Posted on 25 June 2015
The Cornish call them ‘emmets’. It means ants. And over on the Scillies the word ‘visitors’, as used by the islanders, has just the faintest flicker of disrespect to it, a sly nod to the meaning ‘head-lice’. Parasites, then? The sun comes out and they are all over the place. Ah, but what would we do without them, those of us who live in the scenic West?
Visitors, tourists, travellers – whatever you call them, and however they style themselves - have been coming to Wales in significant numbers, numbers that have impacted on local economies and environments for well over two hundred years now. A new AHRC-funded four-year project at the University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies is exploring some of the earliest accounts of an activity, tourism, which has profoundly shaped the Wales we live in today. The project (see www.curioustravellers.ac.uk) is jointly run with the University of Glasgow, so we have interesting comparative material from Scotland too.
Early in the C18th nobody in their right mind would have come to Wales for fun (though you might have come prospecting for silvermines, or rare plants): it was barren and rocky, and full of horrible mountains, and people talked a strange, guttural language ‘more like the gobbling of geese or turkies than the speech of rational creatures’. By the 1790s, though, strange languages were fascinating, rocks meant waterfalls, and mountains were sublime - people came in droves, in carriages, on horseback, and even on foot to explore them. Inns sprang up to accommodate the travellers; local suppliers provided salmon, eggs, beer; guides, for a fee, took the braver souls up mountains. And you couldn’t move for harpers adding local colour at mealtimes.
It’s easy to mock them: druid-seekers, waterfall-obsessives, mangling place-names or sitting glumly waiting for picturesque scenes to emerge from the relentless rain. But Wales attracted some astonishing people in this period - a young Turner, who came five times in the 1790s, passionately sketching and painting; Wordsworth, who had a visionary moment at the top of Snowdon; and Coleridge, who got into a political brawl in a pub in Bala. Then there’s Michael Faraday, describing the copperworks at Swansea with a technical precision that reads like poetry; or the unpublished, perceptive Catherine Hutton, noting with interest and compassion the details of rural Welsh women’s lives.
Even back then there was despair at the summer invasions: at the grand folk on their ‘North Welsh Tour’ rattling in carriages from castle to castle. ‘Travellers at this rate’, scolds Hutton, ‘cannot see Wales’. She noted too, the ‘rapacious’ rise in prices: ‘An honest Welsh clergyman lamented to me that the English Mountain-hunters have made his country so dear that he could not afford to live in it’. Profit and prosperity, or the erosion of language and landscape? We recognize these anxieties, and the powerful cultural tensions in the symbiotic nature of tourism, to this day.
Dr Mary-Ann Constantine
Senior Research Fellow at the University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies
This article was published in the Western Mail on Thursday the 25th of June 2015