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A Journey Around the British Isles … Part 91

For the last few miles of Wales I’m in fine voice. I only sing when I’m happy and these days I sing quite a lot. They’re the Welsh songs that we learnt at junior school; Men of Harlech, The Ash Grove and the hauntingly beautiful All Through the Night (Ar Hyd y Nos). I sing in English. I don’t know enough Welsh to pass lesson one. Most of what I know I’ve picked up from road signs. Croeso i Cymru, Araf, Heddlu. Wales welcomes slow policemen. I love to hear Welsh spoken or sung but show greater respect to the language by being an auditor rather than a strangler of its unique mix of vowels and consonants.

Once I’ve run out of folk songs from the past I move onto more recent Welsh Folk songs: Delilah, The Green Green Grass of Home, Road Rage. I go through a list of Welsh pop and rock groups that I like; Catatonia, Manic Street Preachers and Super Furry Animals. I go through a list of Welsh bands that I don’t much care for; Bonnie Tyler and Stereophonics. I go through a list of Welsh performers who I have heard of but am not sure if I’ve ever heard; Charlotte Church, Kathryn Jenkins and Bryn Terfel. And I think of the two musical sounds that I most associate with the country; brass bands and male voice choirs. They certainly don’t trouble with the volume control out here in the west. They know how to belt it out.

We once went to a concert given by a Welsh male voice choir. We were staying at a hotel in Llandudno where we were about the only residents who hadn’t come on a coach. We had been seen by the head waiter as not really accepting the ways of the hotel by not joining the nodding white heads in the bar, to be entertained by a sexagenarian, with a guitar and backing tape, singing songs from the hit parade. “I don’t know why you don’t stay in the hotel. There’s bingo as well. And we bring round sandwiches at ten o’clock.”

We’d descended even lower in his estimation by asking if we could have our evening meal a little earlier in order to get to the church in time for the concert. Our man let us know what an enormous inconvenience this was (there were two sittings and plenty of empty tables at both) and after serving us our puddings said he hoped we’d “enjoy (y)our concert anyway.”

We did. But probably not for the best reasons. Llandudno male voice choir make a fine noise but are an even bigger treat visually. For an all white group of men, their faces covered a wide range of the palette. Medical students could complete the first year of their studies linking face colours to ailments. Faces that were far too red with high blood pressure stood side by side with faces that were far too red through strong drink. Dotted about were faces not normally associated with this side of the grave. Yellows and greys featured heavily. The intimations of mortality were built upon by the conductor announcing that the concert would be delayed while a member of the audience, who had collapsed in the foyer, was treated by the first aiders from the baritone section.

When the singing began it was wonderful. For twenty minutes they sang with power and harmony in Welsh and I was transported. Then they ruined it, in the way that musicians often do, by deciding that they needed to intersperse the real stuff with a medly of popular songs. Popular to trained musicians means the dreadful, radio two friendly songs, which were minor hits forty years ago. Our conductor is a huge fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber. I’m not. Fortunately the choir got back into the groove with some hymns that had the beauty and power of the finest spirituals. We were delighted that non of the singers died during the evening but cannot be too sure that one or two hadn’t passed over before the singing began.

The term “Land of Song” was coined by Griffith Rhys Jones in the middle of the nineteenth century but the tradition of bards and musicians chronicling historic deeds goes back at least to the twelfth century. With a little twisting of history and myth, much of it done by Edward Williams, the true history of song and poetry in the principality has been mixed with myth and downright forgery to create a Welshness that is all the more wonderful for the fact that it probably never existed. In order to be a Welsh bard you first need a bardic name. Griffith Jones is known all over Wales as Caradog, Williams chose to become known as Iolo Morganwg. Griffith Jones took a choir of thousands  (Y Cor Mawr) to the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace and brought Welsh singing to a wider world that had never heard anything like it. Williams forged documents, and even an alphabet to suggest an ancient culture, but did it so well that the world he invented became more real than the actual historic Wales of pre-Roman times and the dark ages.

And then there was the non conformist singing traditions from the chapels which gave Welsh religion its fervour and its flavour. Great hymn writers were able to meld the perfect combination of words and melody. In the great Methodist Revival of the seventeen hundreds, William Williams,  better known as Pantycelyn, wrote hymns that are still sung by massed Welsh choirs and rugby crowds today. The favourite is Arglwydd arwain try’r Anialwch (Guide me, Oh Thou Great Redeeemer) sung to the tune of Cwm Rhondda. When the Welsh rugby crowd starts singing this song even a dyed in the wool  rugby league disciple can be moved. In January 1856 father and son composers Evan and James James came up with an even better hymn. Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau (Land of my Fathers).  In comparison to sixty thousand Welshmen belting this out in full blown baritone and tenor and bass, the English crowd’s Swing Low Sweet Chariot sung by a befuddled chinless bunch of Nigels sounds feeble and forced. Where the English crowd have learned their hymn from student drinking games, the Welsh crowd sing their hymns with honesty and belief.

I pedal along my final Welsh country lane. I hardly see a car. My own songs are chanted to an early evening sky and a few confused cows. It’s been more than a cycle ride for me. I’ve discovered more about the country and the traditions of Wales in this short time than I had in all my life leading up to it. The whole journey is to get a taste of a thousand places so I know where to go back and spend more time. As I pass the sign that says I am entering Shropshire and leaving Wales behind, I know I will be coming back soon.