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Swansea, Swansea, still the second largest town in Wales and traditionally keeping an eye askance at Cardiff, which claims to be a place of some importance too, is known in Welsh as Abertawe, since it stands at that point by Gower where the Tawe, dropping from its source in the Black Mountain, opens into the Swansea Bay of the Bristol Channel. It claims, indeed, that the famous air known in English as “The Bells of Aberdovey” does not truly belong to that pleasant and dignified harbour at all, but should be properly called “The Bells of Abertawe”. The name the town bears in English is, however, very old. The matter had already become uncertain when Christopher Saxton passed that way in 1610. Today “Swansea” is accepted as being derived from the name of a Viking rover who plundered these coasts in the 9th century and somewhere made a settlement afterwards known as Sweyn's Ea (Island). While Saxton is prepared to admit the possibility of Scandinavian influence, either by trade or war, and dismisses any connection with swans, he makes a suggestion worth repeating. Seals, he points out, regularly haunted the shores and the islets out to sea, and were called “sea-swine”; therefore to call it the Swine-Sea would not be out of order. The charter granted by King John of England using the name Swinnzey may, or may not, bear him out.

Whatever remoter origin Swansea may have had, its historical record first becomes clear with the descent upon it in 1099 of the Norman Henry Beaumont of Newburgh who seized Gower and built a castle where Swansea now is. To look for it now is profitless; what now stands as Swansea Castle is the relic of a manor house, fortified as was necessary, and erected by Henry Gower, Bishop of St David's, about 1340. It was largely destroyed by Owain Glyndwr at the beginning of the 15th century; to the King of an independent Wales, the cities of the South were enclaves of the enemy, and Abertawe suffered almost as much from his fire and sword as Cardiff. It was embellished with an arcaded parapet, a sign-manual of work undertaken through the good Bishop not only in Swansea but westwards. Up to the outbreak of the Second World War, plans were afoot to remove the screen of houses in Castle Street, Castle Lane, and the Strand, and so leave clear the sight of its tower. So, too, the Parish Church of St Mary was rebuilt in 1898 by Sir Arthur Blomfield, and again in 1955 after being bombed; but the brass memorial to Sir Hugh Johnys (1441) survived. The tomb of Sir Matthew Cradock and his Lady, however, perished. The Lady, a Gordon and daughter of the Earl of Huntly, was bidden by King James IV of Scotland to confirm the claim of Perkin Warbeck, the Pretender to the throne of Henry Tudor, King Henry VII of England, by marrying him. Henry's contemptuous treatment of the man who persuaded so many that he was indeed one of the young Princes said to have been murdered in the Tower of London by Richard III was followed by giving his bride to a Welshman who could be trusted; and Sir Matthew continued in that trust till his death in 1531. Among these historic figures one, a true native of Abertawe, is outstanding. Where College Street and Goat Street met was born Beau Nash, dictator of manners and fashion in 18th century Bath.

But to stand on the height of Brynhyfryd and look over Swansea town in the days of its pre-eminence was to see the pit-heads close at hand, and the house-rows file on file, the broad back of Green Hill bare with a sulphurous yellow, and to know that in the district that took its name from that hill lived a colony of Irish ready to assert their identity against the Welsh. It was a sight of encouragement no less than of squalor. Behind the relentless modern industrialism, you could learn what men thought of in their own lives; from beyond that region of smoke and spoil, of oiled rivers and arid fields, you might catch the smell of the warm, drowsy air that belongs to the South by the Severn Sea.

Coal-mining made its fortune, and South Wales was the principal coal-exporting area in the world from 1880 onwards. Some 70 per cent of its productivity was carried overseas when steam was the chief source of power and the smokeless quality of South Wales anthracite was in demand everywhere as the best steam-producing fuel. The South West part of the coalfield yielded 90 per cent of British anthracite, and Swansea, where the field drew close to the sea, was in the best position to take advantage of the fact. The height of energy and success was reached in 1913. Before 1870, South Wales was the greatest iron-producing region in the world, and the ores lay near at hand to the deposits of coal. It was not until the 1900s, when the demand for purer ores needed in the manufacture of steel led to importation from Spain, that foundries began to be removed from the upper reaches of the valleys to the coastline. The effect on Swansea was gradual but certain. The depression that began in 1923 was a sign of the inevitable growth of industry in parts of the world starting on it much later than Britain and using new scientific knowledge. The great South had ores and anthracite and undertakings that sprang directly from them. But it had no alternative resources, and its population had no alternative outlet for its spirit. The pre-eminence of the great days ate up the lean years.

In 1801, that population in Swansea was no more than 6,099. In 1931 it had grown to 164,825. Eighty factories were busy with tinplate and spelter, produced from zinc sulphides imported from Australia. Copper-smelting gave way to copper-refining as the first process was gradually taken over by countries no longer content to produce only the crude ores. But a tremendous production was made of steel tubes of every kind, and Swansea was used as a centre for super-phosphates processed from the raw stuff imported from North Africa. Six miles of quays were measured among the Docks, begun in 1859 and taken over by the Great Western Railway. The Queen's Dock of 150 acres was utilized by an oil company with the terminal of the crude-oil pipeline at Llandarcy. As an effort to combat the lingering depression that in the 1930s made one-third of the workers unemployed, a new electric power station was opened at Swansea in 1935, linked to the national grid. The subsequent tale of Swansea is the tale of the entire South Welsh industrial complex.

Over several generations, Swansea had taken the natural riches of its region and the exploitation of them very much in its stride. It had never permitted iron and anthracite to dominate its thoughts entirely. From 1814 to 1823, Swansea china was a product of exquisite charm and flowing design that make it still greatly sought after. The Guildhall of Swansea, designed by Percy Thomas and opened in 1934, was the place of refuge found for the explosive murals designed by Frank Brangwyn, an artist of Welsh origin, and intended by him for the Royal Gallery in the House of Lords in London. Sixteen great panels, a panorama of the human race and the flowers, fruits, and animals they lived among, designed to illustrate the wealth of Empire, burst through that formal commission to become an epic of the energy of life itself. The Fine Arts Commission decided that it was altogether too much for the Lords. Swansea recognized a kindred spirit and gave it welcome.

The sturdiness of the people's outlook could be seen, a generation ago, in housewives discussing grave themes of unemployment and its remedy, or, more recently, in the waves of uprising against a political opponent from the body of a hall, and the relapsing tide of laughter and cheers a moment after if the same man could touch his hearers' generosity. The Second World War shattered the architectural heart of Swansea, and the world shift in economics betrayed much of what the 19th century had created for it, as with all South Wales. But there have always been two strands in the life of the town. One changes and the other is immortal.

In the 1690s, the Welsh antiquary Edward Lhuyd conducted an examination of Swansea with several correspondents. They noted in the parish of Oystermouth the Roman mosaic pavement in the churchyard and the legend attached to it; the standing stones called hoarstones, or boundary-marks, ancient already when the Romans saw them, and the Early Christian chapels, some of them buried in the sands of Gower. They discussed the woodlands and wetlands that lay around the town, and the way limestone gave place to coal-veins entirely in the district. Above all they inquired from “all kindes” of coal-miners the truth about the Maen Magal or Glain Neidr (fossil plants and animals) discovered in the workings. They were among the first to make a serious study of this evidence of a vanished world and its forms of life. They noted, too, the living plants characteristic of Swansea and its parishes. The soil they found barren generally, and fit only for small cattle and goats, for rye and barley; but “layer”, the edible seaweed still eaten in Swansea, was found on the sea-coast in abundance. There were flowers: tutsan (St John's wort), key-rose, rames (wild garlic), and botchwort. But in that neighbourhood there were only coal-works and ironworks. Creeks and natural harbours made the place even then a dominant factor in the economic life of the Bristol Channel. At Oxwich, a parish of the lordship of cower in which Swansea was the chief centre, shipments of this material amounted to about 2,000 tons in a half year. Kilvey and Clyne were the principal places from which the coal-outcrop of Swansea Bay was won; others lay along the half-circle between Loughor and Llanrhidian. The coal went by sea to Devon and Ireland from the group of harbours called South Burry, which sent out coastwise in 1699 no fewer than 7,848 tons; one pit, the Wern at Llanmorlais, sold away 2,000 tons of its own winnings in eight months.

But they also noted the presence in the area of the English language and English settlers, talking somewhat in the dialect of the West of England but using words that suggested a Norman origin: evidence of the attempts at annexation made by the Conquest Kings of England. But these foreign importations, still much alive in the days of Queen Elizabeth Tudor, were steadily dying out. In the l920s Swansea was a firm centre of Welsh culture, not only in municipal effort but in the daily life of the people. It was the chapels that established this culture. In the pulpit, the “hwyl” (rhythm of inspiration) sounded in the epic phrases of the preacher. Men who worked at the coal-face would come to Sunday school and offer, in extempore verse and song, tributes to the Word. To an old house on the hill of Brynhyfryd, with uneven floors that had taken the tread of three centuries, and where not only the rooms but the staircases with deep window-wells were stacked high with books, the villagers of Gower came with the baskets and platters they had woven from the rushes of the marshy fields. And a blind harper also came regularly, carrying his hand-harp of the kind that Gerald de Barn described in the 12th century, continuing the great tradition that not only filled the villages of Tudor, Stuart, and Hanoverian Wales with travelling harp-men but called some of them to honour in the court of kings.

For Swansea remained predominantly Welsh in spite of its international trade, and was a little different from the other communities lying the length of its valley; many of the pits it included had no pit-heads, but were worked by long galleries driven into the hill-sides along which men could walk; and this made a certain advantage in conditions. More than anywhere else, Swansea concentrated in itself the whole of the industrial South; it was Wales in the 19th century riding into the troubled 20th century and an altered world.

The copper imported from Cornwall around 1700 changed to the vast Siemens industry of tinplating at Landers between 1869 and 1888. Now at Llandarcy, 5 miles out, stands a large oil refinery. The air raids of the Second World War demolished the centre of Swansea in a crushing attack; but the opportunity to re-plan its centre has been resolutely grasped. Grey and tumultuous over its hills, the ancient lordship of Gower, Swansea and Llangiwg, Llangyfelach, Llandeilo, Tal-y-bont, St John's, Llansamlet, Loughor, Llanrhidian, Ilston, Pennard, leads the South in forming a new future.

Swansea's grammar school, founded in 1682, has a greater successor in the University College of Swansea, opened in 1920. And, since 1923, Swansea with Brecon forms a separate diocese of the Church in Wales.

Nearby towns: Gorseinon, Llanelli, Margam, Neath, Pontardawe, Port Talbot, The Mumbles

Other nearby attractions: Gower

Nearby villages: Aberdulais, Alltwen, Bishopston, Briton Ferry, Bynea, Cilybebyll, Clydach, Crynant, Cwmafan, Cwnfelin, Dunvant, Felindre, Fforest, Glais, Gowerton, Hendy, Kenfig, Killay, Landore, Llandarcy, Llandyry, Llanedi, Llangennech, Llangiwg, Llanmorlais, Llannon, Llanrhidian, Loughor, Morriston, Nicholaston, Oxwich, Oystermouth, Penclawdd, Pontarddulais, Pontrhydyfen, Port Tennant, Skewen, Taibach, The Mumbles, Trostre

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