I just spent 6 days in Wales, the land of my ancestors — story-tellers, miners, musicians, dreamers. I managed to trace my mother’s side of my family back to its origins in a tiny subsistence farming community called Disserth. The family name is Weale because Great Great Great Great Great Grandpa’s family lived next to a mill, powered by a water wheel. Yes, it’s that simple. If I’d been a Jones, the search would have been more difficult, of course.
The strongest and most ambitious of the family left the farms behind in the mid-1800s and went underground in booming mining communities a few hours south by horse and cart. These were bustling towns crammed with former farmers and fishers, heady times of optimism, uncertainty and exuberance. Life expectancy was only 50. The churches and the pubs and the streets were social crucibles where generations of tradition mixed and clashed and evolved. Great Grandpa Robert Henry was a winder in the mine, a lay preacher, and a cornet player. He straddled the social divide between the non-conformist Methodists and the non-confrontational Salvation Army, and was also a spokesperson for both with the mine owners. One generation after leaving 200 years of subsistence rural living, he built the biggest house on his street, at the top of the hill, and also owned the Salvation Army church next door. They had a live-in 18-year female servant.
It seemed that anything was possible. The dirt and death of the mine did not distract from the sense of optimism that was reflected in Great Grandpa’s brass band, The Robert Weale Glee Group, whose powerful music raised money for the mine workers and awards as far away as Crystal Palace in London.
Then something happened that muted the music. And 100 years later, it all makes sense.
If you love the sea, Dylan Thomas, bookstores, cosy pubs, great fish and chips, and you’ve always wanted your own castle, consider Laugharne, Wales. The Brown’s Hotel, where Thomas wrote his most famous tortured works, still has his table set in the corner, and Jane and George across the street at the used bookstore (one of the best in Wales) are happy to give directions. Just down the street, there’s a 17th century Georgian guest house for sale, and it comes with Laugharne Castle, which overlooks the Taf Estuary. The Welsh government has a permanent lease on the castle and grounds (they have to maintain it and cut the grass), so once the tourists leave at closing time, you can pop the kids in the keep and lower the drawbridge.
See Laugharne Castle