St David’s Day: castles, dolphins and an open mind


The daffodils are bountiful near Cwm Dwr-y-coed
The daffodils are bountiful near Cwm Dwr-y-coed, Black Mountains

It hasn’t yet been declared an official bank holiday, but St David’s Day remains one of the key dates on the Welsh calendar. It seems that David himself was a simple man, a vegetarian teetotaller whose most famous miracle was the creation of yet another hill for Wales. It’s his death, at around 100 years, that is celebrated on March 1 rather than the date of his birth (which is uncertain).

I remember our painful rendering of the Welsh national anthem Hen Wlad fy Nhadau (Land of my Fathers) at my Newport high school, until we reached the chorus and were finally able to belt out ‘Gwlad, Gwlad’ the only word we could pronounce. For children, March 1 is all about donning a Welsh hat or, if you’re over five, a Wales rugby shirt, selling bake stones and trying desperately to paint something that vaguely resembles a dragon for the class art competition. At our school, there was always a school eisteddfod; the four school houses competed against each other in various competitions, ranging from the literary to the practical. As befitted a school where, until 1974, the class letters spelt out Royal Times and pupils were allocated to Balmoral, Buckingham, Sandringham and Windsor, these eisteddfodau were decidedly un-Welsh.

I remember dancing to Elton John’s Funeral for a Friend one year; another time, it was a Spanish routine, performed in traditional Spanish costume. We may have made bake stones but the words of the national anthem needed to be written down phonetically.

Wild ponies graze on the north Gower mud plains
Wild ponies graze on the north Gower mud plains

At home, my mother, born in Bettwsnewydd, near Usk, insisted she was English as the argument over Monmouthshire’s ‘nationality’ continued to rage (Newport was in Monmouthshire until government re-organisation in 1996). It was only my father’s fanatical following of the Wales rugby team which suggested there might be some Welsh blood in me.

Nowadays, I feel pretty good about being Welsh, but if I’m honest, March 1 usually comes and goes without a lot of fanfare in our household. This year, however, something is occurring on St David’s Day… something to get quite excited about. Visit Wales is launching ia £4 million advertising campaign to attract more tourists to Wales.

Waterfalls... something Wales has in abundance
Waterfalls… something Wales has in abundance

The Welsh economy relies on tourism; according to the Visit Wales statistics, in 2012, there were 9.6 million overnight trips to Wales by Great Britain residents alone, with an associated spend of £1,588 million. For some reason, the statistics for international visitors relate to 2011, but apparently 879,000 overseas visitors came to Wales that year and spent £328 million while they were here.

At Caerleon Tourist Information Centre, Harri has provided face-to-face assistance to Australians, Americans, Spanish, Dutch, Germans and French tourists, and countless other nationalities by email and telephone. It’s heartening to see so many visitors coming to Wales. I always wondered why so many overseas tourists limited themselves to over-priced and over-crowded London when they could wander around the much more beautiful Cardiff. St David’s Bishops Palace easily rivals Westminster and the Thames isn’t a patch on the stunning Wye Valley.

There are numerous castles along the Wales Coast Path
There are numerous castles along the Wales Coast Path

The ambitious 870-mile Wales Coast Path is a walker’s paradise, and no-one who has hiked to the top of the spectacular peaks of Snowdonia can fail to be impressed. On the BBC website, Wales’ Economy Minister Edwina Hart is quoted saying ‘people aren’t necessarily aware of all the great things to see and do here in Wales’ and talked about ‘tackling that misconception head on’.

Nash Point Lighthouse on the Glamorgan Heritage Coast
Nash Point Lighthouse on the Glamorgan Heritage Coast

The promotional video advises visitors to ‘pack an open mind, a sense of adventure, and an appetite for discovery’ and features beaches, dolphins and castles. Castles. Back in 2005, the best thing Wales had to offer was ‘outstandingly bad mobile reception’. I remember the advertisements clearly… a series of stunning landscapes with wording to that effect. Come here, the now defunct Wales Tourist Board, was telling potential visitors, and you won’t be able to communicate with anyone, even if you want to (or actually need to). Nine years and a mobile device revolution later and those same claims would almost certainly sound the death knell for Welsh tourism.

The massive Caerphilly Castle seen from across its moat
The massive Caerphilly Castle seen from across its moat

So now it’s castles that are going to pull in the crowds. Caernarfon Castle features in the Visit Wales video but there are impressive and well-preserved castles everywhere in Wales, Just five miles down the road from us, is Caerphilly Castle, the second largest in the UK after Windsor. This is all great news for us, of course. With Castle Walks in Monmouthshire now available as an ebook and an app and three more castle-themed hiking books in progress, we’re hoping people are going to see the video and get really excited about Wales’ magnificent castles.

It’s probably completely unrelated but Harri has also noticed that new Sirhowy Valley Walk signposts (of the old-fashioned metal type) have appeared near our home.

As I said earlier, things are occurring.          

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