Weird Wonderful Wales

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It has been said that the Welsh, unlike the English, take themselves too seriously and probably have no sense of humour at all. This is, of course, arrant nonsense.

Who else could create a shrine to baked beans, consider diving into a smelly peat bog a fun day out, endure Charles as the eccentric Prince of Wales, invent a language nobody else can pronounce and then name a town Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch? Only the weird, wonderful Welsh would.

They’ve been at it since the 12th century, donning daffodils, chewing raw leeks and bursting into rousing anthems like “Men of Harlech” to celebrate St David’s Day in memory of Wales’ beloved and unconventional patron saint.

Born on a cliff top on the rugged Pembrokeshire coast about 489AD, young David became known as Aquaticus after he developed a disturbing attraction to water.

The peculiar lad became an ascetic monk and apparently drank only water, ate only bread and herbs and often read the scripture standing neck-deep in a lake of ice-cold water.

His unflinching commitment and ultimate ascendancy to sainthood turned a piece of wild headland into Britain’s smallest city with a colossal cathedral, setting an impeccable example for his flock, not only in religion, but also in the ability to turn nothing into a lucrative tourist drawcard.

Not to be outdone in concocting tourist drawcards, Llanfair Pwllgwyngyll was an insignificant village on Anglesey Island in the far north just across Menai Strait before the railway through to Holyhead arrived in the 1850s. Still unnoticed, the local cobbler had a novel idea to attract passing tourists – change the name.

Tourists soon descended on Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch and the town has reaped the rewards ever since. It means something like “Saint Mary’s Church in the Hollow of the White Hazel Near the Fierce Whirlpool and the Church of St. Tysilio by the Red Cave”.

In the far south on Swansea Bay, Port Talbot was home to actors Richard Burton, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Michael Sheen and a bloke called Barry Kirk, who changed his name by deed poll in 1985 to Captain Beany.

Beany’s obsession rearranging his second-floor flat into the Baked Bean Museum of Excellence earned him the wrath of the local council and a coveted Star Attraction Award from the then Welsh Tourist Board.

After 20 TV appearances and regular forays in his signature orange jumpsuit, green pants, golden gloves and orange cape, Beany became a familiar sight collecting baked bean memorabilia including old cans, bean-shaped money boxes, bean posters and a die-cast Heinz truck that cost him 300 quid.

Around on the western side of the bay, The Mumbles, named after the French “Mamelles” (breasts) for its two mammary-shaped offshore islets, is a quiet coastal town that acquired a startling new look when actor Catherine Zeta Jones returned there to her home town with hubby, Michael Douglas, to contribute an urban facelift with a £2 million mansion armoured with bullet-proof glass. Busloads of tourists now invade The Mumbles to gawk at the stars and their startling Hollywood-style pile.

Just north of Cardiff, Caerphilly promoted its huge 13th century castle with a tower that leans further than Pisa’s and lured thousands of wide-eyed visitors with tales of ghostly soldiers on battlements and a mysterious Green Lady” who sashayed through the turrets so frequently security guards refused to patrol the flag tower.

The town’s second claim to fame is its hard, salty Caerphilly cheese. Invented in the mid-19th century, The Big Cheese has become a huge annual festival attracting thousands more visitors as well as minstrels, troubadours, fire-eaters and folk dancers.

Coracles, curious circular boats, have been part of Welsh life for thousands of years. Near Cenarth in Carmarthenshire, the Museum and Workshop of Coracles draws tourists to its prized collection of odd craft rarely seen elsewhere. Coracle fanatics still use them to fish the local River Teifi.

Another strange oblivion-to-opulence triumph occurred at Hay-on-Wye (pop. 1,300), almost unheard of until Richard Booth arrived in 1961, set up an antiquarian bookshop and encouraged rampant competition against himself.

Hay-on-Wye now has more than two dozen bookshops and tens of thousands converge on “Booktown” every May for the world’s biggest annual literary festival.

But, perhaps Wales’ most important celebration happens next Sunday (August 25) when big crowds invade Britain’s smallest town, Llanwrtyd Wells (pop. 600), for the hugely popular 28th World Bog Snorkelling Championships where hundreds of participants from around the world will wriggle into snorkelling gear and dive into the dense, whiffy Waen Rhydd Peat Bog to beat the clock over two lengths of the 20-metre bog trench.

Last year’s bog festival included participants from France, Australia and Scandinavia making it a truly international event. How serious is that?

Story and images Copyright David May 2013 (Copyright Agency Limited).

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