Dragon’s Den

Just a quick update this week, because after several weeks of doing other things it’s time to get back down to serious writing with a vengeance!

I thought I’d provide occasional updates on the progress of each of my projects, and will start with my new non-fiction book for The History Press, Britannia’s Dragon: A Naval History of Wales. The subject has caused some amusement even among people with a good knowledge of either Welsh or naval history – veiled titters about heavily armed coracles, and so forth. But although I’ve only done a fraction of the research I need to do in the various national repositories in London, the National Library of Wales, and each of the county record offices in the principality, it’s already clear that this is a huge, very rich and wholly neglected theme. I was particularly struck by this last week when working at the British Library and reading an otherwise outstanding collection of essays called Wales and War, covering the interactions between social, political, religious and military history in the 19th and 20th centuries. Yet even such an impressively wide-ranging work contains precisely one reference to the Royal Navy per se. This ‘amnesia’ runs deep: even people who live immediately adjacent to the battle site, and are very knowledgeable about the history of the area, have never heard of the Battle of Abertywi in 1044, arguably the largest and most important naval action fought in Welsh waters. To be fair, this neglect of the pervasiveness of naval history and heritage isn’t just confined to Wales. I regularly give a talk on ‘Bedfordshire and the Sailing Navy’ to local history societies in the county, and despite Bedfordshire being one of the most land-locked counties in England, it, too, has many fascinating naval connections stretching back many centuries (the most adjacent to where I live being the evocative tomb of Admiral Byng, famously executed pour encourager les autres, as Voltaire put it). But I’m always saddened at how little of this is known to local people.

Therefore ‘sea blindness’ runs deep, especially as one gets further away from the sea, but reminders of the country’s naval past turn up in all sorts of unlikely places. For example, Cilycwm in Carmarthenshire is about as remote as it gets – a tiny and isolated village high in the hills, on the edge of the mid-Wales plateau (as I learned through experience when having to deliver TVs there during a summer job in the 1970s, long before the invention of sat nav!). But even there, the church contains a memorial to local man Admiral David Powell Price, appointed to command the British squadron in the Pacific at the outbreak of the Crimean War. Price had only commanded individual ships during 40 years of peace, and as he prepared his squadron for action, he seems to have realised that he was wholly unqualified to cope with the vast responsibility thrust upon him; and as his flagship approached the Russians, Price took out his gun and shot himself. He will certainly feature in Britannia’s Dragon, along with many other little known or wholly untold stories!

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