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A Journey Around the British Isles … Part 83

It is no surprise to find a major centre of learning in so remote a part of Wales. There are other major universities at Bangor and Lampeter and they are arguably even more off the beaten track. Wales is a country of education and Aberystwyth is perhaps the purest example of a town where learning takes a proportionally higher status than almost any other in Britain. Aber has a population, according to the 2001 census of 15,935. It has a student body of 10, 400. The sums are not as simple as they seem. It isn’t known how many of the students are from the area and how many have come to study there. However you do the working; there are an awful lot of educated people in town.

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Aberystwyth was the first university in Wales and is a proudly Welsh institution. Money for the building, staffing and maintenance was all raised by the working people of the country. It is a model that has been replicated throughout the intervening years. The Welsh people have always put a value on education and have always been prepared to put their money (and often money has been in very short supply) where their values are.

Owain Glyndŵr, the last true Prince of Wales, had written of his desire to establish a university on Welsh soil as long ago as the fourteenth century. The English have long seen Glendower, as they call him, as something between a boastful mystic and a terrorist. The truth is far from that. His true nature is more nearly encapsulated in a wish to build a centre of learning than in uninformed tales and some Shakespearian mischief making in Henry IV Part One.

It took nearly five hundred years before his wish came true. But educational advances had been happening in the principality for many centuries.

Llanwit Major is today a thriving coastal town in the Vale of Glamorgan. I was taken there by a friend while visiting Cardiff in the late seventies. The town was founded by a remarkable man known to history as St Illtud. He sailed from Brittany to establish a monastery which makes him special but not unique. His place in the history books is made special by his founding of Bangor Tewdws (Great university) which is recognised as the first formal centre of learning in the British Isles.

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There had been a Roman College on the site but what made LLanwit Major special is that it attracted scholars from all over Britain to study under Illtud. Ancient Greece has its Academy established by Aristotle who had been the pupil of Plato who in turn had been the pupil of Socrates. South Wales had Llanwit Major where Illtud’s students included the historian Gildas, Paulinus and more famously St David of Wales and St Patrick of Ireland. Both Plato and Socrates  had a world ranked philosopher among their former students. Whether this beats two patron saints is a point for discussion. Llanwit Major became a hub of enlightenment. St David and St Patrick being only two of many who left there to establish their own places of study and devotion. In Wales, religion and the advancement of learning have long gone hand in hand.

Further west in Carmarthenshire and a millennium or so later another remarkable Welshman brought about a silent revolution which left sparsely populated, rural, badly run down and neglected Wales one of the most literate countries in the world.

The Reverend Griffith Jones, rector of Llanddowror had a simple idea which worked so well it changed the whole nature of Welsh culture. As a teacher myself I am inspired by the work that he did in recognising that by far the most significant teaching aid  are the students. If you can create a class based on the dynamic of learning; a class where the teacher becomes primarily a learner who leads, and the students become teachers who learn, then you are a very good teacher indeed. Griffith Jones was just this.

In 1731 he created the idea of circulating schools. He ran a school in one place for several months where he taught pupils to read and those pupils in turn taught other pupils and so on. After several months he’d circulate the school to another place and begin the whole process over. Supported by wealthy philanthropist Bridget Bevan, it is estimated that he taught over 200,000 people to read and write. One of the nicest things you can hear as a teacher is a student saying that they wouldn’t have done it without you. It gives you a little boost but you know that anything you may have done would probably have been accomplished anyway by the sort of student who is aware enough to thank you for your help. In the case of Griffith Jones’ students, they simply would have remained illiterate had it not been for him. Not just one or two, but half the population of the country.

There weren’t many books in eighteenth century Carmarthenshire, so they used their new found skills to read the bible. Wales suddenly had a literate population who knew their scripture. Things were ready for the great Methodist Revival that gave us a land of independent thinking Non-Conformists, a land of song and a land where education was valued above all else.

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University College Wales started life in the splendid gothic buildings on the sea front. Over the years it has extended itself and moved uphill and further inland. The town and the university are mutually dependent. There are occasionally town versus gown skirmishes in the many pubs but these tend to die down as quickly as they arise. Between the university and the seasonal holiday trade, Aberystwyth has a pretty secure future.

My destination is the National Library of Wales. I value libraries above almost any other institution. My own walls are book lined but I still love to sit and read or study or write in a library. I have favourites. Sheffield has a fabulous reading room, I’ve written much of my best prose in Scarborough Library and I could live a year in the British Library at St Pancras. The National Library of Wales would easily enter my all time list.

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I intend a flying visit just to be able to say I’ve been there and end up staying for much of the rest of the morning. And I barely touch a book.

Anyone can visit and anyone can apply for a reader’s ticket. Without one you are not supposed to use the reading rooms. I committed this minor indiscretion and sat and completed my notes and then sketched for a while and finally, just sat. It is a magnificent library. And next door is a rather fine theatre.

I came late to study but have loved every minute that I have spent as a student. The institutions I have attended or worked at have given me an enormous amount for which I am eternally grateful. I wouldn’t want to change a thing. But, if I had my time again, I might just, like my friend Pat, choose to spend my student days in this remarkable Welsh seaside town. It seems to have everything I could possibly wish for.