The Other Wales

by Nick Fern

Ease of access to the big industrial cities of the old industrial heartland, North Wales, with long beaches and then the Snowdonia mountains and the Isle of Anglesey, ensured its place on the holiday map.

To the South, bordering the Bristol Channel is the other Wales. Until the 1966, there was a only a ferry linking the main East to West road in the South with Wales, or a tedious detour to Chepstow and a nightmare crawl through its medieval streets. Those who had got this far, then endured the remnants of the coal industry and then iron and steel making before oil refining and Swansea.

As a child my usual way to see my grandparents was by train, steam powered, of course, whose last few miles ran alongside the Port Talbot steel works. Even in daylight, the huge sparkling orange flare when a Bessemer converter was blown, gave an air of the inferno as the train rattled past on its way to Swansea, once the copper capital of the world. These days, having crossed the Severn on one of the two suspension bridges,  we can visit National Trust properties in Newport (Tredegar House),  Dyffryn House and gardens  near Cardiff and the 19th century tin plating works at Aberdulais, near Neath.

Swansea, not the finest entry to rural Wales, even then, is a town without a great deal to commend it, but for a 10-year-old was the only holiday home to be dreamed of. Of the town itself there is little to be said, though seen from the Mumbles Lifeboat station its sweep across the hill around the bay is not unattractive. There was a marvellous, double-decked, tram that ran from down town to the Mumbles, where Dylan Thomas drank and wrote, but is now no more.

But, a bus ride away was and still is the Gower peninsular, designated in 1956 as the UK’s first area of “Outstanding Natural Beauty”; winding roads, small villages, farms, cliffs and beaches, often only reachable by a steep track down from the road, on which, even in these car-favoured days parking is nigh impossible. At the end of the Gower however is the incomparable Rhossili, a massive headland jutting out into the Bristol Channel, whose waves, in bad weather, will leap over Worm’s Head and, sliding up the long beach, leave lace tracery across the sand.  A pint of beer in the pub, watching the tide come in, and, should there be wind, the para gliders launching from Rhossili Down, which is, of course, up, happily ends a walk to the headland and back.

There is a coastal path, about 80Km long from the marshes and cockle beds to the West around the cliffs to the Mumbles and on, along the track of the old tram, to Swansea. I’ve walked most of it.

Beyond Swansea and Llanelli is West Wales, a rural world for centuries, few churches but many non-conformist chapels. It was a pious country; until well into the second half of the 20th century no pubs or restaurants would be open on a Sunday. But even there, in this protestant country  is the delightful city of St David’s with its Anglican cathedral tucked into the valley. Beyond are the farms and coasts of Pembrokeshire, with the Atlantic breaking on the shores. Totally different from the North of the country in recent history, but still with Welsh spoken more now than when I was a child. The elder girl in this picture (now 78) was discouraged from learning Welsh at secondary school in the 1950’s.

Langland, 1953/54?

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