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Verdant Hills, Quaint Villages, Rich Heritage--Now, If We Could Just Pronounce Those Names

March 16, 1997|Christopher Reynolds | Christopher Reynolds is The Times' travel writer. His last article for the magazine was about Cairo

Outside, a cold Welsh night. Inside, a small room atop a narrow, creaking staircase that seems to have been designed for hobbits, not people. My wife and I lie still, eavesdropping through 16th century floorboards.

"Schwmae!" says a voice.

"Nowaith dda," says another.

"Sut yw ti?" says yet another. Then there's laughter and a thump that must be a beer mug landing on a bar counter--a sound that merges with thousands of other large and small sounds, together delivering the effect that my wife and I are not alone in a tiny upstairs room at all, but on our backs in the middle of the pub below, surrounded by vigorously conversational townsfolk.

"Hello. Good evening. How are you?" they are saying, or at least that's my best guess, consulting a glossary of common Welsh phrases. No doubt some of them are also asking for pints of Brain's, the leading Welsh beer. Any moment, I half expect a barman to hand a bucket of Welsh beer nuts across my sheets to a peckish drinker.

We are overnight guests of the White Horse Inn, the lone pub in Capel Garmon. The inn is atmosphere-rich, sound-proofing-poor and the only place for a stranger to sleep on this particular hilltop village in northern Wales. The language of the drinkers below is Welsh, the confounding, consonant-heavy tongue that British authorities here spent generations trying to replace with English.

Today was a day of strolls through the panoramic cemetery of Capel Garmon, a train ride through the forests of Snowdonia National Park, a promenade along a Victorian resort beach at Llandudno--a full day. As soon as the publican downstairs declares last call and the voices begin to thin, we will sleep deeply. But until then, we can only let the consonants wash over us.

The sound of the Welsh language should be encouragement for anyone who roots for underdogs. Before Asia, before Africa, before America, the English crossed a few hills and colonized Wales. By the 16th century, English monarchs had settled into the habit of designating first-born sons as Princes of Wales. (Politically, Wales is classified as a principality of the United Kingdom, which also controls England, Northern Ireland and Scotland.) Yet despite the global empire headquartered next door--or perhaps because of it--the Welsh have vigorously guarded their identity and their language, which is more alive in these green valleys now than it has been in decades.

Welsh, which has Celtic roots, is now taught in public schools and celebrated in song, poetry and other arts by a closely followed annual festival, the National Eisteddfod, which yearly alternates locations between north and south Wales. Against long odds, the Welsh identity endures as a strange marvel of defiance and renewal. It can be a wonderful thing for an outsider to behold, even if it does occasionally keep you up at night.

We begin in Cardiff, the Welsh capital, arriving by train at the end of a blustery August day. It's a short taxi ride from the train station to our modest hotel on Cathedral Road, where Beagle, our aged, frail innkeeper, welcomes us into a pair of converted Victorian homes near the green expanses of Bute Park.

We lug our own bags up the stairs--our host looks brittle enough to break if he tries it--and pass the evening on The Hayes, a pedestrian zone of restaurants, pubs and, on this night, an outdoor concert by an electrified Celtic folk band.

Here is our first clue to the new life of old Celtic ways in Wales: While the drums throb and a long-haired singer belts out a tune (in Gaelic or Welsh, not English), the bedraggled youth of Cardiff dance and thrash merrily at the lip of the stage, a mosh pit governed by flute and fiddle.

In the 1991 census, about 500,000 people--just under 20% of Wales' population--claimed knowledge of Welsh. This marked an increase over 1981, the first rise in the proportion of Welsh speakers in this century. The language is strongest in the north and west, where farming and fishing predominate, but even in anglicized industrial areas to the south, its use is spreading.

As recently as the 1940s, public schoolteachers were under instructions to punish children for uttering Welsh words in class. Since the 1960s, laws have moved toward promotion of bilingualism. When authorities in London made noises in 1981 about blocking previously pledged Welsh telecasts, Gwynfor Evans, a member of the British Parliament from the Welsh nationalist party, Plaid Cymru, threatened a hunger strike, and succeeded in a task rarely accomplished: He out-blustered then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. To hear Welsh in Wales, tune to Channel 4.

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