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Swellboy on… Wales

A trip in the ancestral Jeep Grand Cherokee to the land of his fathers

Swellboy on… Wales

Image: Brijesh Patel

September 02 2010
Nick Foulkes

It was with interest that I read about David Cameron’s exhortation that we take more holidays in Britain: the staycation, as I believe we have been encouraged to call it. And yet, in truly balanced coalition style, I also heard that our elected leader had taken a short break up the road from Marbella in the mountain village of Ronda. If such reports are accurate, the choice of a Spanish staycation for the British PM is of course easily explained by the fact that his coalition partner is married to a Spaniard. I did not see Dave in the mountains, but then I did not go looking for him there, so this may just have been a rumour; however, I have seen photographs of him on his hols in Cornwall. And so, like a good Cleggeron, I have, in addition to my summer holiday in Spain, taken the precaution of having a holiday in the UK as well.

I was born in Wales and that was where I recently undertook a sentimental family journey. Of course my view of Wales is strongly informed by the novels of Thomas Love Peacock. Mr Cranium, the deranged phrenologist in his 1815 novel Headlong Hall (“the seat of the ancient and honourable family of the Headlongs, of the vale of Llanberis”), is one of the more entertaining caricatures of Regency literature. From the way Peacock portrays the principality, early 19th-century cranks were drawn ineluctably to Wales and its rugged grandeur, where there were sufficient ruined castles, abbeys and whatnot to keep the likes of Mr Chainmail, Peacock’s ardent medievalist from Crotchet Castle, happy. Crotchet Castle features a planned boat trip by “a choice philosophical party”, in other words a bunch of freaks in frock coats, up the Thames and Severn, then on by canal into Wales – a sort of pre-Victorian version of the boat trip in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Rather wisely we did not make the journey by water, but by the ancestral Jeep Grand Cherokee, which, even though it was the height of summer, I loaded with warm clothing as of course the sine qua non of any Welsh excursion is a pleasing dampness and a bracing chill.

It was a great success, one of the highlights being a visit to the Museum of the 24th Regiment of Foot, an important stop for my younger son who is a great student of Britain’s African wars of the 19th century and who was thrilled to be able to handle an assegai that had been picked up at Rorke’s Drift.

However I was totally unprepared for the effect that a museum called The Big Pit had on me. The Big Pit, as its name suggests, is a museum about mining that was once… yes… a huge coalmine. From what I could gather, the place went more or less straight from being a functioning coalmine to a functioning museum.

Apart from the facts that it was dirty, dangerous, demanding and that I could not have done it, my “knowledge” of mining is a vague tangle of some bits of Zola and DH Lawrence, a little sentimentality of the How Green Was My Valley variety and a large helping of Arthur Scargill. What struck me was how much of the 19th century had persisted up until the pit closed at the beginning of the 1980s; albeit a very different 19th century to the rarefied intellectual badinage and barbed satire of Peacock’s novels. This was the world of the Industrial Revolution that necessitated the Factory Acts. The forge, apparently still serviceable today, would have been familiar to a blacksmith of Queen Victoria’s day; and our guide, a former miner, cheerfully informed us that there were still pit ponies when he started down the pit in the 1960s. I was astonished to learn that the last working pit ponies were only retired at the end of the 1990s.

For his next staycation I would strongly urge Dave Cameron to take Mrs C and the nippers down The Big Pit and marvel at an entire culture and way of life that effectively vanished during the last period of Conservative government.

See also

People, Holidays, Wales