Written evidence submitted by Bangor University, Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies, and Swansea University (TOU0001)


The following information is from research undertaken at Bangor University, the Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies and Swansea University as part of the European Travellers to Wales 1750 – 2010 project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

The project is grounded in Modern Languages research and explores the reception and understanding of Wales and Welsh culture by European travellers as reflected in published and unpublished travel accounts from the mid-eighteenth century to the present day. The project team worked with stakeholders including Visit Wales, the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Wales, the National Library of Wales and local museums.


The main research findings and illustrative materials are available in the following outputs:


Rationale for Submission of Evidence:

As well as exploring the cultural and textual value of travel writing on Wales, our research has traced the attitudes and motivation of travellers to Wales over more than two centuries. The focus has primarily been on those travelogues written in French and German as these constitute the majority but our database contains almost 500 entries with accounts written by travellers from all over Europe. By examining these materials, it has been possible to trace the development of travel and tourism to and in Wales from a European perspective and also to pinpoint shifts in areas of interest and attitudes. This research does not claim to provide a comprehensive evaluation of European travel trends in relation to Wales, dealing as it does only with those travellers who wrote and disseminated their accounts. However, our findings may be of use to this enquiry in terms of providing historical context and some evidence of longitudinal trends.


Summary of Key Research Findings:

The following summarises thematically key findings from the project which relate to how Wales is understood, accessed and consumed as a travel / tourist destination in the accounts examined by the research team. Key aspects are surfaced in bold.

The text is adapted from the concluding chapter of the book Hidden Texts, Hidden Nation: (Re)Discoveries of Wales in Travel Writing in French and German 1780 – 2018 (2020), pp. 235-248.


  1. The Profile of Wales Over Time:

The profile of Wales as a destination for Continental travellers has undergone substantial shifts over the course of the last two and half centuries, with periods of heightened interest and others where it has disappeared almost entirely from view.  Although the English home tour of Wales was established by the 1780s, outside of Britain, Wales was still hardly known at all, or else dismissed as a rainy and barren land.  Starting out from tiny numbers in the eighteenth century, the genre of the Continental travelogue on Wales grew and enjoyed its golden age around the middle of the nineteenth century, when railway lines opened up travel possibilities. By the end of the nineteenth century a narrative of Wales had clearly been established in both French and German, with texts becoming increasingly derivative, travellers often walking in the footsteps of predecessors both in terms of itinerary and discourse. More often than not, Wales was dealt with as an adjunct to England, as part of a larger tour with relatively few travelling to the country as the main destination. It is only really in the twentieth century that Wales is treated on its own terms in travel writing. A lessening of travel activity, primarily due to the two world wars, left Wales ripe for rediscovery towards the end of the century by new travellers, but now with little reference to the work of their predecessors. Wales remerges in new garb at the dawn of the twenty-first as a haven, a modern peripheral nation with a capital city rich in attractions and a boundless range of opportunity for the outward-looking traveller with a taste for adventure.

  1. Finding Wales:

Initial contact with Wales for many early travellers was made through the English-language sources of the ‘Home Tour’, such as Gilpin, Pennant, Nicholson and Borrow. There are, however, fewer references to these texts in French and German sources than one might expect given the now canonical status of these seminal English texts. They remain a shadow-like influence, often mentioned in passing comments and footnotes but only seldom the subject of critical engagement. Another shadow source for travellers is the guidebook genre which grows in importance during the course of the nineteenth century – mirroring the expansion of the railway network – to become a channel for the indirect mediation of emerging key themes such as the impact of tourism and the advance and value of modernity. Their influence is undoubtedly greater than the travel writers seem willing to admit, and material from English-language guidebooks can be found unacknowledged in travelogues. As the nineteenth century progresses, the number of published first-hand travel accounts in the original or translation increases exponentially, meaning travellers have better access to material on Wales prior to departure, thus forming their expectations in advance, a trend which naturally continues and intensifies in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Despite the increasing availability of information on Wales, many travellers still seem surprised by what they find there meaning they seek ways to contextualize the ‘other’ culture in which they find themselves: that place called Wales, often unexpectedly different from the ‘England’ most of them had come to see. Arriving in Wales does not always immediately translate to a feeling of ‘being there’. The place or moment when different travellers believe themselves to have reached ‘Wales proper’ shows the importance of cultural measures as well as geographical. It also suggests the growth of clichés of ‘Welshness’, but is equally symptomatic of a peristent level of confusion as to ‘where’ Wales is. This local confusion is overlaid by the ongoing conflation, which continues to the present day, of England and Wales in the nomenclature adopted by Continental travellers to describe their destination. The pervasive issues of the location and categorization of Wales remain integral features of contemporary travel accounts, which would suggest that Wales’s identity and image remain fluid and have not yet solidified in European eyes.


  1. Contextualising Wales:

Once arrived, writers adopt a variety of prisms through which they seek to understand and contextualize the country in which they find themselves – Celtic, Breton, English, sublime, Romantic, industrial, modern, touristic, colonial  – all contributing to the narrative as it emerges by the end of the nineteenth century. In terms of the landscape, informed primarily by notions of the sublime and the Romantic, Switzerland is the dominant point of comparison for Welsh scenery in the earliest accounts, as it is in English tours of the time. As the century progresses, Wales and its landscape often appear as a stage setting, a blank canvas onto which the traveller’s own aspirations and fantasies can be projected. Industrial development in Wales is also a significant topic, viewed both in French and German from the perspective of a rival, with frictions increasingly evident in mutual paranoia about spying as well as brutal criticisms of the environmental, social and cultural damage done by industry. Underlying this is a conflicted attitude towards Wales and its place in the modern world. Comments on the impact of industry on the landscape, noted particularly by French travellers in south Wales, and the threat to Welsh-language culture posed by the growing number of tourists brought by the developing rail network, which is a key area of concern in German accounts, draw out the dangers presented by modernity in the Welsh context, often directly contradicting the calls by many travellers to see Wales brought into the modern world. The reading of Wales as somewhere which is backward and in need of modernization sits uneasily with the parallel reading of the nation as a paradigm of progress worthy of the attention of industrial spies. This conflicted reading is typical of the complexity found in the travel writing of the period. The differing priorities of individual travellers are foregrounded over time as the narrative of Wales gradually emerges.

Perhaps the most significant and enduring prism through which Wales is understood, however, is the ‘Celtic’, and alongside it, from a French perspective, the ‘Breton’. Like the genre of travel writing, the notion of the Celtic also enjoyed a golden age in the nineteenth century. The growth of interest in the Celts in both France and Germany, for different reasons, is reflected in travel accounts of Wales. There are some constants amongst the obscuring filters; for instance comparisons with Switzerland are still being drawn in the 1890s, before declining in the twentieth century. Conversely, the Celtomaniac comparison with Brittany goes from being non-existent to dominating views of Wales from the late eighteenth century onwards and has lasted to the present day. In terms of the reading of Wales, however, this Celtic appreciation was firmly tied to a Romantic world view with Wales’s Celtic heritage and sublime landscape emerging as a battleground for the survival of tradition in the face of advancing modernity in the dual guise of industrialization and developing tourism.

Towards the end of the twentieth century there are fundamentally different frameworks of interpretation and loci of interest with a shift away from Welsh language and culture to a more sensory and physical ‘consumption’ of Wales, at which point the differences between French and German cultural spheres recede. However, some commonalities persist with previous modes of perception; in particular Wales continues to serve as a cultural and political role model for Brittany, and the Romantic evocation of Wales as a spiritual haven finds a counterpart in the twenty-first century. The importance of Wales as a haven constitutes a significant trope in Continental travel writing from the French Revolution onwards. Other political exiles followed in the wake of political upheavals throughout the nineteenth century, the First World War brought thousands of Belgians to Wales, and yet others fled the Spanish Civil War, Nazi Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe. By the twenty-first century, the construction of Wales as a haven had become depoliticized, a refuge which could be chosen by a traveller in search of temporary respite. As was the case with the nineteenth-century German reception, tensions emerge between the greater accessibility of Wales and the impact this has on its reception by writers. There is certainly notable visibility in terms of book-length travelogues being devoted solely to Wales from the start of the twenty-first century, but this also exhibits a tendency to atomization and fragmentation with a lack of a sense of a geographical entity as, unlike the largely linear narratives of the nineteenth century, the destination is consumed piecemeal as a place of adventure, freedom and literary connection.


  1. North vs South

To some extent, the representation of Wales in any given text is dependent upon which part of the country the traveller is describing, the awe-inspiring landscape of the north provokes a very different response to the industrial advances of the south for example. The regional differences could also be attributed to the patterns and beaten tracks established in previous texts. This geographical emphasis is reflected in the works of Continental travellers. The nineteenth-century German focus is firmly on north Wales largely because that is the area which speaks most to the generally Romantic reading of Wales, centred on landscape and culture, which dominates the century with only few exceptions. A greater balance between north and south can be found in the nineteenth-century French examples examined here, with visitors attracted by the mountainous north, the Arthurian south, the industries of both north and south, and linguistic, cultural and religious activities held in both north and south such as Eisteddfodau and the 1904-1905 Revival. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, south Wales emerges as the focal point of most accounts due to growing interest in Cardiff as the capital city, the ‘book kingdom’ of Hay-on-Wye, and sites associated with Dylan Thomas such as Swansea and Laugharne. However, for the first time, travellers are also drawn towards Wales’s western extremities, most notably St David’s and Ynys Enlli (Bardsay Island), suggesting a westward drive for cultural authenticity and spiritual retreats, the more peripheral the better. Although Wales is coming into closer focus in more recent texts, paradoxically it also remains peripheral: the traveller’s desire for escape impels the discovery of ever new ‘havens’. Another more practical reason for the geographically polarized view of Wales is that the main points of entry into Wales are in the north and south: Holyhead and Telford’s A5 (taking travellers from Shrewsbury, via Llangollen in the heart of north Wales) in particular is responsible for many of the texts that the project has uncovered, and most of the south Wales tours enter Wales via Chepstow and Raglan. Following the advent of the car, and despite the customization of travel and greater accessibility of destinations which lie beyond the familiar routes of the coaches and trains, mid-Wales still remains something of a blank spot in more recent travel accounts.
















Overview of findings [taken from www.etw.bangor.ac.uk/accounts-of-travel]:

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February 2022