When you cross the Severn Bridge and see the fins of the Brecon Beacons raised in a wave of welcome, it’s a sign you have reached a wilder, more mountainous land. As you cruise on along narrow single-track lanes, tailgating tractors and letting your gaze drift across sheep-grazed meadows, hills and swooping valleys, the place names and road signs are a reminder that Wales – or Cymru – is very much its own country, with a distinctive language and culture.
So when Simon Calder grumbled about Covid announcements made in Welsh on a recent flight to Cardiff, his gripes, deemed ‘insensitive’ and ‘ignorant’ by some, reignited the old English-Welsh divide. For years, the Welsh have been the butt of many a joke and their language has been dismissed. Still today, many visitors talk about Wales as if it were nothing but an appendage to England – a county rather than a country.
Yet Welsh is the sound of Wales: rising and falling with a lilt that ripples like a summer breeze through heather on the moors. This is a language of song: its beauty captured in the tenor and bass of a male voice choir. And it is a language of poetry, as expressed at August’s National Eisteddfod, a jubilant celebration of culture and language that has been going strong since 1176. The vowelless words and double consonants, confounding holidaymakers who find them impossible to pronounce, ring like bells in the mouths of proficient speakers.
Hailing from the Brythonic group of Celtic languages, Welsh is one of Europe’s oldest tongues and the fact it still survives today is a miracle – a victory hard won. During the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, the language was, quite literally, beaten into submission. In schools the 'Welsh Not', a stick or ruler, was used to flog children caught speaking it. Now Welsh is taught and feted once again, as the Welsh are well aware that once you drop a linguistic stitch, the cultural thread unravels and is gone forever.
Embracing Welsh is part of the wonder of being on holiday here. Just look at an OS map and slowly the penny begins to drop. Llyn for lake, cwm for valley, mynydd for mountain and coedwig for forest. These are the markers of language and land.
And what a land. No matter how often its praises are sung, Wales somehow remains blissfully under the radar. You can hike or drive for miles over hill and vale, moor and forested mountain in the vast wilderness of Mid Wales, where red kites wheel and whistle, and barely see another soul. Social distancing comes naturally and, yes, there’s still availability for this summer. Here the Cambrian Mountains sweep north, with some of Britain’s darkest skies revealing a nightly tapestry of stars. Just west, the coast of Ceredigion barely gets a look-in when it comes to holiday bookings, despite its cliff-top walks and gorgeously secluded bays regularly frequented by dolphins, seals and porpoises.
In the south, Pembrokeshire is quite the dream – the kind of rugged coastline a child might sketch. Here a long-distanced coast path wriggles up and over stile and kissing gate to cliffs that nosedive to deep smugglers’ bays and a sea of brilliant turquoise, puffins nest on offshore islands, and country pubs and restaurants champion local seafood. The Preseli Hills roll inland: a puzzle of moors hiding prehistoric standing stones and hill forts, among them what is believed to be the original Stonehenge. But while Pembrokeshire’s beauty has not gone totally unnoticed, it still receives just a fraction of the crowds of Cornwall, just on the other side of the Bristol Channel.
Beyond the peak-bagging glory of Snowdon, the Snowdonia National Park in the north, celebrating its 70th anniversary in 2021, can be astonishingly quiet too. Its remoter valleys, mountains and forests offer unexpected peace and solitude: from the sublime Ogwen Valley to the craggy Glyderau mountains, Llyn Tegid to Coed Felenrhyd – a silent Atlantic oak wood lavishly draped in rare ferns and lichens, nicknamed the ‘Celtic rainforest. Lesser known still, just east of the park borders, the Berwyn Mountains are wild, wonderful and barely visited.
Cenedl heb iaith, cenedl heb galon is Welsh for “a nation without a language is a nation without a heart.” Open your heart to Wales, its off-the-radar beauty, culture and wholly unique language on holiday this year and you could do far, far worse.