Wednesday in Welsh Wales

Due to an accident of birth which I blame on my parents, both of whom came from the same Surrey suburb, I am neither bilingual nor exotic. When we went to north Wales last week I was fascinated and envious of the Welsh speakers. Welsh is a Celtic language, the language everyone probably spoke on this island before waves of invaders. The lyrical accent and words also have similarities with Hindi, perhaps there are very ancient exotic origins for this language of poetry, music and Eisteddfods, but it is also officially recognised. Apart from Wales there is a small colony in Patagonia of natural Welsh speakers.

The Welsh Language Act 1993 and the Government of Wales Act 1998 provide that the Welsh and English languages be treated equally in the public sector, as far as is reasonable and practicable.

You know you are in Wales when the road signs are in both languages. Only about fifth of people in Wales actually speak Welsh fluently, but in the north the majority do.

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We stayed in Porthmadog for four nights, a lovely town with mountains in the background, a harbour and lots of trains, including the famous Ffestiniog Railway, Rheiffyrdd Ffestiniog. Being winter some places were closed. Our pub hotel was rather gloomy inside; someone had bought a job lot of brown paint. The dining room was in darkness and the bar rather bleak, but on our first evening we found a cafe at the railway station which was open till eight and was warm and cheerful. A family birthday party was in full swing and they were all speaking Welsh, even the children.

The next morning at breakfast our suspicions were confirmed that we and four chaps on a photography holiday were the only guests. A Welsh radio station played in the background. The weather was mostly heavy skies and damp, but stayed clear for our trip on the Welsh Highland Railway. As it was winter the Ffestiniog was closed and most of the line for our train. We went half an hour out, stopped for the engine to be moved then back again, but the little steam trains are gleaming and lovingly looked after and the scenery is lovely. That night a roaring open fire had appeared in the bar so we had our meal in there amongst Welsh speaking locals.

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The next day was the planned trip to Portmeirion, the fantasy cliffside village designed by architect and local aristocrat Clough Williams-Ellis. It is famous as the setting where sixties television series ‘The Prisoner’ was filmed, one of those dramas where viewers had no idea what was going on, thus  making it a cult film. You have to pay to go in, but it is well worth a visit and it must be even better on a sunny summer’s day. Colourful strange buildings cling to rock faces. Various winding steps, slippery in the damp weather, take you down to the edge of the estuary. No one lives there. We went to the hotel that was the house of a previous reclusive owner before Clough Williams bought the land in the 1920s and had coffee in front of an open fire. It was quiet, but apparently they had had a hundred guests for breakfast, those staying at the hotel and others in self catering apartments in the exotic buildings. Behind the village woodlands spread up the hill.

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Back up at the main cafe after more clambering around and photography we talked to a waitress who only spoke Welsh till she started school.  Her granddaughter goes to the high school in Harlech where every subject is taught in Welsh, except for English. If young children or English children arrive to start school and don’t speak Welsh they are whisked off by taxi for an intensive six weeks tuition and apparently come back speaking fluent Welsh!

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On the third day we drove to Llanberris through the mountain scenery of Snowdonia in mist and rain to visit the Snowdon Mountain Railway. Of course that was closed till March, but we thought it would be fun to see the station; I had always imagined it sitting at the foot of the mountain. It isn’t quite like that and with the low lying cloud and mist we were not quite sure which mountain was Snowden. Since 1896 the little rack and pinion railway has been taking visitors up the mountain and there is now a new visitor centre and cafe at the summit, no doubt welcome after the one hour trip. I wonder if anyone would be allowed to build such a thing today?

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22 thoughts on “Wednesday in Welsh Wales

  1. We spent a week in North Wales in October 1981. I can pinpoint the date as it rained every day except for the one we spent waiting in a huge crowd in Caernarfon for the Prince of Wales to introduce his new bride to ‘his’ people. I’m sure the scenery would have been lovely in better weather but my abiding memory is the number of times the locals changed from speaking English to Welsh as soon as they realised we were English. Sounds like you enjoyed your time more than we did!

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  2. During the bit of pre-sat-nav driving we did in Wales, I really struggled with my inability not just to read Welsh but even for my eyes to scan it. All I could pick out of road signs was the double L–and everything had a double L. We spent a lot of time doubling back and trying again. But I’ll admit that it’s a beautiful language. I just wish I spoke, or even read, it.

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  3. I would love to visit Portmeirion. I remember watching The Prisoner – with no idea as to what it was about! I was interested in what you said about the link between Welsh and Hindi. On Islay (where I was born) the minister told my father the key to Gaelic was to be found in Sanskrit.

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      1. According to a census analysis: On Census Day, 27 March 2011, a total of 87,100 people aged 3 and over in Scotland (1.7 per cent of the population) had some Gaelic language skills. This included 57,600 people who could speak Gaelic. Most Gaelic speakers are in the Highlands and Islands. I’m trying to learn it but have taken a break because life is too busy just now and I need time to focus on it. It’s very difficult and not many people to practice with in the south.

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  4. Isn’t that interesting about links between Welsh and Gaelic and Hindi or Sanskrit. My mother’s native language was Lithuanian, and I remember being told that there are many similarities between that language and Sanskrit. Wales looks beautiful.

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    1. Yes Audrey, Wales has a lot of beautiful scenery packed into a small country. Sanskrit gets more and more fascinating. One of the best weddings we went to was Hindu and the priest conducted it in Sanskrit – but explained what was going on at each stage. Our Muslim neighbour understood the words.

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  5. I remember watching a movie, and I think the actors were from Wales (or maybe Scotland), but they were speaking English. Despite that, we could not understand a word they were saying! We had to turn it off… Looks beautiful!

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  6. Probably Scottish – don’t worry, we English often can’t understand Glaswegians. When my Scottish husband first took me to meet his family in the borders I couldn’t understand half of what they said.

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