between Wales and England than anywhere else in the world. And no wonder. This strip of land called the Marches has some of the finest most fertile agricultural lands in the UK and has been fought over for centuries. Roman forts, Norman mottes, the great stone walls erected by various Edwards and Henrys have attempted to preserve the invader from the ferocity of local inhabitants. The Silures, described as short dark curly haired folk, scared the Romans so much by their willingness to fight than one stated that he would prefer to be kicked by a mule than endure the punch of a Silurian woman.
Conflict still exists, of course, but now it’s officially sanctioned.
Rugby: Thirty men hurl themselves around a rectangle of mud in pursuit of an oval ball and each other. Often it’s raining, frequently there is mud. All to a sublime soaring sound track that shakes the bones in their sheathes of flesh.
Ahem – sorry. The New Zealanders have their haka, the Welsh have Cwm Rhondda. Combative close harmony singing and mud-wrestling – could there be better entertainment?
Industry: The ultimate cliche about Wales is the mental image of hordes of black dusted men striding home to their tiny terrace houses and a tin bath in front of the range. Obviously this is a thing of the past because the heavy industries have gone. We have one mine left, Tower, owned and run by the miners who work it. Industry in Wales now is mostly about services, media and telecommunications. Oh, and tourism!
Tourism: We can’t promise good weather but crikey the scenery is spectacular. It’s a good place for doing stuff. Hill walking, some lovely technical rock climbs, some of the longest cave systems in Europe, pony trekking, hang and paragliding, all those castles, country houses, hillforts and mysterious windswept stones. Or you can find a sheltered spot out of the wind and read. Okay, advert over. I work in tourism you see, and it would have felt all wrong not to at least give it a mention.
Culture: There should be a picture of an eisteddfod up there but I know my audience! Cardiff has become a centre of film making and tv shows. Torchwood was unusual in that it was actually set in Cardiff and made use of the city’s iconic landmarks but usually shows like Dr Who and Sherlock use the city because there are bits of it that will pass well for London at about a quarter the cost. It’s fun for us, too. John Barrowman in panto is a never to be forgotten experience, likewise seeing David Tennant browsing CDs in HMV.
Eisteddfodau are contests of music and poetry held all over the country at regular intervals and with varying degress of cut throat competition. It’s nothing at all like the Scottish and Irish traditions of relaxed music for the love of it. I suspect that it’s an attempt by some sinister force to tame the creative spirit, to set music into narrow bounds, to make it serious [yes I have written a novel about this, of course I have]. Maybe someone heard the crowd at Cardiff Arms Park ‘singing out’ the opposition and thought, “By George, if they can combine their forces to achieve this they can conquer the world!”
And they did in a roundabout way. All over the world train lines still run on Welsh steel and the equals sign – yes this one = – was invented by a Welshman in “The Whetstone of Witte, whiche is the seconde parte of Arithmeteke: containing the extraction of rootes; the cossike practise, with the rule of equation; and the workes of Surde Nombers” published in 1557.
All a bit old hat, I know, but there’s one thing that was made in Wales that each and every one of you will have handled in the past few days. The Royal Mint makes all the coins used in the UK and also takes commissions for the coinage of many other countries. It is situated in Llantrisant.
Yeah, Cymru am byth.
PS. I’m afraid don’t have anything to post here that falls within the parameters of “published or about to be published”, but I do love writing about Wales and have a bunch of things ‘under construction’. Click here for a snippet of a WIP.