Welsh Culture and Lifestyle – part one

Wales has many traditions and lifestyle differences which you won’t see in other countries. In this short two-part summary of 16 pages, we will look together at the more important.

All sections have headings which will allow you to skip over those of less interest to you.

Hiraeth is an essential part of Welsh culture. There’s no equivalent word in English but it roughly translates to “a longing for our homeland”.

Although those Welshmen and ladies who have emigrated have a stronger sense of hiraeth than those who still live in Wales, it is still a feeling that all Welsh people have and never lose.

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Love spoons, “llwy caru”

Just a few of the hundreds of different love spoon designs.

Love spoons are intricately carved wooden spoons. By tradition, they were given by the boy to his lover on their engagement. That no longer happens and they have become very expensive pieces of collectable art. The spoons demonstrated the depth of the boy’s feelings to his beloved and showed the girl’s family his ability to look after their daughter when married.

The earliest known love spoons, some from 1667, can be seen in the St Fagans National History Museum near Cardiff. My father worked as a guide in St Fagans after he retired as a postman. My first cousin worked there as an admin officer. That was when I was given my first opportunity to learn about this aspect of Welsh culture.  

Eisteddfods.

The chief bard asks the crowd, “Is there peace?”

An eisteddfod is an arts festival of singing, dancing, and literature readings, originating from the 12th century when Rhys ap Gruffydd brought a number of Welsh artists together to perform publicly at his court in Ceredigion.

There are both local and national eisteddfods. The most famous is the National Eisteddfod held every August, one year in North Wales and the next in the South of the country.

In this context, the bard is the most senior figure in the festival. At the start of each eisteddfod, he asks of all the people present. “A oes heddwch? (Is there peace?), to which all present reply “heddwch”, (yes, there is peace).

The tradition is for the person who is awarded the bardic chair to stand up to receive the honour.  The question. “A oes heddwch” is very relevant because, in 1917, the bardic chair was awarded to Ellis Humphrey Evans for his poem, Yr Arwr (the hero) and no one stood up.

It was several minutes before the organisers were informed that Evans had been killed in Belgium on the very first day of the Battle of Passchendaele in the First World War.

How Wales developed as a country politically.

We know that Wales has been inhabited for some 230,000 years because the remains of a Stone Age Neanderthal man were found at the Bontnewydd site in North Wales. Scientists have proved they were from the Paleolithic era.

Three Stone Age Neanderthal men

After the Romans left, the three kingdoms of Gwynedd, Powys, and Deheubarth were the principal governors of what is now Wales. It was only in the 9th century that Rhodri the Great became the sole ruler of most of Wales.  In 1055 Gruffydd ap Llewelyn united all the smaller kingdoms and even annexed parts of England. He was killed on 5 August 1063 in a revolt led by the Anglo-Saxon King Harold Godwinson, who then became ruler.

In January 1066, the English king, Edward the Confessor died, leaving several claimants fighting for his throne. This allowed William, Duke of Normandy, who had landed in Hastings in the south of England, to rapidly move further in land. Successfully entering Wales, he quickly conquered Gwent and Deheubarth by 1090.

Llywelyn the Great of Gwynedd became more powerful after 1090 and had already reunited most of Wales by the time he died in 1240, when King Henry III of England declared war against his son, Dafydd ap Llywelyn.

Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, Dafydd’s successor, was eventually beaten by King Edward I of England, which brought much of Wales under English control.

The Tudors of Penmynydd family, Maredudd ap Tudor and Owain ap Tudor, slowly gained power between 1250 and 1350. Maredudd’s son changed his name to Owain Tudor (his name was previously Owain ap Maredudd ap Tudor). His grandson was Henry Tudor, the Henty VII who defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth, thus starting the Tudor dynasty that went on to rule England and Wales until 1603 when the Stuarts took over. 

Henry VII founded the Tudor Dynasty

In 1406, Owain Glyndŵr wrote to Charles VI of France requesting him to send a French army to help fight the English in Wales. Glyndŵr promised, in return, that he would recognise Benedict XIII as Pope. Glyndŵr wanted an independent Wales with its own law-making parliament, with himself as Prince of Wales. English law would no longer apply. The old laws of Hywel Dda would be in force, the Welsh church would be independent of the English church, and two Welsh universities would be set up. Henry VIII passed acts of parliament between 1535 and 1542 making Wales subject to English law. Wales was represented in the English parliament by 26 members from the Welsh counties.

English was the ONLY official language in Welsh law courts. People speaking Welsh were ineligible for public office in any territory ruled by the king. Schools in Wales had to adopt the “Welsh Not”. This was a stick which was passed from child to child during the day if he or she was caught speaking Welsh. The holder of the stick at the end of the day was given a sound caning.

Welsh nationalism.

It’s only since around 1750 that some Welsh people have started to fight for independence. Unlike the IRA or the Provisional IRA, the Welsh activists have not been effective.

Their initial “achievements” were restricted to damaging road signs written in English and setting fire to holiday homes owned by the English.

In 1953, the proposal to add the motto Y ddraig goch ddyry cychwyn (“the red dragon takes the lead”) to the national flag, the Red Dragon, was rejected. Queen Elizabeth, in 1959, commanded that, while Wales could have its current flag, the Union Jack would have no symbol representing Wales on it. The only symbols are that of England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.   

Queen Victoria had a traditional Welsh hat made for her when she visited Wales in 1832.

Queen Victoria had a hat like this made for her.

Welsh people don’t mind making fun of themselves and often make a joke of there being 10 million sheep in the country, well outnumbering the human population of 3 million.

When I was a student in an English university, a rather arrogant guy made the comment, “The only thing Welsh people do is f*ck and fry bacon”.
Putting on an exaggerated Welsh accent, I replied, “Oh no, boyo. You’re only partly right. We don’t go around frying bacon”. The put-me-down worked and everyone roared with laughter. He was not so arrogant in future. 

Language

Both Welsh and English are spoken in Wales. Around 19% of Welsh people speak Welsh. Local regional governments and the Senedd, the devolved administration that is the Welsh parliament, encourage Welsh speaking and learning the language. There are schools which teach through the medium of Welsh, and even those schools which teach in English have some lessons in Welsh.

58% of Welsh people are Christian. Although, as elsewhere, they go to church only for weddings and funerals. After the Methodist Revival in the 18th century, it became the largest denomination. It seceded from the Church of England in 1811. 

The Church in Wales is still part of the Anglican Communion, despite its name, and has average Sunday attendances of 32,000. Before 1920, it was called the Church of England.

Non-Christian religions are not common in Wales. Muslims account for 1.5% of the population, while Hindus and Buddhists 0.3% each.  

Traditional seasonal festivals in Wales.
Calan Gaeaf. The festival of Hallowe’en on All Saints Day.
Gŵyl Fair y Canhwyllau. Festival of the Candles, Candlemas.
Calan Mai. May Day.
Calan Awst. August summer holiday.
Gŵyl Mabsant. A fair celebrated by individual parishes in honour of its patron saint.
Dydd Santes Dwynwen. Welsh Valentine’s Day.
Calenig. 1st January, New Year’s Day.

Many works of Celtic art have been found in Wales.

A painting of Welsh cottages by Beatrice Williams
A painting of Welsh cottages by Beatrice Williams

The surviving manuscripts of the 8th century Hereford Gospels and Lichfield Gospels are the most interesting. The Ricemarch Psalter, written in St David’s in the 11th century is unusual as it shows a Viking influence. 
 
During the 16th and 17th centuries, Welsh artists went abroad where they found clients who wanted their work. It was only in the 18th century that, because of the revival in landscape painting worldwide, that Welsh artists were happy to stay in Wales to paint. Even English landscape painters came to Wales to paint the scenery. Richard Wilson, a Welshman who lived in London, paid many visits to the country and is regarded as the foremost landscape painter of his time. 
 
To provide greater support for Welsh artists, an 1854 Act of Parliament was passed which culminated in the Cardiff School of Art opening in 1865. The Royal Cambrian Academy of Arts opened in 1881. Despite this, many artists worked outside Wales. Sir William Goscombe John, Christopher Williams, Thomas E Stephens, Andrew Vicari, the surrealist Ceri Richards, and Sir Frank Brangwyn were all famous Welsh artists who lived outside the country.

While Augustus John was famous worldwide and lived in London and Paris, the landscapists Sir Kyffin Williams and Peter Prendergast remained in Wales. The movement was not all one way. Eric Gill, David Jones, and sculptor Jonah Jones all moved to Wales to continue their work.
 
Ceramics.

The Welsh Folk Museum in St Fagans, Amgueddfa Cymru, has collections of Welsh pottery made in Swansea, Llanelli and Nantgarw between 1764 and 1922. There are other museums displaying pottery made locally, Pwllcrochan for example. In the 17th and 18th centuries, potteries were established near clay beds. I lived near Claypits Pottery in Ewenny, the oldest pottery in Wales, and frequently visited. The owner’s brother opened a kiln directly opposite. The brothers never got on. They never spoke to one another.
 
Theatrical performances.

An artist’s impression of how the Caerleon Amphitheatre would have looked when first built.
An artist’s impression of the original amphitheatre.

There are the remnants of a Roman amphitheatre at Caerleon. Subsequently, most performances were by travelling players who went from town to town. Puritanism in the 16th century and Methodism in the 17th resulted in a decline in theatre as it was held to be immoral. Some showgrounds continued to hold performances and the Savoy theatre in Monmouth, which is still operating, was built in 1832. Cardiff’s Theatre Royal opened in 1827. New Theatre, Cardiff opened in December 1906 in time for Christmas performances. 

Television.

Television programmes began in England in 1936 as a public service and with no advertising. There was no choice of channel. The BBC had the monopoly. Progammes only arrived in Wales in August 1952 with the opening of the Wenvoe transmitter, 15 miles from where I lived. All programmes were in the English language. Alun Oldfield-Davies, the Welsh director of programming, did broadcast a few programmes in the Welsh language, after the service had shut down for the night and replacing the test card. Few watched them as they thought the test card meant the end of viewing until the next day.

In 1958, TWW, Television Wales and the West, was set up, but they produced only about one hour of broadcasting a week. November 1982 saw the Welsh channel, S4C (Sianel Pedwar Cymru), being formed, producing 22 hours of Welsh language television per week. In 2009, the company was split up, with SC4 transmitting solely in Welsh and Channel 4 in English only.  
The 2005 edition of Dr Who was filmed in Wales and that motivated the setting-up of Roath production studios in Cardiff. They now produce and televise films in English and Welsh.

When television was first “invented”, the Welsh organised a poll to determine what the new medium should be called in Welsh! Teledu won by a large majority. The word comes from 2 Greek words meaning to see from afar. Telewele was the runner-up, from the Greek tele and the Welsh gweld, to see. Telewele is occasionally used but the sound is not pleasing to the ear in my view.

How do people get the news in Wales.

75% get the news from television, 46% from social media, 43% from the radio, 33% from newspapers, and 31% use apps and websites to keep informed.

Male Voice Choirs.

These exclusively male choirs emerged in the 19th century with members coming from the Welsh chapels. Originally singing hymns, the choristers quickly progressed to singing both traditional and popular songs.  Sometimes an orchestra accompanies the choir, often with traditional instruments such as the harp, the fiddle, a stringed instrument called the lyre, and the hornpipe.

The BBC National Orchestra of Wales performs in Wales and abroad. The Welsh National Opera is based in Cardiff at the Wales Millennium Centre. The country also has a youth orchestra, the first of its kind in the entire world, The National Youth Orchestra of Wales.

 and Mary Hopkin

By the 1980s, indie pop and alternative bands, such as The Alarm, The Pooh Sticks and The Darling Buds were popular in most countries, but not in Wales. The most popular musicians and singers were from earlier eras. In the 1990s, in England, Britpop was very popular while Welsh bands, such as Y Cryff and Ffa Coffi Pawb (Everybody’s Coffee Beans), changed to singing in English.

The album by Manic Street Preachers, “Everything Must Go” was released in 1996. It is regarded as “among the greatest albums of all time”.

Television is the most common source of news in Wales, used by 75% of people, with radio used by 43%, 33% using printed newspapers and 31% using websites and apps. In 2020, 46% of people gained their news from social media, which is largely unregulated but includes some news from regulated sources.

Sport in Wales. 

Wales competes in all major world sporting events; the FIFA world cup, the Rugby world cup, the Commonwealth Games, and the Olympics.

The Welsh rugby union team plays in the annual Six Nations tournament alongside England, France, Ireland, Italy, and Scotland. It has won the Six Nations six times, the latest in 2023; and the Grand Slam, where a country beats all the other nations, 4 times, when they won 25-7 against Ireland.

There is a tradition of friendly rivalry between England and Wales. Listen to Max Boyce’s satirical ballad, Hymns and Arias, on YouTube. The link, where he has a friendly dig at the English, is at 5.26 minutes on www.youtube.com/watch?v=7YKReQnYurY”. But the whole video of 9 minutes is fun to listen to.

Wales has had its own soccer, association football league since 1992. Oddly; Cardiff City, Swansea City, Wrexham, and Newport County play in the English Football league. They represent England when playing and cannot be awarded Welsh trophies. 

Welsh athlete Tanni Grey-Thompson is famous for winning 11 Paralympic gold medals. And Lynn Davies, the Welsh long jumper, won a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 for a jump of 8.06 metres. He held that record for a further 4 years.

Lynn was a teacher at my secondary school in Wales where he taught physical education and was the master in charge of the first form of 12 year old boys.

In cricket, Wales and England play as one team. Although Wales does not have its own side it is allowed to play in limited-overs competitions. Glamorgan is the only county that participates in the England and Wales County Championship. Following a public petition to the Welsh parliament, the nationalist political party, Plaid Cymru, believed that Wales should have its own national team, and withdraw from playing in an English side.

Cricket Wales and Glamorgan County Cricket Club opposed the idea, saying that it would be financially disastrous.

Wales has produced many internationally famous participants in individual sports, including snooker players Ray Reardon, Terry Griffiths, Mark Williams, and Matthew Stephens. On the track, one includes miler Jim Alford. Jim held the world record in the 4 x 1500 metres relay. The 110-metre hurdler Colin Jackson was a former world record holder with several Olympic, World, and European medals. 

Among world-class boxers, we have Joe Calzaghe, a super-middleweight champion. Nicknamed the Italian Dragon, Calzaghe is actually Welsh, with an Italian father and a Welsh mother. Awarded a CBE by the Queen and made a freeman of the city of Caerphilly.

Other boxing world champions include Enzo Maccarinelli, Freddie Welsh, Howard Winstone, Percy Jones, Jimmy Wilde, Steve Robinson, and Robbie Regan.  

Welsh Food.

Although the Welsh eat similar food to their neighbours in England, there are some specialties that are uniquely Welsh.

Welsh lamb is a favourite dish and is of a quality that is in demand internationally. Over £170 millions of lamb, raised by Welsh farmers, is exported worldwide. £77 million to France alone. Welsh Cakes and Bara Brith are both cooked on a griddle or hot stone as an afternoon tea-time snack. Either at home or in tea rooms in tourist areas. They are small round spiced cakes with raisins, sultanas, and currants.  Bara Brith translates as “speckled bread”, and is made from dried fruit, tea, lard, milk, and eggs.

There are regional variations throughout Wales, depending on the availability of produce in that area and local custom.  The cuisine of the Gower peninsula, for example, differs from the rest of Wales. The whitepot served locally is very popular, it’s rather like the English bread and butter pudding. They also use pumpkins in their dishes, and that is unusual in Wales.

Welsh beef is a major export. It is a protected brand. It has to be produced and slaughtered in Wales. Farmers also rear pigs and sheep for export. The mountains of Wales are conducive to sheep farming, and it is estimated that there are 9.8 million sheep and lambs compared to 3 million people!   

The Welsh word for soup is cawl. But when Welsh people speak of cawl, they are talking about a particular type of broth of slow cooked meat and vegetables. It’s a favourite national dish, usually with mutton or beef.

Welsh rarebit is more than just hot cheese on toast. Prepared the traditional way, tomatoes, onions and some bacon are laid on the cheese. A little beer, wine, or Worsestershire sauce is sometimes added.

Glamorgan sausage is made of cheese with leek or spring onion added, fried, and then made into a sausage shape before serving. It is not really a sausage.

Laverbread is seaweed washed and boiled into a puree and is eaten at breakfast time with bacon and cockles. Richard Burton called Laverbread, “a Welshman’s caviar”.

We can’t seem to get it in Thailand, but Caerphilly cheese, a hard crumbly white cheese, is very popular. However, nowadays it is mainly produced in England. I well remember being given a small piece to taste, by the local market stallholder, when my mum went shopping. We always bought from her each week, and she knew she would always make a sale. Clever marketing, on her part.

Crempog – Anglesey style. These are pancakes, Welsh style. They are laid, one on top of the other, to form a large cake.

The Welsh National Anthem.

1. This land of my fathers is dear unto me
Land of poets and singers, and people of stature
Her brave warriors, fine patriots
Shed their blood for freedom

Chorus:
Land! Land! I am true to my land!
As long as the sea serves as a wall
For this pure, dear land

May the language endure forever.

2. Old land of the mountains, paradise of the poets,
Every valley, every cliff a beauty guards;
Through love of my country, enchanting voices will be
Her streams and rivers to me.

3. Though the enemy have trampled my country underfoot,
The old language of the Welsh knows no retreat,
The spirit is not hindered by the treacherous hand
Nor silenced the sweet harp of my land.


1. Mae hen wlad fy nhadau yn annwyl i mi,
Gwlad beirdd a chantorion, enwogion o fri;
Ei gwrol ryfelwyr, gwladgarwyr tra mâd,
Tros ryddid gollasant eu gwaed.

Chorus:
Gwlad, Gwlad, pleidiol wyf i’m gwlad,
Tra môr yn fur i’r bur hoff bau,
O bydded i’r heniaith barhau.

2. Hen Gymru fynyddig, paradwys y bardd;
Pob dyffryn, pob clogwyn, i’m golwg sydd hardd,
Trwy deimlad gwladgarol, mor swynol yw si,
Ei nentydd, afonydd, i mi.

3. Os treisiodd y gelyn fy ngwlad dan ei droed,
Mae hen iaith y Cymry mor fyw ag erioed,
Ni luddiwyd yr awen gan erchyll law brad,
Na thelyn berseiniol fy ngwlad.


Wales
Wales has many traditions and lifestyle differences which you won’t see in other countries. In this short two-part summary of 16 pages, we will look together at the more important. All sections have headings which will allow you to skip over those of less interest you. Hiraeth is an essential part of Welsh culture. There’s no equivalent word in English but it roughly translates to “a longing for our homeland”. Although those Welshmen and ladies who have emigrated have a stronger sense of hiraeth thanthose who still live in Wales, it is still a feeling that all Welsh people have and never lose.

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