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  1. The town of Porthcawl on the Glamorganshire coast seems to be a sleepy little seaside resort. But in its prime the place was first a centre for the export of agricultural and industrial products and, later, one of the premier holiday destinations in south Wales. The town that we see today sits on a low limestone headland, almost exactly midway between Cardiff and Swansea. With its first population hub based on Newton, half a mile inland from the sea, Porthcawl itself began life as a centre for the export of surplus agricultural goods from the rich and fertile Vale of Glamorgan. Spring tide at Porthcawl (photo: Simon Turton) The town of Porthcawl may be relatively modern but the surrounding area has always been well populated. The lost town of Kenfig Kenfig lay just to the northwest of modern Porthcawl and, in medieval times, was a significant centre of population until it was overwhelmed by encroaching sand in the early 15th century. Newton is an ancient community - the church boasts a pulpit that pre-dates the Reformation and, with a series of wooden carvings showing the flagellation of Christ, is a remarkable piece of religious furniture. Coal and iron trade In the late 1820s and early 1830s, as the Industrial Revolution began to make serious inroads into Welsh rural life, Porthcawl Point became the terminus of a horse-drawn tramroad bringing iron and coal down from the Llynfi Valley. The trade was never as heavy or as intense as that from the Rhondda Valleys and Porthcawl was never likely to rival nearby Cardiff as a port, but it was a significant development and, for a while, it looked as if industrial prosperity had come to this part of the world. With a view to exploiting this coal and iron trade, Porthcawl docks were opened in 1865. This stretch of coast, however, has always been notorious for bad weather and it quickly transpired that the harbour basin was very difficult to enter whenever the weather was rough. The dock laboured on for a while but, with superior competition from nearby Cardiff, Barry and Swansea, eventually closed in 1907. All that now remains of Porthcawl's industrial past are the huge breakwater, a lighthouse and the tidal basin itself. Jennings warehouse - the oldest example of a maritime warehouse in Wales - has also survived although, at the moment, it stands empty and forlorn. The lighthouse on the end of the breakwater or pier was the last coal and gas fired lighthouse in the United Kingdom. Operating on North Sea gas from 1974, it was only finally converted to electricity in 1997. Charabancs and day trippers Porthcawl had always harboured designs as a 'watering place' and as the industrial element of the town's role declined so the tourist trade began to grow. In the early days most of the tourists were day trippers as paid holidays and long periods of free time for men in the mining industry were rare. Charabancs thronged Porthcawl's roads and there was even a railway line, a spur off the Great Western Railway, bringing people from Pyle to the sea. After World War One, however, things began to change. Men had fought for a better life, thousands had made the supreme sacrifice, and the delights of a few days at places like Barry and Porthcawl was not too much to ask for - was it? By 1921 the population of Porthcawl had risen to 6,642 and, each summer, thousands of people from the valleys flocked in to enjoy the benefits of sun, sand and water. The elegant promenade had been built in 1887 to commemorate the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria, but with the popularity of the town as a holiday resort growing every year it was clear that some form of entertainment centre was required. As a consequence the grand pavilion was built on the sea front in 1932 for a cost of £25,000. It has remained a centre for concerts, dances and recitals ever since. Paul Robeson once performed there - via a trans Atlantic telephone link - and between 1948 and 2001 the place was the home of the annual South Wales Miners Eisteddfod. Trecco Bay and Coney Beach The beach in the centre of town has always been dangerous and swimming was never really possible. However, Porthcawl was luckily flanked by two superb stretches of sand, Trecco Bay in the east, Rest Bay in the west. Close to Trecco Bay, at Coney Beach, one of Wales' great holiday institutions quickly developed - the Coney Beach Funfair. The attraction at Rest Bay was rather more sedate and decorous - Royal Porthcawl Golf Club, one of the greatest and most prestigious courses in Britain. Miners' fortnight With the advent of Miners' fortnight in the years after World War Two - two weeks in July and August when the mines shut and virtually the whole population of the mining valleys decamped to the seaside - Porthcawl suddenly mushroomed into one of the most popular holiday resorts in the country. The fixed caravans of Trecco Bay Caravan Park offered cheap accommodation. The Coney Beach Funfair was close at hand and with the town of Porthcawl providing the usual array of fish and chip shops, ice cream parlours and pubs, everything you could want was available within the radius of a few short miles. It was all too good to last. The 1970s and 80s saw a decline which, although not terminal, certainly mirrored the demise of other British seaside resorts in the face of continental competition. Guest houses closed and even the paddle steamers of the White Funnel Fleet - which had for many years been regular callers at Porthcawl breakwater - were finally laid-up for scrapping. People still come to Trecco Bay for their annual holiday but Porthcawl these days seems to cater mainly for day trippers - something of a throw back to the charabanc trips of the early 20th century, in the days before paid holidays became the norm. While there may be an air of faded greatness about the place, there is also a sense of vibrancy and excitement. Porthcawl, like many seaside resorts, looks to the future with hope and expectation.

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  2. This week the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park - the only coastal national park in the United Kingdom - will be 60 years old. National Geographic Magazine recently voted the park second best coastal destination anywhere in the world and there is no doubt that the area thoroughly deserves the accolade. Stack Rock, Pembrokeshire Coast National Park (Photo from ynysforgan_jack) The coastal park covers approximately 240 square miles and consists of soaring cliffs, long stretches of glorious sandy beach and, slightly inland, rolling hills and deep, mysterious woodlands. It has scenery, history and legend enough to capture the imagination of even the most discerning visitor or local. The Pembrokeshire Coast Park was originally designated at the end of February 1952, one of three national parks in Wales. The others are the Brecon Beacons and Snowdonia. In order to be best appreciated the park should be viewed as a whole, as a complete entity. However, for those wishing to visit the area for a short time, it can be broken down into a number of sections or stretches which can offer an effective way of looking at one of the world's most spectacular stretches of coastline. Firstly there is the southern coast, running from Amroth on the Pembrokeshire/Carmarthenshire border to the tip of the Angle Peninsula. This section obviously includes tourist destinations like Tenby and Caldey Island. Next comes the Milford Haven Estuary, running from St Ann's Head up river towards Haverfordwest and including quiet backwaters that have probably not changed very much since the early twentieth century. St Brides Bay (Photo from janjo 195) Thirdly there is St Brides Bay, the broad sweep of coast that faces the roaring west winds of winter and includes beaches such as Newgale and Broadhaven (north). Then comes the rugged northern coast, from Strumble Head to Poppit Sands. And finally - but certainly not least - is the inland splendour of the Preseli Hills. Each of the sections is different, offering different experiences and a range of sights that vary from isolated rock stacks to echoing caves and natural arches. The sea cliffs are magnificent, particularly on the southern coast and on St David's Head to the north. In winter, when the full force of the sea and wind can be felt, the cliffs of Pembrokeshire are particularly atmospheric. The park includes the islands of Pembrokeshire, some of which can be visited. These include places like Caldey, Ramsey and Skomer. In contrast, the area around Castlemartin on the south coast is often closed as it incorporates military firing ranges but when open it offers even more magnificent scenery and wild life. Sea birds such as razorbills and guillemots abound, even rare red-legged choughs. Pentre Ifan However impressive the coast might be, there is very little that can compare to the mysterious sense of ancient history that you find at places such as Cromlech Pentre Ifan in the foothills of the Preseli Mountains. Stand here at dusk, as the sun sets over the western sea, and only the most insensitive of visitors can fail to feel the hairs rise up on the backs of their necks - a sure way of getting in touch with our ancient ancestors. Remember, the famous Blue Stones of Stonehenge came from nearby Carn Menyn and the whole of the Gwaun Valley, east of Fishguard, was once reputed to be full of witches. In some parts of the valley New Year's Day is still celebrated on 13th January, a tradition dating back to 1752 when the Julian calendar was replaced by the Gregorian one. History is everywhere in the Pembrokeshire Coast Park. From the old dockyard at Pembroke Dock, a place that once built royal yachts for Queen Victoria, to the site of the last invasion of Britain outside Fishguard, there is something here for everyone, no matter what their interest. Over a dozen ancient castles, palaces for Bishops and beaches where smugglers once reigned supreme - the area is suffused with points of fascinating history. Lying almost totally within the National Park is the Pembrokeshire Coast Path. Now designated as a National Trail, it runs for over 180 miles around the coast from Amroth to St Dogmaels before linking up with the Ceredigion Path to the north. It will be an essential part of the Welsh Coast Path, due to open fully this year. Most of the Pembrokeshire Path runs at cliff top level, the highest point being 574 feet above the sea, the lowest (at Sandy Haven) just a few feet. The Coast Path was originally conceived back in 1953 when the Pembrokeshire-based writer and naturalist Ronald Lockley surveyed a route around the coast and reported his findings to the Countryside Commission. It took some years and many delicate negotiations with land owners before the path could be made fully operational and it was only formally opened, by Wynford Vaughan-Thomas, on 16 May 1970. No visit to the Pembrokeshire area would ever be complete without walking at least a few hundred yards along the Coast Path. The Pembrokeshire Coast National Park remains a jewel in the crown of Wales, something that every visitor to the country should experience at least once.

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  3. At the end of this month, Swansea Castle is being opened up for public tours. It's only the third time in decades that people will have the chance to explore the historic building. Swansea Castle (Photo: City and County of Swansea) The castle is being opened up for public tours on Saturday 25 and Sunday 26 February as part of Swansea Council's St David's Week celebrations. Visitors will be able to access parts of the castle including the whole of the first floor, several vaulted rooms of the medieval castle and the cells of the 18th century prison. Swansea Castle was originally founded in about 1106 by Henry de Beaumont, who was later given the Lordship of Gower by King Henry I. It originally consisted of earthworks and timber defences. After various unsuccessful attacks by the Welsh, the castle fell in 1217 but was restored to the English in 1220. William de Braose III built the new castle that survives today at the end of the 13th century as a set of private apartments for his family and himself that was later crowned by its distinctive battlements. The building has served many purposes over the centuries including a barracks and a drill hall. The surrounding buildings were badly damaged in the blitz of 1941 but today you can still see the tower containing the debtor's prison and William de Braose's new castle built within a corner of a walled bailey. If you would like to tour Swansea Castle, please visit www.swansea.gov.uk/swanseacastletour to book a tour.

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  4. People living in the Gwaun Valley near Fishguard in Pembrokeshire will spend today welcoming in the new year. They are not late celebrating the arrival of the new year, instead they are celebrating Han Galan, or old new year, according to the Julian calendar, which was followed by everyone in the UK until it was replaced by the Gregorian calendar in the 18th century. However, the people of the Gwaun Valley near Fishguard in Pembrokeshire ignored this change and continued to welcome in the new year by the old Julian date. Children continue to uphold the centuries-old tradition of walking from house to house to visit neighbours and sing them traditional songs in Welsh. Teacher Ruth Morgan, in a BBC Wales News article, describes a typical Hen Galan day: "You'd get up, have breakfast and go out to sing in the local houses, wishing them a happy New Year. They gave us sweets and money as 'calennig'. "Nobody organises anything - parents just take their children around and this is passed on from one generation to another." Read more about the Hen Galan day celebrations on the BBC Wales News website.

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  5. A new exhibition at National Museum in Cardiff is set to open this month to mark the centenary of the arrival of Captain Robert Falcon Scott's expedition party at the South Pole on 17 January 1912. Inside Scott's hut, Cape Evans, Ross Island, Antarctica (Photo:Tom Sharpe) Scott's hut, Cape Evans, Ross Island, Antarctica (Photo:Tom Sharpe) Scott's expedition is best remembered for the tragedy which befell Scott and his four companions on the return journey but this new exhibition shows that there was much more to Captain Scott's 1910-13 British Antarctic Expedition than an attempt on the South Pole. Captain Robert Falcon Scott 1905 (National Museum Wales) In this exhibition called 'Scott: South for Science', visitors can see a selection of specimens collected during the expedition as well as some of the iconic images of Antarctic exploration through the watercolours of Edward Wilson (1872-1912) and the photographs of Herbert Ponting (1870-1935). Some of the specimens on display from the museum's own collections include a Welsh flag flown on Scott's expedition ship, the Terra Nova, as well as displaying the ship's figurehead. The Scott Polar Research Institute, the British Antarctic Survey, and the Natural History Museum have also lent specimens to form part of the exhibition. Poignantly, these exhibits include some of the rock samples collected by Scott on his way back from the South Pole and discovered with their frozen bodies in November 1912. Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales geology curator Tom Sharpe, who has himself just returned from a visit to Captain Scott's expedition base hut in Antarctica, said about the forthcoming exhibition: "In 2010 we put on a successful exhibition here to mark the centenary of the departure of Scott's expedition from Cardiff. In 2012 we return to Scott's expedition, commemorating its achievements by focusing on its scientific work. "The expedition really laid the foundations of modern Antarctic science and we're delighted to be able to show some wonderful specimens and images from this famous expedition". Scott's ship Terra Nova leaves Cardiff for Antarctica 15 June 1910 (National Museum Wales) Captain Scott: South For Science opens on Saturday 14 January 2012 and runs until Sunday 13 May 2012 at the National Museum Cardiff. It is supported by the United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage Trust. Find out more about the exhibition on the National Museum Cardiff website. The museum's geology curator, Tom Sharpe has written an Antarctica diary about his visit to the continent and to Scott's hut. You can read Tom's diary on the museum's website. Phil Carradice has written a blog 'Captain Scott and the Cardiff connection'. Read his blog on the Wales History website.

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  6. Christmas has always been a time for families, for gathering together around the fire and enjoying the warmth of human contact. In the halls and round houses of the Celts, in the castles and grand houses of the invading Normans, in the burgeoning villages and towns with their wattle and daub buildings, the Christmas season was always well kept in Wales. Yet the season has also been a time for great events, momentous happenings, and it needs only a cursory glance to realise that the Welsh did not just retire to their hearths for the Twelve Days of Christmas, warming their hands and toes before their roaring log fires. They also found time to get out and achieve! The first eisteddfod The very first eisteddfod, for example, was held over the Christmas period of 1176. Poets, story tellers and musicians came together for several days over the season to compete for two chairs, one for poetry, the other for music. The eisteddfod was held at Cardigan Castle and was organised by Rhys ap Gruffydd, the Lord Rhys as he was known. Even though the term "eisteddfod" was not used when describing this first event, bardic tournaments had been established and continue until this very day - even though they are now held during the summer months rather than over Christmas. The Christmas truce The famous unofficial truce that took place on Christmas Day 1914, with World War One raging across Europe, involved many Welsh soldiers. One of the regiments in the front line on this auspicious and amazing day was the Royal Welch Fusiliers. The story of the truce has been told many times but none is better or more graphic than the account produced by a private in the regiment, Frank Richards. With the help of poet Robert Graves he wrote a book, Old Soldiers Never Die, and one chapter concerns the Christmas truce. Richards was there, at the front, when the unofficial cease fire began: "On Christmas morning we stuck up a board with 'A Merry Christmas' on it. The enemy had stuck up a similar one... Two of our men threw their equipment off and jumped on the parapet with their hands above their heads. Two of the Germans done [sic] the same and commenced to walk up the river bank, our two men going to meet them. They met and shook hands and then we all got out of the trench." Soldiers from both sides spent the day in each others company, out in No Man's Land. Nobody fired or shot at the other side and Frank Richards even recalled that the Germans sent their Welsh enemies two barrels of beer. It was, he recalled, weak and watery, unlike good Welsh ale. The unofficial truce, which lasted until midnight, was observed along almost the whole of the front line and while senior officers were horrified, Welsh soldiers like Frank Richards were happy to put aside their weapons for the day and to mix with other young men, just like themselves, who were fighting for their country. Christmas Evans Several notable Welsh births took place, either on Christmas Day or during the Christmas season. The famous Non-conformist preacher Christmas Evans was born on Christmas Day in 1766 in a village close to Llandysul in Ceredigion. He was the son of a poor shoemaker and grew up illiterate and more than a little savage: he lost an eye in a vicious brawl while still a young man. Salvation came in the shape of Presbyterian minister David Davies who taught him to read and write in both English and Welsh. The young Christmas became a Baptist minister, his reputation quickly spreading across the whole of Wales. He had amazing insight and imagination and so powerful were the sermons he gave during his preaching tours that he was labelled "the Welsh John Bunyan". The Gentle Giant The footballer John Charles was born on the day after Boxing Day 1931. Nicknamed the Gentle Giant, he was never sent off during a professional career that saw him play for clubs such as Leeds, Cardiff and Juventus. Former Cardiff City captain Don Murray played with Charles and has always regarded him as the greatest player he has ever seen: "He played for Wales on 38 occasions, and took them to the quarter finals of the World Cup. He could play at centre forward or at centre back - at international level. That's a rare and very real ability. I went out to Italy with him, long after he'd left Juventus, and people still remembered him with love and affection. He was simply a great player." Other notable Welsh births during the Christmas season include actor Anthony Hopkins on New Years Eve 1937 and singer Aled Jones on 29 December 1970. Nos Galan Races The Nos Galan Races are now held every New Year's Eve in and around Mountain Ash. The very first races were held on 31 December 1958, the aim being to celebrate the life and career of legendary Welsh runner Guto Nyth Bran. Legend declares that Guto was so fast that he could catch a bird in flight and that he once ran from his home to Pontypridd, a distance of over seven miles, before the kettle boiled! These days there are races over various distances, the Nos Galan Beacon being lit to signal the start of the various events. The record for the four mile race was set by Tony Simmons in 1971 and, at 17 minutes 41 seconds, it is a time that still stands. The record for the 100 yards sprint is also a long-standing one, being set by Nigel Walker in 1988. Part of the appeal of the Nos Galan Races is that every year a mystery runner - his or her name kept secret until the night of the races - takes part. Mystery runners in the past have included athletes Lillian Board, Kirsty Wade and David Hemery and rugby stars Jamie Roberts and James Hook. Tragedy, of course, has also been ever present in the story of Welsh Christmases. On Christmas Day 1806 the Conwy Ferry sank, drowning 13 people, while on Boxing Day 1863 an explosion rocked the Gin Pit in Maesteg, causing the deaths of 14 miners. On New Years Day 1824, a shipwreck on the Great Orme saw the deaths of 14 passengers and crew while on 1 January 1916, at the height of World War One, the Mumbles lifeboat capsized, drowning three of the crew. Inevitably, there have been many other disasters around Wales over the festive period. The Christmas season, however, is not the time to think of human misery and pain. Rather, it is a time to celebrate and be happy. And Welsh men and women have done so for many years. They will undoubtedly continue to do so for many more to come. Phil will be chatting with Roy Noble on Tuesday 27 December from 2pm on BBC Radio Wales about this article.

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  7. St Cadoc's Church in Llancarfan has been awarded a £541,900 grant by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). The grant will safeguard its important medieval interior and enable the training volunteers to share its heritage with visitors. The Devil promotes lust Saint Cadoc founded a mon...

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  8. The two islands of Flat Holm and Steep Holm are well-known to residents of Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan. Standing like sentinels guarding the eastern reaches of the Bristol Channel, Flat Holm, in particular, has a rich and varied history. Flat Holm Island (photo: Gale's Photo) Th...

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  9. Nonconformist chapels in Wales form a key part of the Welsh landscape, whether rural or urban. During the last two centuries, over 6,500 chapels were built in Wales, and chapels have a strong cultural and social importance to the heritage of Wales. Interior view of Ebenezer Chapel, Tumble (Photo: Crown copyright) Today chapels are one of the classes of building most at threat of closure in Wales. They are disappearing almost as quickly as they appeared in their heyday. Over the last few years, Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, in conjunction with Capel has been carrying out a systematic programme of collecting and analysing information about these building. One important aspect of the project is to record what is happening to chapel buildings today. This survey aims to establish the status of each chapel, if it is still in active use, or whether it has been converted, demolished, is lying disused or derelict, or in another state. Where a chapel conversion has taken place the Royal Commission are recording new uses, and are also noting any chapels which are in a transitional phase of being for sale or in the planning process. Currently there is a variation in the data coverage of Wales that the Royal Commission survey has collected. In Anglesey, for example, the survey is only missing the status for three chapels, representing less than 2% of the original total. Unfortunately, in the urbanised historic counties of Glamorgan and Monmouth, the picture is more complex and less than a half and a third respectively has been recorded. Can you help the Royal Commission to record the present use of chapels? They are aiming to complete this element of the research by the end of December 2011.Lists of chapels for which they are looking for information are available from anne.harris@rcahmw.gov.uk or susan.fielding@rcahmw.gov.uk

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