After a week in London visiting our son and his family, we began a ten-day trip around Britain. We took a British Rail train from Paddington Station that traveled through crowded west London, past industrial parks, onto the rural landscape passing Redding, Oxford, Swindon into the mountains of Wales. We stopped in the capital, Cardiff, on our way to Swansea, three hours from London.
Wales has high mountains, hillside pastures, small villages, and miles of isolated beaches. Wales has the highest rainfall of any country in Europe and it rained most of the 3 days we spent there.
Our objective was to research Marilyn’s Wynne family history in Swansea and to spend a little more time in the country we had visited briefly almost thirty years ago.
Marilyn believes that Swansea bears a resemblance to Monterey, California where she lived in the 1990’s. It’s on the Gower peninsula with a bay, marina, and beaches, surrounded by mountains and pastoral valleys, and has museums celebrating local history and culture.
But Swansea’s weather is cooler and more blustery because of it’s location on the south coast of Wales where chilly north Atlantic and Irish seas meet the warmer Gulf stream.
The Swansea area was the birthplace of two well-known turbulent artists, Dylan Thomas and Richard Burton. Thomas was born in Swansea and wrote about Welsh family life. Richard Burton was born in a small valley town near Neath. The two rugged Welshmen drank in pubs in Wales and New York and reminisced about Welsh life. When Thomas died in New York in 1953 at the age of 39, Burton gave a stirring eulogy at his funeral which plays at the Dylan Thomas center in Swansea.
We stayed at a historic Welsh coaching inn, the Castle Hotel, in Neath, six miles east of Swansea. In 1805, Admiral Lord Nelson stayed at the Castle Hotel on his way to meet his fleet anchored off Swansea Bay. Lt. Lewis Roatley, son of the Castle Hotel landlord, was a Royal Marine who was aboard Nelson’s HMS Victory at the battle of Trafalgar.
The Castle hotel was also where the Welsh Rugby Union was organized in 1881. The inn’s walls had prints and photos of Welsh rugby teams. Rugby is the Welsh national sport and national teams compete around the world.
We reveled in the rich history of the 200-year-old inn. It had a wonderful atmosphere; wood-paneled walls with prints of rugby teams and old Welsh village life, thick dark-green patterned carpets, creaking floors and steps, and a homey pub to enjoy a pint or two of locally brewed ale.
Our room key was the size of a garden hose nozzle and attached to a block of wood. It weighed about three pounds and could be used as a doorstop. Slim chance a guest would slip it in their pocket to keep as a souvenir.
Neath has it’s own place in Welsh history. In a wooded valley three miles outside town are the ruins of the 12th century Cisterian Neath Abbey which was abandoned after Henry VIII’s forced divestiture from the Catholic church in 1539. It was once the largest abbey in Wales.
The 12th century Neath Castle was a five-minute walk from our hotel, but wasn’t much more than crumbling walls and a small tower enclosed behind a wire fence.
We stopped by two old stone churches, St. Davids and St. Thomas, and Gnoll park where stone monoliths about four feet high were in a circle with a flat stone in the center. Very Druid like.
A building on a street corner across from Gnoll park caught our attention. It looked like an ancient citadel, but a plaque at the entrance said it was a community center for pensioners. It’s interior looked more rustic than our coaching inn. The center had a chess room where youth from India were playing on wooden chess tables attached to the floor. Around the chess room were old photos, posters, and banners of chess matches from long ago, including a match with a visiting Soviet team in the 1980’s.
The center had faded prints on the walls of Welsh village life, a tiny pub, and a lunch room with thread bare carpets, antique chandeliers, and worn wooden tables and chairs. Pensioners were having lunch when we visited, probably as earlier generations had done for centuries.
Neath is the birthplace of Oscar award-winning actor Ray Milland and Paul Rhys. Alfred Russel Wallace, a contemporary of Charles Darwin, lived in Neath for a time and did research in the area.
Researching Family History
The highlight of visiting Swansea was researching Marilyn’s family history at the heritage center at the modern City Centre library. The helpful staff showed Marilyn how to log into their heritage data base and she began her research. She scanned original documents from the 1851 census and found names of several relatives.
The library’s reading room had glass windows facing the bay. A storm was battering Wales that day and we watched sheets of rain splash against the windows and drench the deserted beach a hundred feet away. During a lull, we walked along the beach until another downpour drove us back inside.
St. Mary’s Parish Church
The next stop in Marilyn’s research was visiting St. Mary’s Church to inquire about her great-great-grandfather, James Edward Wynne, who was married on December 25, 1863, in the “Parish Church in Swansea.” A library staff person at the heritage center said that the ‘parish church’ probably meant St. Mary’s, the oldest church in Swansea.
Church ladies were serving tea, cookies, and Welsh cakes from the kitchen when we arrived on a Saturday afternoon. Parishioners were seated at tables near displays of photos, prints, and history of the church which traces its origins to the 14th century.
We ordered tea and Welsh cookies, and Marilyn told one of the ladies about her interest in St. Mary’s. The woman referred her to the vicar, Robert Leonard, who was having tea and cakes nearby with parishioners.
The vicar greeted us warmly and asked Marilyn about her Welsh family heritage. She told him she had names and a marriage date from a distant relative married on Christmas Day, 1823. He retreated to his office to check church archives. When he returned, he was carrying a red-leather bound book opened to the page with the date December 25, 1863. Four marriages took place that day.
The third hand written entry was the wedding of James Edward Wynne’s and Sarah Knill. The document contained Wynne’s signature and his father’s signature as witness. The record said Wynne lived in the Hamlet of St. Thomas across the river from Swansea, and listed his profession as Wharehouseman.
Sarah Knill’s signature was an “X”, as she was illiterate, not that unusual for that time according to the vicar. Her father signed as witness to her “X”. Sarah Knill died after giving birth to 2 girls. James Edward Wynne later married Cecilia Pritchard, Marilyn’s great-great-grandmother. The couple had five children.
The vicar handed over to Marilyn three printed copies of the archive page which she rolled up and proudly took back to London to show son Bill, the great-great-great-grandson of James Edward Wynne.
We visited museums during rainy days, the maritime museum and an industrial museum at the marina, and the Swansea Museum, which had three unusual exhibits. One exhibition was of antique button hooks, metal devices about ten inches long with a handle on one end and curled tip at the other end. The devices were used to lace up leather shoes and boots; insert curved tip into the small hole to pull out the lace and loop into the next hole. Glass cases held several hundred button hooks in ebony, ivory, and metal with handles carved in religious, mythological, and Welsh folklore themes. Daily utensils from long ago.
Another exhibit chronicled the history of a local copper mine when Swansea was one of the major producers of copper in Europe in the 19th century. But mining and smelting copper was dangerous and destructive to the environment. Gritty pictures showed miners working without protective clothing or masks mining and smelting copper. The morbidity rate among miners was very high and many developed chronic coughs from inhaling poisonous fumes and died from cancer.
The most puzzling exhibit was a small room on the second floor that held 2 mummies and artifacts brought back from Egypt by a local man who was British Army commander in Egypt during Britain’s 1880‘s colonial period.
The Dylan Thomas Centre had video, audio, and photo displays of Thomas’s works and life including his time in New York where he met American writers and dramatists. We watched a video of playwright Arthur Miller reminiscing about Thomas and heard a scratch recording of Richard Burton reciting Thomas’s “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” Marilyn bought a copy of the book for our grandson, William.
Swansea during the war
Swansea was heavily bombed by the German Luftwaffe in February 1941 because of the city’s strategic seaport and industrial complex. It took years for the city to rebuild, and the downtown still looks blighted with abandoned storefronts, dreary betting shops, tattoo parlors, and seedy pubs. We hurried from the train station through this part of town every morning when we arrived from Neath.
One afternoon the rain stopped and the sun peeked out from clouds. We saw an opportunity to visit Mumbles, a seaside community at the eastern tip of Swansea Bay. The bus took a scenic route along the bay past the campus of University of Swansea and neighborhoods of large homes with spacious lawns, shade trees, and flower gardens. Mubbles is comfortable, quiet community; Welsh-born American actress Catherine Zeta-Jones still maintains a home here.
We explored Mumbles’ narrow streets lined quaint cottages, interesting shops, produce and seafood markets, restaurants, and pubs. We had lunch in a consignment shop that sold Welsh crafts, soaps, candles, cakes, cookies and candies. Marilyn left with a full sack of goodies.
After lunch, we walked along the Mumbles beach path to a park where older Welsh gentlemen were competing in a lawn bowling tournament. They were dress all in white, crisply ironed pants, long sleeve shirts, bowler hats and shoes. A distinguished looking group.
The gentlemen took their game seriously. While a referee in a navy blue coat and carrying a blue pennant flag officiated, the men stood behind a line. One rolled a small white ball down the pitch until it stopped near a stake. Members of each team would take turns, rolling larger blue balls to get close to the white ball or knock opponent’s balls away.
After the teams had rolled, the men walked to the end of the pitch, studied the placement of the balls, and the referee tallied the score. Then the teams turned around and rolled the next round. And so on.
It was a relaxing half hour, watching Welshmen compete in a sport their countrymen had probably played on the same pitch for generations.
We left Swansea talking about returning to explore more of the Gower Peninsula and venture to northern Wales. Maybe next time the weather will be warmer and drier. But’s it’s Wales.
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In addition to writing this travel blog, I write fiction — thrillers, mysteries, and suspense novels. I’m currently writing a thriller series based in Milan featuring the anti-terrorism police, DIGOS, as they track down domestic and international terrorists.
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