Saturday, January 2, 2010

Armchair Traveling: Mapping Wales, the Music of John Metcalf

Despite several trips to Great Britain, I’ve never been to Wales.  My partner of many years felt marooned there for a time, and that may be the reason we haven’t gone.  (Back then, if an English grammar student had no Latin, attending university in England to study English was next to impossible—Wales was almost all there was.)  The other association we have with Wales is no better:  we’d met a Welsh singer who, we were told, had a lovely voice, but what we encountered was a decidedly unlovely drunk.

What is Wales, then, aside from these two things?  Owain Glyndwr, or, as Shakespeare called him, Owen Glendower, the quintessential Welsh hero and last independent Prince of Wales.  The Welsh archers, who were pivotal to winning the Battle of Agincourt for Henry V.  Hedd Wyn, the poet, who died at Passchendaele.

At one time, and perhaps again, a land of coal mines.  The Aberfan disaster, and the fans at a soccer match who passed blankets to collect money for the victims’ families as they sang the Welsh National Anthem, “Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau.”

The land of leeks, sheep, and incomparable countryside.  A land of consonants, to be sure.  These days, the land of Daffyd, “the only gay in the [fictional] village” of Llandewi Breffi.

And always, the land of poets and singers, and of harps.

To me, the harp seems an ethereal instrument.  I’m astonished how easily it can be heard over a full orchestra.  And I’m entranced watching the harpist’s hands pluck its strings to make those extraordinary sounds.

When I listen to music, though, I don’t think to choose the harp.  But one evening, the sound of a harp floated over a string orchestra in a piece I’d not heard before.  I stopped what I was doing, for the music was too lovely to pass by.

The piece was Mapping Wales, by John Metcalf, whom my partner recalled from her time in Wales and whose music she’d found online.  I wondered, why do I not know him?  And I thought, had she not had a connection with Wales, and I with her, it’s likely I’d never have heard his music at all.

That would have been a shame.  He seems to understand the harp exactly, and to extract from it every gorgeous sound a harp can make.  And he understands not only the harp, but also the cello, the piano, the violin, the trumpet, the string quartet, the orchestra, and the voice.

When I listen to Mapping Wales, I soar upward, and all of Wales is laid out before me:  the mountains of Snowdonia, the Vale of Glamorgan, the towns with names like Machynlleth and Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch (which I'm advised on good authority does exist).

The Wales I have remains the Wales of my imagination, but from here on out, it’s the country mapped by John Metcalf's lyrical, singing lines.


For more on John Metcalf and his music, and to hear clips from Mapping Wales, click here.

See Catrin Finch, the harpist on Mapping Wales:


  1. Please keep those armchair traveling pieces coming! I love to see other places vicariously through your essays. The video was wonderful, what sounds she can coax out of that enormous harp - it was lovely.

  2. Thanks for a different view of Wales. I enjoyed your essay and the beautiful music!
    I visited Wales, specifically Llandudno, 20 years ago. I can imagine feeling marooned there. Back then the town seemed isolated and strange, to me - unlike any seaside resort I had ever been to at the time. I remember the graceful Victorian wedding-cake architecture of the seafront buildings, the howling wind and turbulent sea, and a quirky connection to Alice in Wonderland. Looking back, I see that the Wales I have has become "the Wales of my imagination".

  3. Yaki-da Raining Acorns.

    As someone who has been accused of being Welsh I fully understand Daffyd's sense of victimization!

    That said I have many excellent memories of Wales. A memorable caravan adventure in Pembrokeshire, an encounter outside the Cardigan Castle carpark conveniences and midnight phospherescence in the Irish Sea.

    Time for another visit.

    - Josie

  4. It was lovely to find your comment, so glad you enjoyed my drawings. It is strange how we all find each other, but like you, so exciting to discover a new blog such as "wrack line" which gives pleasure each day.
    I look forward to spending more time here.

  5. Welcome, Milly, and thank you for writing. I encourage readers to visit Milly's blog and view her lovely drawings--and we look forward to your future visits here, Milly.

  6. I also have similar happy memories of Wales!The experience of the Carmarthen conveniences (interior) never ceases to cheer me even in the dullest of days and to entertain others. And would it be fair to condemn the whole nation on the basis of the behaviour of some?Nay, I say, Nay! Wales has some very beautiful countryside and coast, an annual book-fair, harps, leeks etc and the faint-hearted can always play safe by sticking to Pembrokeshire, Anglesey and the Borders. The use of sat nav may also help offset the impossibilty of getting directions and finding a local eager to help pronounce place names. M-hunk-leth, for example,eluded us.That said, Wales should definitely be put on the visit agenda, safe in the company of those of us who have been before.We look forward to it.

  7. Thank you for writing, as always. And, indeed, as a direct result of putting together this blog post, Wales is on the list, so we hope, afore too long, to move from armchair to actual traveling in that direction (in the company of an experienced guide, of course). Wish we could make the Vale of Glamorgan Festival, in particular (John Metcalf is the Artistic Director), but, sadly, it is at the beginning of school term, so not possible until (sigh) retirement.


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