Wales: Snapshots of my homeland
Story & Photos by Veronica Sliva
I was born in Wales, in Pontypridd in the Rhondda Valley of South Wales. When I was quite young my entire family - aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents all immigrated to Canada together. Though the family enthusiastically embraced Canada as their adopted country, like many immigrants my parents kept many of their homelands traditions, so I grew up feeling very Welsh. Our house was filled with Welsh music (the Welsh are well known for their love of music), Welsh cakes and lots of references to “home”.
Visits to Wales were few and far between for my parents, because, as my Dad used to say, “There isn’t anyone left over there to visit”. So I didn’t set foot in the country until I started to travel as an adult. Over the years, I have visited many parts of this beautiful country and have found that the Welsh are a welcoming and friendly lot. You won’t need any Welsh blood in you to feel like the place belongs to you too.
Let me take you to some of my favourite places…
Cardiff, the capital city, is located in the south east with all the amenities and conveniences you would expect of a modern cosmopolitan city. I think what makes Cardiff special is the ancient castle that is right in the middle of the city. Once a Roman fort, this 2,000-year-old castle was strategically located with easy access to the sea. It has passed through many hands and each one left its stamp. For example, the distinctive Clock Tower contrasts dramatically with earlier stonework on the castle. Inside especially, unsuspecting visitors are surprised by the gaudy and flamboyantly appointed rooms. Just one of the more fascinating secrets of the castle is the network of tunnels between the ground floor and the battlement level that were used as air-raid shelters during World War II. There is room for about 2,000 people to hide out there. Expert guides offer tours that can unravel the history of the place for you and let you in on many other secrets (www.cardiffcastle.com/).
Like many city harbours the waterfront has undergone a transformation changing it from a less desirable area of the city to the place to be for a day out with perfect ambiance. There are lots of cafes and restaurants where you can treat yourself to a lazy lunch by the waterside. For retail therapy, the waterfront offers lots of boutiques and shops to wander into. For the kids big and small, there’s even a carousel ride (www.cardiffbay.co.uk).
The waterfront is home to the Wales Millennium Centre, known as one of the most lively performing arts centres in Europe where you can take in the latest West End musicals from London, opera, ballet and contemporary dance as well as art exhibitions and a lot more. Visitors often happen upon free performances in the foyer.
Rambling in the Fforest Fawr Geopark
Although visiting Cardiff is a must and you can spend weeks discovering all it has to offer, Wales is a place of outstanding natural beauty and getting out into the countryside is what excites me most. My favourite place to walk (or ramble as the Brits say) is in “Waterfall Country”, about an hour’s drive north of Cardiff in the Fforest Fawr UNESCO Geopark (www.fforestfawrgeopark.org.uk/). Set within the Brecon Beacons National Park, Waterfall Country lies within the triangle formed by the villages of Hirwaun, Ystradfellte, and Pontneddfechan. Here, three rivers, the Mellte, Hepste and Neddfechan, have carved their way through the soft rocks to create steep wooded gorges full of caves and cascades. A few hours walking in these woods leaves you refreshed and filled with wonder.
As with many a hike in the UK, there is often a pub that it starts or finishes in. The Angel Inn, a traditional country pub in Pontneddfechan (http://www.theangelinnwales.co.uk/) is the perfect starting point in this area. Beginning near the Inn, well-used walking trails snake through an area known as Pont Melin-Fach. The trails are rated from easy to difficult, so you can choose which level is right for you. No matter which trail you take around every bend there are spectacular waterfalls, wooded gorges and intriguing caves waiting to be admired. The river valley is abundant with wildlife, and thanks to the humid conditions of the gorges around the waterfalls, mosses, ferns and lichens thrive. And when you are finished your hike you can reward yourself reward with a pint at the Angel Inn.
The Big Pit
In the 1800s the discovery of coal found in the Rhonnda and Cynon Valeys of South Wales combined with the invention of coal-powered steam engines revolutionized the Welsh economy. As demand world-wide for coal soared, the landscapes of the once green valleys changed as trees were cut down so that mines could be carved out of the Welsh hills. Families traded their agricultural lives for the dangers of mining. By 1870 the mines averaged a death every 6 hours and a serious injury every 12 minutes. Kids and women were forced to work long hours underground, in poor conditions for little pay. Nowadays, there isn’t much to indicate the coal industry that once dominated the area. The old mine shafts have been filled in and the colliery buildings emptied out. Nearly all of the slag heaps (the waste left over from mining) have been grassed over. Things are very green again. But the past has not been forgotten.
The Big Pit National Coal Museum stands high on the bracken-clad moors at Blaenavon, Pontypool. It once was a working mine based around the former Big Pit Colliery which was dug in 1860, and then closed down in 1980. In 1983 it became a museum of the South Wales mining industry and then in 2001 it was incorporated into the National Museum and Galleries of Wales as the National Mining Museum of Wales.
The highlight of visiting the Big Pit is the 300 ft (90m) descent into the old colliery. An ex-miner takes you down there and tells you firsthand what working the mine was like. It is a fascinating tour with the sights, sounds and smells of a real mine. The hour-long tour gives you realistic impression of what working in the mine was like.
For those who tend to be claustrophobic, on the surface you can watch an audio-visual presentation that describes the lives of the miners. Perhaps bringing you closer to the reality of a Colliers’s workday are the Pithead Baths. Here you can see the intact showers and locker rooms, along with artefacts and exhibition displays that provide an understanding of the daily life of a coal miner.
My great grandfather was a coal miner, and the last generation in my family to work in the mines. Visiting this amazing site brought me a new understanding of my family’s heritage.
Though I have been to Wales quite a few times, it still isn’t enough. There is always something new to see and learn. I never tire of the beauty of the place and the gentle warmth of the Welsh people. I dare say, if you go, you will feel the same.