by Karen Conley
My mom, Margaret Evans Hart, was always ferociously proud of the fact that she was 100% Welsh, or more properly, Welsh-American. Her mother, Ann Catherine Jones, was born in Caernarfon, Wales and her dad, David W. Evans, worked in the slate quarries in Delta, PA before attending business college in Philadelphia. I have fond memories of my Nana and Pop-Pop. Nana was very active with the Welsh Society in Philadelphia, and Pop-Pop worked for many years as an assistant treasurer of NASDAC, commuting to Washington, DC on a weekly basis until he retired in the 1950s.
As frequently happens, until my Mom passed away at the end of July 2005, I was too busy with family and pursuing a working career to expend time and energy studying and appreciating my Welsh heritage. My Mom, however, was the family historian, and I inherited trunks and cupboards full of memorabilia. I’m still working my way through it.
I visited Rehoboth Welsh Chapel in Delta a few times after Mom died, and went there in March 2008 for the St. David’s Day mini-gymanfa. Some of the congregation members recognized me from previous visits, and invited me to join Côr Cymraeg Rehoboth…a dream realized! Have been a proud and happy member of both the choir and Chapel since then and have discovered a passion for the music and the language…both are beautiful.
Sian Frick is vice president of the choir, and brought Welsh Heritage Week to our attention in 2008 when the event was held in Baltimore. It would have been easy to go there, but I was still a newbie and had no idea what I would be missing, so I passed on that opportunity. However, when Sian sent the e-mail this year that WHW would be in Wales, I was transfixed. Here was the opportunity of a lifetime…two weeks in Wales, where I had never been, plus courses in the language, folk and hymn singing; dancing, literature, and harp lessons. Harp lessons! I was born with two great desires – to ride horses, and to play the harp. Instead of harp, I learned piano. When I turned 50 I bought a “used” Amish buggy horse (a Morgan!) and learned to ride. Now, at 60, I had the opportunity to learn the harp. Life certainly could not get any better.
Still, I vacillated on a decision to take the plunge. In March I did make plane reservations for the trip, but exactly one week later broke my right kneecap, so needed immediate surgery and then weeks of physical therapy for the patellar tendon repair. Would I be sound and healthy enough for an adventure? Doubts haunted me as my work world became more time-consuming than usual. Could I afford the cost in both money and time to be away for 16 days? Finally toward the end of June I made the choice – to go “home” to Wales. I have made bad decisions in my life, but this one was golden.
The WHW group is lively and fun, and composed of folks of all ages…from 16 to somewhat older than me. It was wonderful to be greeted as a friend by nearly 30 fellow enthusiasts who shared my love for the Welsh language and music and, well…everything Welsh! The tour participants come from all over the US and Canada and each is delightful in his or her own way. Some looked familiar, and it developed that they were also members of Côr Cymry Gogledd America, and had been in Delta in the spring of 2008.
As a new WHW member I did not know what to expect, but every day was more wonderful than the day before. We arrived at University of Wales, Cardiff on a late Saturday afternoon and were installed in individual dorm rooms. We met some of the instructors for the course, Chris and Rhodri Jones, and John Albert Evans, who is semi- retired, but who graciously spent a lot of time with us over the next several days. The next morning we attended John Albert Evans’ church in Cardiff, and heard a sermon delivered by Dr. Barry Morgan, the Archbishop of Wales. It began to occur to me that our instructors and tour organizers are very well connected. After the service we stayed for a te bach, and the members of the congregation were welcoming and friendly. One very kind gentleman spoke with me and said he’d see me later that evening. We knew we were expecting a surprise after dinner…and this lovely man was part of the surprise. Although the weather was a bit damp on that first Sunday we enjoyed an afternoon roaming the beautiful valleys of South Wales, and visiting a coal mining museum. We stopped briefly at Aberfan where a collapsed coal tip killed 144 people, 116 of them children, in 1966. It seems a sad and silent place, even now.
One might think all this would be enough adventure for our first full day in Wales, but after dinner we discovered the surprise was a brief concert and then a rehearsal session of Côr Meibion Taf. Both Rhodri Jones and John Albert Evans are members of that choir, which finished first in the National Eisteddfod in 2008. They were preparing for the 2009 competition. What a perfect finish to a memorable day.
The next day marked the official beginning of classes, with language being the first session. I was in the “barely even a beginner” class, but am proud to say that after 5 lessons I can count to 100; know colors; days of the week; months; parts of the body and some commands – eisteddwch! – as well as some useful conversational phrases. In short, I learned more Welsh in 5 hours than in 16 months of singing hymns with the choir. Many thanks to Rhodri, Jen, Euros and Robin for their patience and good humor. Mercifully we were not graded for our meager efforts.
The second class of each day was Ysgol Gân where we practiced hymns for an upcoming Gymanfa Ganu to be held at a chapel in central Wales. Here, of course, I had some experience and this was always thoroughly enjoyable with good voices in every section. God bless Euros for assuring us that we’d probably be much better singers than the local Welsh choir that would join us in the Gymanfa. As it developed, the choir was fabulous, of course. After lunch I had elected folk singing, which came in handy at Pub Night where we bumped into Côr Meibion Taf once again.
And then…at last…the harp lesson. I confess I knew nothing about Robin Huw Bowen before the trip. However, suffice it to say that I was instantly blown away by his talent on the triple harp. I’d never heard of a triple harp, either, but it contains three rows of strings with the sharps and flats running inside two outer rows. The harp itself was quite beautiful, not to mention its sound. Presented with a 26-string folk harp I pinged and plucked away with one hand, (“thumbs up”) but have to say I was totally star-struck and pretty useless as a student. I’ve decided to rent a harp here over the winter and see if I can follow through with my heart’s desire. But at WHW, it was easily worth the cost of the harp rental just to watch and listen to Robin play.
Because my knee was not in terribly good shape I had decided against dance classes, which were held at about 3 pm each day. However, some of the dancers, including my friend Siân Frick, and Beth Landmesser, WHW organizer extraordinaire, competed at the National Eisteddfod in Bala the following week. What a thrill it was to see our fellow travelers and instructors performing on the big stage!
The entire course week was a revelation to me and quickly dispelled the notion that Welsh people generally sit about in pilgrim hats, drink tea and sing hymns in four-part harmony for entertainment. These folks know how to have a good time. They dance, sing, write, and perform music of many forms, and they have a healthy appreciation of pubs. This is my heritage, and I understand the Welsh temperament with my heart.
The classes were the routine for most of the five days in Cardiff. On Friday afternoon we had to choose between a trip to St. Fagan’s National History Museum, or to the Millennium Centre and National Assembly building on the waterfront of Cardiff. This was the hardest decision I had to make. The weather was pleasant, and St. Fagan’s appealed because it meant open spaces, so I went there. If only there had been time to do both…
You needn’t worry that every day ended once classes were over. Each evening contained entertainment as well – a night at Cardiff Castle; Pub Night at the Mochyn Du; Staff Talent Night; our own Eisteddfod; and a Twmpath Dawns (barn dance). Many of us also took opportunities to go into Cardiff for extra shopping and pub meals. Frankly, if you weren’t having fun for at least 14 hours every day, it had to be your own fault.
After leaving Cardiff the second Saturday, we traveled to the west – to Pembrokeshire, and then to the north, staying in Carmarthen for two nights and then lovely Llandudno for 6 nights. We visited several castles along the way, and now that I think on it, I believe they all started with C – Cardiff; Caernarfon; what’s left of Carmarthen; Conwy; and my favorite – Carreg Cennen. What a beauty of a ruin that is on top of a hill on the western edge of Brecon Beacons National Park. We hit many high spots – the Dylan Thomas Center in Swansea; the National Botanical Garden as well as Bodnant; and spent two days at the National Eisteddfod in Bala. At the latter we witnessed the barring of the chair, rather than the Chairing of the Bard, as there wasn’t one. And you certainly can’t improve on the Sunday when we attended morning service at St. David’s Cathedral followed by an afternoon Gymanfa in a chapel at Mynachlog-ddu. The weather gods smiled on us for almost the entire 8 days of touring so I came home to Lancaster County with a bit of sunburn.
On the last Friday night some of us stayed late in Bala and went to the golf club to hear a concert by Dafydd Iwan. Again, my ignorance preceded me, and when a very nice gentleman came through the room where we were having dinner and shook each of our hands, I had no idea who it was. It was, of course, Dafydd Iwan, and we then enjoyed front row seats and listened to him and his band until nearly midnight. The other members of the audience knew his songs and sang along. I have become a fan.
It was, of course, a tremendous bonus that Welsh Heritage Week took place in Wales this year, and I understand they may not go there again until 2013 or 2014. However, the instructors are always top notch, and these folks are so much fun that I would attend WHW again even if it were held in a motel along the New Jersey Turnpike. (Well, maybe not.) The course for 2010 will be at Keuka College in the Finger Lakes region in New York, a relatively easy drive for me (and perhaps for a harp, as well.) It’s on my calendar for mid-July…and I can hardly wait!