Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2014/7 posted by hidden europe on

Wales is a place for miracles. Perhaps the greatest miracle of all is that Wales is there at all, that it has a strong cultural identity and a language that is still spoken. Wales is nothing if not tenacious. It has a knack of getting into your blood. And it is all the better for being difficult to grasp.

article summary —

Dear fellow travellers

Wales is a place for miracles. Perhaps the greatest miracle of all is that Wales is there at all, that it has a strong cultural identity and a language that is still spoken. Wales is nothing if not tenacious. It has a knack of getting into your blood. There is a distinctive slap to the wind, a special splash to the waves. The elements in Wales are somehow a little more raw than in tamer areas of Europe. I like that. I like the way that the landscape is a shade less forgiving. The moors of Elenydd on a wild day are as fearsome as the Arctic.

Of course, there is a touch of romanticism in this. A smidgen of Shelley even. For Shelley, Wales was an antidote to the troubles of the wider world. The poet swapped miserable London ("a populous and smoky city") for "true mountain liberty" in Wales.

The literary fluency of Welsh is often as challenging to English visitors as the severity of the Welsh landscape and the superstitions of the Welsh people. It is a country that makes you stop and think. About who you are, about where you are and where you have come from. And when you do eventually leave Wales, you take a little bit of the country with you - a fragment of Wales that tugs at your heart for the rest of your life.

Wales is all the better for being difficult to grasp. The English travel writer HV Morton, best known for his affection for warm beer, country lanes and all things English, accidentally pinpoints the tantalising dilemma of Wales in his 1932 book In Search of Wales. "Tell me where Wales begins," he demands of a man sweeping Welsh dust into England by Telford's bridge at Chirk. The road sweeper obliges Morton by pointing out the precise line of the border.

But Morton misses the wider point that Wales is more an idea than an entity that can be defined on any map. The distinguished travel writer Jan Morris gets this absolutely right. Morris understands that Wales is essentially a metaphysical idea, a medley of landscapes that, in her words, "come upon the traveller more unexpectedly, not as lustrous set pieces or sweet idylls, but slyly, and sometimes shabbily."

Today is Dydd Gwyl Dewi, St David's Day, a day dedicated to Wales. It is a day when even outsiders might legitimately long for the hills and valleys of Wales. That ineffable sense of homesickness, that longing for the Cambrian spirit, finds expression in the Welsh word hiraeth - an ache, an indescribable longing. That capacity of Wales to haunt one forever is in itself a little miracle. Let Jan Morris have the last word. For her, Wales "is not just a country on the map, or even in the mind: it is a country of the heart, and all of us have some small country there."

Nicky Gardner
(co-editor, hidden europe magazine)

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The two quotes from Jan Morris come from her book 'Wales: Epic Views of a Small Country'. A paperback edition of the book is published by Penguin.

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.