It’s a maxim to bear in mind when it comes to Wales’ heritage. We cherish the treasures and relics left by our history, but it’s worth remembering they were once brand new, and often made with an eye to posterity. They survive all around us.
Take the Vitalinus Stone. Close to a path in Nevern churchyard in Pembrokeshire, West Wales, is a weathered pillar. It’s not much more than shoulder-high, and stands in the shade of an ancient yew tree. You have to look closely to see the inscriptions on its lichen-crusted surface, which were carved around 1,600 years ago to speak to future generations.
Roman letters disclose that this is the stone of Vitalinus, while cuts along the side spell out the same name in the strange alphabet of Irish Ogham. It offers an intriguing glimpse into Wales’ long, complex history. Vitalinus lived when Roman power was on the wane, and Irish settlers were filling the vacuum in fifth-century West Wales.
It would be easy to miss this ancient monument if you didn’t know what to look for. But it brings home the fact that in Wales, heritage and tradition are all around us. Celtic myths and legends have lost little of their power. These stories were meat and drink to the medieval cyfarwyddiaid – professional storytellers – and have been told and retold ever since. They’ve gained layers of embellishment along the way, but they usually contain a grain of fact.
Best known of all is the one about Arthur and Merlin. Did Arthur really exist? Probably. It’s said that at the heart of his legend was a real person, a fifth-century Romano-British leader who pushed back the invading Saxons. But if you take a map of Wales and put a pin in every Arthur-related location, it turns out he would have been a very busy monarch indeed. A tour of them all would take you from Arthur’s Stone on the Gower Peninsula, West Wales all the way north to the summit of Snowdon.
On the way, you would visit no fewer than three lakes that have a claim to being the one containing his magical sword, Excalibur. Then there are all the locations that have a connection with other Arthurian characters – which may include Nevern. There’s even a theory that Vitalinus was really Arthur’s arch-enemy, Vortigern.
Legend holds that Arthur will return when the nation is in peril, but Welsh has made a real-life comeback."
None of it is straightforward. Even our emblems take time to unpick. A dragon? A leek? A daffodil? The most popular explanations respectively involve the symbol on Arthur’s flag, an improvised way for St David’s soldiers to identify themselves on a muddy battlefield, and age-old confusion between the Welsh cenhinen (leek) and cenhinen pedr (daffodil).
Arguably, it’s all so alive thanks to our national language. Welsh is spoken by around three-quarters of a million people worldwide, and is Britain’s oldest language. Legend holds that Arthur will return when the nation is in peril, but Welsh has made a real-life comeback. About a fifth of the nation’s population can speak or use the language, and that figure doubles among children. The current goal is for there to be a million Welsh speakers by 2050.
Much of the heritage of Wales is more tangible. The greatest manifestation of its trials and tribulations are the castles – more than 600 of them. There are some that were built for native princes, such as Dolbardarn, near Llanberis, North Wales: one of Prince Llywelyn the Great’s strongholds. There are the ones that were built by invaders, such as Pembroke. It controlled territory taken by Norman knights, and later became the birthplace of England’s first Tudor king.
And then there are the disputed ones. Harlech Castle, was one of 10 built for England’s King Edward I to dominate the north of Wales. Sitting high on a coastal crag, it looks impregnable. But in 1404 it was besieged by the army of the last Prince of Wales, Owain Glyndŵr, and for a time became his seat of power.
It’s unsurprising that our castles are so popular. But Wales’ later history is every bit as compelling, and ripe for discovery both in the country at large and at our excellent museums. Take the milestones and markers you’ll often see on rural roadsides. They’re modest relics of an explosive chapter in Welsh history, when the building of toll roads provoked widespread protest and rebellion – including the famous “Rebecca Riots”, when men disguised in women’s clothing smashed the hated tollhouses by night.
For the full story, visit St Fagans National Museum of History. Among the dozens of buildings reconstructed at the 100-acre site is a 1771 tollhouse from Aberystwyth, West Wales, complete with a tariff of the charges that locals once had to pay to pass by. The museum’s other exhibits cover more than two millennia, ranging from a typical Anglesey Iron Age farmstead to the Cardiff summer house of the Marquess of Bute, reputedly the richest man in the world in the 1860s.
There are few places where you won’t find traces of our industrial heritage. For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, Welsh coal, slate, copper and steel were known throughout the world. Blaenavon, in the South Wales Valleys, was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its industrial heritage. Here, Big Pit National Coal Museum offers the chance to go 300 feet underground with a real-life miner, and see the effort that was required to feed the furnaces of Wales’ industrial revolution.
To return to Sir Clough, Portmeirion – his masterpiece – now has a timeless feel to it. In fact, it’s less than a century old, and a lot less in parts. Although he first began to realise his fantasy of building an entirely new Italianate village in 1925, it took him almost 50 years to get just right. And today, what he constructed and painstakingly adorned has become a cherished part of our common heritage.