Learning the Welsh tongue

Sian's on holiday in North Wales, taking a break from politics and enjoying that great country's cul

London, elections, politics – all banned from my blog this week on the orders of me. I’m officially on holiday, in North Wales for a few days for a bit of a party, lots of wandering around on local trains and buses, plenty of eating and tons of touristy stuff amongst the mountains.

I haven’t visited Snowdonia since being brought on hiking trips when I was at school. Given that this time I haven’t been dragged out of bed at 6 am, fed on baked beans and reconstituted ‘breakfast slices’, made to use an outside toilet or walked uphill in the driving rain all day, I’ve come away with a very different view of the place, although it’s no less spectacular than I remember.

I am leading by example here, because getting people to holiday in Britain is a personal project of mine at the moment. Along with everyone except Landrover, I’ve given up on carbon offsetting, so have switched to persuading people to replace holidays abroad with trips to our own shores instead. The biggest success so far has been to get my whole family to join me in the Lake District this May half term. I’ve estimated that, if it displaces a flying holiday to Europe for each of them I’ll have helped save about 3 tons of carbon dioxide, even if we leave the lights on all week.

Perhaps, in order to convince my nephew our trip to the Lakes beats another beach in Spain, I should have gone for North Wales instead. This part of the UK isn’t just beautiful, it’s also more of a change from London than any European city I’ve been to lately. This impression is helped by the fact that the Welsh language is so widely spoken in daily life.

Contrary to what my name suggests, I have no Welsh in me and hardly know a word of the language, but my travelling companion is fluent and most of the people we’ve been spending time with are Welsh speakers too, so I have found myself being the ‘foreign one’ in conversations, with people kindly speaking to each other in English for my benefit.

This has helped start a few good discussions about how best to put concepts that can only be properly expressed in Welsh. The best of the resulting new Welsh words in my nascent vocabulary are therefore ‘malu cachu’ (bullshitting – literally ‘mincing shit’) and the neologism ‘poptŷ ping’ (microwave – literally ‘ping oven’. If I had a microwave I’d definitely call it that).

Of course, tourism can itself be a force for homogenisation and low-wage economies, which would undermine the sense of difference that makes this area so attractive. So it was a bit disheartening to see a new Tesco just on the edge of Porthmadog, a town with independent butchers, fishmongers, greengrocers and clothes shops along the high street. How long they will survive is anyone’s guess and I am a bit confused as to why the local council has allowed a supermarket to be built. Surely localism, tourism and the culture of the area would all be enhanced by keeping the likes of Tesco out of towns like this?

After a busy few weeks, I’m using this trip for emergency relaxation. Looking at the sea is brilliant for the soul, and the coastline around Bangor, Harlech and Porthmadog is some of the best I have sat and gazed at in ages. Thoughtfulness is further stimulated by this part of the world being absolutely stuffed with stone circles (put up for druids at the annual Eisteddfod arts festival) and gorgeous mediaeval castles.

Built by Edward I from the 1270s to ‘contain the Welsh’, fourteen of these are dotted around the top left corner of Wales. They seem to grow straight up out of the bedrock in many places, and the most famous include Conwy, Beaumaris, Carnaerfon and Harlech, all World Heritage Sites. We spent an afternoon clambering over every inch of Harlech Castle – home to an early Welsh seat of government after being captured in an uprising by Owain Glyn Dŵr in 1404 (and then captured back five years later by the English under Prince Harry of Monmouth, later Henry V).

The castle is now home to hundreds of crows doing aerobatic displays and, though it originally had the sea lapping up against its walls, is now about half a mile from the beach in Harlech, as the enormous and growing sand dunes have gradually reclaimed the land below. This is something rising sea levels may rectify if we don’t do something soon. Perhaps that’s what Rhodri Morgan meant when he said climate change “will not be entirely unhelpful” for Wales. Oops, I’m on the way back to London now and politics is creeping in again. Time to shut up.

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