Thursday, February 9, 2012

Culture Share - Wales: What's it like living in the South Wales Valleys?

 This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures: Juliette B. Edwards discusses life in the South Wales Valleys.

What is it like living in the South Wales Valleys?

The kneejerk reaction is to say ‘cold, damp and a bit miserable’ and this time of year that’s pretty accurate. Drizzling rain gives the whole area a hue of grey and what little sunshine we get is accompanied by dark clouds. Maybe not so miserable though because even in the rain people seem pretty happy. The view from this part of the country is beautiful – lush green hills all around dotted with a few villages.

My village – if you can call it that – is always quiet. Made up of only five streets and one shop; it’s affectionately known as ‘The Site’ by those who live here. The sounds of traffic are few and far between, and you’re more likely to run into a wandering cat on a walk than another person. Interaction with neighbours is usually over a fence or wall. The nearest town is Blackwood, which is small enough that it seems busy a few times a week. Suburban, I suppose, would be the best description. We’re a little too far down the valley to be rural. The capital of Cardiff is a half hour train ride away.

This part of the country doesn’t often support the Welsh language. Further West and North it’s a requirement, but around here school is practically the only place anyone speaks it. We have one Welsh language channel on television, but even the adverts there are in English. That doesn’t stop a sense of national identity though. Calling a Welshman an Englishman, I imagine, would be akin to calling someone from New Jersey a New Yorker or vice versa. Almost everyone knows the national anthem and will sing it loudly before every Six Nations match. Rugby Union is our main sport and with the Six Nations starting soon, the pubs will be full of red jerseys.

As I write this, it’s 25th January – Saint Dwynwen’s day (pronounced: doyn-wen.) She’s like Saint Valentine for Wales. Like every Saint, she has her own story. Traditionally Welsh tales were never written down, so there are many different versions. We learn these as children, along with some folk stories. Every school differs; some teach more than others. The ‘child-friendly’ version of her tale is: Dwynwen fell in love with a man called Maelon (My-Lonn; literally meaning ‘prince’) but her father refused to let them marry. Distraught, she ran into the woods and prayed for God to make her forget Maelon. An angel visited her with a potion to make her forget Maelon and turn him into a block of ice. God then gave Dwynwen three wishes. She wished for Maelon to be thawed, for God to grant the wishes of all lovers and that she would never marry. When God had granted her wishes, she became a nun.

In the South many speak what is termed ‘Wenglish’ – a Welsh form of English. Around here it is commonplace to ask someone “Where you to?”, to request a ‘Cwtch’ (C-utch as in butch) or to inquire “Whose coat is this jacket?” Simple terms like ‘ach y fi’ are in the vocabulary of everyone.* Phrases like “Where you to?” or “I’ll be there now in a minute” are known to be a form of Welsh logic. They are sometimes oxymoronic but if you say them in Wales you’ll be understood. Calling someone ‘Bach’ (small) – another Welsh word that everyone knows, is also commonplace. E.g. My uncle Dai is commonly known as Dai Bach. The man is six-foot-six but he was small when he was young, and so the name stuck. The ‘ch’ sound (like the ch in Achmed, for example) comes easy, but things such as the ‘ai’ in Dai are mainly in the accent – it’s not something that can be explained without a Welsh voice on hand. (Try saying eye with an ‘a’ at the beginning and you might be close!)

The area is by no means attractive, affluent or promising, but it’s a little like your family – it’s alright for you to insult it, but woe betide anyone else who tries.

*Cwtch = Hug
*Ach a fi = Disgusting

Juliette B. Edwards lives in "The Site" in South Wales.


  1. I don't ever recall saying 'ach a fi', but the Valleys are definitely and accurately such.

  2. Ach a fa is one I grew up with as well its more disgusting than Ach a fi.

  3. Anonymous, I can only assume that means you are also a resident and not as "pretty happy" as most of the people my contributor mentioned. I hope your new phrase is not inappropriate... Thanks for commenting.