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The Sketch: An Alternative Guide to Wales

Cardiff Millennium Centre in Wales
Credit: Wojtek Gurak, Flickr.
Cardiff Millennium Centre in Wales
Credit: Wojtek Gurak, Flickr.

Gareth Evans offers a ‘unique’ tour of his home country for the unacquainted.

What springs to mind when you think of Wales? A dangerous question to ask, admittedly. For the naïve, or the three people who actually acknowledge the Welsh tourist board, perhaps it’s a pleasant land of greenery, scenery, and absolutely no meanery. On the other side of the coin, there are those who view it with a double measure of disdain – as if it’s the roofless conservatory attached to the UK’s sprawling house; wet, empty, and expensive to maintain.

As someone who has spent most of my life here, I feel qualified to offer some vague, essentially useless, advice for those who are yet to experience this fine nation’s charms. That said I’m from Chepstow, which for those unaware is the first place you enter after crossing the bridge. I can see England from my house, and for four-hundred years Chepstow was rejected by both countries like some hideous, unwanted, love child on The Jeremy Kyle Show.

Many visitors find the bilingual signs an oddity at first. For most Daily Maily English types, I’m sure it is irritating to find that, after years of oppression, of lashing and humiliating Welsh-speaking children, the language is actually on the rise here. It must be like finishing a long-course of antibiotics and then noticing that pesky rash again in the shower. Such people often complain about the cost of bilingualism as well. Ignoring the fact that this is painfully ignorant, my solution would be to cut the English language instead. That costs more, right? And isn’t everything about costs nowadays? I can’t imagine that there’ll be many protests: “I just don’t know what a bws or a tacsi is! I mean, they LOOK like buses and taxis, but how can I be sure? Screw it, I’ll walk, and if I get injured on the way I’ll just phone for a…what the bloody hell is an Ambiwlans?!”

Anyway, on arrival at Cardiff Central, you might expect to be greeted by the toothy grin of Wales. You are, after all, stepping out into the country’s proud capital. Instead, you’ll find the second best Burger King within 500 yards and some pigeons that look like birdlife prisoners of war. It is underwhelming.

Do not fear, however: it is an excellent city. It is cheap, accessible and easy to get around; the Katie Price of British cities then. (N.B: usually wet).  I jest! I jest. It has everything that a hip/unhip, young/old, man/woman/other might want/not want. Every shop worth shopping in is on offer here, such as ‘Shop Wales’ which is essentially extortionate reverse xenophobia, and the wonderfully named ‘Cashino’; a place where gamblers without internet access go to burn their children’s trust funds. ‘I bloody love this city!’ you hear the locals exclaim, as they leave ‘Cash Converters’ with some defunct currency and without their wedding rings. ‘Do Wetherspoons accept drachma?’ they ask, before breaking down in front of you.

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It must be noted that Cardiff is often viewed with resentment in certain parts of Wales. This is because it receives a higher amount of funding than other areas, as evidenced by the bizarre euphemistic monument at Hayes Place which cost a whopping £1.5 million (otherwise known as ‘rent’ by Londoners). My chum from Swansea once moaned that ‘Cardiff gets all the funding’. This is not strictly true; it’s just that Swansea has to prove that it’s actively seeking work and meet with a Careers Officer once a week before it’s granted anything.

Many will associate this city with the likes of Doctor Who and Sherlock, which are both filmed here. You may think that this is a good thing; however it’s more a result of BBC budget cuts. For every Doctor Who episode set pre-1900, the producers simply head to Grangetown or Canton and film there. As for Sherlock, it saves money on set construction as they film in University buildings, which are of course deserted before 10am. On that subject, the Doctor Who Experience is one of the city’s biggest attractions and can be found in the Bay. If you’re on a student budget however, just throw a bin on a bouncer and get them to chase you around the Apple store, it’s just as – if not more – fun. But seriously, go to the Bay, it’s really nice.

Not too far out of Cardiff lies the St Fagans Natural History Museum, which is both nice and free; the rarest of combinations. And no, St Fagans wasn’t the patron saint of homophobia; that would be ridiculous, how would the Church choose one for a start?

As it happens, there are some cracking Welsh cakes there. Other national delicacies include bara brith, so named because it tastes like boiled briefs – and cawl, so named because it tastes like coal. The lack of edible Welsh cuisine is no better encapsulated than by the Wikipedia page ‘Welsh cuisine’, which cites the soft drink Tango – yes, Tango – as a national delicacy. Or that may just be because of the Welsh fake tan addiction, as evidenced by the occupants of St Mary’s Street every Saturday night.

Cardiff on a Saturday night
Credit: Micha, Flickr

There is more to Wales than Cardiff however. Nearby, there are the cities of Newport, named in 1126 (which was the last time something new was actually built), and Swansea – an urban outlier. This is because the nicest parts surround it. The Gower, for example, is truly wonderful. The city centre on the other hand recently featured in a BBC documentary about heroin abuse. Consider it as you would a hurricane then – the closer you are to the centre, the more likely you are to end up either homeless or dead.

As for the North, that’s not really Wales at all. Yes they might speak the language a bit – but that’s just a veil. Somehow screaming “Cofiwch Treweryn” (“remember Treweryn”, the village that was drowned in order to supply Liverpool with water) in a strong scouse accent and Liverpool football shirt is slightly less effective. If anything it’s more like Switzerland there, partly due to the impressive scenery, but mainly because it’s where the elderly go to die.

Yup, yes, that’s definitely the sound of an angry nationalist mob – you’ll have to excuse me while I fireproof my house.

For now, hwyl fawr…

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