Notes from Wales
We are standing in a stone circle, built 3,000 years ago, on a rock hilltop 500 million years old. The view is a mosaic of geological history: inundation, subduction, glaciation and erosion have left visible traces wherever we look.
Here a grey crag, there a swooping valley. Here a waterfall carving through dark granite, there a placid lake reflecting the sky. All around, meadows populated by sheep: thoughtful creatures who stare intently then trundle off when we get too close.
Geology was born in Wales. The names we give sections of Earth’s history are Welsh: Cambrian, Ordovician, Silurian. These are Roman words for unruly Welsh tribes who fought everyone from the legions to the Normans until, with the Tudors, they captured the English monarchy.
Edward built a chain of massive, glowering castles to force the Welsh into submission. They didn’t work, but all are ‘worth the detour’. At Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt Welsh archers, with their Schwarzenegger shoulders, annihilated the French aristocracy. We think of the Welsh as small, dark people chipping away in mines, but they were something else entirely in the Middle Ages.
Wales is neither a destination nor on the way to anywhere. For centuries its people lived in isolated farms. No towns. Their diet was oats, potatoes and milk. Oats and milk for breakfast. Milk soup with oats for dinner. But they could fire arrows from a two-metre bow, hitting the target at 200 metres every time. Their over-developed bones have been found in the wreck of the ‘Mary Rose’.
Then: copper, coal and slate. Landowners suddenly got rich as new industries paid millions for the minerals beneath their fields. The rural landscape was torn apart. 200-metre hills were cut to pieces. 200-metre shafts were driven down and through mountainsides. Enormous caverns were hewn out by hand. The miners worked deep underground by candle-light, never seeing the vast scale of the caves they excavated.
Millions of tons of copper, coal and slate were shipped from Welsh ports to St Petersburg, Auckland and Rio. Canals were dug, 30-metre aquaducts were built to carry them over inconvenient valleys. Railways were pushed over precipices or through them. Engineering masterpieces. Experiments, still there and still working 200 years later.
Then it stopped. Sources closer to St Petersburg, Auckland and Rio were discovered. Trees and plants re-colonised the ruined Welsh landscape and made it look – to Victorian eyes – romantic. The Welsh emigrated in tens of thousands, mining and building in countries where their descendants still live, retaining folk-memories to this day. Australia, South America, South Africa. Wales and its ruins turned into tourist attractions for curious Victorian gentlefolk.
The Celtic strain – emotional, articulate, expressive – runs deep and strong. Dylan Thomas, the poet who out-faced death: ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’. Drink finished him before he was forty. Richard Burton, an actor whose voice made stones weep: he married Elizabeth Taylor twice. Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones, Manic Street Preachers.
Wales in 2017 survives on a mixture of tourism, arts-and-crafts and outposts of Celtic entrepreneurialism. The people are friendly, welcoming, chatty. They have their own language, millennia-old, and they still speak it – though they switch to English at the drop of a hat.
Don’t miss Wales. But don’t rush. The Welsh are the same as ever and the landscape hasn’t changed, bar a few temporary disturbances, for 500 million years.