HOW MANY COUNTRIES have you been to? As for myself, not many, perhaps a dozen, although I’ll concede that that dozen is spread over four continents. I know people who have been to two or three times as many countries as I have, particularly if they’ve travelled through the Continent, where you can notch up several in a single day. My travel plans tend to be those of saturation rather than spread: I visit places and start relationships with them and then keep coming back.
And how do you decide that you’ve “been” to a country? There are various methods of determination. Flying over a country’s airspace, while obviously a physical presence within the sovereign entity, does not count in my book. Nor does a stop on flight if you never leave the plane, nor does a rail journey through a country count if you never alight the train. By Cusack rules, you can only say you’ve “been” to a country if you actually step out and walk on some of their ground. Length of time, however, doesn’t count; if you’ve crossed into the Vatican for five minutes, I say notch one up on your list of countries.
Last week I added another notch onto the Cusack list: the mystical land of Cymru, better known to us as Wales. Keep in mind, this wasn’t a visit to Wales but merely a journey through Wales (calling to mind my university study of Giraldus Cambrensis in that medieval outpost of St Andrews) on my way to Dublin via the Holyhead ferry.
The world ‘Wales’ is from an old Anglo-Saxon word, Wēalas, meaning foreigners or land of foreigners. The Welsh name, Cymru, means the precise opposite — “land of my fellow-countrymen” — and is pronounced kum-REE, enunciated like a spree of something slightly naughty but ultimately harmless or inoffensive.
Euston Station, London. I’m always intrigued by the strange contempt Network Rail shows for the customers who use its railway terminals. I have not once been in a single major urban railway station in Britain which had enough seating for the passengers waiting for their trains. There are usually a handful of seats here and there off to the side, or maybe a dozen in the middle like at Waverley, but never ever enough. Instead you are forced to sit down awkwardly on the usually filthy terrazzo floors, hoping you can find some column or wall to lean against and pretend to some level of ersatz comfort.
Several times returning to Scotland from New York I’ve flown into London and then had to wait hours on the grimy floor in King’s Cross because Network Rail apparently hates its customers and wishes they were somewhere else. There must be some sort of official policy which has dictated that Network Rail stations have the smallest amount of accommodation for waiting passengers, but why? What bizarre, misguided, and perverted logic is behind this policy? Don’t they ever use their own stations and see the dozens of folk forced to sit in awkward places hoping for a few moments’ rest mid-travel? Perhaps Network Rail executives prefer to fly.
Departing Euston and leaving the metropolis of London behind, the train travels swiftly across rural England. Through most of the journey one passes cows in the field, chewing the cud and discussing (one presumes) topics as varying as the ever-changing weather or how long they think the coalition government will last. Neon-speckled sheep, dabbed in bright colours by agricultural census-takers, peacefully inhabit rolling hillsides.
Who are my fellow passengers making the mystical journey aboard this train? An elderly lady with the gentlest of voices (this is the quiet car, thank God). A sullen youth with chaotic hair, accompanied by a guitar box propped up in the adjacent chair, listening to iTunes on his laptop. An African woman sleeps. A denim-clad student whose blond hair is contrasted by the brilliant blue of his hooded sweatshirt. The grey-haired man in a trim covert coat. A pair of Americans – a guy and a girl. Two Irishman playing cards but keeping quiet but for the occasional chuckle of victory.
Hours pass. I didn’t actually notice anything proclaiming that we had passed into Wales. Of course one half expects the train to halt and a peasant chorus in native costume to greet us singing ‘Land of My Fathers’, ‘Men of Harlech’, and the obligatory ‘Cwm Rhondda’. Instead, my first hint that the train had crossed into Wales was the proud bilingualism of the station signage. Where once you found ‘Lift’, you know read ‘Lifft / Lift’. The continued existence of Welsh, against all heartless logic and cold reason, is something of which the people of Wales should be proud.
Creeping closer to Holyhead, you begin to feel you are nearing the end of one world and the beginning of another, amidst the eery all-encompassing mists of Wales. Railway stations’ signs proclaim the names of towns, which consist of agglomerations of letters increasingly unpronounceable the further away from England you travel. A quick, short laugh breaks the peace of the quiet car, but order swiftly returns. The announcement of our imminent arrival at Bangor rouses half the carriage as we pull in to a dilapidated station of peeling paint. After the Bangor-bound depart, it is we hearty few left in the quiet carriage: foot passengers for Holyhead and its ferry.
Each tunnel passed through sparks wonder of what dragons must have been unleashed by those great men, the Victorian railway builders. Among them Robert Stephenson, who designed the Britannia Bridge that carries us off the mainland and on to Anglesey — Ynys Môn. The island was mentioned by Tacitus and Pliny, and Giraldus Cambrensis himself called it ‘Môn, Mother of Wales’. Megaliths and menhirs proclaim the inhabitation of the Isle from before the days of history.
Almost as soon as the train crosses Stephenson’s bridge over the Menai Straits, it passes through the town of ‘Saint-Mary’s-Church-in-the-Hollow-of-the-White-Hazel-near-the-Rapid-Whirlpool-and-the-Church-of-Saint-Tysilio-by-the-Red-Cave’, known to the locals as Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch but often shortened (if we can stretch the meaning of that term) to Llanfairpwllgwyngyll or Llanfairpwll or Llanfair PG. Those who live there allegedly call it Llanfair. What the locals will do to pull one off the foreigners!
And then, finally, Holyhead. Days later, I was thanking God I chose the train-and-ferry, as the airports of Britain and Ireland ground to a halt under the pressure of snow and ice. (Unnecessarily too: Helsinki last shut due to adverse weather conditions in 2003, and it was for just a half-hour). Checking in at the ferry terminal, the ease of sea travel compared to the hassles of airports is apparent. You don’t even need a passport, thanks to the informal, unspoken agreement between Ireland and the United Kingdom.
Just as I am about to board the ferry, however, a policewoman asks for some form of identification, the words HEDDLU/POLICE printed in startling white across the black of her uniform. A driver’s license or student card would suffice, but as it happens I have my passport. She receives it with a smile, glances at the photo, hands it back, and waves me on.
So that was Wales, was it? I’ll have to come back and see it properly some day.