The large thud which registered on the Richter Scale in south-east England last week wasn’t an earthquake or the last gasp of the fracking industry, but the arrival on my doormat of the sumptuous new book Wales and the Sea: 10,000 Years of Welsh Maritime History. The good news is that this was my free contributor’s copy (in life, surely few things provide more balm to the soul than the words ‘free book’), the bad news is that it’s a very chunky tome indeed, which will require yet more rearrangement of the one and a half shelves containing the books I’ve either written or have contributed to. But these are minor considerations compared to the nature and content of the book. Published under the auspices of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, it was recently launched at a glitzy event in Swansea’s Waterfront Museum attended by the crachach (the older, shorter and much more evocative Welsh term for what’s now often called ‘the liberal metropolitan elite’), including Lord Dafydd Elis Thomas, the Welsh Government’s culture minister, who provided the foreword. Unfortunately I couldn’t be there as I was double-booked, attending and speaking at the Scottish Maritime Conference in Glasgow, but the concurrence of the two events suggests that maritime history in the Celtic nations is relatively flourishing at the moment.
As its title suggests, the book’s scale is ambitious, and fifty-two contributors were brought in provide sweeping coverage of the 10,000 years. It is far more than a straight chronological narrative; each section begins with a ‘macro’ overview followed by ‘micro’ studies in depth. Many of these are innovative and fascinating. I somehow suspect that only the Welsh would begin a study of the maritime history of their nation with a comprehensive survey of representations of the sea and ships in literature, art and music, but it works splendidly. Many of the contributors are drawn from the worlds of archaeology and the museums sector, and the balance of the book reflects this with strong emphases, for example, on coastal sites, intertidal archaeology and conservation issues. Thus there are studies of individual wrecks and ports, of such apparently esoteric topics as ‘A Roman Sailor’s Joke?’ and ‘Newport ship carpenters’ marks’, and the ‘big picture’ studies one would expect of, for instance, lighthouses, lifeboats, floods, the Romans and Normans, major trades and shipping companies, shipbuilding (even that little known sub-species, ferro-concrete shipbuilding), types of ship, and so on. Much of the material is fascinating and little known, supported by outstanding illustrations – both archival and modern, with the latter spanning both photography and specially-produced maps and diagrams, all crystal clear and in spectacular colour. (Hats off here to the Welsh publishers / printers Y Lolfa, who invariably turn out superbly produced books.) However, it could be argued that some of the chosen themes might be of professional concern for the contributors but are probably unlikely to be so for general readers, such as ‘Protection, maritime archaeology and the law in Wales’.
Somewhat unexpectedly, I must admit, I found myself writing the section on maritime Wales under the Tudors rather than anything naval, and if I’m being honest, most of my quibbles about the book’s coverage relate to the latter. OK, there’ll always be omissions in such an ambitious project, and everybody will have gripes about the absence of their own pet subjects (especially if they’ve published a book called Britannia’s Dragon: A Naval History of Wales…), but even so, I regret the omission of any mention of perhaps Wales’s greatest naval officer, Nelson’s friend Sir Thomas Foley (Nelson’s visit to south Wales is almost completely absent, too) and of such major institutions as HMS Glendower, the WW2 training base at Pwllheli. The emphasis in the naval section is heavily on coastal defence, neglecting the contributions (or even the existence) of the significant numbers of Welshmen who served in the navy over many centuries; in other words, the impression which might be gained from the book is that Wales’s role in naval history was largely passive, not dynamic and outgoing. More seriously still, there’s no mention at all of the critical importance of Welsh steam coal to the Royal Navy and several of the world’s other main navies from the mid-19th century until the end of the First World War. However, I was also slightly taken aback by some non-naval omissions – the famous Swansea ‘Cape Horners’ merit barely a couple of sentences, while there’s no mention at all of the famous voyage of the Mimosa and the founding of the Welsh colony in Patagonia.
But these are relatively minor quibbles. This very big, splendidly produced and sumptuously illustrated book, all 348 pages of it, should make a huge contribution to greater awareness of the huge sweep of Wales’s rich maritime history, especially as it’s remarkably reasonably priced at just £24.99.
Meanwhile, I’m on the radio! Follow this link and you can hear me talking with Hugh Bicheno about historical fiction (programme 3) and with Jane Dismore and Patricia O’Sullivan about the pleasure and pain of writing non-fiction (programme 5). These programmes should be available everywhere, not just in north Hertfordshire!