Shortly after our first concert at Saint Cynog’s Church, the choir visited The National Assembly for Wales in Cardiff. The building houses the Welsh Parliament, known in Welsh as the Senedd. It stands as a sleek work of architecture. Opened in 2006, the premises border Cardiff Bay, and the sheen from its many windows provides a stark contrast to the antiquity of say- the Parliament in London, or the U.S. Capitol building. Before 1997, the Welsh were governed solely by the Parliament in England. Being only twenty years past its inception, the Welsh Parliament is relatively new. As a result, every facet of the Welsh government has a certain freshness and vigor to it. Even our tour guide at the Senedd appeared lively, not looking a day past his mid twenties.
One thing that stuck out to me about the Welsh government was how inviting and open it felt. After nothing more than a cursory security check, we were allowed inside to explore. I later learned that this was not special treatment reserved for our choir, as every Welsh citizen can do the same. After a quick visit to the café, we were led to a circular auditorium. Every seat was fitted with headphones and a video console, and in the center was a circular glass dome which enclosed the debating chamber for the Welsh Parliament. The debating chamber was a classy room, with computers at each desk and headsets for the purpose of immediate Welsh to English translation. Nestled behind a glass panel toward the front of the chamber was a regal looking golden mace, the symbol of parliamentary government.
In the auditorium, we had the honor of meeting the Welsh Secretary of Education, Kirsty Williams. She explained to us that whenever Parliament was in session, anyone may listen to the discussion in the debating chamber from up in the auditorium. To me, that gesture was indicative of the welcoming nature of Wales in general. Williams also taught us about the similarities of the Welsh government to our own back in America. In our system, there is a distinction between the federal government in Washington D.C. and the legislatures of each state. Not much is different in Wales. The Parliament in London governs over the whole U.K., much like our federal government, and the Parliament of Wales is congruent to an American state government.
After she shared these insights into the Welsh government, Williams asked the choir to sing “Rachie” in the auditorium. She had been to our concert the previous night and was quite impressed with our Welsh, even claiming that it was better than her own! Before leaving, we also sang the Welsh national anthem on the main staircase. Like many times already on the trip, everybody appeared to have been struck by the majesty of this musical moment. Our talent, dedication, and love for music had allowed us to create it for some of the leaders of this wonderful country, and it was a wonderful feeling. I truly believe that every choir member left the Senedd that day stunned at where their hard work had taken them.
After exploring the beautiful landscapes and the interesting culture of Wales for the past few days, I’ve started to think about the differences and similarities between here and NEPA. A huge similarity between Wales and NEPA is the coal and iron industries. This past Friday, the choir and I visited the site in Ystradgynlais where the iron industry flourished towards the beginning of the industrial revolution. The remnants of the Ynysgedwn Ironworks stand as what is called “Y Bont Aur” or “The Golden Bridge.” These are two massive arches that were part of the original ironworks building and are impressive in themselves. The peak of the site’s popularity was in the early 1800’s when a man named David Thomas worked towards perfecting the use of anthracite coal in the iron smelting process. This process had never before been perfected and yet on February 5th, 1837, he succeeded and thus created anthracite iron. This is where our local history comes in. In 1839, David Thomas then emigrated to America and began working for the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company where his techniques became very useful to the people in our area because of the abundance of anthracite coal. At the ironworks site in Wales, an informative sign states, “David Thomas revolutionized iron production in America and he is known as the ‘Father of the American anthracite iron industry’ to the present day.'”
As soon as our double-decker bus had passed the “Welcome to Wales” sign, the grandeur of the Welsh country side became apparent. The valley that we now found ourselves in was immediately familiar to us, our choir’s “Voices of The Valley” namesake being reflective of the geography back in Pennsylvania. However, the main difference here comes in the sense of scale. The trees tower above in a dense canopy that completely surrounds you, and from top to bottom, every inch of the eye is greeted with a vibrant explosion of green. Despite Wales being only a fraction of the size of the United States, its undisturbed countryside feels larger than any American forest that comes to mind.
Our choir’s first stop in this seemingly endless sea of green was Tintern Abbey. An ancient church founded in 1131, Tintern Abbey now stands as a hauntingly beautiful, hollow ruin. Again, the sense of scale is apparent, with the medieval walls towering over the greenery. One cannot help but feel small while exploring this vast shell. Furthermore, the large scale of the country’s history is also apparent in this place. No building in the U.S. can claim to have such a long history, and every nook, cranny, passage, and rock seemingly has a story hiding behind its weathered appearance.
While I was appreciating this rich history, I came across a map on the wall of the Abbey displaying how its layout from thousands of years ago. I found that to the right of my current location was located the church Choir Room. With this, I remembered the reason behind the choir’s coming to Wales. Whereas losing myself in the mountainous trees evoked The Valley portion of our name, my exploration of the choir room brought to mind the other half of “Voices of The Valley”. A shared love and history of choral music is what has brought our two countries together for this tour. Soon after I saw the choir room ruins, the chorus regrouped and sang Amazing Grace and The Welsh national anthem for parents and spectators. Tears were shed by those of both American and Welsh nationalities. I believe it was in that moment that our “International Odyssey of Friendship and Song” had officially begun.
Welcome to the Anthracite Heritage Museum and Scranton Iron Furnaces Blog! Check in often for updates from the museum and from guest bloggers!
Our first regular feature will begin in late July with the Voices of the Valley choir’s tour of Wales. A group of high school students from Valley View High School will chronicle their journey through Wales, where they were invited to perform their Welsh choral program. They will be visiting many historic sites tied to the Anthracite History of Northeastern Pennsylvania, and will offer their unique perspective on the ties between the two cultures.
More to come soon! In the meantime, check out the choir’s video below!