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.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon is betting on Brexit becoming real before autumn 2018

Second independence referendum plans have been delayed but not ruled out.

Three months after announcing plans for a second independence referendum, and 19 days after losing a third of her Scottish National Party MPs, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon booted the prospect of a second independence referendum into the heather. 

In a statement at Holyrood, Sturgeon said she felt her responsibility as First Minister “is to build as much unity and consensus as possible” and that she had consulted “a broad spectrum of voices” on independence.

She said she had noted a “commonality” among the views of the majority, who were neither strongly pro or anti-independence, but “worry about the uncertainty of Brexit and worry about the clarity of what it means”. Some “just want a break from making political decisions”.

This, she said had led her to the conclusion that there should be a referendum reset. Nevertheless: "It remains my view and the position of this government that at the end of this Brexit process the Scottish people should have a choice about the future of our country." 

This "choice", she suggested, was likely to be in autumn 2018 – the same time floated by SNP insiders before the initial announcement was made. 

The Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie responded: “The First Minister wishes to call a referendum at a time of her choosing. So absolutely nothing has changed." In fact, there is significance in the fact Sturgeon will no longer be pursuing the legislative process needed for a second referendum. Unlike Theresa May, say, she has not committed herself to a seemingly irreversable process.

Sturgeon’s demand for a second independence referendum was said to be partly the result of pressure from the more indy-happy wing of the party, including former First Minister Alex Salmond. The First Minister herself, whose constituency is in the former Labour stronghold of Glasgow, has been more cautious, and is keenly aware that the party can lose if it appears to be taking the electorate for granted. 

In her speech, she pledged to “put our shoulder to the wheel” in Brexit talks, and improve education and the NHS. Yet she could have ruled out a referendum altogether, and she did not. 

Sturgeon has framed this as a “choice” that is reasonable, given the uncertainties of Brexit. Yet as many of Scotland’s new Labour MPs can testify, opposition to independence on the doorstep is just as likely to come from a desire to concentrate on public services and strengthening a local community as it is attachment to a more abstract union. The SNP has now been in power for 10 years, and the fact it suffered losses in the 2017 general election reflects the perception that it is the party not only for independence, but also the party of government.

For all her talk of remaining in the single market, Sturgeon will be aware that it will be the bread-and-butter consequences of Brexit, like rising prices, and money redirected towards Northern Ireland, that will resonate on the doorstep. She will also be aware that roughly a third of SNP voters opted for Brexit

The general election result suggests discontent over local or devolved issues is currently overriding constitutional matters, whether UK-wide or across the EU. Now Brexit talks with a Tory-DUP government have started, this may change. But if it does not, Sturgeon will be heading for a collision with voter choice in the autumn of 2018. 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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