Wales -- remote, intangible, unforgettably different

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.''

Among many insights, Ms. Morris (half Welsh herself), in her ``Black Mountains'' essay, sees these Welsh borderlands as ``on several kind of frontier -- between countries, between counties, between dioceses, between languages. . . .

Some say the Welsh langauge -- the oldest living literary language in Europe and still spoken by one-fifth of the population -- is the only remaining true bastion of difference from England. And very different it is. The visitor could immerse himself in copper mines, rugby football, and Celtic crosses; could tramp Welsh mountains and valleys; could read Dylan Thomas and Richard Lllewellyn, (or Bruce Chatwin's remarkable 1982 novel, ``On the Black Hill''); he could stay, as I comfortably did, at Gwyn and Linda Whitticase's Powys farmhouse one night, where all the talk is of sheep and birds; he could listen to rehearsals of male voice choirs; visit castles, slate-quarries, museums; even trace his Welsh ancestry (if he has any) -- but the language would remain a profoundly secret barrier, a mystery of surviving national identity.

``Crash courses'' in Welsh are available, but what can they achieve? How could such hearty acquisition bring appreciation of the consonantal subtleties of Welsh verse? But it is precisely here, as he will tell you, that the true-blue Welshman hides his heart.

According to David Meurig Thomas, overseas marketing manager of the Tourist Board, visitors are welcome at the exclusively Welsh-speaking National Eisteddfod, one of Europe's great folk festivals. This year's is to be held near Rhyl, on the north coast, Aug. 3-10. Here visitors can witness the festival's ancient practices, although they are unlikely to understand much. But it is here that Welshmen feel most indelibly Welsh. (English is used at the International Eisteddford at Llangollen July 9-14.)

Mr. Thomas described one aspect of the National Eisteddfod as ``a spontaneous competition'' of ``friends . . . who happily insult each other [and] comment wryly on the state of the world'' in epigrammatic, four-line verses of an age-old form known [in the plural] as ``englynion.''

He even gave me an example of such an ``englyn,'' although not so recent. It is by Hywel ab Owain Gwynnedd, of the 12th century. Its title, ``Gorhoffedd'' means ``proud boast.'' Untranslatable it is, but even in literal English it does hint fierce Welsh loyalties and affection for their country:

I love its sea-coast and its mountains

Its castle by the wood, and its fine

lands,

The meads of its waters, and the

valleys,'

Its white gulls and lovely women.

Not, perhaps, quite what you'd expect a Tourist Board marketing manager to produce out of his hat and suddenly recite with romantic fervor. But then, in Wales, things can be unforgettably different. Practical Information:

Wales Tourist Board: 2, Fitzalan Road, Cardiff CF2 1UY, Wales, U.K., telephone 0222-499909.

The Walnut Tree Inn: Llandewi Skirrid, Abergavenny, Gwent, Wales NP7 8AW, telephone 0873-2797.

Llwynderw Country House Hotel: Abergwesyn, Llanwrtyd Wells, Powys, Wales LD5 4TW, telephone 059-13-238.

Christopher Andreae's trip was partly sponsored by TWA, the British Tourist Authority, and the Wales Tourist Board.

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