2012-13 Travel Expedition

 

 

 

 

 

 

Although a part of the United Kingdom and only a few hundred miles from London, the people of Wales have long maintained their claim as a distinct nation.  The Red Dragon has been the ancient emblem of that claim. Associated with the prophecies of Merlin and displayed on the banners used in battles against the invading Anglo-Saxons, the Red Dragon became a symbol of resistance and communal identity for this small but tenacious nation.   The ancestors of the Welsh were the original "Britons" who once inhabited the whole of southern Britain.   As the Germanic invaders carved out the kingdom of England, the Britons were gradually driven westward to the mountains, valleys and coasts of Wales.  While sustaining a relatively poor and largely pastoral society, the rocky soil of Wales provided a haven against the cultural and political domination of their English neighbor.  The Welsh spoke a Celtic language, creating a rich culture known for its poetry, music and vocal arts.  The native princes of Wales built a nascent state that defied the power of the kings of England.  Determined that the political existence of Wales should henceforth be attached to England, King Edward I conquered Wales in 1284, seizing the title "Prince of Wales" and bestowing it upon the heirs to the English crown.  He and his successors would further fortify English control of the principality through colonization, discriminatory laws and the building of a system of massive castles.  The Welsh, however, were not easily cowed and would periodically rebel against English authority, most notably between 1400 and 1410 when Owain Glyndwr reclaimed the title Prince of Wales, defeated the English forces and briefly reconstructed the Welsh state. 

Despite the loss of statehood, the Welsh people and their culture persevered into the modern world, alternatively inspiring and annoying their predominate English partners.   The English Romantics celebrated the breath taking, rough scenery of Wales and looked upon the Welsh as noble savages with an ancient and admirable culture.   However, many English dismissed Wales as the uncivilized "fag end of creation" and depicted the Welsh as backward, undisciplined and perverse in the desire to maintain their cultural and national distinctions.  Many people in England and Wales looked forward to the extinction of the Welsh language as an inevitable result of progress.  The power of English governance and culture would certainly ensure that the Red Dragon would have two tongues.   But as late as 1901, the Welsh language continued to be spoken by a majority of the population of Wales, supporting a flourishing tradition of choral music, literature and a lively Welsh language press during the Victorian period.  The Welsh expressed their distinctiveness in matters of religion as well, largely embracing the Welsh speaking chapels of Methodism and other nonconformist sects over the state established and culturally Anglocentric Church of England.  As the Welsh chafed under the neglect and chauvinism of the British state, Welsh Liberals  led a cultural and political revival reasserting the existence of the Welsh nation and voicing its democratic demands for linguistic and religious freedom.   These Welsh nationalists, however, were also proud of their membership in the British Empire and their loyalty to the British monarchy.   Although some Welsh critics would decry British militarism, most believed that Welsh nationhood was entirely compatible with belonging to a multinational empire and strove to demonstrate the distinct value of Wales to the British imperial enterprise.    In a similar way, industrialization ultimately strengthened rather than undermined the idea of Welsh nationhood.  Wales was at the very center of the world's first industrial revolution.    It's mountains were a treasure trove for the mining of coal, metals and minerals and its shores provided harbors for global shipping.  Attracting waves of immigrants not only from the Welsh hills but from England, Ireland and further abroad, south Wales became increasingly English speaking and multicultural in the late 19th century.  However, the Welsh language retained a central place in the cultural life of the industrialized south, even structuring and coloring the English spoken there.  Epitomized by the work of Dylan Thomas, Anglo-Welsh literature would give voice to a new English speaking but distinctively Welsh identity.   Moreover, the camaraderie and hardships experienced by the coal miners and their families forged a new, civic sense of Welshness that could embrace the cultural differences of an increasingly multicultural society.   The industrial revolution provided a cosmopolitan, urban basis for the continued development of Welsh identity in the south.  Northern Wales remained more agricultural and Welsh speaking, but it too experienced the pangs of modernity as the large scale quarrying of slate scarred the hillsides.    

The trauma of the wars and the socio-economic dislocation of the twentieth century presented great challenges to the Welsh nation.   In the aftermath of imperial dissolution and economic decline, traditional industries faltered and communities struggled.  Welsh identity appeared to retreat in the face of the growing centralization of the British state and the increasing influence of Anglo-American popular culture.   Alarmed by the drop in the percentage of Welsh speakers to 26%, the young generation took to the streets to defend the language in the 1960s.   Demanding the right to use Welsh in law, education, and governance, they protested, served prison terms and painted traffic signs green.  In addition to literature, Welsh became the language of youth culture, pop records and television.  Politically, this activism was paralleled by increasing demands for greater self governance for Wales.  An irreverent and contemporary dynamism was injected into the national culture and traditional image of the Welsh nation.  Following a gradual process culminating with the creation of the Welsh National Assembly in 1998 , a Welsh state now exists once again in the form of an elected national legislature within a devolved United Kingdom.  The governance and public life of Wales is now carried out bilingually and the decline of the Welsh language has been reversed with the spread of Welsh medium education.  English speaking communities in Wales are also asserting their Welshness with a renewed confidence.   Urban renewal and economic diversification promise a new future for a postindustrial Wales.   Suffering from deindustrialization and ranked as the poorest nation of the United Kingdom, the Welsh still face many challenges.  Despite the hard times, though, it is easy to detect in Wales today a rejuvenated sense of community and civic  nationhood.   High above the Welsh National Assembly in revitalized Cardiff Bay, the Red Dragon is once more unfurled.

Cardiff

The modern capital of Wales, Cardiff boomed during the 19th century as the maritime shipping center for the extensive coal mining industry of south Wales. We will be staying in the heart of the City Centre, a neighborhood known as Victorian architecture, turn of the century shopping arcades, public buildings, museums and castle. It is also the location of Cardiff University, where we will attend lectures and meet with faculty and students. We will take a water taxi down the rive Taff to Cardiff Bay, home of the Senedd (National Assembly of Wales), the incredible arts complex called the Millennium Center as well as plenty of fashionable shops and restaurants. With open public spaces surrounding a fresh water bay where once stood the city's stinking and derelict docklands. Car-diff Bay has been transformed into the political and cultural center of Wales. In nearby ST. Fagan's, we will spend a day exploring the National History Museum, a celebrated open-air museum devoted to the historical dwellings, life and work of the Welsh people.

 

           

               

Laugharne

Famous Anglo-Welsh writer and poet Dylan Thomas lived and was buried here, in what he called "the strangest town in Wales." Indeed, Laugharne was an inspiration for the village depicted in Thomas's Under Milkwood. We will spend a day following in the food-steps of Dylan Thomas, seeing his home (now a museum) and writing shed overlooking the beautiful Taf Estuary, having a drink at the pub window from where he observed the life of the town, and paying our respects at his grave.

Blaenavon

UNESCO World Heritage Site, the industrial land-scape of the town of Blaenavon has been preserved as a testament to the labors and lives of the iron workers and coal miners that placed south Wales at the very center of the industrial revolution. In addition to exploring the terraced streets and row housing of the town, we will visit the remains of the famous Blaenavon Ironworks and Big Pit, once the old Navigation Colliery now a Welsh cola mining museum. Guided by a former collier, we will have the opportunity to descend deep underground into the tunnels of the mines. What your head!

 

Aberystwyth

Overlooked by the remnants of a Celtic hill fort and known for its Victorian seaside promenade and pier, Aberystwyth has played various roles as a rural market, castle town, port and spa resort. Although remnants of those roles still remain, Aberystwyth is primarily known today as an intellectual center and "college town". We will discuss Welsh history and culture as Aberystwyth University faculty and students, enjoy the sights and sounds of the famous seaside promenade, explore the treasures of the Ceredigion Museum, and tour the National Library of Wales, the primary depository of Welsh historical records and archives, From Aberystwyth, we will take a narrow gauge steam train up the scenic Rheidol Valley to Devil's Bridge. Past the ruins of old lead mines in the hills, the journey leads to a dramatic forge crossed by a medieval bridge made famous by a sinister legend and by Romantic writers who appreciated the site's "sublime" character.

       

                           

Caernarfon

In a largely Welsh speaking area of north Wales, Caernarfon is a walled medieval town and the site of Caernarfon Castle, an extensive military construction whose historical significance is recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Beyond its medieval function, the castle is also famous as the site of the modern royal ceremony investing the Prince of Wales with his title, a ceremony that was noisily opposed by Welsh nationalists and language activist when Prince Charles was invested in 1969. Built by the conqueror Edward I, the town walls and castle were meant to keep the Welsh out. Today, however, the town is bastion of Welsh language culture.

Beddgelert

Another haunt of the Romantics, the tiny village of Beddgelert is tucked up close to the Snowdonia Mountains in north Wales. We will travel to Beddgelert via the Welsh Highland Railway, a historic narrow gauge railroad, past impressive mountains scenery and sites associated with Welsh history and folklore. While visiting the village and mountains, we will pay a call on the legendary grave of Gelert, the loyal hunting dog of Prince Llewelyn.