This article was first published in ‘The American‘. We are grateful once more for the opportunity to post it here.
In Wales, you have to start with mountains and hills. There’s probably an ordinance written somewhere, and, to be fair, it makes a lot of sense. They frame so much, and insinuate themselves into your fondest memories. Think of the castles silhouetted on rocky outcrops, the wooded hills steaming with moisture ghost-grey on black-green as you drive through spring rain, the dusting of snow on the raw, wild hills at the heads of the valleys, or the rearing masses of Blorenge and Sugarloaf giving fortunate towns like Abergavenny uniquely sculptured horizons. Take the winding road at Pen-y-Pass, walled with aged pale green slopes and a spilling scree, or the awe-inspiring Mordor of slate towering amazingly over Blaenau Ffestiniog. The mountains would be enough reason to come.
But it would be unfair to think of the heights alone. Look between, at the beautiful valleys, the rolling farmland thick with sheep and set with farmhouses stark white against the verdancy. In the evening light, it’s transporting to look at. Hard as it is to choose a view, I’d single out Tintern Abbey. The Cistercians had a talent for picking beautiful locations for their houses, and Tintern has a fair claim to be the most spine-tinglingly sited of them all, not just in Wales, but in all Britain. It stands in the Wye Valley, whose steep thickly-wooded ramparts and winding river close it off from prying eyes, as the monks wished. It feels like a Tolkienesque hidden kingdom, a Welsh Gondolin. As the Romantics who came here in a flurry in the time of Turner and Wordsworth knew, it’s always beautiful, but I think particularly of a crisp autumn evening, the sky powerfully blue, a bone white moon etched into it over the tower, the great skeleton of the beached abbey warmly honey-coloured beneath. Stand in line with the transepts and gaze at the layers within, alternately catching light and shade. The poetry and the painting are there already, waiting for you to catch them.
Lastly, for scene-setting, there’s some truly amazing coastline. I’d happily challenge anyone to go to the Gower peninsula or Pembrokeshire and claim these aren’t among the finest shores they’d seen. I think of the lovely view over the headland and islets at Newgale or the yacht-strewn inlet at Solva, crowned with an Iron Age fort. Most of all, I’d think of the isolated medieval chapel of St Govan. There it is, a little house nestled in a fissure, reached by supposedly uncountable steps, dedicated to one of Wales’ numerous dark age saints. It stands in its little sea-bashed rocky nook, ragged headlands marching off into the distance. You expect a wizard or a weary Jedi to step out to meet you, and it’s completely wonderful.
With this as a stage, how could the historical story not be fascinating? There are elements familiar if you know your wider British history – Romans, Normans, Vikings and so on, but all with a different flavour here, and blended with a deep and particularly Welsh history that, as you’ve seen already, is written everywhere. There’s a feast of monuments from the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, from the huge finely-perched slabs of the tomb chamber at Pentre Ifan to Anglesey’s Bryn Celli Ddu burial mound, millennia old. Wait around a few centuries, pass the Iron Age and watch the Romans force their way in through the fierce tribes of the Silures and Ordovices. Visit the formidable legionary fortress at Caerleon with the serried barrack blocks of the soldiers of the Second Augusta, their grand military baths and the splendidly-preserved amphitheatre, its drainage channel still working, that entered medieval myth as the Round Table of King Arthur’s City of the Legions. Go to its excellent Roman Army museum and you’ll get a feel for the lives of the soldiers and their families who lived here for generations. You’ll find the tombstones of the family of 65-year-old Tadia Vallaunius (the ending of her name marks her as of local Celtic origin) and her family – late husband, a son ‘killed in the German War’ and the daughter who commemorated them. Unknown to history otherwise, but reachable in remembering each other.
Follow the Romans with the tantalizing story of the Dark Age princes and saints, all leaving just enough testimony to show us what a rich story is hidden from us. You’ll find it on those inscriptions and crosses so characteristic of the British West found in small churches, or the lovely little Margam Stones Museum, in curlicued Latin or the straight lines of Irish Ogham, often decorated like the enigmatic eleventh century cross still standing at Carew with interlaced designs telling of a slew of influences – Irish, Anglo-Saxon, Norse – all welded into something characteristically Welsh. Sometimes we can connect them with known individuals, like Bishop Abraham, slain by Vikings at St David’s in 1080, sometimes, they keep their mystery.
And afterwards, there are the great glories of medieval Wales – the splendid churches, cathedrals and abbeys. A special mention has to go to St David’s and the magnificent revelatory view from above down its great length as you approach, looking across to the splendour of the bishops’ palace in its green precinct. Go inside and there are many marvels, but the first almost Escher-like effect of its leaning columns in many hued grey-greens, dust motes in the shafts of light through the windows, should stay with you. Last, but far from least, there are the castles for which Wales is justly famed, in all shapes, sizes and locations, with so many stories to tell of them – the tragedy of Princess Gwenllian, butchered trying to take Kidwelly, the swashbuckling De Clares – Strongbow, the Red Earl and the rest, the grasping Despensers, Tudors destined for greater things. We could speak of the extraordinary ‘water commanding machine’ at Raglan, or the desperate civil war siege that won its Marquess honour and a broken early death, or the sad story of Llywelyn Bren, brutally killed though his opponents spoke for his life. Too much for now: if you want to hear, maybe come on a tour, and then you’ll see the magnificent sites themselves.
There’s Chepstow, on an awesome slab-sided bluff high over the lovely bend of the Wye or the gargantuan, stupefyingly big Caerphilly with its colossal dams. The Babel-high tower at sprawling Pembroke rewards you with a superb, vertiginous view, if your knees can stand the climb. It’s got great depths, too: the huge and atmospheric Wogan Cave, far below the crag of the castle was first visited by humans around ten thousand years ago, so the medieval parts are practically from yesterday. You can take their tale through their transformation into Tudor houses or ruins to the Gothic pinnacle of Cardiff Castle, remodelled as a fairy tale by the unbelievable coal-powered wealth of the Victorian Marquess of Bute. It allows me to leave as I began with the memory and image these places bestow on you. At Cardiff, it’s the Arab room. Its golden ceiling rooted me to the spot when I first looked at it. It demands you look up, hypnotizes you with its ever-receding layers. And that’s about as suitable a metaphor as I can find for coming and being drawn in by the layered history of this sublime country. Mountains? Sure, but that’s just for starters.
If you enjoyed reading this post, you will certainly enjoy discovering Wales with its author even more. Have a look at our tour: Exploring Wales: Millennia under the Gaze of Mountains!