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Singing the praises of a princely land

There are 6 million sheep in Wales, give or take a lamb or two. They roam free over the russet-colored hills, eating up Wales an inch at a time and feeling as entitled to use of the roads as the few automobiles that encroach on their territory.

As for the people of Wales, they are few and far between, particularly in mid-Wales, which is wildly beautiful and where the density is a scant 43 humans per square mile.

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Somberness is the keynote of Welsh landscapes. Even those who love Wales the most find something grim and sad at times about the hills, in which are encompassed the twin spirits of loneliness and solitude. Yet this desolate and lonely land could produce a moody poet like Dylan Thomas, an unremitting individualist like Richard Burton, a legend like Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings."

By chance, we wandered into the County of Radnorshire, in mid-Wales, when traveling from England's Worcester to Snowdonia National Park in northwest Wales. From the moment we crossed the border it was apparent that Wales is not England. Here is a no-frills country with its own traditions, its own individual look, and its own national language (so unpronounceable that it was used as a military code during World War II and totally baffled the Germans).

Radnorshire is a rural land. Ruddy-faced farmers, their trousers tucked into knee-high rubber boots, walk the streets of straggling little villages or gather together in clumps at sheep auctions that fill the town and overflow onto the highway, blocking traffic.

We were on the outskirts of Rhayader, nearing dusk, when we spotted a Bed & Breakfast sign and followed a winding country road past green pastures and mossy fences to the Gigrin Farm. Gigrin, it turned out, was not the name of the farmer. It was the name of the farmer's massive, curlyhaired brown-and-white bull, sire of a line of registered cattle that has become the main business of the Powell family.

Accomodations at Gigrin Farm would never be mistaken for a Hilton or a Sheraton. Yet the stop proved to be one of the most instructive of our tour of the British Isles. At breakfast the next morning, seated beneath the large-as-life oil portrait of Gigrin that dominated the dining room, we learned from the Powells the ins and outs of the European Common Market (previously incomprehensible to me), the intricacies of selling breeding cattle to foreign countries, and the uncertain world of economics in the cattle business.

Also at Rhayader, we were introduced to the wonderful world of the Welsh male choral societies when the innkeeper where we took supper suggested we drop in on the weekly rehearsal upstairs.

The Welsh preoccupation with choral music began during a religious revival of the 1860s, when the preface of a popular hymnal stressed "the vital need for holding properly conducted rehearsals, at which the whole congregation should be present." Living in a milieu in which music was practically everybody's concern was obviously stimulating, for the conductor became the most respected man in town, and Welsh miners who quarried slate by day took to composing stirring music by night. In a few years Welsh choristers were off to London to perform in concerts, and their fame is now worldwide.

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The good news for tourists is that visitors are still encouraged to sit in on the weekly rehearsals, just as they were in the 1860s. Or one might get to hear extemporaneous harmony bursting from 60,000 throats at a Cardiff Rugby match or listen to a choir singing in one of the boxy Methodist chapels that came with the Industrial Revolution into steep-walled mining valleys.

The Powells urged us to drive the beautiful, almost uninhabited mountain road that winds through gorse-covered hills high above the valley of Rheidol, across Devils Bridge 20 miles away, on our way to Cardigan Bay. Devils Bridge (actually three bridges built over the centuries) crosses a deep gorge, then the road again winds into a setting of rocks, wooded gorges, and waterfalls.

In 20 miles we never met a car. Only the everlasting sheep, munching their way across Wales.

But the next day, in Snowdonia National Park, we saw a different view of Wales. Here the setting is green and forested and the road tags along beside the rambling Conway River, leading to the village of Betws-y Coed (pronounced Bet-toos a Coyd). Some say it has more beauty spots to the square mile than any other road in the United Kingdom.

Betws-y Coed (which means Chapel in the Trees) lies in a wooded valley where two rivers join. It has become the most famous village in Wales, so that in July and August it is overrun. But in late September and October it is almost deserted. There is a lovely walk that starts by crossing the Waterloo Bridge, then follows the Dolwydden-Festiniog road past Fairy Glen and Conway Falls.

Snowdon Mountain, in the distance, is only 3,560 feet high, but it's sufficiently challenging to have made it a training ground for Sir Edmund Hillary.

While Wales is literally "a corner of the British Isles," it is nevertheless a tenuously held corner and always has been. In the 13th century the Normans took the fertile south, while Rome's legions thrust in from Chester. King Gwynned's Snowdonian ramparts held out until English sea power cut off grain from Anglesey Island, and the royal Prince was starved out. Conqueror King Edward solidified his conquest by building a chain of fortresses along the north shore: Harlech, Conwy, Blaemaris, Caernarvon. And when the Welsh demanded a prince who belonged to them, Edward asked, "Would you accept someone who was born in Wales, who speaks no English, and has never lived anywhere but Wales?" When the reply was affirmative, he presented to them his son, born just three days before at Caernarvon. Ever since, the investiture of a new Prince of Wales has been celebrated at Caernarvon. Once these bristling fortresses represented a monumental yoke of English subjection. But today the picturesque ruins bring castle seekers who stay on to delight in the cliffs the castles guard.

The castle at Conwy was marvelous in Edward's day, and it is still so. The most sturdy and romantic-looking of feudal relics, it represents the high-water mark of 13th-century military engineering. Its walls are 15 feet thick, strengthened by eight great drum towers, four of which retain their finger turrets. The rampart walk contains views of the town and the incoming tides (which may once have brought in tides of invaders). The Great Hall is now roofless and floorless, but the Queen's garden is a charming terrace overlooking the river, and here, tradition says, Eleanor of Castile planted the first sweet peas in Britain.

Some part of Northern Wales are dreary beyond belief. Slate-colored houses back up against slate-colored hills, sometimes facing an enormous slide of slate-colored scree, the permanent waste material of slate mining.

It is in the slate-quarrying district and in farming country that the Welsh language is most often heard. There has been a great flap in recent years as to whether this cumbersome language, which only 20 percent of the population can speak, should be abandoned or promoted. Nevertheless, the language revival is on the upswing, and Welsh is being taught in many schools.

Nationalism has also revived some old crafts and traditions. Perhaps one of the most charming is the carving of love spoons, given since medieval times as love tokens. They're available in shops all over Wales, along with sheep's-wool mittens, woven scarves, and slate with unique carvings.

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