Wales and the sea
Wales and the sea ship-shaped trade and industry
It is frequently said that ‘Britain’ has a proud maritime history, but this disguises the fact that each of the four home nations has its own distinctive seafaring experiences. Wales and the Sea, edited by Mark Redknap, Sian Rees, and Alan Aberg, draws on the expertise of 52 contributors to reveal the rich maritime archaeology and history of a nation that has 2,120km of coastline – a highway since the prehistoric for people, goods, and ideas, as Chris Catling reports.
At St Davids Cathedral, in the far west of Wales, there is a vividly carved late medieval misericord depicting a tub-shaped boat in a heaving sea, with one hooded figure looking to the heavens and imploring God for help, while another passenger leans over the side to be sick. The carving is the visual counterpart to a poem called Y Llong (‘The Ship’) by Iolo Goch (c.1325-c.1398), in which he deplores ‘this hateful house… castle of torment, the sailors’ coffin… a filthy Noah’s ark… breadth of a kneading trough, shape of a new moon, it lurches like an old churn’.
Travelling by sea is not always a comfortable experience, but it was a necessary one in a land where most of the population lived by the coast. The interior of Wales is ruggedly mountainous, difficult to farm with the efficiency needed to support a large population, and difficult to travel around. Iolo’s poem goes on to describe his ship as a ‘prison house’ for ‘vile bitter beer’, a reminder that for all but the most-rural inland farmers, river and sea travel was the only option for transporting goods as well as people.
This was, until quite late in the 19th century, a community enterprise. Almost every Welsh coastal community had a fleet of small sailing ships, and the cost of their construction was met by the issue of shares – traditionally 64 of them, but sometimes they were subdivided. They were owned by the very same local farmers, traders, and shopkeepers who depended on local ships as a means of importing goods for sale or exporting their produce.
Even the clergy were not averse to joining this local collective: the Revd John Parry Jones-Parry of Edern, near Caernarfon Bay on the Llyˆn Peninsula,