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Wales of a Good Time -- and Not Just for Sheep

March 8, 2007 By:
Silke Schmidt, JE Feature
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Sheep are indeed the princes of Wales -- or at least its protectorate.
What would you do if you were a sheep and living in Wales?

Quite likely, you'd be roaming the hills of Brecon Beacons National Park, as sheep are far more common there than people. And if you had a sense for beauty, you might stand on top of some steep cliff every now and then, enjoying the scenery while munching on a muzzleful of tough grass.

Discovering the Brecon Beacons is more fun, though, if you're not one of the several million Welsh sheep.

Well-marked trails lead walkers over bare, wind-swept ridges where history may be hidden in any of the numerous little lakes.

"There is a treasure in just about every one of those lakes," says Beck Cunningham, who has been leading hikers through the Beacons for quite a number of years. "In the days of the druids, whenever people wanted something -- children for example, wealth or getting married -- they threw things into the lakes."

Over the last decades, those things have been searched for and recovered by archaeologists working for the British government: daggers and swords, jewelry, precious little chariots. "They really keep a close eye on all those lakes now," says Cunningham; too many people have illegally gone for the treasures in the past.

Cairns, piled-up stone mounds, mark the tops not only of Pen-y-Fan -- the highest mountain in the Beacons -- and its neighbor Corn Du. They, too, are reminders of the country's Celtic past. And while many people climb on top of the cairns, they should be encountered with respect: They are ancient burial sites.

Named after a saint's burial site ("merthyr" in Welsh language) is Merthyr Tydfil, a small town just outside the National Park. It is one of only few places in Wales where Jewry was once at home.

A man named David Michael is the first Jew known to have settled in Wales (1749); most Jews came to Wales between 1880 and 1914. In Merthyr Tydfil, a Jewish community had already been established by 1830. The little town had a Jewish cemetery and a synagogue, which is still an imposing structure.

The town's Hebrew Congregation, however, has been closed for more than two decades: In 1983, the synagogue was sold, and its sacred items were removed for safe-keeping to a yeshiva in Gateshead. The bimah was moved to Cyfarthfa Castle Museum.

Just like Merthyr, every Welsh village or town has got its very own story to tell. Especially curious is that of Hay-on-Wye, to the north of Brecon Beacons National Park: Hay, home to just about 1,400 people, has more than 40 bookstores -- and its own king.

In 1971, Hay-born Richard Booth bought the local castle. Booth had opened his first secondhand bookstore 10 years before, and had since pursued his dream to create the largest secondhand and antiquarian book selling center in the world.

At that time, Hay was exactly the opposite: a deteriorating border town. During a rather liquid lunch with friends in 1976, Booth came up with an odd idea: On April 1 of the same year, Booth was crowned King of Hay, and declared the town's independence from Great Britain. The "Hay Navy" sent a gun boat (a rowboat) up river Wye, firing blanks from drainpipes.

A good lot of the "king's" drinking pals gained Cabinet posts, Booth's horse was made prime minister. The publicity trick turned Hay famous: Today, the town is visited by thousands of book-lovers each year, especially during the 10-day annual book festival at the end of this month.

Literature and Southern Wales are tightly woven in the valley of rivers Mellte and Hepste near the village of Ystradfellte as well: Visitors to Sgwd Isaf Clun-Gwyn ("Lower Waterfall of the White Meadow"), Sgwd Y Pannwr ("Waterfall of the Cloth-Washer") and Sgwd yr Eira ("Waterfall of the Snow") may be reminded of J.R.R. Tolkien's Rivendell, home of the Elves in his Lord of the Rings saga.

"Actually, Tolkien lived not too far away," offers Beck Cunningham. The author was at home in England, close to the Welsh border. It was the Welsh language that inspired Tolkien to the Elvish tongues he invented. And indeed, he had stayed near Ystradfellte for some time before writing his famous trilogy.

One thing, however, Tolkien left out in his description of Rivendell: sheep. Somehow, they wouldn't have fit in. Which in real-life "Rivendell" they do. Perfectly. After all, there's hardly anything more Welsh than sheep.

Info to Go
From the United States, there are no scheduled flights to Wales, but a limited number of charter flights are available during the summer season. It's cheapest to fly into London, anyway: Fares from the East Coast can be as low as $ 350; travel time from Philadelphia or New York to London is about seven hours.

Each London airport has got a bus shuttle service to South Wales, offered by National Express (www.nationalexpress. co.uk). Services run day and night.

Spring and fall are the best times of the year for a visit to Wales. To find accommodation suitable for your taste and wallet, log on to: www.visitwales. co.uk, www.stayinwales.co.uk or www. walesdirectory.co.uk.

Some no-no's: Never ever call a Welsh person English -- if you do, you will have a foe forever. (Just like the Scots, the Welsh population was oppressed by the English for centuries, which has left traces of animosity until today.)

As for language: Though nowadays the Welsh usually speak English, the country still has its own language; even the road signs are written both in Welsh and English. Welsh is a language of Gaelic origin, and as such, related to the original languages of Scotland and Ireland.


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