It’s not often Facebook can be considered a force for good. But, earlier this week we read a post that rippled through the ether. It was from someone pondering on how best to spend his new plastic fiver. He decided a donation to charity would be a good thing and several thousand others seemed to think it a good idea too. Until I started writing last night’s blog I hadn’t appreciated that Pedal Power where we rented bikes yesterday was a charity with primary purpose of helping disabled people to cycle. The squeals of delight from the teenager the other day made Liz and I realised that sometimes quite little things bring deep joy. If our little piece of blue (and transparent) plastic goes any way at all to bringing that joy to someone else then it is money well spent.
Anyway we can afford to be magnanimous - we are off to yet another free museum - St Fagan’s National History Museum on the outskirts of Cardiff. Not some stuffy Victorian mansion crammed with dark landscapes and stuffed armadillos but a rural museum set in over 100 acres of parkland with 40+ museum buildings. Each building is an example of a typical building that was an important part of some Welsh community that has now been donated to the nation, dismantled, transported and reassembled (why not remantled?) on site. For example there is a tailor’s shop, I forget which town it originated from, but it had been in business nearly 100 years before closing its doors for the last time in the 1950’s. Here, on site, are shelves of 1950’s post-war ration-book utility-wear, bolts of period cloth from the shop when it closed, hats, undergarments, shirts with separate collar and cuff. Of course, little clothing of this period was ‘of the peg’ so the shop also has the original tailor’s workshop annex complete with all the sewing accoutrément of the period.
But it’s not just a tailor’s shop - there’s a cornmill with an overshot wheel that still grinds flour. Not too far away is a bakery where early morning two bakers are working away with that very flour making the loaves that will be available in the 1950’s baker’s shop next door. When we arrived at 10:30 the bakers were just kneading the loaves one last time and at 12:15 we were first in the shop to buy a granary loaf so hot it was almost uncomfortable to carry back to the van. The general stores is a two part shop, one very much a museum replica of something that was just starting to become a rarity towards the end of my childhood, and another room trying to recreate that feel whilst still sell current day comestibles - we bought some flour milled by the corn mill and some coffee beans from a Welsh roastery.
Sadly the weaver wasn’t on hand today. The two large manual looms were very familar but probably a century or more old. The power loom in the other corner of the mill was of barely newer vintage and there was a wooden beamed spinning jenny (or possibly mule) that, if working, would have shamed the demonstration of the newer (but still Victorian) equivalent we saw in action at New Lanark. The weaver is there most days working on the entire process from fleece to shawl including I suspect dyeing the yarn before producing unique shawls which are on sale at the museum’s shop.
The stern school mistress wasn’t in attendance today either but a much more genial guide took her place. At the school, like most buildings in the village, our first greeting was in Welsh. Not the “Bora Da” (Good Morning) we’d heard elsewhere but the less formal, more colloquial “Shwmae” (How-do) which has just become an addition to my somewhat poor Welsh vocabulary of about 20 words. However I did warn Liz that I would drift into the vernacular during the holiday so bade a few of the guides “Diolch yn fawr” (thank you) before I left their buildings. The school is still used, as part of a living history lesson for 21st century children. The youngsters are dressed in period costume and then walked across to the schoolhouse by the Victorian schoolm’am who gets more into character each pace and so step by step the years roll back and by the time the children have entered the school and the mistress has announced “SILENCE is golden!” our guide asked us to imagine 20 or so modern 9 year olds so silent that all that can be heard is the ticking of the clock! Of course, not all aspects of Victorian teaching methods can be demonstrated today, many having fallen foul of the Geneva and Rome conventions!
Two and a half hours later and we hadn’t seen much over half, although we did see the only building that was a best guess facsimile rather than a transported and rebuilt original - a very impressive (and much larger than imagined) bronze-age roundhouse. Still we can come back again, more buildings are planned and a new larger visitor’s centre to host more interpretive material and crafts-people is currently under construction. Amazingly all this is free. OK there’s a £5 car park charge but the site is well served by busses so car parking is optional for many people.
Readers of my Scotland blog will remember that one of my hobby-horses is national identity and why the English have lost it. There was no doubt from the Scotland trip that the Scots have a strong sense of identity and independence (even more so, possibly if the rest of the UK does split from the EU) and it seems the Welsh may even out-do them. It wasn’t just the guides’ greetings that were Welsh language today, but, for example, a father was discussing the buildings with his two daughters, mainly in Welsh with a little English interspersed. All children who go to Welsh schools have the opportunity to take Welsh, if only one lesson a week. I recall an incident from some years back, a new Indian restaurant opened up in my home town just on the English side of the Welsh border. A couple of the local lads, probably after a lager or two too many, were making snide, rude comments to the India waiter in Welsh, sniggering at their obvious wit. After the bill had been paid the waiter wished them all a very pleasant evening in perfectly fluent Welsh - having been a product of a S Wales education in the 80s and 90s. I suspect the wags behaviour afterwards might also have been a little Welsh - sheepish!
But why has Wales rediscovered its roots? What is it about this little pip-squeak principality that gives it the right to rebel against the might English (whoops, sorry British) Empire that dominated it and subjugated its culture for centuries as it did with much of the rest of the world. Surely this sudden emancipation can’t be all down to the success of Pobol y Cwm and Sam Tân. Of course not, back in the 70’s, well before S4C, Max Boyce reminded us “They were singing hymns and arias, ‘Land of my Fathers’, ‘Ar hyd y nos’” - that is to say Welsh culture and Welsh identity never went away. Schoolkids may have got speaking Welsh beaten out of them (received a spanking with the ‘Welsh knot’, was how today’s guide put it) but the culture has always been there, hiding just out of sight and regularly erupting through the surface at Twickenham or the Arm’s Park. A remembered heritage and a pride of being a part of the continuation of that heritage. It was only a matter of time before the Welsh language found its way into homes, intellectuals at first perhaps and then everywhere. Or maybe it was the working class homes and the rural farmhouses, where the language hadn’t quite stopped being spoken, that lead the charge.
Now compare and contrast with England. Where’s our ‘Sospan Fach’, ‘Ar hyd a nos’, or Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau’ (Land Of My Fathers)[^1]. Don’t give me ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ an American Negro spritual with no historic connection to England or its Rugby. ‘Land Of Hope and Glory’ - Edwardian schmalz that Elgar hated, not a lot of tradition there. ‘Jerusalem’ perhaps but somehow the WI have wrested that from the rest of us. How about ‘Greensleeves’ that’s English, and as traditional as the hills. OK I’ll give your ‘Greensleeves’ as the epitomy of English folk culture, just one condition though. Sing me a verse. No, not hum the tune, I want to hear words and all. I thought not. So even when we do have a candidate for traditional English no-one knows it! Dance is the same - who can dance ‘Strip the Willow’ or ‘The Galloping Sergeant Major’. No? We scoff at Morris Dancing and conductors who epitomise Englishness and so should know better suggest it is as odious as incest. The Welsh take their dance (and song and poetry) and raise it to national importance by holding eisteidfoddau to glorify the culture and tradition. No wonder the Welsh flag (Y Drraig Goch) is a rallying emblem of an entire nation, whilst St George’s cross is merely the battle standard of football thugs and racist bigots.
I’m sure my Brexit voiting friends will tell me that it’s all them immigrants and once Article 50 is triggered we can take the country back (whatever that means). Rubbish, it’s not multicultralism. Take a look round Cardiff and it’s obvious that Wales shares the same mix of cultures that England does but somehow Welshness over-rides that, as with my Welsh-speaking Indian waiter a few paragraphs ago. No, we’d lost our sense of Englishness well before SS Empire Windrush brought the first 500 post-war Caribbeans to settle in Brixton back in the 50s. I wonder if we never wanted a folk culture in England because we had a class culture instead. Folk culture is so terribly, terribly working class y’know. The upper class are far better than that, ‘cosmopolitan’ is their bye-word (that’s why farm animals are known by their Anglo-Saxon working class names: Pig, Sheep, Ox but their meat, something only the upper classes could eat regularly, is French: Porc, Mouton, Boeuf). Perhaps the upper class’s desire to distance themselves from the peasantry and the peasantry’s desire to better themselves by imitating the upper class, particularly in the Edwardian heyday of class divide, is what drove English folk culture underground, never to resurface.
Anyway as Monty Python put it (and let’s, at this point, take a moment to wish Terry Jones well) “That is the theory that I have and which is mine, and what it is too”.
Where was I before I got diverted into one of my favourite rants. Oh, yes, we’d just left the museum. Next port of call was a little of our own family roots - Liz has done some history and one of our sons-in-law had a Welsh Grandfather and Great-Grandfather who lived in Treherbert in the Rhondda Valley. Google maps shows the small terraced house still standing and amazingly, we not only find it but find parking directly opposite so Liz can add some more photos to the ever increasing family-tree album. The valley still is packed with houses but many of the shops in nearby Treorchy are closed and shuttered at 2pm on a Saturday afternoon. This is not one of the wealthier areas of the country. Yet, we spot a sign for a Burberry factory, Burberry the luxury designer label so beloved of English chavs everywhere. Things must be looking up. Sadly no, a quick check on the internet and Burberry’s Treorchy factory closed in 2007 with production moving to China. I wonder what labour there is in the valleys. Nothing seems obvious and if Tata close nearby Port Talbot steelworks another town, already part shuttered will suffer terribly. Maybe mining was a terrible, terrible occupation, maybe the mines were reaching their economic limits, maybe Thatcher was prescient and saw closing pits as a way to fend off global warming. Whatever the reason, to take away a community’s livelihood without replacing the infrastructure, to put men on the dole without giving them the diginity and pride to fend for the families through honest toil is a criminal act that I hope society never forgives her for.
It’s raining heavily here on the campsite, just on the outskirts of Swansea.