James A. Watkins is an entrepreneur, musician, and a writer with four non-fiction books and hundreds of magazine articles read by millions.
Welsh Legends—What's in a Name?
Legend has it that in 1170 BC, the Ark of the Covenant was captured by Brutus, a descendant of the Trojans, and he brought it to an uninhabited island he named Britain, after himself.
About 1900 years later, there arose in the western part of Britain (commonly called Wales today) a tribal chieftain named Wat. Wat became so powerful and honorable that his sons took the name Watson and his other relatives came to be known as Watkins.
Since that happens to be my name, I long had the desire to go to Wales and take a look around. A few years ago, I did just that. I decided that what I wanted to do was rent a car and drive the entire coastline of Wales, with no set itinerary and no reservations (lodging or otherwise).
A Brief History of Wales
In AD (Anno Domini—the Year of our Lord) 48, the Romans invaded and stayed until about 410 when they withdrew. This withdrawal ushered in the Dark Ages but also the distinct Welsh identity as a Celtic people who called their land Cymru.
The Vikings were the next to attack, followed by the Saxons, followed by the Normans in 1067, but Wales is believed to be unique among former territories of the Western Roman Empire in that it was never conquered until the late 13th Century when it finally fell to the English under King Edward I. It was this King who built the magnificent castles I wanted to see in Wales.
My Welsh Road Trip
I rented a car and learned what it is like to drive on the wrong side of the road— shifting the manual transmission with my left hand (I hadn't asked for an automatic; it must be a joke they play on Americans).
I entered Wales by way of Chester, England. I had driven down there from a driving tour of Scotland, which I had decided to do as a warm-up act. I spent my first night in Wales in Conwy, home of Conwy Castle, built in the 1280s.
Edwardian Castles in Conwy and Caernarfon
I continued west the next day to see Beaumaris Castle, constructed in the 1290s, and considered to be the most perfect example of a concentric castle. After strolling the grounds for a few hours, I drove southwest to nestle in at Caernarfon for the night. But on my way, I had to stop to see a town with the longest name in the world. I kid you not, it is named:
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Caernarfon is the most Welsh-speaking community in Wales, and best known for its formidable stone castle, built about the same time as Castle Conwy.
While there I stumbled across the Royal Welsh Fusiliers Museum and found several photos of war heroes from Wales named Watkins (the name does mean Ruling Warrior, after all, according to some.) I didn't even know what a Fusilier was (let me save you the trouble—soldier with a flintlock musket), but apparently this is a famous fighting regiment dating from 1689.
The Coast of Wales
The following morning I made a side trip to see Mt. Snowdon, the highest mountain in Wales (or England), and much to my surprise, found that there is a famous hiking trail there named Watkin Path.
That afternoon, I drove down to the coast to see Harlech Castle before stopping for the night in Barmouth, a seaside resort.
Aberystwyth and Cardigan
My next stop was Aberystwyth, generally regarded as the capital of Mid Wales.
I proceeded on to the port city of Cardigan by evening, and just past there found a pub in a hotel called the White Lion. In all my stops I would find a pub to have a few pints and enjoy conversations with the locals. This one was a bit different. When the bartender found out I was American—apparently highly unusual—he called his wife to tell her about it, though it was quite late. She showed up in a jiff (in her bathrobe and with curlers in her hair) to see this curiosity that was me.
St. David's Cathedral
I drove on south to St. David's Cathedral, which was constructed in the 14th Century on the remote site occupied since the 6th Century by St. Davids Monastery.
St. David (c500–589) is the patron saint of Wales. He is buried at the Cathedral and his last words, "Do the little things in life" is a well-known inspirational phrase in Wales today. At one time, there were 60 churches dedicated to St. David in Wales.
The Celtic Church had a long history as part of the Roman Catholic Church, which ended in 1530 when the Welsh embraced the Protestantism of the Church of England.
After 1770 most of the inhabitants could be described as Puritans. About this same time, the population began to explode in numbers far faster than at any other time in Welsh history, growing from 500,000 inhabitants in 1770 to 1,163,000 by 1851. This growth was fueled by the Industrial Revolution (and improved transportation with England) and took place despite huge numbers of Welsh people emigrating to America during the same period of time, probably including my ancestors.
By 1914 the population had more than doubled again to over 2,500,000, with 35 percent of the workforce employed in the collieries, which in 1913 exported nearly 37 million tons of coal per year. Today, three million souls call Wales home.
My last stop in Wales was to be in Tenby, a walled seaside town. From there I drove on through Swansea, and the capital Cardiff, on my way to Bristol and England. Then began another adventure.
© 2009 James A Watkins