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Wales (Cymru) – what to see and do

When you think of Great Britain, you tend to think that everyone speaks English and that what you see in London is pretty much representative of what the country is like. Sure, the English countryside is different to London but this too has pretty much an established image.

Scotland, of course has its strong identity – of Scottish pipers, kilts and tartans, and while this stereotypical image may not be absolutely true to life, it does help define Scotland as different and interesting too.

Wales has been a part of Great Britain ever since 1536 when under Henry VIII, the 'Statute of Union' was enacted, and even today, the son of Queen Elizabeth, Charles is called the 'Prince of Wales' and his first wife, Diana was called the 'Princess of Wales' in recognition of the importance of Wales as part of Great Britain.

When you come to Wales, almost the first thing you notice is that you hear a strange language being spoken – this is Welsh and it is a living language spoken by the Welsh. Normally, when you hear a different European language, like French, German, Dutch, Italian or Spanish you recognize a few words or at least can guess the language that is being spoken, but Welsh has almost no words that are common to English. You will also see Welsh place names used in Street signs, along with the English name.

These are just a few examples of Welsh - S'mae or Shoo-my (means Hello), Diolch (means Thank you), Bore da (Good Morning), Nos da (Good night). These are just a few examples of Welsh, but can you pronounce 'llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwyll-llantysiliogogogoch' ? This is the name of the Welsh town on the Isle of Anglesey (Mam Cymru) and translates in English to "Saint Mary's Church in the hollow of the white hazel near the whirlpool and the church of Saint Tysilio of the Red Cave". The town even has a website – see www.llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch.com

Maybe it is the Welsh language that has encouraged the Welsh to sing, and the people are known to have great singing voices with Eisteddfods and music being a big part of Welsh life. Bryn Terfel is a famous Opera singer and Sir Tom Jones is perhaps the most famous Welsh singers, but equally the actor, Richard Burton was known for his magnificent voice and Welsh rugby fans singing the Welsh Anthem, 'Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau' at games is something to behold.

Wales has a population of around 3.1 million people, with Cardiff, the capital having a population of around 350,000 but about 900,000 in the greater area of Cardiff. There are however 9.7 million sheep living in Wales and this gives you an indication of how important rural Wales is, with the landscape being one of the main reasons to visit Wales.

The Cambrian Mountains run from north to south, with the Snowdonia mountainous region in the north, known for its mountainous peaks and wild landscape attracting climbers as well as hikers and scenery-seekers to this region.

The coastline too is also recognized for its rugged beauty, while the small villages and towns in Wales all have their own appeal. There are three National Parks in Wales, Snowdonia in the North, Pembrokeshire in south-west Wales and Brecon Beacons in mid Wales.

Snowdonia National Park is known for its mountains and Mount Snowdon 1085 metres (3560 feet) high is the highest mountain in Wales, but there a number of other mountain peaks here too, which are almost as high, and have equally difficult slopes to climb. There is a small heritage style steam engine (modelled on the original 1896 steam engine) and also another new one that will take you to the top of Mount Snowdon – an hour journey to the top. You can also walk to the summit or down from there, and this will also take you about an hour or more depending on your fitness and the weather. The trains are small, so it is best to book on-line – see www.snowdontrain.co.uk and run roughly from May to September during the summer months. The train leaves from Llanberis, which is about 8 miles from Bangor.

Also in Snowdonia National Park, look for Llyn Tegis (Bala Lake) the biggest natural lake in Wales where you can kayak, paddle board or windsurf and the beautiful Swallow Falls which just adds to the enjoyment of seeing this area. There is also the small Bala Lake Railway, and white water rafting on the Afon Tryweryn River. There are small villages in the area, and it is also a good place to enjoy Farmstay accommodation, getting a feel for life on a farm or in a village here in Wales.

Pembrokeshire Coast National Park is located on the south west coast of Wales and has some of the best coastal scenery that you will see anywhere in the world, with cliffs, beaches, farmlands and hillsides that almost descend into the sea. In one of the most remarkable Welsh achievements in recent times, the path walkway that has been established here runs for 870 miles (1392 Kilometres) along the coastline, passing by the beaches, farmlands, farmhouses, coastal cottages and villages on its way from the north to the south. The Path is set out in sections, so that you could walk a section or sections, but even some of these sections can take a few days to walk. To learn more about the Coast Walk see www.walescoastpath.gov.uk

Brecon Beacons National Park is in the middle of Wales, and has the distinction of being a "dark sky reserve', quite an achievement. A Dark Sky Reserve is an area that astronomers declare is free of manmade lighting so that the skies are at the very best for searching the night sky. This means that light from a city, town or even houses is deemed to be so far away that it will have no effect on viewing. Even some of the biggest world Astronomical sites have not been able to achieve this status. This whole National Park covers an area of 520 square miles of mountains, hillsides, valleys and moors with great walking, horse riding and mountain bike trails, with a number of ancient monuments and 3000 miles of hedgerows – small trees and bushes that have been planted to form fence lines around fields and paddocks.

When you think of these National Parks, it is not just the scenery; it is also the flowers in spring, the rock formations, waterways, the farms and also the wildlife, the birds and the fresh air that can be so invigorating.

To give you an idea of distances in Wales, Cardiff, the Capital of Wales is around 2 hours by fast train from London, and roughly 150 miles by road (240 kilometres), and just 45 miles (70 kilometres) from Bristol, making it relatively easy to get to from England. From Cardiff to Welshpool in the north is around 110 miles (176 Km), Welshpool to Llangollen is 29 miles (48km) and Llangollen to Holyhead in Anglesea is a further 74 miles (120 Km).

WHAT TO SEE AND DO IN WALES –

There is no doubt that the scenery in Wales is spectacular – with the mountainous areas in the north, the great farmlands, small villages and the rugged coastline and beaches. Wales was also where in the south coal mining played an important part in developing the Welsh character and identity. In the early 1900's there were up to 270,000 pitmen working underground in the mines in the south, and as the coal became harder and more costly to mine so too did the jobs go and the pits close down.

Today there are a few museums that record the history of the coal mining days – and if you are interested in this aspect of Wales – then visit the Big Pit Coalmine, a real mine that operated from 1860 to 1980, around 38 miles (60 km) north east from Cardiff via Newport at Blaeafon, Torfaen. Here you will see a real mine and buildings and if you are game, you can descend 90 metre ( 300 feet) down into the Big Pit to really experience what it would have been like to work underground in the mine. See www.museumwales.ac.uk/bigpit

In Cardiff one of the MUST SEE places to see is the Folk Museum that covers around 100 acres of grounds with 40 buildings – everything from St Fagan's Manor House to Ironworker cottages, a chapel, school, tannery and mills with real life demonstrations of craft skills and other interesting activities. The Museum is officially called St Fagan's National History Museum – see www.museumwales.ac.uk/stfagans and it is located 4 miles west of Cardiff Town Centre off the A4232, with buses (32, 32A and 320) heading here from the Central Bus Station in Cardiff. It is a great day out to just spend time here.

Kings, Queens, Knights of the realm, lords, ladies and commoners -

When you visit the Big Pit and Folk Museum above, you get a good idea of how ordinary Welsh people spent their lives raising families, living and working in mines, farms, trades and crafts.

In British society, these people would have been seen as 'commoners' with 'British House of Commons' parliamentarians representing their interests.

At the same time there is the 'House of Lords' which was formed to represent the interests of British Aristocrats – the knights of the realm and titled land owners. Britain was and still is a 'class society', though far less rigid than in times past, with the Royal Family still at its head.

British Aristocrats are given titles based on their level of importance relative to the reigning King or Queen with a Prince being at the top of the peerage list, followed by Duke, Marquess/Marquis, Earl, Viscount, Baron and Baronet. Some of these people may also have or be granted a knighthood in which case they would be addressed using 'Sir' followed by their name.
The life of a Welsh Prince, Marquess, Baron, Earl or Lord of the Manor would have been very different to that of a commoner.

Having a Hereditary Title and land in most cases formed the basis of a family's wealth and influence, particularly before the Industrial Revolution. At the same time, the Land owning Aristocrat's role was one of being the 'Lord Protector' over their lands and protecting the common people who lived on their lands, though commoners would also have to pay dues to the Manor or Castle, and in times of trouble be called to fight for the Lord of the Manor or Castle.

Land ownership meant gaining power and influence and so gaining control over more land by fair or foul means and sometimes by marriage was a way to achieve this.

Welsh history dates back to Celtic days, maybe 1000BC, with the Romans arriving in Wales and England around 48 AD building roads, forts and other buildings and remaining here until around 410AD.

Here in Wales the remains of a Roman Stone wall can be seen at Cardiff Castle, part of what is thought to have been part of four Forts that the Romans built here. The 12 sided Keep built atop a large earthen mound at Cardiff Castle was built where one of the Roman forts would have been located, and there are other places in Wales where Roman works can be seen.

The best place to get a feel for the times when the Romans ruled the land is to visit Caerleon, about 4 miles (6km) east of Newport (18 miles – 46km east from Cardiff). Here you will be able to see the remarkable Roman Amphitheatre, Fortress walls, Baths and Barracks that date back to around 74-75AD. Isla, as it was called by the Romans is one of the three most important Roman sites in Britain, the others being in York and Chester. The National Roman Legion Museum is also here on High Street in Caerleon and also the Roman Baths Museum. See www.caerleon.net and www.museumwales.ac.uk/roman

Chester, while not in Wales, is almost right on the border with North Wales on the River Dee in Cheshire (home of the cheese by that name). It is a great city to visit, with the Roman ruins and its old Tudor style buildings just one of its attractions. See www.cityofchester.org and www.visitchester.com

When the Romans left Britain in 410AD, they returned to Rome to protect what was left of the Roman Empire. In turn this opened the way for Anglo Saxons, Irish and other invasion forces to enter England and Wales.

Wales also had its own Kings, the first of these being King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table who are thought to have existed around 550AD, though much of this period of history remains a mystery.

Rhodri the Great, King of Gwynedd, ruled over much of Wales between 844AD and 878AD and Offa, the King of Mercia ruled between 757 and 796 in England. This was when the Offa Dyke was built – a 177 mile long trench that defined the border between Wales and England. Parts of the Offa Dyke still exist and it runs from Chepstow in the South to Presalyn in the North. See www.offadyke.demon.co.uk

In 1066 the Battle of Hastings took place with the Normans defeating the English forces and King William I (William the Conqueror) became the new King of England. The Norman conquerors as they became known, established settlements throughout England and this also extended into Wales, and just as in Normanby in France, they started to build castles in strategic positions, mostly as fortifications.

William the Conqueror's heirs to the Throne would also follow this pattern of conquest and battles, (a civil war) with Norman Conquerors and English battling against Welsh princes and nobles, a pattern that would continue for the next four hundred years or so, with more castles being built in Wales than any other part of Britain. Today, there are still around 600 Castles in Wales as well as a number of large Manor Houses.

The history of Wales in many ways is reflected in the history of some of its castles. Pembroke Castle in Pembroke in the far west of South Wales began life around 1093 when Arnuif de Montgomery (1068-1122) built a small bailey overlooking Milford haven and the Pembroke River on a high stone promontory. The bailey became a fortress and in the 12th century it was developed into the castle you see today. It was here in 1457 that Harri Tudur was born, and he would in 1485 become King Henry VII, the first Tudor King of England. He died in 1509, but his birth in Wales established a strong Royal link between Wales and England, which saw Wales sign an Act of Union with England in 1536 leading to the Welsh taking up seats in the British House of Commons in 1542. The Title of Prince of Wales, a title that goes back to 1194 when Llewelyn Fawr (Llewelyn the Great) first took the title. Today, over 800 years later, Charles, the first son of Queen Elizabeth II, has the title of 'Prince of Wales'.

Cardiff Castle

Cardiff Castle is located right in the centre of Cardiff and is an absolute MUST SEE castle to see inside. The Castle dates back to Roman times, coming into Norman control and then ownership by a number of noble families, the most prominent being the 1st Marquess of Bute, who took ownership over the Castle in 1766, passing the Castle on to the 2nd Marquess of Bute, and then to the 3rd Marquess of Bute who also took this title.

To read a little about the Bute family – see www.butefamily.com

The 3rd Marquess of Bute became the richest man in the world in his time, opening up the Port of Cardiff and building it into the biggest coal port in the world, and he spent some of this fortune on Cardiff Castle and Castle Coch (the Red Castle) at Tongwynlais, just outside Cardiff.

A high stone wall surrounds Cardiff Castle grounds and gardens, with the Norman 12 sided Keep here as well as the Castle itself and its magnificent Clock Tower. The Castle and its grounds were donated to the City of Cardiff by the 4th Marquess of Bute and it is open to the public to see, and has regular events during the year too, the most interesting being jousting tournaments between mounted riders on horses dressed as Knights complete with their armour. Also look to see the Trebuchet – a weapon used like a massive slingshot to fire a cannon ball at an enemy.

While the exterior of the Castle is magnificent, it is the interior rooms that you see here, that are astonishing. There are the castle apartments, Banqueting Room, Arab Room, library, Lord Bute's bedroom, Bathroom, his winter and summer smoking rooms, children's Day Nursery and the roof top garden – all of these rooms having incredible high ceilings, furniture, fireplaces, wallpapers, tiles, chandeliers, brasswork, wood carvings, marble and gild work.

There is no doubt that wealth brings power, but it also enables great achievements to take place, and Cardiff Castle and its beauty is a legacy of the Marquess of Bute and his family that will live on for centuries to come for the all people to enjoy. If you only have time to visit one thing in Cardiff, then Cardiff Castle is the MUST SEE place to visit.

Once you have seen Cardiff Castle, you should also try and see Castle Coch – the Marquess of Bute's other property just outside Cardiff at Tongwynlais. This castle has the towers and turrets and all the features and decoration are reminiscent of a 'Fairytale' Castle. Inside the castle you will see the Banqueting Hall, Lady Bute's bedroom, the Drawing Room and Lady Margaret's Bedroom too.

Also see Scotland on this website and look for the Isle of Bute and the Stuart House – off Glasgow.

Both Cardiff Castle and Castle Coch interiors and restoration were undertaken by a remarkable British architect named William Burges (1827-1881) who had a fascination but expert knowledge on Medieval Antiquities and decorative art. His passion, design flair and sheer genius are what you are seeing here in the room decorations of both Cardiff Castle and Castle Coch.

Another building in Cardiff designed by William Burgess is Park House, a Grade 1 listed building that now houses a restaurant. It is located at 20 Park Place. See www.parkplacerestaurant.co.uk

If you love seeing Castles, you should also see Caerphilly Castle, built in 1628 and located on Castle Street, Caerphilly, around 7 miles (11km) north of Cardiff. This is a huge castle with a drawbridge, moat, towers and gateway entrance, complete with medieval artillery weapons.

Seeing Cardiff (Caerdydd) -

As with many other cities, Cardiff has many ways to see around the City. These include just walking and the best place to start your walk is in the Cardiff Bay Docklands area – a revitalised part of the city bay area with the red Pierhead Building right in the centre. You can't miss it. Close by you will also see the Senedd Building, Roald Dahl open air Plaza and the Millennium Centre on Bute Place with its theatres , halls and shops (see www.wmc.org.uk ). The Red Dragon Centre shops are not far away either and Techiquest Science and Discovery Centre is a short distance around the Bay on Stuart Street. Not far away too, but in the opposite direction around the Bay off Harbour Drive is the beautiful old Norwegian Church, now an Arts Centre. This church was where the famous writer Roald Dahl was christened. Further around the Bay is also where the Doctor Who Experience is located, at Discovery Quay. See www.doctorwhoexperience.com and next door to this is the World of Boats Exhibition.

There's a lot to see in the Cardiff Bay area, with lots of activities too during the year. Ways to see the city include catching a train from Cardiff Bay to the City Centre, city buses or the hop on-hop off double decker open top bus – see www.citsightingseeing.co.uk , riding a bike – see www.cardiffpedalpower.org, catching a road train – see www.cardiffroadtrain.com and there are water taxis and the Cardiff Waterbus – see www.cardiffboat.com which can take you from Cardiff Bay to the City Centre close to Bute Park and Cardiff Castle.

There are also ways to see the Bay itself too – on a Party Boat – see www.hms69.com , or a bay cruise with a number of cruise companies – see www.cardiffcruises.com, www.theopenboat.co.uk, www.bayislandvoyages.org.uk, www.cardiffseasafaris.co.uk , www.aquabus. There is also a tour to take you to historic Flat Holm Island – see www.flatholmisland.com

Cardiff Bay itself is a large freshwater bay with two rivers flowing into it – the River Taff and River Ely with the Severn Estuary in the Bristol Channel on the outside the Bay.

The Bay is protected from the sea by the Cardiff Bay Barrage, a little over half a mile long (1.1km) sea wall that you can walk along and see the Barrage Circles artwork and the three Locks. Water buses can also take you from the Bay to one of two stops next to the Barrage.

The three locks are 40 metres long with two being 10.5 metres across and the third one is 8 metres wide . The Bristol Channel tides rise and fall up to 14 metres from high tide to low, which makes using the Locks so important, with massive sluice gates opening and closing to allow shipping to move in and out of the Bay through the Locks. There is also a 'fish pass' for salmon and sea trout to pass by the Barrage, and a number of information and exhibition spaces, with the Barrage Sails, creating a significant landmark here.

In Cardiff throughout the year there are many big events happening, so it is worth finding out what is happening at the Millennium Centre at Bute Place, and at the Millennium Stadium on Westgate Street. They also have tours of the Stadium complex – See www.millenniumstadium.com/tours This is where the Welsh play Rugby but there are many other big events here too during the year.

The National Museum of Cardiff is located at Cathays Park – and it has everything from Dinosaurs to paintings by Monet and Picasso.

Also look for Llandaff Cathedral on Cathedral Road – see www.llandroffcathedral.org.uk and for shopping look for St David's Dewi Sant Shopping Centre- see www.stdavidscardiff.com Also nearby is the Royal Arcade, first opened in 1858. The Arcade is close to St David's and runs from The Hayes to St Mary Street. The Tourist Information Centre is in the Library Building on The Hayes too.

Happy Travelling!

Geoff Stuart

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