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Wales -- remote, intangible, unforgettably different

By Christopher AndreaeSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / April 12, 1985

Wales is an intriguing place to visit, even briefly. A taste of it becomes a foretaste: as you leave, it invites you back again to search further for some essence you missed. . . . A recent car tour of certain parts of south and mid-Wales took me through rolling-hill scenery; to a ``medieval banquet'' at Cardiff Castle; to the National Folk Museum; down a coal mine (now a coal mining ``museum'') at Blaenavon; to Llanthony Priory (a ruined Augustinian monastery); to Hay-on-Wye (a picturesque town overrun by bookshops); to the Victorian spa town of Llandrindod Wells; to Newtown (birthplace and burial place of Robert Owen, factory reformer); to Powis Castle (perched above a remarkable terraced garden); and finally to the little market town of Machynlleth (on the edge of the Snowdonia National Park) where, traditionally, Owain Glyndwr's once-and-only independent Welsh Parliament met in the early 15th century. Although these were all enjoyable and stimulating tourist experiences, I was still left feeling that here was a remote, intangible country, yielding few secrets.

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A first-rate lunch at a restaurant near Abergavenny, the Walnut Tree Inn, because of its extra-national though deliciously inventive cuisine (try their ``Supreme of Guinea-Fowl'' and ``Autumn Pudding'' for dessert!), had done little to remind me I was in Wales. Nor had the friendly, woodlandy-peaceful comforts of the Llwynderw Country House Hotel at Abergwesyn. I would freely recommend either place; but inside them you might just as easily be in England, or even on the Continent.

As with most quick vacations, this one has finally sifted into three or four strong memories -- glimpses perhaps of some Welsh essence after all -- small instances, sizable significances. They slipped out from under the main tourist presentation -- partly, I think, because tourism to the Welsh seems deeply paradoxical. They are bent on selling their unique qualities to an increasing surge of visitors over Offa's Dyke (the still-evident 8th-century border between England and Wales), yet they inherit a centuries-old struggle to preserve those very qualities from invasion and Anglicization. They have 400 years of ``union'' with England to counter for a start. But even Offa's Dyke has become a tourist attraction: a string of waymarked trails and footpaths.

Hints spark through nevertheless. I remember particularly a sudden ethereality of voices and harp -- lucid, exultant, and longing -- which lifted itself above the general ``coach-tour'' cheeriness of the Cardiff ``Medieval Banquet.''

Then, in the outdoor part of the fine Folk Museum, I recall the cairn-like stonework of a small round building of ancient design and satisfying proportions. From mid-Glamorgan, it has been rebuilt here for posterity and tourists. Looking like a domestic bread-oven of the south of France, it is, in fact, a palatial pigsty -- suitably comfy quarters for some family's much-loved ``Dai Pig.''

And I can't forget an unexpected sense of being on the edge of the world in the border country of the Black Mountains, en route from Abergavenny to Hay-on-Wye. I have since encountered superb photographs of this moorland area which perfectly re-evoke my own feeling, gazing into that lowering afternoon sun. By Paul Wakefield, they appear in two books (Aurum Press, London): ``Britain, a World by Itself'' (Little Brown, Boston, $24.95; 14.95 in Britain) and ``Wales, the First Place'' (Clarkson N. Potter, N.Y., $25; 12.95 in Britain). An essay (on the Black Mountains) in the first and the text in the second are by Jan Morris, who has also just produced an even more stirring extensive prose tribute to Welshness in ``The Matter of Wales: Epic Views of a Small Country'' (Oxford University Press, $22.50; 12.50 in Britain). Here are over 400 pages of soul-baring penetration of Cymru (Wales), exploring ``the passions of a powerless people, in a small country, trying to honour their deepest instincts.''