Princess finds a Welsh welcome in Patagonia

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The Independent Online

Gaiman, Argentina

It was like a little corner of Wales, a lush green oasis amidst the barren wastes of windswept Patagonia, and the harmonic strains of the Welsh national anthem drifted through the pines. There was no international rugby match, just a small but tuneful welcoming choir for the visiting Princess of Wales.

Some local Argentine officials sang along. Even a few homesick Welsh reporters and photographers mouthed the words. But the royal lips remained firmly shut.

"I don't think she speaks Welsh. I wonder if she's having it taught to William and Harry," Luned Roberts de Gonzalez, a local Welsh teacher and member of the choir, said with a mischievous twinkle in her eye. "She could send them here to learn." Asked for her opinion of the Princess of Wales, the eyes twinkled again as she drew her fingers across her lips as though closing a zip.

On normal days, when there are no princesses around, Mrs Roberts's face is the best-known in Gaiman, a small town founded by hardy Welsh nationalists who fled cultural persecution 130 years ago. Her great-grandfather was the first to arrive on the Atlantic seaboard of Patagonia in 1863, in an advance party seeking a home as far as possible from the English usurpers.

It was the first settlement in Patagonia. There was nothing here but flat, dusty brushland, and the native Tehuelche Indians were initially hostile. Things picked up after a woman, Rachel Jenkins, noticed a slight slope in the Chubut river, and the settlers dug irrigation canals that eventually turned the valley into the fertile strip it is today. The inhabitants are now shepherds, fruit and vegetable farmers and, increasingly, professionals as other Argentines have ventured south to create a community of small businesses and industries.

The Welsh settlers are well and truly Argentines now, although they speak Spanish with a lilting Welsh accent, and have hardly changed their attitude to the British monarchy. But they showed a fine blend of Welsh manners and dignity at the weekend as they gave the Princess of Wales a warm, if not quite gushing, welcome to their little community more than 1,000 miles south of Buenos Aires and a little further from the Falkland Islands.

The only protest to greet the Princess was a silent one by a dozen women, not from the Welsh community, holding placards saying "The Malvinas [Falklands] are Argentine."

No one was quite sure why the Princess had come. They preferred to play down her title and pretend she was just another tourist. "At least she's putting us on the map," said 73-year-old Orwig Griffiths, who joined Diana for tea and cakes in a typically Welsh tea house called Ty Te Caerdydd. Well, at least for half a cup of tea and no cake. Although the Welsh tea houses are world-renowned for their variety of fresh cakes, and she was offered a selection of 25, "she didn't touch a thing", said Claudia, the waitress who served her.

Mrs Roberts's elder sister, Tegai, runs a Welsh immigrants' museum in what used to be the Gaiman railway station, where the Princess expressed particular interest on Sunday in a 19th-century Welsh moustache cup. Mrs Roberts herself runs the little Camwy school, which has helped stage a revival of the Welsh language so that the cultural identity of the 1,000 or so descendants of the settlers does not evaporate.

Although they have kept their traditions - choirs, annual eisteddfods, their own churches and afternoon tea - only 200 people still speak Welsh in the town. With the help of Gwilym Roberts, a retired teacher from Cardiff who moved here to give free Welsh classes, many more have begun learning.

Pointing to their Welsh culture and Argentine nationality, Mrs Roberts said there could be a lesson for Falkland islanders. "They were getting along quite well with Argentina before the conflict," she said. "Perhaps the life of the Welsh community here could serve as an example for a peaceful solution. Perhaps, if there's something going on behind the scenes, that's why the visit was organised."

The Princess of Wales yesterday visited the Casa de Vida (House of Life) in Buenos Aires, a centre which uses psychotherapy to treat drug addicts and encourages them to learn useful skills. She was due back in London early today.