Just over a week ago, I attended the annual conference of MOROL, the Institute of Welsh Maritime Historical Studies. This took place in the somewhat unlikely setting of Trinity St David’s University College at Lampeter. Now, Lampeter is a very nice town, but one thing it most certainly isn’t is ‘maritime’ – it’s not quite as far from the sea as it’s possible to get in Wales, but not far off. But there was method in this apparent madness. TSD Lampeter is home to a flourishing and very proactive nautical archaeology department, so not surprisingly, much of the focus of the conference was on matters archaeological. I was particularly impressed by the presentations from the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales and the four Welsh archaeological trusts, but perhaps the highlight was an excellent account of the work being carried out on the Newport ship, an astonishing discovery which deserves to be much better known nationally and internationally.
While much of the conference was very positive and upbeat, there was considerable concern about the place and future of maritime heritage in Wales. Unlike Scotland and, of course, England, Wales has no national maritime museum – the Waterfront Museum in Swansea certainly doesn’t qualify as one. While there is tremendous enthusiasm and commitment among the volunteers who run the local maritime history groups and maritime museums, many of these are run on a shoestring, their futures sometimes precarious (as in the case of the West Wales Maritime Heritage Society’s museum at Pembroke Dock, which I blogged about recently). Above all, there is no maritime history course at any Welsh university. There were various suggestions as to why this might be the case: maritime history doesn’t really fit into the standard narratives of Welsh history, which tend to focus on such themes as the medieval age of the princes, industrialisation, religion, the struggles of the working class, and the fight to preserve the language. Welsh seafarers always worked in environments that were multi-ethnic and multi-lingual; their perspectives and connections were often global; and, of course, ‘landlubber’ historians often think that the sources for maritime history are ‘difficult’, full of complex technical language and unfamiliar concepts (‘the sea’, for instance…).
Yet, as I wrote in the introduction and conclusion to Britannia’s Dragon:
Wales is a maritime nation.
It may not seem so, to those at the heads of the valleys or in the market towns of rural Powys; but nowhere in Wales is more than about thirty miles from the sea or a navigable river, and even in early times, a Welshman in the very middle of his country could probably have reached the ocean’s edge rather more quickly than his contemporary at the equivalent point of England, Scotland or Ireland…True, Wales generally has relatively short rivers, few of them navigable for any distance. But there were exceptions, bringing inland areas within reach of the sea. The country’s only true sea-loch, Milford Haven, once permitted shipping to reach Haverfordwest, deep in the heart of Pembrokeshire. The river Dee was navigable all the way to Chester; the Dyfi to Derwenlas, less than two miles from Machynlleth in Montgomeryshire; the Conwy to Llanrwst and the Mawddach almost to Dolgellau. Trefriw, just five miles or so from the heart of Snowdonia, was once the biggest inland port in Wales. Quite large ships sailed up the Tywi to Carmarthen until as recently as 1938 and up the Teifi to Cardigan until 1957. The Usk was navigable to Newbridge-on-Usk, the Wye to Brockweir easily, to Monmouth for barges, and even to Hereford in certain conditions; the maritime trade of tiny Llandogo, above Tintern, still gives its name to the city of Bristol’s most famous pub. Above all, there is the Severn, Afon Hafren, rising on the slopes of Plynlimon near Llanidloes. Although most of its navigable course flows in England, the hinterland of the Severn’s river ports – Lydney, Bewdley, Bridgnorth and the rest – extended deep into Wales, and the river itself was navigable as far as Welshpool, albeit with some difficulty. Thus the Severn gave Welshmen in even some of the remoter areas a highway by which they could escape to new worlds…
For those in the littoral, then, the natural viewpoint for many centuries was to look outward, toward Somerset, Devon and Cornwall, Ireland, Ellan Vannin (the Isle of Man) and Scotland, with the sea acting as a unifier and a highway, not as a divider or barrier. Seaborne journeys were often much easier than those on the overland routes between the north and south of Wales, or into the upland moors of the interior – and indeed, the difficulties of land travel have continued to shape and bedevil much of the economy, politics and linguistics of Wales to this day. It is possible to catch a train from Swansea to England’s mightiest dockyard city, Portsmouth, about 170 miles away, and get there four and a half hours later; to get from Swansea to Pwllheli, in the same country and roughly the same distance away, takes seven and a half… Consequently, the Welsh have always used the sea…It has been suggested that in proportion to size of population, there were probably more Welshmen than Englishmen in the Merchant Navy during Queen Victoria’s reign, while in the first half of the twentieth century the Blue Funnel Line, based at Liverpool, employed so many Welshmen that it was nicknamed ‘the Welsh Navy’…in many of the non-industrialised areas of the country, like the Llŷn peninsula, the Cardigan Bay coast and parts of Pembrokeshire, the sea was the only viable occupation for many men, both young and old…
Wales is a maritime nation. It is, or has been, a naval nation. But it is a nation that needs to reconnect with the sea that did so much to shape it.
However, one ray of light on the horizon might be the Welsh government’s recent announcement that it is launching themed tourism years, with 2018 being the ‘Wales Year of the Sea’. (In an ideal world, of course, every year would be regarded, rightly, as a ‘year of the sea’; but let’s be thankful for small mercies.) This surely presents a tremendous opportunity for MOROL and all the various maritime history groups in Wales; such a year should surely have a really strong heritage focus, not just a few more bouncy castles than usual littering Welsh beaches. Which brings me to the other interesting development of the last week, namely the arrival of an invitation for me to speak at Weymouth Leviathan in March, which I’ve accepted. This describes itself as the UK’s first maritime literary festival, and should be a terrific event – especially as the ‘cast list’ includes several authors whose work I admire but have never met, such as Julian Stockwin and Antoine Vanner, as well as some of the curators from the National Maritime Museum. But the more I’ve thought about it, I’ve come to realise that there’s more of a connection between this event and the questions raised at the MOROL conference than there might seem to be. For instance, why is this the first and the only maritime literary festival? Surely Britain should have several of these? Surely once-great ports like Liverpool and Newcastle should have them, especially if they interpreted the word ‘literary’ broadly and embraced, say, the music and art of seafaring too? Why is there no Scottish maritime literary festival? And, of course – why isn’t there a Welsh one? Wouldn’t 2018, ‘the year of the sea’ in Wales, provide an obvious and ideal opportunity for one?
I’ll end on that note, with this possibly wildly ambitious idea thrown out there!
Unless something unexpected occurs, I intend this to be my last new blog post before Christmas. Nothing to do with unduly intensive festive preparations; it’s just that I need to finish the new Quinton novel within that time, so I need to eliminate as many distractions as possible! However, I’ll take the opportunity to reblog some of my favourite older posts, especially as many of the new readers who’ve signed up to this blog in recent months probably won’t have seen them.