Monday, 5 November 2012

British Tourism Part One - Wales

There are lots of stereotypes around the British Isles. From Scotland to Ireland and especially the various parts of England, I could compile a huge database of comedy characteristics. Some we can be proud of – like Scotland’s whiskey industry or love of shortbread. Others are slightly embarrassing – like England’s habit of conquering and exploiting huge parts of the world and population. We’re long past the days of reciprocal vengeance though. Guys? Right? This is why I feel a bit awkward writing about Wales - because not only am I not Welsh but I'm also mainly English. So forgive me for that before we even start.


In terms of stereotypes, the poorest country in the British Isles is Wales. There’s only a handful of clichés that I can name offhand – choir singing, leeks, and that thing about the sheep.

 That sheep has sprung a LEEK! HA!

This is unfair because Wales is a beautiful country with friendly people. A few years ago they started promoting its tourist industry with the help of infamous stand-up comedian Rhod Gilbert:
 

After the click let’s have a look at what Wales has to offer. Then maybe one day Charlotte Church or Catherine Zeta Jones will read this and finally agree to marry me/respond to my letters.



Brief history

Let’s start with a brief history of Wales just to understand Welsh pride – probably most Welsh people don’t really care, just like the English about The Protectorate, but when it’s brief it can be interesting. England ruled Wales for eight centuries after Edward the First conquered it in the late 1200s (he was big on invasion). In 1402 the Welsh rose in rebellion while a comet burned in the sky and it was all very epic. The rebellion failed though and it was all over by 1409. Over the next few centuries, even places like Cornwall and Yorkshire were more rebellious.

The culture was smashed early on, but the pieces weren’t buried. Welsh folks rose up through all areas of English society. For example, one of the most enigmatic and remarkable advisors to Elizabeth the First was a Welshman: mathematician, occultist and alchemist John Dee. Even Elizabeth herself was proud of her Welsh heritage, as were most of the Tudors. In 1916 a Welshman named Lloyd George became Prime Minister (one of the best Prime Ministers ever).

Annigonol ydy un iaith

Fine and dandy for individuals, but mostly the Welsh population was horribly oppressed. As the hills and valleys were plundered of coal, iron, tin and copper and populated with railways and canals during the Industrial Revolution, attempts of the workers to unionize were either laughed away or violently, brutally squashed. Sure there were revolts, riots and rebellions happening all over the British Isles but one Welsh revolt in particular was described as "the most ferocious and bloody event in the history of industrialized Britain."

The Welsh language has been at the core of this whole history, running like a vein of gold through an ocean of mud. At times its existence has been fragile while at other times there have been rich cultures of poetry, songs and literature (often about how nice freedom would be). In the 1700s the Welsh language was taught in several schools, even while Gaelic was forbidden. At the dawn of the 20th century there were merely a million Welsh-speakers. A cynic would tell you that the only thing achieved by the National Assembly of Wales (created in just 1998) is putting the Welsh language on all the road signs. This is unfair since the Welsh Assembly has done many good things, and also the recommendation for Welsh road signs was made by a committee in 1972.


Cardiff
 
Obviously the first thing you’ll want to do in Cardiff is go to the Doctor Who Experience. I guess there are also the same attractions that any other city would offer – sports, theatre, history and other things that don’t serve drinks or time travel. There’s also Cardiff International White Water, which is an award-winning water sports centre. The site promises:

Get Wet Guaranteed…come and try the action packed activities including white water rafting, kayaking, river boarding, hydro speeding and hot dogging.

Is it just me or does that get quite suggestive? ‘Get Wet Guaranteed’ sounds like something a gigolo would put on a promotional voucher. We all know what water sports is a euphemism for, since we’re from the internet. I don’t know what hot dogging is but it’s probably something you’d only do after taking hydro speed.


Snowdon & Vale of Neath

If tromping through the countryside is your idea of a good time then Wales has some great bits. There’s Snowdon in the north, the highest mountain in Wales, with beautiful views all the way up and down:


There’s also the Vale of Neath aka Waterfall Country, down in the south. You’ve probably guessed that there’s a lot of waterfalls (some say they’re mystical) and there’s not much else to add. The pictures say it best:


 
The Zoos

The Welsh MountainZoo in Colwyn Bay on the north coast has a huge bunch of animals including bears, sea lions, camels, monkeys and tigers. This is all great, but what make me actually excited are the Welsh mountain goats:

 Look at the size of those horns!

Way down in the south there’s also a place called Folly Farm whose website is so bright and colourful that the place itself must be terrible. They say they have a ‘vintage’ funfair with dodgems, a ghost train, and even a damn Wurlitzer!

 Whatever you do, don’t look up Wurlitzer music on Youtube

But anyway there are also some animals. They have a little platform thing you can climb up to and meet the giraffes on their own terms, at their height. That’s pretty cool right?


Botanic Gardens

The NationalBotanic Garden of Wales (Gardd Fotaneg Genedlaethol Cymru) is another place to go if you like nature. It’s also been voted ‘Most Romantic Garden’ along with a bunch of other titles by the readers of the Western Mail and it has a VAQAS award. It’s got some rare plants, an education program and all the other things you’d expect from a highly esteemed botanical garden setup.

 OH MY GOD WHAT THE HELL IS THAT?!?

I’ll be honest, I’m really only mentioning the gardens so that I could use that picture of a freaky-ass flower. If you want to see the place without the long drive then there’s a virtual tour which impressive but also at the same time underwhelming.


Castles

Wales has about one hundred standing castles, including the ruined ones. There are three hundred other ‘castles’ that are now nothing more than ditches and hillocks. There are a few stone castles that were built by the ancient Welsh princes but the most famous are the ones built during and after the invasion, especially up in the north.

This is all especially relevant if like me you spend a percentage of the week worrying about where you’d go during a zombie apocalypse. Wales has lots of good places. One of my favourites is probably Caerphilly. Sure it’s quite near Cardiff, which will mean nearby bandits and zombie swarms, but also it’s not much of a trek to raid for supplies. It’s the biggest castle in the UK after Windsor and it has walls like you wouldn’t believe.


Enjoy your shopping malls! I’m sure they’re totally zombie-proof


Bangor

For some reason I’ve been hearing about Bangor for years (not to be confused with Bangor in Maine which I’ve only just learned about). Cardiff might have hundreds of bars but up on the north coast, Bangor has a student population that is almost equal to the population of everyone else in the city: 10,000 students and 13,000 actual residents. Also, yes they call it a city despite there being only twenty five thousand people.

There’s the museum, cathedral, pier, port and the picturesque bridges. The gallery is notable and apparently there are several highly esteemed classical music venues. There’s also Penrhyn Castle in case of zombies. But ten thousand students is a lot of youth culture, social alcoholism and stupidity gathered together in one remote-ish place. I mean, it’s probably not Ibiza but there’s still no way it can be dull – it even has a couple of large clubs.

 So healthy, so wholesome, so sober, so realistic…

There are rumours about there being places that don’t welcome non-Welsh-speakers and vice versa, and alright this is north Wales which is historically more unfriendly towards the English. But those rumours come from the same people who complain about “the gangs of drunken youths roaming the streets at all hours”. So it’s probably bollocks.


Magic in Wales

Like anywhere else in the world, Wales has piles of myths and folklore. It’s been building up for thousands of years, like snow drifts. Especially since up until around the 1200s there was a whole, low-class order of bards called cyfarwydd that were something like storytellers, teachers and maybe mystics. There are a lot of old Welsh stories and mythical creatures like the Nessie-style Afanc, the Ceffyl Dŵr water-horses, the Coblynau mine-spirits (lots of places have their version of mine spirits), the bat-winged frog-monster Llamhigyn y Dŵr and a bunch of others.

The aforementioned John Dee, the magician/early scientist and advisor to Elizabeth the First, was not the first wizard to come out of Wales. The first stories about Merlin were probably Welsh. In some stories he was born in a cave overlooking Carmarthen. He appears a lot in the Black Book of Carmarthen, potentially the earliest surviving Welsh manuscript, except in Welsh he’s called Myrddin. The origin of Merlin’s story is probably a re-telling and centuries-long transformation of older stories about the mad Welsh lord, warrior, wild man, prophet and wizard named Myrddin Wylt or Myrddin Emrys. There’s still a Merlin’s Hill near Carmarthen which is one of the places he’s supposedly buried but if there ever was a cave, it’s been conveniently lost to time (not to be confused with the coastal Merlin’s Cave in Cornwall).

 This is all much cooler than the stupid TV show

One of the other places he’s supposedly buried is also in Wales: Ynys Enlli aka Bardsey Island, more northwards. He’s said to sleep there in his glass castle, although of course it doesn’t show up on Google Earth – only a few farms, some old ruins and a lighthouse. However, the Bardsey Island apple tree is a specific, unique strain that is more resistant to disease and said to be the rarest variety of apple in the world. This might be related to the theory that Bardsey Island inspired the legendary Avalon. There are also apparently twenty thousand saints buried on the island. This is probably a metaphor since Catholicism itself only counts ten thousand saints in the whole of human history, let alone Wales. However, one pope compared Bardsey Island favourably to Rome.

 With a bit less art and architecture I guess

Who knows? Maybe you’ll visit these places and have a mystical experience, or be transported to fairyland.


The Problem

I’ve now had as much fun reading about Wales (especially the folklore and castles) than I’ve ever had while in Wales and this way I didn’t need to drive through mile after mile of fields and countryside. The Welsh tourism industry is worth £4.2bn a year. I know the whole world looks like a nail when all you have is a hammer, but I see potential for some great animated shorts to promote Welsh tourism – just like the feature-length Irish film the Secret of Kells that somehow transformed the dry historical facts surrounding an illuminated Gospel manuscript into an amazing animated story that everyone should watch.

 It’s won eleven awards (including an Oscar) but it lost so much money… go buy it

At the very least there’s the casual music scene, which might seem odd and obsolete but after a few beers it feels perfectly natural – pubs full of people singing away into the dark Welsh night, for centuries…

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