by Hywel Roberts
Traveling around Wales during September and October with Wild Wales Tours guests was both exhilarating and inspiring! Many asked how on earth has the Welsh culture and language survived the past eight hundred years? Well it has, and is doing very well, indeed, since studying the Welsh language is compulsory in schools for children from 3 to 16 years. The Welsh Assembly has initiated Intensive Welsh language training for teachers and teaching assistants. Today in Wales the most recent census has determined that 19% of the population speaks the language daily, and 30% have the ability to speak Welsh. We asked people along the way if they spoke Welsh, and never have I heard so many people reply that they are indeed taking classes. The very nice lady who moved from northern England and works at the ticket office at Caernarfon Castle is a great example. We challenged a young police officer in Llandudno who also had moved (from Birmingham), and she said she was taking lessons, too.
Last year we visited St. Patrick’s Chapel in Pembrokshire, and Strata Florida, a Cistercian Abbey in mid Wales. Today there is much activity at both sites! The St Patrick’s Chapel Excavation Project is a collaborative research project between Dr. Katie Hemer, University of Sheffield, and Dyfed Archaeological Trust. There is no structure that remians above ground, and last year when we visited there were merely bumps in the sandy ground overlooking Whitesands Beach. The chapel discovered here is next to an early medieval (5th-10th century AD) and Christian cemetery. Now we have a Welsh Assembly that can take oversee the care of historic sites in Wales, and this project is supported by CADW (the Welsh Government’s Historic Environment Service), the National Park Authority and local volunteers. Recent excavation at the site has revealed 85 burials to date. Radiocarbon dating suggests that burial began before the 6th century and continued to the 11th and 12th centuries. Burials consisted of stone-lined graves which were oriented east to west, with the head at the west end.
It was a spirit-lifting experience to visit another historic site this year where there was great excitement and work going on. Over the past three years Professor David Austin has presented to us at the Strata Florida (Vale of the Flowers) Cistercian Abbey in the hamlet of Pontrhydfendigaid. Through GPR (underground radar), they have recently discovered, underneath the abbey, evidence of a possible place of worship from the Bronze Age. The Cistercians were invited here after the Norman conquest and chose this isolated site amidst the Cambrian Mountains to contemplate and worship. They were an agrarian society that lived on and improved the land. Today, at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth, we thankfully have a huge treasure in the many myths, legends, traditions, literature, and history that the monks recorded on vellum. Dr Austin is overseeing the work that the Strata Florida Trust began this summer in excavating the site. The present project at the site is funded by the Rural Community Development Fund (RCDF) through the Welsh Government Rural Communities - Rural Development Programme 2014-2020, which is funded by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development, and the Welsh Government. Two years ago, Dr Austin predicted that this site would become one of the most important historical sites in the whole of Europe and Britain within the next ten years.
Throughout Wales we were entertained by rich traditions delivered with passionate and heartfelt pride of ownership. We listened to the male voices of Cor-y-Brythoniaid practice one evening at the high school in the slate mining town of Blaenau Festiniog. The mixed choir Cor Bro Meirion sang for us at the school in in Rhydymain. At the Bryn Hir Pub in Criccieth we heard the sweet voices of the male voice choir Meibion Dwyfor, and met the renowned singer Bryn Terfyl’s father, who sings in the choir. Mair Tomos Ifans and Gwenan Gibbard played their harps for us along the way.
Twm Elias, naturalist, academic, author and this year’s prestigious winner of the Science and Technology medal at the National Eisteddfod of Wales presented to us on the Mabinogion. Manon Eame’s presentation was on the women who went off to sea, and paid tribute to two maritime historians who have contributed so much to our knowledge and understanding of women’s link with the sea, namely, her father Aled Eames and teacher and author, Robin Evans.
A very special tour of the archives at the National Library of Wales, a visit to the Cathedral of Wales in St David’s, and a presentation in Laughrne at Dylan Thomas’ home were among the special experiences that were part of the tours. Another treat was a visit to Caerleon, one of the most formidable Roman amphitheaters in the whole of Europe.
Before our last meal together at the end of one of our trips at the Cardiff Marriott Hotel, we were entertained by Ann Williams, Mehefin Parry Jones and Elinor Elias Jones. They serenaded us with old folk songs and melodies, and told us ancient tales. The language, history and early traditions of this great nation have been severely challenged over the past thousand years. In these uncertain times there is a vibrancy and anticipation as we are challenged again by the whirling forces around us. The Welsh love and ownership of our heritage is very much alive all over Wales today, from the metropolis of Cardiff to the ancient headquarters of the Druids in Angelsey, the Isle of Mona. The great spirit of Owain Glyndwr still resounds strongly through the country today. You can certainly feel and hear it when in the presence of the excellent choral and bardic traditions of this remarkable nation Cymru!