Wonders to behold

Why should I always produce original material and new ideas? Why can’t I just regurgitate hackneyed formulas and knackered stereotypes like everyone else?  Hmm, let’s see whether I can wring anything out of one of the most threadbare of all Welsh clichés, one that’s regularly dusted down for a re-run in the Western Mail whenever slack news periods (i.e. 52 weeks per year) call for dollops of stodgy filler: The Seven Wonders of Wales.

Every schoolkid in Wales of my generation knew the verse off by heart:

Pistyll Rhaedr and Wrexham steeple,
Snowdon’s mountain without its people,
Overton yew trees, St Winefride’s well,
Llangollen bridge and Gresford bells.

The chirpy quatrain, the creation of an anonymous English visitor to northern Wales in the late 18th century, has little if any poetic merit, with its clumsy meter, inept rhyming pattern and feeble plinkety-plonk rhythm. And the title itself is rather misleading, The Six Wonders of Clwyd & One of Gwynedd would be more accurate – but that’s just a reflection of the complete absence of southern Wales from the itinerary of an English upper-middle-class proto-tourist 250 years ago. But there is still something evocative about its innocent enthusiasm, something pleasing about its concentration on a small corner of Wales, something counter-intuitive about its exoticisation of humble, disregarded places, and something prophetic in its weary complaint about Snowdon’s crowds – penned at a time when the total UK population was 10 million compared to today’s 60 million.

Since the doggerel was an obvious homage to and updating of The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, it cries out for similar treatment itself to reflect contemporary Wales. Borrowing both Anon’s structure and sceptical eye, here’s one I tossed off earlier:

Piss-head Tories and wretched sheep-hills,
Low-brow morons bought off by cheap thrills,
Overpaid traitors, St David’s mall hell,
Llanilltud twits and gross Bay smells.

No, that’s too easy, and doesn’t do justice to the innate seriousness of the ancient wonders that inspired Anon. Compiled by various Greek scribes and travellers around 100BC, they were all man-made constructions that co-existed simultaneously for less than 100 years and only the 4,500-year-old Great Pyramid of Giza is still standing. Despite being the oldest, it has outlasted the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, the Lighthouse of Alexandria and the Colossus of Rhodes (the last to rise in 280BC and first to fall in a 226BC earthquake). In contrast all seven Welsh wonders are still with us. Mind you, given that three of them are not man-made (waterfall, mountain and trees), this isn’t comparing like with like. Pistyll Rhaedr and Snowdon are geological creations that render the Pyramid a new-fangled whippersnapper, while the most senior of the 21 yew trees in the churchyard at Overton is 2,000 years-old, middle-aged for a yew, and could well outlive the Pyramid too. By including natural wonders, Anon both tweaked the template and also implied that seven buildings of adequate architectural merit couldn’t be found. This was probably true in 18th century Flintshire and Denbighshire and the inclusion of the much-altered 16th century bridge over the Dee at Llangollen confirms the paucity of truly noteworthy structures. Come to think of it, much the same could be said about the area in the 21st century – until, perhaps, the familiarity and mellowing of time works its magic on the overpowering 1998 cable-stayed Flintshire Bridge over the Dee Estuary. At least the obvious trap of chucking in any of the many castles of Wales was avoided – a lazy option already worn to the bone by then, yet still being flogged to death by Visit Wales to this day – while the inclusion of four wonders with direct religious connections at Wrexham, Overton, Holywell and Gresford mirrors the plethora of Gods in the ancient wonders (Helios, Zeus, Artemis, Triton, Poseidon) and merely underlines the centrality of pilgrimage to self-improving 18th century sight-seeing.

Actually the most interesting thing about the Welsh wonders is the ditty’s central role in cementing the habit of making ‘best of’ lists, now ubiquitous as cheap’n’cheerful click-bait the world over, although usually decimalised rather than in sevens. The ‘seven wonders’ blueprint meanwhile has developed a life of its own, with many subsequent writers compiling lists of their contemporary architectural favourites from the 19th century onwards, and serious academic and international bodies regularly reworking the hoary frame of reference. Over the years we have been treated to The Seven Wonders of the Modern World, The Seven Wonders of the Natural World, The New Seven Wonders of the World, The New Seven Wonders of the Natural World, The Seven Wonders of the Underwater World, The Seven Wonders of the Industrial World and so on ad infinitum. None of these other lists have ever included a single Welsh place, but these snubs only seem to goad Media Wales into more attempts to find seven modern Welsh wonders and keep the tills ringing, zipwires humming and surfing lakes churning in this ‘Epic Land of Legends’ (©Visit Wales). Their most recent yawn-inducing readers’ poll in 2013 came up with:

The Glasshouse at the National Botanic Garden
Wales Millennium Centre
Pontcysyllte Aqueduct
The Pembrokeshire islands

Versifying Anon-style again, that predictably uncontroversial septet could go:

A big glass dome and a bardic chair,
Yr Wyddfa peak with no-one there,
WMC (the writing’s on the wall),
Sky-water, mock-Med, some isles…balls!

Ok, I admit defeat, there’s no mileage left in the clapped-out concept.