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Welsh History Month: Mountains have been very important in protecting Welsh culture

by Gary Reading, Mar 2019

In 1901 Owen M. Edwards published a history of Wales that opened with the line ‘Wales is a land of mountains’. By that he meant not just that mountainous, upland regions dominate the Welsh landscape but that they have shaped the course of Welsh history too.

For the medieval princes of Gwynedd, the mountainous landscape seen in this photograph mattered. It helped keep out the Normans and provided a refuge when they did attack. Without Snowdonia, Wales would have been conquered much earlier than it was.

Even after conquest, mountains were important in protecting Welsh culture. They deterred migrants looking for good farmland. They kept the outside world at bay. Only slowly did tourists, industrialists and railways open up north Wales to Anglicizing influences. Mountains were thus key to why Welsh culture survived into the modern world.

But they also divided the nation. They made it difficult to get from north to south and ensured main communication lines ran from west to east. That made mountains a cultural rather than just physical barrier. They ensured many in the north looked to Liverpool rather than Cardiff. They meant many in the south felt more in common with Bristol than Blaenau Ffestiniog.

In some ways, it was not until radio and television that north and south Wales discovered each other but even then the mountains could get in the way of receiving clear signals. Their impact was far reaching.

Slowly after the Second World War, the Welsh re-evaluated their mountains. Fewer and fewer people now worked in agriculture and slowly mountains were seen as things of beauty rather places of work. Their ability to bring in tourists and money was newly appreciated, although some worried about how incomers chose to stay and live amongst the vistas of the Welsh countryside. Whereas the mountains had once kept out the English tongue, now they brought it in.

Even in less spectacular parts of Wales, the landscape shaped the lives of the people who lived there. In the south Wales valleys, it gave streets and journeys an up and downhill character. The landscape was ever changing too, as hillsides and rivers were turned black by the debris of industry.

The tragedy of Aberfan showed this was more than just a matter of aesthetics but the historian should also be wary of assuming landscapes were simply what they seemed on the surface. No matter how ugly the blackened valleys of Rhondda or the sulpherized copper sites of Swansea seemed to outsiders, they were also people’s homes. And those people could ignore or even love the industrial wastelands on their doorstep. One person’s industrial’s scar was another’s reminder of friends and family.

Urban societies often seem somewhat removed from nature but we all live in landscapes. We might not pay that much attention to the tree at the bottom of the street, the river underneath the bridge or the hill that can be seen in the distance, but they are there all the same.

Historians too need to take notice of what is often taken for granted. Wales may be a nation but like every nation it is composed of mountains, valleys, streets and fields. That landscape has been moulded by human forces but it is has directly the lives of those who live there too.