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Rick Steves Classroom Europe™ is a free resource allowing teachers to share the best of European art, history, and culture with their students and fellow educators.

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Traditional Welsh Culture

Wales

The Welsh proudly speak Welsh to each other (but speak English to us) and sing Welsh songs; many towns host a choir. Traditional occupations include raising sheep; see the results at a woolen mill. Learn about slate mining, once a major industry, on a slate mine tour.

Complete Video Script

And you can re-live a medieval moment or two by watching a metal thumping reenactment.

Rick: So, with all these incredible castles, were the English able to keep the Welsh down?
Martin: Well, politically yes, but culturally no. this is still the land of the Welsh language where we compose poetry and we sing songs in Welsh.
Rick: So, poetry is a big deal?
Martin: Ah, poetry's huge. It's a manly thing to recite your recently composed poem to your workmates in work on a Monday morning.
Rick: Really?
Martin: Oh, yeah.
Rick: Now, what is the state of the language today?
Martin: Well, today it is fantastic in that if you go to a primary school, a standard state primary school everything is taught in Welsh.
Rick: So, why is the Welsh language so important to you?
Martin: Rick, I don't think you can even conceive of Wales without the Welsh language. By that I mean the words to explain Wales only exist in Welsh (speaks Welsh).
Rick: What's that?
Martin: It's a blessing, it's a privilege to be a Welshman who speaks Welsh.

[Welsh language spoken by locals]

Traveling through Wales, it's easy for the traveler not to realize that the language here actually is Welsh.

Locals speak Welsh to each other…and English to visitors. While everything here is bi-lingual…Welsh comes first.

Taking advantage of the mobility our rental car provides, we're enjoying a Bed and Breakfast immersed in the lush Welsh country side. The breakfast is as good as any fancy hotel, the rooms come with elegant old four posters beds, the lounge is just right for making friends from around the world, and the pristine setting is ideal for testing the reflexes of the family's sheep dogs.

Sheep are everywhere in Wales — they speckle the countryside. And every shepherd needs a good sheep dog. Dogs, trained to respond to different whistles, love to bully the sheep wherever the farmer wants them to go.

And every once in a while, that means in for a good haircut.

And where there are sheep there are woolen mills — and some welcome the public. My favorite is in the town of Trefriw where you can follow the spinning process from raw wool to the final fabric. You'll see a traditional spinning wheel. And a busy historic mill in action.

Here, the mechanical loom reads a pattern to weave an intricate design. And if all that hard work stokes your need for a warm and wearable souvenir — that's part of the mill visit as well.

For some heavier industry, we're visiting Blaenau Ffestiniog the quintessential Welsh slate-mining town. The shops seem to have changed little since the mines stopped being profitable back in the 1960s. Long rows of humble homes, nicknamed "two-up and two-down" for their tiny rooms, feel empty as the town's population today is half what it was in its slate mining heyday.

Blaenau Ffestiniog was a company town and that company was the Llechwedd slate mine. Slate mining played a blockbuster role in Welsh heritage, and the Llechwedd mine now welcomes visitors. It does a fine job of explaining the mining culture of Victorian Wales.

Visitors ride a train deep into the mountain where a guide tells of the harsh working conditions and traditional mining techniques.

Guide: Down here, we're about 300 feet underground. On the deep mine you can go down to 450 feet, but the mine itself is over 1500 feet deep. Working hours would be from 6.00 in the morning to 6.00 at night, half an hour break for the lunch and they'd work for 6 days a week with Sundays being the only days off. They'd have 3 days holidays every year, they were usually Christmas day, Good Friday, and Thanksgiving Day, and they were taken without pay.

Our tour finishes with a slate-splitting demonstration.

Guide: Now to try and cut the slate down he would try and cut the block down in half every time. Slate splitting is still done the same way today as it was 150 years ago, it's still done by hand. They've tried to invent machines to do this work, but at the moment nothing can beat man in doing the job.

And for every ton of slate the miners produced, there were about 10 tons of waste left outside in heaps.

Singing helped the miners endure their harsh lives. While the mining culture is virtually gone, the tradition of singing survives. The men's choirs of Wales are famous for their beautiful music. Town choirs welcome visitors to both their weekly practices and their many concerts. Tonight, the men's choir of Denbigh is performing.

(Choir singing.)