Welsh Womanhood? If you have any doubts, look round that ramp. There, on the front, is a small plaque in that ancient and magically resilient language, Cymraeg - Welsh to the world at large. I come from Wales, and at our great annual festival, the National Eisteddfod, I am always enthralled to see people wandering around who are patently Welsh, but somehow more so, with an extra verve to everything they do. These are the Welsh of Patagonia, whose 163 forebears first went ashore on the site of Puerto Madryn in 1865, and who are commemorated by that image on the waterfront.
They were the original European settlers of Argentinian Patagonia, and they are recognised as the founders of the province of Chubut, which stretches clean across Patagonia from the Atlantic to the Andes. They were not looking for an easy life, or even for profit. They were escaping the oppressive English at home, and hoping to establish here a New Wales of their own, where they could worship as they pleased, order their affairs as they wished and speak their own language. They had chosen a virtually uninhabited destination, ungoverned, no more than technically part of Argentina, and they called it Y Wladfa, The Colony.
These were not the boozy, bawdy, lyrical Welsh. These were 19th-century chapel Welsh, God-fearing and Bible-loving, and it so happened that almost the moment I arrived from Puerto Madryn at Trelew, the little metropolis they built for themselves at the threshold of the valley, I found myself at a full-blown Welsh chapel function - a vestry tea-party for a Welsh preacher returning to Wales.
This was jumping into Welsh Patagonia at the deep end. It was Welshness in excelsis. The welcome was fervent - "A visitor from Wales! Come in, come in, have some tea, sit down, meet Mrs Williams, meet Mrs Jones." Not a word was spoken but in Cymraeg, nota face was anything but recognisably Welsh, and among the celebrants was a granddaughter of Lewis Jones, the founding patriarch of Y Wladfa.
By now Trelew does not look very Welsh - the people of Y Wladfa have been vastly outnumbered by later arrivals. But its origins are not forgotten. Lewis Jones is a civic worthy still, with a street named for him, and a statue, and in the middle of town stands the Salon San David, St David's Hall, a large brick building with two towers authoritatively said to honour Welsh architectural styles, but suggesting to me something in Indianapolis.
It is true that on some tourist maps this building is marked as a bingo hall, but it is the headquarters of the Asociacin San David, the organisation which cherishes the links with Old Wales. There are Welsh language courses in Patagonia, there are visits by preachers and tours by choirs, and twice a year the Asociacin stands patron to Patagonia's own Eisteddfod - half in Spanish nowadays, but still based upon the hallowed original. In the Salon San David, the Welsh Connection is very much alive.
Along the road from Trelew is Gaiman, and the day after I arrived there a violent wind blew up. Everything banged, everything whistled, dust, paper, bits of trees and tin cans rushed about the streets. Through it all, if I looked through my window, huddled against the blast and half-veiled in dust, I could see Dyffryn Camwy, the valley of the lower Chubut which was the original Y Wladfa. Nowadays the Welsh generally call it just Y Dyffryn, the Valley.
It was not at all what the settlers had been led to expect. It was not a bit like Wales. It was not in the least a land of milk and honey. It was dead flat, it was covered in scrub, it had virtually no trees and the river ran through it muddily, now and then erupting into catastrophic floods. Some of the Welsh understandably returned home again, or went up to Canada, but most of them stuck it out. New migrants arrived from Wales, and in time they made a thriving agricultural colony, 40-odd miles long, irrigated by a complex system of canals, systematically divided among the settler families, and equipped with 14 thoroughly Welsh chapels. It was a tight-knit, ethnically cohesive society.
By now the original farms of the Valley have mostly been broken up, and its community is largely scattered. And although the dykes the Welsh built are still at work, the men you see scything or digging or ploughing by hand are likely to be Bolivian migrants; in the occasional grocery store, out among the farms, I found myself served by wild-looking semi-Indian people, a dwarf in one, a goggle-eyed woman with matted hair in another.
Here and there, though, all unexpected in little green enclosures, you will find one of those 14 chapels. It is probably built of red brick, extremely plain and four-square, but it retains an air of contemplative serenity. Nine chapels are still active in the Valley on and off - when there is a preacher available, or when there is a song-festival - and to a Welsh sentimentalist they are almost excruciatingly evocative. Some of the chapels have graveyards, and these are touching too. Whole families of Joneses, Evanses, Williamses and Morgans lie here, sometimes beneath stones of real Welsh slate, carved by masons far away in Wales with the traditional motifs of Welsh mourning.
There are Welsh people in the Valley, too, still alive, still very Welsh.
The first few doors you knock on will bring only regretful responses in Spanish. Then you strike lucky. "D'you speak Welsh, senor?'' you ask for the 20th time, and into a weathered brown face there will come a gleam of welcome. The house will almost certainly be simple. You will be seated at once on a hard-backed chair by the kitchen table, and the kettle will be on the boil for tea. Your conversation will probably be about Roots. Even Patagonian Welsh people who have never been to Wales know its geography well, know which villages their grandparents came from, and very probably know where your own home is on the map. Their Welsh is likely to be slightly rusty and slow, very convenient to somebody like me whose command of the language is at best rough and ready.
It may well be, as legend in Wales habitually has it, that your hosts are living almost exactly as they might be living in Wales today, or at least the day before yesterday: with the same sort of furniture, the same inherited knick-knacks, an upright piano perhaps, a case of books, home-made butter in the refrigerator and a border collie at the door. On the table is likely to be a copy of Y Drafod, the Welsh-language journal which has been published in Patagonia for more than a century, and is now less a newspaper than a kind of family circular. Everything is spick-and-span in such a house, very fresh, very clean, very taclus - a Welsh word which, meaning "tidy'' in an almost abstract sense, is very popular in Y Wladfa.
But it may be that you hit upon extremely poor Welsh farmers, living in a house of crude brick whose roof may be of mud and wattle, like the houses of medieval Europe. Beneath their bare electric light bulbs, these people are living far closer to the soil than ever they would be if their forebears had never left Wales in the first place. The chances are that the family is now half-Hispanic, and that only the father or mother speaks Welsh at all. Another generation, and the language will be lost to this house.
The Valley is hardly an eldorado, and there were some among the Welsh who looked further west, into the wide desert plateau that lies beyond the Valley. This was the province of the wild beasts and the Tehuelche Indians, and Welshmen from the Dyffryn Camwy were among the first foreigners to cross it. It is some 450 miles from the Valley to the foothills of the Andes, and in every mile of it I felt the mounting exhilaration that must have animated the young men and women of Y Wladfa, striking west out ofthe valley into the unknown. And finally I saw the land of milk and honey. First, distant snow-ridges of the Andes, then rolling foothills, and lakes, and verdant valleys, and thickets of green trees, and wide farmlands, and horses, and on that brilliant summer day, the sort of glow of fulfilment that allegorical artists used to apply to pictures of theological reassurance. It was a marvellous, a spectacular country.
The Welsh were the first Europeans to settle it, and they called it Cwm Hyfryd, Lovely Valley. I felt no melancholy here. Here, as in the Valley, the culture of the Welsh is slowly fading, but I felt it was going out in style. Here the Welsh farms are scattered in space and liberty against the backdrop of the high mountains, and the little metropolis of the Welsh, Trevelin, seemed full of fun and sunshine. I drove from farm to farm in high spirits, buying cheeses here, discussing the future of the Welshlanguage there, listening to tales of hard winters and economic hazard - for even in a Promised Land, life is seldom easy. There were horses everywhere, and lovely dogs. A young Welsh farmer called up his Dad for me in Welsh on his VHF radio. An old Welsh farmer showed me the house he had built himself with the stone he had quarried and the bricks he had baked, the machinery he had made from old Chevrolet parts "everything home-made, everything my own!''
And in a farm on the outskirts of Trevelin I found my last archetype of Y Wladfa. He was like the smile, as it were, on the face of the Cheshire Cat. My last Welshman cheerfully spoke for history. Not a soul in his household understood a word of Welsh beside himself, but they all clustered eagerly around us as we talked - a jolly Argentinian wife, diverse unidentified children and grandchildren, dogs and chickens and a horse tied to the fence; and with his cloth cap tilted on his head, his hands in his pockets, that Welshman of Patagonia touched my heart not with melancholy at all, but with grateful pride to be Welsh myself.Reuse content