The Seven Wonders of Wales

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Ask any visitor to Wales to name his or her favourite sights and you will undoubtedly get a very mixed and eclectic response. Tastes vary and people are as likely to mention the lights of the Port Talbot steel works or the Newport Transporter Bridge as they are the wonders of the Brecon Beacons, Snowdon or Cader Idris.

Tourism has always been important to the Welsh economy. As far back as the days of the French Revolutionary Wars - when, for several years, the continent was closed to tourists, in particular rich and pampered men and women eager to set off on the Grand Tour - people have been coming to glory in the rugged mountains of the Welsh countryside.

Wales may have been second choice for many of these people but, even so, the newcomers were still thrilled by what they saw and experienced.

Shelley and Wordsworth both came to view and write about the beauty of the country. And while many in the early 18th century - the age of artificially created elegance and refined decor - would agree with the advice of the intractable Dr Johnson who closed the curtains of his carriage windows rather than face the sheer enormity and power of the Welsh landscape, most visitors were amazed by what they saw.

An anonymous poem, called The Wonders Of Wales and dating from the end of the 18th century, undoubtedly set the scene for would-be tourists. It was hardly great poetry but it had its desired effect, helping to open up great patches of Welsh countryside for prospective visitors, albeit in a rather limited geographical area. It read:

"Pistyll Rhaeadr and Wrexham steeple,
Snowdon's mountain without its people,
Overton yew trees, St Winifred's Well,
Llangollen's Bridge and Gresford's bells."

Interestingly, all but one of the supposed "wonders of Wales" were in the counties of Flintshire and Denbighshire. Snowdon was the one exception. It is fairly easy to see why the counties of north east Wales were given special priority by the writer.

These were the areas that were suddenly made accessible to tourists thanks to the advent of good roads through the early early work of the Turnpike Trusts. The trusts later fell into disrepute, their activities eventually leading to the Rebecca Riots of the 1840s but, to begin with at least, they performed good service to the people of Wales - and to visitors.

Thomas Telford's magnificent road from England to the port of Holyhead was just one of these new highways. In an imperious arc, it cut a swathe across the hills and valleys of Wales, reducing the time needed to make the journey from London to the Welsh coast by over half.

And it was not just the roads. With the establishment of wayside coaching inns along the length of the road - initially there just for the hurrying traveller - there were, now, also places to stop for a while and view the local countryside. So it was perhaps inevitable that north east Wales should feature large in this early piece of tourist propaganda.

So what were these amazing wonders? Pistyll Rhaeadr refers to the highest waterfall in Wales, at Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant, while Wrexham's steeple obviously describes the tall spire in the border town. Overton yew trees are the trees around the graveyard in the small town on the banks of the River Dee.

The bridge at Llangollen has long been recognised as a structure of considerable architectural beauty while Gresford bells are those of All Saints Church, one of the most memorable of all Welsh parish churches.

Even in the 18th century, however, there was already a problem with certain parts of the country becoming overcrowded with tourists. In the second line of the poem the writer recommends "Snowdon's mountains without its people." Obviously, even then, the crest of the mountain was crowded with walkers and sightseers.

Much better, the versifier seems to be saying, to see it without the crowds. Anyone who has ever been to the top of Wales' tallest mountain, either by walking or on the train, will concur with the sentiment.

These days a modern version of The Seven Wonders Of Wales would undoubtedly look at other areas, other attractions, places located across the full length and breadth of the country. And some of our modern writers would certainly make a better stab at extolling their virtues.

But the poem is of its time and is certainly worth remembering as one of the very earliest examples of tourist hype.

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