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There are 22 ‘counties’ or ‘principal areas’ in Wales. Most modern guides differentiate between ‘North’, ‘Mid’ and ‘South’ Wales – though some don’t offer any regional breakdown at all. For the time being, that’s the approach taken by A Bit About Britain.
Though joined with England since 1535 (see here for a bit about Welsh history), Wales is a country in its own right and maintains a distinct identity. A casual glance at a map will illustrate this; the place names are largely Celtic in origin – and, for visitors, that’s one of the exciting bits. This was the land that the Saxons never conquered and, unlike the majority of Britain, Wales has retained place names rooted in an ancient British past. So, here you are entering Cymru – the land of the Cymry – fellow countrymen. Wales is officially bilingual – more than 20% of the population speak Welsh – Cymraeg – and road signs are in both Welsh and English. The population of Wales is around 3 million; there are 10.2 million sheep.
Wales is a country of mountains, forests and coastline. It is the only country in the world that has a path along its entire coast (the All Wales Coast Path). So, if you’re minded to, you can walk around 870 miles from Queensferry in the north to Chepstow in the south. Or you could go the other way round, though of course that’s uphill. There are three national parks – the Pembrokeshire Coast, Brecon Beacons (much loved by Britain’s armed forces for training) and Snowdonia. You can get a train up Mount Snowdon if you want; there’s even a slightly tacky café at the top. It seems a shame to do this to the highest mountain in the country (3,560 feet), the second highest in Britain, with so much beauty around it. But it’s great if you’ve got lazy kids. A favourite uncle of mine holidayed again and again on the Gower Peninsula – not far from Swansea and an officially designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The Pembrokeshire Coast National Park claims to have 50 beaches to choose from and must be on anyone’s list to visit; a bit like Cornwall, but quieter. Apart from the stunning scenery, the Preseli Mountains, which are part of the Park, contain one of the entrances to Annwn, the Celtic underworld. Obviously, everyone should go there. Pembrokeshire it is also renowned for its wildlife, including seals, dolphins and whales.
What did Jonah do when he was swallowed by a whale? He sang; well – everybody sings in Wales. There’s certainly a strong oral tradition in Wales, but don’t think the place is just about endless singing and poetry. There’s rugby too. And if you like castles, there were apparently 641 of them once upon a time – mostly built by the nasty Normans/evil English – and at least 100 survive in recognisable form. There are only three towns with a population greater than 100,000 in Wales, all in the south – Swansea, Newport and Cardiff, the capital city – with a reputation for its lively nightlife. Wales also boasts Britain’s smallest city, St Davids, which is dominated by its wonderful cathedral and the ruins of its Bishop’s Palace. South Wales was highly industrialised in the 19th century, mostly based on coal and steel; North Wales used to be the world’s largest producer of slate. Nowadays, the economy relies on the service sector – much like other parts of Great Britain.
So, 10 places to think about:
If you turn left on any road heading north-south between Gloucester and Chester, and keep heading west, you’ll find Wales. The M4 from London heads direct to Cardiff in the south and Gower beyond that. The nature of the place means that getting around the country fast isn’t always possible – but why would you want to do that anyway? Rail routes are mainly east-west: in the south to Cardiff and on to Milford Haven; mid-Wales from Birmingham through Shrewsbury to Aberystwyth; North Wales from Manchester, Crewe, Chester and on to Bangor and Holyhead. Ferry ports are at Milford Haven, Fishguard and Holyhead. There is an international airport at Cardiff – though destinations are mainly European. Liverpool John Lennon or Manchester airports provide alternatives from the north – or Heathrow is just down the M4.