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A Wales Reading List

Most of the books listed below are in print and in paperback - those that are out of print (o/p) should be easy to track down in second-hand bookshops. Publishers follow each title; first the UK publisher, then the US. Only one publisher is listed if the UK and US publishers are the same. Where books are published in only one of these countries, UK or US precedes the publisher's name. Here you'll find more: Niall Griffiths's favourite Welsh books Also see: Dai Smith's top 10 Welsh alternatives to Dylan Thomas

 

Travel and impressions

Dennis Abse, Journals from the Antheap
(Century Hutchinson). Abse's prose, more accessible than his poetry, succeeds in being wry, serious and provocative at the same time. Much of this volume deals with journeys in his native Wales, which he describes with verve and tongue-in-cheek humour.

 

George Borrow, Wild Wales
(Century). Highly entertaining easy-to-read account of the author's walking tour of Wales in 1854, which says as much about Borrow and his ego as it does about Wales and the Welsh, who he treats with benign condescension.

 

Giraldus Cambrensis, The Journey through Wales and The Description of Wales (Penguin Classics).
Two witty and frank books in one volume, written in Latin by the quarter-Welsh clergyman after his 1188 tour around Wales recruiting for the third Crusade with Archbishop Baldwin of Canterbury. Both superb vehicles for Gerald of Wales' learned ruminations and unreserved opinions, The Journey breaks up the seven-week tour "through our rough, remote and inaccessible countryside" with anecdotes and ecclesiastical point scoring, while The Description covers rural life and the finer and less praiseworthy aspects of the Welsh character, summing up with "you may never find anyone worse then a bad Welshman, but you will certainly never find anyone better than a good one".

 

Tony Curtis (ed), Wales: the Imagined Nation
(Poetry Wales Press). A wonderfully varied selection of essays and wry poetry on a great diversity of topics, including writers such as R. S. Thomas and Dylan Thomas, together with the representation of Plaid Cymru in Welsh and British media, Wales in the movies, images of Welsh women and the country's indigenous theatre. Learned, often funny, and extremely rich.

 

Daniel Defoe, A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain
(Penguin). Classic travelogue opening a window onto Britain in the 1720s. Twenty pages on Wales.

 

Trevor Fishlock, Talking of Wales - a companion to Wales and the Welsh and Wales and the Welsh (Cassell).
Both rather dated now, but often found in secondhand stores. Vivacious outsider's guides to living in Wales from the ex-Welsh correspondent of the London. Times newspaper. Both books touch on folklore, humour and politics and paint an engaging picture of a nation perennially trying to define itself.

 

Jan Morris, The Matter of Wales
(Penguin). Prolific half-Welsh travel writer Jan Morris immerses herself in the country that she evidently loves. Highly partisan and fiercely nationalistic, the book combs over the origins of the Welsh character and describes the people and places of Wales with precision and affection. A magnificent introduction to a diverse, and occasionally perverse, nation.

 

H.V. Morton, In Search of Wales
(o/p). Snapshots of Welsh life in the 1930s. A companion volume to his In Search of England.

 

Thomas Pennant, A Tour in Wales
(Bridge Books). First published in 1773, the stories from Pennant's horseback tour helped foster the Romantic enthusiasm for Wales' rugged landscapes.

 

Peter Sager, Wales
(Pallas). Not so much a travel guide as a 400-page celebratory essay on Wales and especially its people by a German convert to the cause of all things Welsh. A passionate and fabulously detailed book.

 

Meic Stephens, A Most Peculiar People: Quotations about Wales and the Welsh. A fascinating and varied volume of quotations going back to the century before Christ and up to this decade. As a portrait of the nation, with all of its frustrating idiosyncracies and endearing foibles, it is a superb example. Most tellingly, it is easy to see how the typical English attitude of sneering at the Welsh is rooted way back in history.

 

Edward Thomas, Wales
(Oxford University Press). Classic 1905 book, in constant reprint. Lyrical and literary ponderings on the Welsh and harsh put-downs on the English. Thomas' grandolinquent opinions, wrapped and couched in his assured and poetical English, are often maddening, but never dull.

 

George Thomas, My Wales, with photographs by Lord Snowdon
(Century). Glossy, ponderous coffee-table tome with selections of other writings and the musings of the ex-House of Commons Speaker as well. Fabulous photographs are the main attraction in a book that`s better as a souvenir than as a guide.

 

History, society and culture

Leslie Alcock, Arthur's Britain
(Penguin). Info laden assemblage of all archeological and written evidence on the shadowy centuries after the Roman occupation of Britain.

 

Janet Davies, The Welsh Language
(University of Wales Press). The most up-to-date history and assessment of Europe's oldest living language is packed full of readable information, together with plans and maps showing the demographic and geographic spread of Welsh over the ages.

 

John Davies, A History of Wales
(Allen Lane). Exhaustive run through Welsh history and culture from the earliest inhabitants to the late 1980s reassessing numerous oft-quoted "facts" along the way. Translated from the original 1990 Welsh edition, it is clearly written and very readable but, at 700 pages, is hardly concise.

 

Gwynfor Evans, Land of my Fathers
(Gomer). Plaid Cymru's elder statesman first produced this massive tome in Welsh, translating it into English for publication over twenty years ago. As a thorough and impassioned history, it is hard to beat, although the political viewpoint of the author is always apparent.

 

Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain
(Penguin). First published in 1136 this is the basis of almost all Arthurian legend. Writers throughout Europe and beyond used Geoffrey's unreliable history as the basis of a complex corpus of myth.

 

P.H. Jeffery, Ghosts, Legends and Lore of Wales
(The Old Orchard). Excellent, slim and low-cost, if rambling, introduction to Welsh mythology.

 

Philip Jenkins, A History of Modern Wales 1536-1990
(Longman). Magnificently thorough book, placing Welsh history in its British and European contexts. Unbiased and rational appraisal of events and the struggle to preserve Welsh consciousness, with enough detail to make it of valuable academic interest and sufficient good humour to make it easily readable.

 

J. Graham Jones, The History of Wales
(University of Wales). The best step forward from our own entry-level history section, this concise, easy-paced overview of Welsh life comes with a welcome bias towards social history.

 

John Matthews, A Celtic Reader
(Aquarian). Selections of original texts, scholarly articles and stories on Celtic legend and scholarship. Sections on the Druids, Celtic Britain and The Mabinogion. Assumes a deep interest.

 

Elizabeth Mavor, The Ladies of Llangollen
(Penguin). The best of the books on Wales' most notorious and celebrated lesbian couple. This volume traces the ladies' inauspicious beginnings in Ireland, their spectacular elopement and the way that their Llangollen home, Plas Newydd, became a place of pilgrimage for dozens of influential eighteenth-century visitors. A fascinating story lovingly told.

 

Trefor M. Owen, The Customs and Traditions of Wales
(University of Wales). Pocket guide to everything from outdoor prayer meetings to the curious Mari Lwyd when men dress as grey mares and snap at all the young girls. Easy to read and fun to dip into.

 

George Thomas, Mr Speaker
(Century). The autobiography of Rhondda-born George Thomas, rich toned ex-Speaker of the House of Commons and now sitting in the Lords as Lord Tonypandy. From his humble beginnings, including the forceful discouragement of speaking Welsh at school, Thomas charts his fascinating career and is particularly interesting for his shattering recollections of the Aberfan disaster and, when Secretary of State for Wales, the 1969 investiture of the Prince of Wales at Caernarfon.

 

Alice Thomas Ellis, A Welsh Childhood
(Penguin). Wonderfully whimsical reminiscences of growing up in north Wales. Welsh legends and folk tales form a large part of the backdrop, fermenting excitedly in the young imagination of the popular novelist.

 

Wynford Vaughan-Thomas, Wales - a History
(Michael Joseph). One of the country's most missed broadcasters and writers, Vaughan-Thomas' masterpiece is this warm and spirited history of Wales. Working chronologically through from the pre-Celtic dawn to the aftermath of the 1979 devolution vote, the book offers perhaps the clearest explanation of the evolution of Welsh culture, with the author's patriotic slant evident throughout.

 

Jennifer Westwood, Albion: A Guide to Legendary Britain
(UK Grafton). Highly readable volume on the development of myth in literature.

 

Art, architecture and archeology

Pevsner and others, The Buildings of Clwyd and The Buildings of Powys (Penguin). Magisterial series covering just about every inhabitable structure. This project was initially a one-man show, but later authors have revised Pevsner's text, inserting newer buildings but generally respecting the founder's personal tone. Volumes of Dyfed, Glamorgan, Gwent and Gwynedd are yet to be published.

 

T.W. Potter and Catherine Johns, Roman Britain
(British Museum/University of California). Generously illustrated account of Roman occupation written by the British Museum's own curators.

 

Wales: Castles and Historic Places
(WTD/CADW). General chat and rich colour photos of the major CADW sites around the country.

 

Literature

Bruce Chatwin, On the Black Hill
(Picador). This entertaining and finely wrought novel follows the Jones twins' eighty-year tenure of a farm on the Radnorshire border with England. Chatwin casts his sharp eye for detail over both the minutiae of nature and the universal human condition providing a wonderfully gentle angle on Welsh-English antipathy.

 

Alexander Cordell, Rape of the Fair Country (Sphere), Hosts of Rebecca (o/p), Song of the Earth (o/p).
Dramatic historical trilogy in the best-seller tradition partly set in the cottages on the site of the Blaenavon ironworks during the lead up to the Chartist Riots. This Sweet and Bitter Earth (Coronet) immortalizes Blaenau Ffestiniog in a lusty slate epic.

 

John Davies (ed), The Green Bridge: Stories from Wales
(Seren). Absorbing selection of 25 short stories from a broad spectrum of Welsh authors writing in English during the twentieth century, including Dylan Thomas.

 

Thomas Firbank, I Bought a Mountain
(Hodder). One of the few popular books set in north Wales in which Anglo-Canadian Firbank spins an autobiographical yarn of his purchase of most of the Glyder range and subsequent life as a Snowdonian sheep farmer during the 1930s. Generous but patronizing observations about his neighbours and his wife mar an otherwise enjoyable, easy read.

 

Iris Gower, Copper Kingdom, Proud Mary, Spinners' Wharf, Black Gold, Fiddler's Ferry, The Oyster Catchers, the list goes on (all Corgi). Romantic novels by Wales' most popular author.

 

Glyn Jones, The Island of Apples
(University of Wales). Set in south Wales and Carmarthen in the early years of the twentieth century, Jones artfully portrays a sensitive valley youth's enthrallment in the glamour of the district's new arrival.

 

Lewis Jones, Cwmardy
(Lawrence and Wishart). Longtime favourite socialist novel, written in 1937 and portraying life in a Rhondda valley mining community in the early years of the twentieth century. Followed by its sequel, We Live.

 

Russell Celyn Jones, Soldiers and Innocents
(Picador). Tale of a soldier who deserts from Northern Ireland, kidnaps his five-year-old son and embarks on a voyage of self-discovery which takes him back to the Welsh mining community.

 

Richard Llewellyn, How Green Was My Valley? (Penguin), Up into the Singing Mountain (o/p), Down where the Moon is Small (o/p), Green, Green My Valley Now (o/p).
Vital tetralogy in eloquent and passionate prose following the life of Huw Morgan from his youth in a south Wales mining valley through emigration to the Welsh community in Patagonia and back to 1970s Wales. A best-seller during World War II and still the best introduction to the vast canon of "valleys novels", How Green was my Valley? captured a longing for a simple, if tough, life steering clear of cloying sentimentality.

 

Gwyn and Thomas Jones (transl), The Mabinogion
(Everyman's). Welsh mythology's classic, these eleven orally developed heroic tales were finally transcribed into the Book of Rhydderch (around 1300-25) and the Red Book of Hergest (1375-1425). Originally translated by Lady Charlotte Guest between 1838-49 at the beginning of the Celtic revival.

 

Gwyn Thomas, A Welsh Eye
(Hutchinson). A partly autobiographical, partly anecdotal view of how it feels to grow up in a small Rhondda town full of arcane and idiosyncratic wit and much more.

 

Dylan Thomas, Collected Stories
(Dent Everyman). Far better than buying any of the single editions, this book contains all of Thomas' classic prose pieces: Quite Early One Morning, which metamorphosed into Under Milk Wood, the magical A Child's Christmas in Wales and the compulsive, crackling autobiography of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog. The language still burns bright in a uniquely robust way.

 

Dylan Thomas, Under Milk Wood
(Dent Everyman). His most popular play, telling the story of a microcosmic Welsh seaside town over a 24-hour period. Reading it does little justice - far better, instead, to get a tape or record version of the play, and luxuriate in its rich poetry, or, as Thomas himself described it, "prose with blood pressure".

 

Alice Thomas Ellis (ed), Wales - an Anthology
(Fontana). A beautiful book, combining poetry, folklore and prose stories rooted in places throughout Wales. All subjects, from rugby and mountain climbing to contemporary descriptions of major events, are included in an enjoyably eclectic mixture of styles. Possibly the best introduction to Welsh writing.

 

Poetry

John Barnie, The City and The Confirmation
(Gomer Press). One of Wales' best contemporary writers, notable mainly for his mixing of styles from poetry to prose, narration and description. Evocative tales of wartime childhood and stifling parenting, leading to a poignant search for love.

 

Ruth Bidgood, Lighting Candles
(Poetry Wales Press). Light, elegiac verse inspired by the Welsh landscape. Her interweaving of climate, scenery and emotion is delicately handled, producing fine, and deceptively robust, pieces that stand up as physical description, spiritual discussion or both.

 

Gladys Mary Coles, The Glass Island
(Duckworth). Breathtakingly cool and descriptive poetry, much of which is set in the Berwyn Mountains in Clwyd and the hills of north Wales. Her gently probing technique uses discoveries of random objects or sights to spark off musings about their history and derivation.

 

Gerard Manley Hopkins, Collected Works
(Penguin). The religious poetry of this late nineteenth-century Anglo-Catholic still bears scrutiny today. Much of his best work was inspired by Wales - "the loveable west" - and the metre and rhythm of the Welsh language that he strove to learn. Heartfelt and often profoundly sad, with an exquisite ability to marry the grandeur of the landscape with the intensity of his feelings.

 

David Jones, The Anathémata
(Faber). Once ranked with Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot (who once declared him to be the finest poet then working in the English language), Jones has now been relegated to the footnotes of literary Modernism. A pity, because this long poem - a meditation on the history and mythology of Celtic-Christian Britain - is one of the most ambitious and intelligent pieces of writing to come out of Wales. A refreshing change from the emotive lushness of Dylan Thomas.

 

T. Harri Jones, Collected Works
(Gomer Press). Jones is one of Wales' most prolific twentieth- century writers, pumping out work firmly rooted in his native country. His passion and nationalism seems occasionally naive, although the hiraeth for Wales and its rootedness cannot fail to impress.

 

Meic Stephens (ed), Oxford Companion to the Literature of Wales.

A customarily thorough volume of Welsh prose, spanning the centuries from the folk tales of the Mabinogion to modern- day writings. A succinct and entertaining collection.

 

Dylan Thomas, Collected Poems
(Dent Everyman). Thomas' poetry has always proved less populist than his prose and play writing, largely due to its density and difficulty. Many of his lighter poems resound with perfect metre and precise structure, including classics such as Do not go gentle into that good night, a passionate yet calm elegy to his dying father.

 

R.S. Thomas, Selected poems 1946-1968
(Bloodaxe). A fierce, reclusive Welsh nationalist, Thomas' poetry tugs at issues such as God (he was an Anglican priest) Wales ("brittle with relices") and the family. His passion shines throughout this book, probably the best overview available of his prolific work.

 

Food and drink

E. Smith Twiddy, A Little Welsh Cookbook
(Appletree). Slim hardback neatly covering the traditional Welsh staples: bara brith, cawl, glamorgan sausages and laver bread.

 

Sarah & Ann Gomar, Welsh Country Recipes
(Ravette). Despite leaving out some of the traditional dishes this bargain book makes amends with its broad scope of more ambitious Welsh recipes.

 

The Best Pubs in North Wales
(CAMRA). A hundred or so top pubs with the emphasis on good beer, produced by the Campaign for Real Ale.

 

Other guides

William Condry, Snowdonia
(David & Charles). A personal guided tour around the Snowdonia National Park dipping into geology, natural history and industrial heritage. The best detailed approach to the region.

 

William Condry, Wales
(Gomer). As for Snowdonia, but covering the whole country.

 

David Greenslade, Welsh Fever: Welsh Activities in the United States and Canada Today
(D. Brown & Sons). Essential companion for anyone searching out Welsh and Celtic roots in North America. Commentary on regions from Quebec to San Diego along with accounts of a hundred individual sites of Welsh or Celtic interest.

 

Moira K. Stone, Mid Wales Companion
(Anthony Nelson). Wide-ranging though not terribly detailed look at life in the stretch of Wales from southern and eastern Snowdonia down to the Brecon Beacons. The town guides are perfunctory, and it is better for the examination of history (from transport to art), landscape influences and industry.

 

Wildlife and the environment

D. & R. Aichele, H.W. & A. Schwegler, Wild Flowers of Britain and Europe
(Hamlyn).
Superb full-colour identification guide divided by flower colour and sub-divided by flower form and habitat. Over 900 species covered but not Wales or even UK specific.

 

Douglas Botting, Wild Britain: A Traveller's Guide
(Sheldrake). Not much use for species identification but plenty of information on access to the best sites and what to expect when you get there. Excellent photos.

 

William Condry, A Welsh Country Diary
(Gomer). Over three hundred brief insights into the intricacies of Welsh country life - from the names of rivers to grass snakes in the garden - seen through the eyes of the longest serving contributor to The Guardian's Country Diary column.

 

Michael Leach, The Secret Life of Snowdonia
(Chatto & Windus). Beautifully photographed coffeetable delvings into the least visible natural sights of Snowdonia from feral goats to the Snowdon lily and a close-up of a raven in its nest.

 

Les Lumsden and Colin Speakman, The Green Guide to Wales
(o/p). Eco-tourism Cambrian style. A now-dated pocket guide to how to get around Wales with the least damage to the environment and its people. Solid background section on green tourism and good for co-operative and community initiative contacts.

 

David Saunders, Where to Watch Birds in Wales
(Helm). Enthusiasts guide to Wales' prime birding locations along with a bird spotting calender and a list of English-Welsh-Scientific bird names. Not an identification guide.

 

Detef Singer, Field Guide to Birds of Britain and Northern Europe
(Crowood). Colour-coded sections based on birds' plumage, and 700 beautiful photos back up detailed discussion of behaviour and habitat.

 

Roger Thomas, Brecon Beacons National Park - a Countryside Commission Guide
(Webb & Bower). Superb book, going into huge detail on the beginnings and building of the Beacons, as well as the wildlife and flora that you can expect to see there today. Well-written and hugely informative, whilst remaining essentially personal and enthusiastic.

 

Martin Walters, Wildlife Travelling Companion: Great Britain and Ireland
(Crowood, £14). One of the best amateur books on the flora and fauna of the British Isles, with a few full-colour pages to aid identification, and region-by-region site guide. Twenty pages specifically on Wales covering South Stack, Newborough Warren, Bardsey, Cadair Idris, Devils Bridge, St David's Head, Skomer island and more.

 

Collins Field Guides
(Collins). Series of thorough pocket-sized identification guides. Topics include insects, butterflies, wildflowers, mushrooms and toadstools, birds, mammals, reptiles, and fossils.

 

Outdoor pursuits

Bob Bob Allen, On Foot in Snowdonia
(Michael Joseph, hardback £15). Inspirational and superbly photographed guide to the hundred best walks, from easy strolls to hard scrambles, in and around the Snowdonia National Park. Well-drawn maps, faultless instructions and a star rating for each walk help you select your route. An essential guide, perfect but for its weight.

 

Pete Bursnall, Mountain Bike Guide: mid-Wales
(Ernest). Easy-to-follow pocket guide to a score of biking routes with hand-drawn maps. Due to be followed by a north Wales edition.

 

Cicerone Guides, The Mountains of England and Wales: Wales, The Ridges of Snowdonia; Hill Walking in Snowdonia; Ascent of Snowdon; Welsh Winter Climbs; Scrambles in Snowdonia and others, various authors (Cicerone). Clearly written pocket guides to the best aspects of Welsh mountain activities.

 

Constable Guides, Best walks in Southern Wales, Best Walks in North Wales, Owain Glyndwr's Way, A Guide to Offa's Dyke, various authors (Constable). More clearly written pocket guides to the best aspects of Welsh mountain activities.

 

A. J. Drake, Cambrian Way: A Mountain Connoisseurs Walk
(A. J. Drake). Thorough and detailed lightweight guide to Wales' most demanding long-distance footpath by one of the original proposers of this three-week-long, 274-mile Conwy-Cardiff route along Wales backbone.

 

Terry Marsh, The Mountains of Wales
(Hodder & Staughton). A walker's guide to all 183 600-metre peaks in Wales, giving step-by-step descriptions of one or more routes up them all with additional historical references and local knowledge.

 

Ordnance Survey Pathfinder Guides
(Jarrold). Softcover editions for large pockets covering Pembrokeshire and Gower Walks, Snowdonia, Anglesey and the Lleyn Peninsula Walks and Snowdonia Walks with 28 routes in each embellished with useful, if plodding, accounts of sights along the way.

 

Ordnance Survey National Trail Guides
(Jarrold). More large, paperback editions full of instructive step-by-step descriptions and additional side walks from Offa's Dyke North, Offa's Dyke South and Pembrokeshire Coastal Path.



W. A. Poucher, The Welsh Peaks
(Constable, hardback £9). The classic book on Welsh hill- walking, it is fairly dated now and it is initially awkward to find your way around the 56 routes.

 

Shirley Toulson, The Drovers' Roads of Wales with Fay Godwin
(Whittet, £10) and The Drovers' Roads of Wales II: Pembrokeshire and The South with Caroline Forbes (Whittet, £9). A pair of complementary books giving background material along with instructions on how to trace the routes along which Wales' characteristic black cattle were driven to market in England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The first book covers the northern two-thirds of Wales with superb shots in black-and-white by photography star Fay Godwin, the much more recent second book covers south Wales with more high-quality photos.

 

Shirley Toulson, Walking Round Wales: The Giraldus Journey
(Michael Joseph; hardback £15). A very readable guide broken into 30 walks following the route around Wales taken by the twelfth-century clergyman Giraldus Cambrensis and enlivened by his own quirky accounts.