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Review: Wales and the Sea is a Christmas present full of richness and inspiration

15 Dec 2019 6 minute read
Wales and the Sea

Sarah Tanburn

An ambitious project this, to review the long maritime history of Wales. The country has a lot of coast, along with the sea areas beyond them. The Irish and Celtic Seas have been great corridors for trade and battle for longer than memory, challenging mariners with their weather and currents, while our harbours range from the deep-water safety of Milford Haven to the challenging open anchorages of Cardigan Bay and the massive tidal ranges of the Severn Sea.

Subtitled 10,000 Years of Welsh Maritime History, this volume would make a grand Xmas present for anyone interested in the sea, in history or archaeology.  Based primarily on finds, wrecks and buildings, its 16 ‘chapters’ each take a topic, from navigation and safety to ships as microcosms of their time and on to the law of salvage. Each contains a series of short essays, one giving a broad overview of the theme and then further studies of a particular item or set of finds. Each piece is an easily digested, bite-sized insight into some aspect of the past.

The photos are a particularly enjoyable aspect: astonishing aerial views, divers exploring wrecks and exquisite finds cover the pages. There are maps and diagrams, posters and oil paintings all illustrating some particular element of our history. It’s impossible to single out one or two images as favourites, but I recommend the richly detailed slate tile recovered from the ancient wreck found in Pwll Fanog in the Menai Strait (p124). I also prized the Amlwch-inspired landscape of The Barbarian Brought Down by a Lioness, now in MOMA, Machynlleth which can be seen online at here.

As archaeologists, historians and writers, Mark Redknap, Sian Rees and Alan Aberg bring great distinction and knowledge to their editorial role. They have amassed an impressive team of contributors from all sorts of disciplines. Nonetheless, all this learning is worn lightly. A key feature of the book is its accessibility. To take but one example, I immensely enjoyed Spencer Smith’s description of the Battle of Menai Strait, taken from the eleventh century manuscript of the Saga of Magnus ‘Barelegs’ and other sources. In 1098, a combined force of Welsh fighters and Norwegian Vikings fought off the Normans, and Magnus killed Hugh the Magnificent, then Earl of Shrewbury. The ensuing power vacuum on the borders enabled the princes of Powys to regain control in the border areas.



Spencer shows us that the sea is a crucial supply route and source of powerful alliances. For the embattled Welsh, the Vikings are allies in the long war, not the simple pillaging invaders of the English narrative. This contextual understanding is reinforced by Sian Rees’s short survey of modern defences along the coastline bringing us right up to the 1980’s. More peaceable are the fascinating studies of transhipment from mines and quarries (copper, coal, lime) to and around the coast. Many readers will have seen the small lime kilns which dot small bays, and range along canals throughout Wales; Denna Groom describes the smacks and sloops, the ketches, dandys and yawls which moved this vital component of agriculture and construction for so many years.

The language of shipping is rich in both ambiguity and precision. As a sailor and sea-writer I was amused by the historians’ frustration at mariners’ variety of descriptions for vessels, and how these mutate over time. This too reflects the mutability and connectivity of the sea. When a mariner sees a clever notion, she copies it if it will work for her business and the waters in which she travels. Language of course travels too: Mark Redknap tells us about the ‘long eight’ Napoleonic cannon found in James Street, Butetown Cardiff, so named after the French eight poids balls it fired. The book is full of details of similar richness and inspiration for anyone excited by the stories of the sea.

Along the way we meet many characters from our waterborne past, some of them surprising. Margaret ferch Ifan was a redoubtable entrepreneur. She was known as Brenhines y Llynnoedd (‘Queen of the Lakes) for her ferries carrying passengers and copper ore across Llyn Padern and Llyn Peris. We also meet Ellen Edwards and Sarah Jane Rees (bardic name Cranogwen) who ran nautical academies teaching the new syllabus introduced in the middle of the nineteenth century. Many other named and unnamed warriors, traders, fisherfolk and mariners decorate these essays. We are rightly reminded that all too often, Welsh people were involved in less savoury aspects of the sea: for example the Pennant family of Penrhyn Castle made a fortune from slavery and sugar before turning to slate.


I would love to see a companion volume, boasting such erudition and breadth of vision, which looked at these people and more, the lives of those who made the ships, sailed them, ran the businesses, fought the wars and built the ports. Such history is less easy to infer from the archaeological record, relying on documents, oral histories and that endless source of fascination, the marine chart or map. Surveyor Lewis Morris, who made the first measured charts of our coastline and uniquely gave details in both Welsh and English, is only mentioned twice for instance. In such a second book, charting would be a whole chapter and the Morris family of Anglesey would surely get their own essay.

The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales have worked with a wide range of supporters to make this collection happen. It accompanied a rather short-lived exhibition at Oxwich Castle in October and November of this year (which I am sorry to have missed). The scholarship and accessibility of the work would be well-served by an ongoing connection to many of the objects described. Putting the essays online would enable a link to these items in their permanent location. To offer but one example, a plaque and QR code on the Tudor Merchant’s House in Tenby (already owned by the National Trust) would take the visitor to Sian Rees’s contextual essay about the wealth of these south-western ports. If this cannot happen, keep this book by you to inform your armchair and actual wanderings around our mighty coast and waterways.

If you’ve already acquired all your Christmas presents, save this one for the next birthday. Or just buy it anyway. It will be a worthy addition to your shelves.

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jr humphrys.
jr humphrys.
4 years ago

Got to get this. I am very ignorant about this , our coast, and the sea surrounding us (our wall).
Off topic, slightly, what fish stocks do we have?

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