Adam Somerset takes John Davies and Marian Delyth’s 2010 book down from the shelves and finds an invaluable companion for August travels.
Wales: the 100 Places to See Before You Die is a heavyweight of a book, a kilogram and a half in weight. It has three hundred and sixty photographs of Wales in all seasons and a text of gravity from an author who conveys an impression of delight taken in the task. John Davies’ descriptions are richly detailed, with a light sprinkle of reminiscence, in a prose with a personal sparkle to it.
In an older time – 1955 to be exact – Davies is staying in Chepstow’s youth hostel. A fellow hosteller, a Bristolian, arrives from a cycling tour of the Wye Valley. Tintern’s magnificence, he believes, is uncleared bomb damage from the war. In the same decade the young Davies is told that Cardiff’s civic centre is the world’s finest. The older writer is able to confirm this after visits to New Delhi and Washington DC.
Curiosity is a common attribute in all good writers, irrespective of genre, and Davies attends an open day at Swansea’s Waste Water Treatment Plant. ‘I had expected,’ he writes, ‘a place overrun by rats, smelling disgustingly and featuring water covered by blobs of excrement.’ His expectations are not met. Instead he observes the ‘extraction of grease, hair, rags and condoms.’ To witness the process, he concludes, ‘can be an enchanting experience.’
The hundred places are not valley, woodland glade or mountaintop. The locations selected, from Parys Mountain to Chepstow, are of humanity’s making. In terms of antiquity the hundred places span the millennia. The artefacts from Tre’r Ceiri date from the Roman occupation. The pedestrian bridge that spans the Tywi at Carmarthen is dated 2006 and Richard Rogers’ dome for the National Botanic Garden 2000.
Davies reads meaning and connection into the locations and buildings before which he stands. The former Welsh Office he cites as expressing ‘bureaucracy under siege’ and he compares it with the Senedd. ‘Perhaps the two buildings are symbolic of the difference between the Wales of 1979 and the Wales of 2006.’ In Amlwch, he sees a ‘magnificently chromatic chasm’ – the contrast is with the multiple greys that are to be seen at Penrhyn’s pit. There can hardly be a greater contrast between the ravaged wonder of the Amlwch diggings and the sleek elegance of the Paget dynasty’s Plas Newydd. Yet it was the first that paid to build the second. Good history is about connection.
It is also about catching the detail, but the detail that counts. Thomas Williams of Parys minted his own coinage and it remained in circulation until 1821. A crannog is an artificial island made by piling stones, planks and brushwood in shallow water. The only example in Wales is at Llangorse, the once probable home of the court of Brycheiniog. The now unthinkable variations in pub licensing hours is recalled. Sundays would see the people of Lampeter cross the Teifi to the welcoming taverns of Cwmann in Carmarthenshire. The situation was similar between Flintshire and Denbighshire. A naturally sombre visit to Gresford ends in Marford and Hoseley with remembrance of the Sabbath in Flintshire and ‘much jollification in the Red Lion and the Trevor Arms.’
Davies encounters many a visitor to Wales. Karl Friedrich Schinkel, the great neo-classical architect of Berlin, comes to the Menai Straits specifically to see Thomas Telford’s bridge. Pushkin hymns it in Moscow. William Randolph Hearst buys the dining room panels from Gwydir with the intention that they be shipped to his grandiose San Simeon in California. New owners in 1994 are startled to find them in situ still boxed exactly as Hearst had instructed in 1921. When George Borrow stays in Bala’s Lion Hotel in 1854 he breakfasts well:
pot of hare; ditto of trout; pot of prepared shrimps; dish of plain shrimps; tin of sardines; beautiful beefsteak; eggs, muffin; large loaf, and butter, not forgetting capital tea.
Numbers are always illustrative. The suspension bridge at Conwy does not need to be the same height as at Menai as it does not have to accommodate sailing ships with their thirty metres of mast-height. Newtown pioneered the mail order business. By 1890 Pryce-Jones had acquired one hundred thousand postal customers, among them Queen Victoria. When Van Dyck’s portrait of Charles I came to Manod for wartime safety it had to pass under a bridge of the Bala to Ffestiniog railway. The level of the road had to be lowered by seventy-five centimetres – the diggings still visible – for the painting to pass by with a centimetre to spare.
Numbers are crucial to the industrial history. At Bersham and Greenfield, Davies remembers that the heavy extractive industries were not solely a feature of the south. The northern coalfields in 1901 had employment of forty-five thousand. Slate production at Montgomeryshire’s Llwyngwern Quarry, near to the Centre for Alternative Technology, peaked in 1883 at nine hundred and fifteen tons. That year Bethesda yielded a staggering one hundred thousand tons. Iron started at Blaenavon and is rightly memorialised, but by the 1830’s Merthyr was producing ten times as much.
There is also the grimness of numbers. The Lower Swansea Valley released ninety-two thousand tons of sulphuric acid into the atmosphere and few of the men who made Copperopolis lived beyond their mid-thirties.
Wales: the 100 Places to See Before You Die is historical testament but also personal encounter. Penrhyn Castle is ‘a building that everyone should visit if only to be angered by the way in which the Douglas-Pennant family spent the wealth produced by the Penrhyn Quarry.’ In Ynysangharad Park he notes that Pontypridd is blessed with extensive greenery, more than its neighbours, but ‘because of the discontent characteristic of its people, the park is the subject of constant grumbling.’
Bangor may have magnificence and the Mostyn Christ but is also filled with ‘lacklustre streets.’
There is many a point of sparkle to the prose. Arthur Guinness had his eye on Caernarfon Castle as a location to brew his stout out of Ireland but the Crown declined to sell. Davies slips in, ‘I remember talking to Eamon de Valera.’ On Conwy Sands he recounts that it was the location for the first game of golf to be played in Wales. ‘Sadly, it is an activity that has spread.’ He sees the Senedd as ‘splendidly diaphanous.’ A visit to the National Library ends with the observation ‘in particular, the food has improved enormously.’
Marian Delyth’s wealth of pictures includes some that are familiar. Short of mounting a gantry it is hard to represent ‘The Eyes of Ruthin’ in a way other than they are here. The laburnum glade at Bodnant is resplendent and familiar. Aberdare’s Constitutional Club with its metal crown is an image of lesser familiarity. She has also endeavoured to capture even the familiar in unfamiliar season. The gateway at Strata Florida is shot in midwinter. Half the composition is comprised of white snow so that it resembles a Kyffin Williams transposed to real life. In Aberaeron the rowers on the Celtic longboat leave harbour over a sea of rippling blues and greens. The playfully elaborate cottages of Marford are in a white of brilliance. A gargoyle at Gresford gets a page to itself. Sun and shadow alternate across a carving on the tomb of Hywel Coetmor in Llanrwst’s Gwydir Chapel.
Davies and Delyth visit many a corner and unearth many an interesting item. Barry alone is a non-tidal port on the coast of the Severn Estuary. The first chairs from Brynmawr’s Gwalia Works were sold for a pound apiece. The Council House in Llanfyllin’s High Street contains thirteen large murals, dated around 1812 and painted by Captain Augerau, a French prisoner-of-war who married the daughter of the local vicar.
The book covers a lot of places and few could fault the coverage or selection. Every reader will have their one hundred and first. Carew Castle and its rare tidal mill are omitted. For me there is a manor house at… well, it is somewhere. Its approach is through a twin line of thirty-four trees. It has a thick wooden door with a carved lintel overhung with wisteria. Open that door and a bar is revealed with huge fire and inglenook. To sit in a bar built around 1563 is true pleasure, but then every reader will most likely have her own equally cherished personal place in historical Wales.