Sunday, 5 September 2010

Coast, Castles and Community - Why Wales' West is Best

At the new 'Parc Y Scarlets' rugby stadium in Llanelli, the Ray Gravell inspired wording 'West is Best' is indelibly marked in the seating.

It's a sense of self which I have shared and felt throughout my life.

Of course I would. I'm a Pembrokeshire boy, educated in Carmarthenshire who for the past 10 years has lived in Cardiganshire. Like most people, I am fiercely proud of my roots and mine are very much in the soil of west Wales.

When I think about it, the 3 constants that make this part of the world very much my own can be encapsulated in the 3 C's - Coast, Castles and Community.


To my absolute horror, at the age of 28, I still can't swim. Yet, living near the coast for me is a staple part of my whole being. My upbringing in southern Pembrokeshire near Loveston (south west of Narberth) meant that I was never far from the sea. I can remember vividly, those idyllic moments from my very happy childhood in Tenby (up on Castle Hill) or Saundersfoot (buying Premier League stickers at the shop opposite the Wimpy's) or further along the coast at Manorbier and continuing along the path of the Pembrokehsire Coast Footpath, to St Govan's Head and the Bosherston Lily Ponds. St Govan's in particular is a place I re-visit as often as possible and always with those who have not been initiated before in the joy of counting the steps down to the Chapel, built deep into the rocks, and then on counting them on the way back up, realising that as the fable goes, the two numbers don't tally!

Head further north and Angle marks the sadder memories for me of witnessing the stranded Sea Empress spewing 72,000 gallons of oil into the estuary in February 1996.

Further east is the village of Rhoscrowther which sits in the great shadow of the Texaco Oil Refinery where my Uncle Desmond worked for many years. The village was cleared in the1960's for the coming of the refinery and little now remains apart from the picturesque church. It is an odd sensation that goes down the spine when you go through this old medieval village with it's church and see this great 20th century construction overwhelming the visual senses.

Heading in-land though, deeper into the Cleddau estuary and my childhood memories fondly recall my times at Cresswell Quay, Lawrenny and Lanshipping. I particularly recall in my mind seeing my father, a keen photographer, taking photos and film of the sunset in Landshipping by the bridge down from where my (great) Aunty Dolly used to live. I remember often standing with my father on the site of Lawrenny Castle, which was a large towered and turreted mansion, overlooking the estuary. I'd always be so frustrated that the 'castle' had been demolished in 1950 so I'd never be able to see it. But my father, born in 1936, could at least tell me where exactly it was located and what it looked like.

History tells us that Henry Tudor landed off the coast at Dale in August 1485 on his way to defeat Richard III at Bosworth. With one of my maternal great-aunt's, Aunty Claudia and her family living down in Marloes, it was another wonderful part of the coast that I well knew.

My life as a student in Aberystwyth continued my love affair with the sea. Where is there better to live by the sea than Aberystwyth? The views from the top of Constitution Hill are quite simply exceptional. Now these past 5 years, I'm back in Cardigan and on the estuary here, the sea salt is still there, as it should be for me.


'A load of stones' I think I recall my father calling them. I admit to being one of those many boring historians who just love castles and my parents were saints for putting up with my calls to go to any castle that we could go too whilst on our holidays.

Here in the glorious west though, I really was spoilt. Living less than 5 miles north of Carew, it would be one of my favourite castles. Manorbier, a romantic castle if ever there was one always wowed me. Pembroke Castle? Well, what can you say? Majestic quite frankly is the word that comes to mind. Then there's the smaller castles which I loved for their own stories. Llawhaden, where I was a member of the Young Farmers for 5 years before going to University, Wiston, Roch, the imposing Haverfordwest and the one that scared me witless every day of my school life, Narberth Castle. Indeed, this latter one only finally opened to the public after being made safe, back in 2005. When I took my first steps in this castle which, because of its ruins and inaccessibility had always had a haunting effect on me, I found myself overcome with an incredibly crippling sense of absolute fear! I've never felt anything like it! My childhood fears of this spooky, scary castle came rushing back as I finally confronted those very fears. When was this? It was last year - 2009! I was 27 years old! It's incredible how those childhood sensations stay with us. When I finally overcame my fears, I walked in and enjoyed putting this particular ghost of mine to rest!

Carmarthen Castle, like Haverfordwest has fascinated me though little of substance of either remain. Cilgerran Castle is just beautiful, perched as it above the gorge looking down onto the Teifi River. Mind you, my relative hopelessness with heights means that I have never been able to look to my left when crossing the drawbridge into the castle - I couldn't stomach that sheer drop!

Aberystwyth Castle during my University days would provide a place for sanctuary if I needed some time to collect my thoughts and then, here in Cardigan, our very own superstar! Birthplace of the Welsh Eisteddfod in 1176, I can remember as a child crossing the old bridge and always wondering what lay behind those great walls. Never in a million years could I have thought that I would one day become Mayor of Cardigan and donate my Mayoral Fund donations to the Cardigan Castle Fund. If current plans being pursued by local Building Preservation Trust Cadwgan are successful, then the castle could well be totally renovated and open to the public by 2014. It will be a great day for Wales when this happens.

As a historian, west Wales is just brimming with gems and the memories they've given me will always stay with me.


Finally, but most importantly, it's what binds us all, particular in rural Wales together that matters most - community.

I take great pride in being able to say that I have a foot in both Pembrokeshire 'camps'. My father's family are from south Pembrokeshire - below the fabled Landsker Line in Anglicised 'Little England Beyond Wales'. My mother comes from the Welsh north, in Eglwyswrw near Crymych, on the the main coastal road between Fishguard and Cardigan. Be it in the community of Martletwy where I went to Sunday School and where my paternal grandparents are buried, or in shadows of the Preseli Hills around Crosswell and Pontyglasier where my maternal grandparents are buried, there has always been this strong sense of togetherness. Communities of people who know each other and help each other.

The same could be said of my years in school. I fondly recall my years as a pupil in Whitland Primary and Secondary Schools between 1987-2000. There was a sense of belonging and depsite our age-old annoyances of having to go to school, a pride in our own school against all of the others in the area. Or as the Beach Boys song went, 'Be True to Your School'. The community of the Young Farmers movement is also a firm one and during my 5 years in Llawhaden, I had the good fortune of being able to meet those of my age who went to schools in Haverfordwest. I can see it now too in Llanboidy where my girlfriend Alyson lives. The annual carnival occurred recently over the Bank Holiday weekend and I gather everyone had a good time!

The sense of community in Aberystwyth of course is a rather special one - that of the 'Town and Gown'. Back here in Cardigan, it's less of the cosmpolitan kind that annually regenerates itself in Aberystwyth, and more of the traditional kind that I grew up with in Pembrokeshire. I have great neighbours who I can rely on to look after my house on my many excursions away and it's impossible to walk down the street without bumping into someone I know and having a chat.

That's the way it should be. Shouldn't it? Well it's certainly the way I like it and want it to remain.

Don't get me wrong, I love Cardiff and London and enjoy my trips there. But there's nothing quite like the sense of travelling home on the train heading west from Swansea. When I come into Carmarthen I know that I'm homeward bound.

As many who know me will be bored of hearing me say, I'm a farmers boy and proud of it. To add to that, I'm a farmers boy from west Wales.

It's the Coast, the Castles and the Community for me.

Ray Gravell wasn't wrong. West is most definitely Best.

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