Updated February 2020
Table of contents
Wales was the first abroad destination I haunted after finishing my engineering studies in 2010, and it was the first opportunity to practice my English and improve my language skills beyond school or the workplace.
I visited this small (the population is some three million), culturally appealing and scenically impressive country in the western part of the British Islands for the first time in 2014.
However, my first trip had solely been a short stay in the former industrial town Merthyr Tydfil and the capital Cardiff.
The following three visits (the last in 2018) yet offered more time to get in contact with locals and to explore the northern and central regions of Wales, including the national parks (Snowdonia and the Brecon Beacons).
Here I set off for several exhausting and recreational hiking trips, and I learned some interesting facts about the Welsh culture.
Culturally most fascinating is without any doubt Welsh, a Celtic language which is spoken of roughly one million people mainly in the northern areas of Wales.
2. The Welsh Language
Welsh (Cymraeg) is beside English the official language in Wales.
Equally to Slavic and Germanic languages, Welsh belongs to the large Indo-European language family. Albeit related, it is a peculiar element of the local culture and sounds very odd in one’s ear when one hears it for the first time – somewhat like Dutch or Danish.
Similarities exist naturally with other Celtic languages, for instance Irish or Gaelic (in Ireland and Scotland).
In Wales, every announcement, every road sign, every manual (technically everything) is bilingual.
Welsh is a mandatory subject in schools. That is probably the main reason the number of Welsh speakers is increasing after there had been concerns some decades ago the language could become extinct.
Of course it is sufficient to have solid English skills for a stay in Wales. I’ve never met anyone who solely spoke Welsh.
Here are a few examples for Welsh phrases:
Thanks – Diolch; Forest – Coed; Lake – Llyn; Hello – Shwmae; yes – ie; no – na
3. Towns and Places
In the following I will illustrate selected places in Wales.
The comparatively small town of Aberystwyth (about 13.000 inhabitants) is situated on the western coast of Wales (Cardigan Bay).
The town possesses a romantic promenade with many historical buildings, most remarkable perhaps the Old College that belongs to the Aberystwyth University.
In Wales, castles (or remains of them) are omnipresent.
Aberystwyth Castle had been one of those ancient fortifications, but unfortunately only a few wall-fragments and debris of the gates remained since the castle was razed to the ground in 1649 by henchmen of Oliver Cromwell.
The National Library of Wales
Despite its small size, Aberystwyth became the location of The National Library of Wales1 at the beginning of the 20th century.
This institution has the privilege to claim a copy of every book issued in the United Kingdom an Ireland, and the main purpose of the Library is to preserve and facilitate material related to the Welsh language.
1 the Welsh translation reads Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru
The library is open to the public. Everybody can request a membership (my membership No. is 1564666) and borrow books from the archives.
So I seized the opportunity to explore a tiny fraction of the book inventory in one of the huge reading rooms.
Conwy (15.000 inhabitants), situated at the northern coast has a well-preserved and well-known fortification, the Conwy Castle.
This town is quite representative for the scores of towns with medieval fortification structures (in Caernarfon there exists a very similar castle, for example).
Built in the 13th century, the castle is one of the biggest of its kind in Wales.
Originally erected by English kings for the purpose of controlling North Wales, it got military obsolete in the aftermath of the English Civil War (17th century).
The medieval city-walls in Conwy are also well preserved and accessible.
But don’t forget to visit the nice little town center and of course the pubs (I can recommend the pubs in the Castle Street).
The town Holyhead (11.000 inhabitants) is situated at the very north-western end of Wales on Holy Island (itself part of the even bigger island respectively county Anglesey).
On a tiny and rocky island in a few kilometers distance from Holyhead, the South Stack Lighthouse was erected upon at the beginning of the 19th century.
The (at present unmanned) tower with an attached building is open seasonally for visitors.
Not far away from the lighthouse there also exists a small bird observatory.
The species and the bird populations are very numerous around this unique area with its steep precipices and shores.
4. The National Parks
Snowdonia is one of three national parks in Wales, with a total area of around 2200 square kilometers.
For detailed tour descriptions I recommend the following website:
The national park Snowdonia possesses the highest mountain on the British Island beyond Scotland, Mount Snowdon or Yr Wyddfa (1085 meters AMSL).
This mountain is probably the most popular tourist destination in Wales and Snowdonia. So it can be a rather awkward experience ascending the mountain during an average Sunday since there might be plenty of visitors and fellow hikers.
A mountain railway from the town Llanberis to the summit generates an additional amount of tourist numbers, though the train journey is rather expensive in my opinion (here you can find a price list).
Fortunately there exist several trails to the summit, so if you choose a more difficult one chances are good that you don’t stuck in a logjam.
Regardless of choosing a more ambitious trail or not, it is likely that one has to deal with rather bad weather conditions. That means more precisely not low temperatures, but strong wind, fog, and sometimes heavy rainfall due to the proximity of the Atlantic Ocean (oceanic climate).
But the view onto the landscape is absolutely breathtaking and worth all the effort of the climb.
During a hike through Snowdonia one will spot many so called cirques, concave geological formations usually filled with melting water (so they form mountain lakes without inflow or outflow).
The Glaslyn eastwards the summit is one of such formations. This lake plays an important role in the well-known King Arthur legend. Here the legendary king received his sword Excalibur.
On the Rhyd-Ddu Path you have a beautiful view onto several of those lakes.
In the south of Snowdonia lies the Cadair Idris mountain and its peak Penygadair.
Hiking to the summit is tough, though the height of the mountain appears not intimidating at the first glance (893 meters AMSL) – yet in Dolgellau or in Minffordd you start almost on sea level.
In sum, I made three attempts to climb Penygadair, the first time in spring (on the Minffordd Path) and two further times in autumn (again on the Minfordd Path and on the Pony Path).
My first attempt was a failure, I turned back with the peak literally only a few meters away. But the wind was dreadful and I had almost no sight during my ascent. Occasional blasts appeared as having the potential to blow me down the steep crests. I spotted only two other hikers on this day in April.
The second time I climbed with my good friend Uwe. It was not our first trip together, and basically I had no doubt that we will not be successful. However, as we were descending the northern flank of the mountain we got lost as we weren’t able to identify the trail in the dense fog. In the end, we had to walk for two extra hours through heavy rain and a storm.
This was no fun at all, but nevertheless a very valuable experience and a lesson about team-work.
Unfortunately there did occur a sad story as well: another hiker got lost on this day (we didn’t know him, and we hadn’t taken any notice of fellow hikers during our climb) and he was found dead a couple of hours afterwards by a rescue team, as we learned the next day.
I was also successful with my third attempt as I climbed the Pony Path near Dolgellau, again without company.
But I was close to abandoning my tour for a second time. The reason was once more a heavy storm and very bad sight. On this day, several hikers passed me by during my hike. They all quit their climbs because of the bad weather conditions.
The Brecon Beacons lie in Central Wales, with Pen y Fan as the highest elevation (886 meters AMSL).
Except for this mountain, this area is not necessarily a popular tourist destination.
It may happen that you hike for several days in a row without coming across another human being. The British military also utilizes this solitude area for its special forces (SAS) training.
The small town Brecon situated at the northern edge of the national park is a good starting point for hiking tours and biking trips through the Brecon Beacons.
I hope you enjoyed this article about Wales and Welsh culture.
One interesting thing I didn’t mention so far: like in the other parts of Great Britain you have left-hand traffic in Wales of course.
This demands an extra amount of attention in the road traffic, especially if one drives nice little French cars.
So I am glad about the fact that nothing bad had happened during my adventures in Wales – neither in the mountains nor during my car rides.
Featured image: Aberaeron, Cardigan Bay