The stereotypical image of Wales is gradually changing from a land of coal mining communities supporting the local rugby club, male voice choir and chapel, to a country that now has devolved powers from Westminster and an opportunity to forge its own destiny without so much interference from its larger, controlling neighbour to the east. The powers that be at Westminster will always have the last say of course, just like they always have – but at least the country now has a voice as well, and we all know how good the Welsh are at singing.
That stereotypical image is only part of the story of course, because although the South-East corner of the country has traditionally been the industrial heartland of the country with 60% of the population, the rest of the landscape consists of lush green fields populated by more sheep than humans and punctuated by the upland Cambrian Mountains, Brecon Beacons and Snowdonia: Add to that a coastline that is 1,680 miles long that starts at the Bristol Channel, runs around the lovely Gower Peninsula and the rugged Pembrokeshire coast to the wide sweep of Cardigan Bay and up to the Lleyn Peninsula, Anglesey and the North Coast resorts.
In actual fact that might sound as though Wales is bigger than you think, but it’s not; it’s just 160 miles from north to south and only 50 miles from east to west.
It’s a land rich in prehistoric sites, crumbling castles and a language that’s a real tongue-twister for non Welsh-speaking people like me: About a quarter of the population speak Welsh, mainly in the north and west of the country.
The Welsh language developed from the Celtic Britons, but national identity didn’t really emerge until after the Roman withdrawal.
There may have been a national identity, but the country was only occasionally a united one. There were several different kingdoms, some more important than others and the leader of the most powerful of these was known as King of the Britons.
The Norman Conquest saw the victors exert their influence into Wales and in 1216 it became an independent principality that swore allegiance to the King of England.
The Principality came to an end with the defeat and death of Llewelyn ap Gruffud By King Edward I in 1282, but the heir apparent to the English throne became known as the Prince of Wales – and still does.
Although there were several uprisings, most notably by Owain Glendwr in the early 15th century, Wales was officially annexed by Henry VIII with the Laws in Wales Acts of 1535 and 1542.
As part of the Kingdom of England it then also became a part of Great Britain in 1707 when the Act of Union was passed with Scotland.
Wales may have become part of Great Britain (and subsequently the United Kingdom when Ireland joined up in 1801), but its language, culture and identity has never been fully extinguished.
As in many other parts of the United Kingdom, the Industrial Revolution had a major impact on Wales, particularly in the south-east of the country. Anybody who has read the book ‘How Green was my Valley’ will know only too well how the landscape changed from beautiful lush green river valleys to one of row upon row of terraced houses overlooked by pitheads and black slag heaps.
This was all due to the vital commodity that was needed to power the Industrial Revolution – coal – and South Wales not only had plenty of it, but it was good quality too. Many other heavy industries sprang up around the coalfields to feed off this valuable fossil fuel, and there was so much of it, that places like Cardiff exploded from a small town into a port capable of exporting millions of tons of coal around the world.
This made people like the Marquis of Bute rich men, but it wasn’t quite so lucrative for the workers who had to endure terrible conditions underground and elsewhere.
Exploitation of the workforce, mining disasters and hardship for everyone in the communities changed the political landscape for years to come. Political militancy officially came in the form of the MP for Merthyr Tydfil, a Scot by the name of Kier Hardy, who was instrumental in forming the Labour Party that fought to gain workers’ rights and social justice for the communities.
The 1980s saw the end of large-scale mining in South Wales and although the landscape has become greener again, the rows of terraced cottages in the valleys are still here, but without the community spirit that it once had.
The Welsh National Assembly was set up in 1999 and has more control of where the money is spent. The last time I was here the area around the Senedd in Cardiff Bay was looking good but there didn’t seem to be much to sing about in the valleys. Whether the distribution of wealth spreads out more evenly to those who need it the most now that the Welsh Parliament has a say in where it goes, only time will tell.