Singing Hymns in Welsh

In the 70s we spent a number of Augusts working at the St David’s Arts Festival. It was a long journey; it would take about nine hours to drive from Sunderland to this westernmost part of Wales. The motorway driving wasn’t bad but once we got to Ross-on-Wye, oh dear! The A40 through Abergavenny, Brecon and Carmarthen to Haverfordwest was only dual-carriageway for very short stretches, and the rest of the time…

Well, let’s say that if Dai wasn’t out in the tractor, Blodwyn was off in the car to do the shopping, both travelling at 20 miles an hour (max!) in the middle of the road. That stretch took almost as long as the journey from Sunderland to Ross.

Once we arrived in St David’s, we would head straight for the digs. We always stayed with Mrs Beer – and it was always “Mrs Beer”, never “Elizabeth.” Oh no! She might have called us Irene and Peter, but for us it had to be “Mrs Beer”.

The ritual was always the same. She’d greet us at the door – “Lovely to see you. I’ve put you in your usual room” – and we’d go up and unpack. A little while later we’d go downstairs and she’d be there, waiting.

“Kettle’s boiling. Cup of tea?”

“Thank you. Yes,” was the only acceptable answer, so, tea and biscuits served, she’d enquire about our health and hope we’d have lovely weather for Festival. Then she’d tell us about her son, John, and about how much more of St David’s her brother David has bought up since last year, and finally the – inevitable – climax of the conversation: “Cymanfa ganu on Saturday night. You will be coming, won’t you?”

Cymanfa ganu – that’s “Kuh-man-va ga-ny” – means “singing festival” and, specifically for Mrs Beer, it meant community hymn-singing at Tabernacl (that’s the right spelling; it’s Welsh), the chapel in Goat Street. And even more specifically it meant community hymn-singing in Welsh.

In St David’s in the seventies you were either chapel or pub. They were the places you found your entertainment and never the twain would meet – at least, not as far as the chapel folk were concerned, for alcohol was evil, a veritable tool of the devil.

By this time the pubs were open on Sunday in Pembrokeshire and there was a bit of an influx of “arty types” (Hippies!) but otherwise St David’s was very old fashioned Welsh. For a significant proportion of the population Welsh was still their first language and Mr Morgan the milkman was still, even by English speakers, referred to as “Morgan the milk.”

Anyway, as we were staying in a chapel household, we were “invited” to go to the Cymanfa Ganu on our first Saturday, an invitation that was hard to refuse for Festival hadn’t yet started and we didn’t rehearse on Saturday nights.

So that’s what we did, every first Saturday night of Festival, Irene and I; we went to Tabernacl to sing Welsh hymns! When we first went the only Welsh words I knew were bore da (good day), nos da (good night) and Croeso i Gymru (welcome to Wales) – oh, and the words of the Sospan Fach chorus, which I’d learned from Irene’s involvement in a production of Emlyn Williams’ How Green Was My Valley.

Isn’t theatre educational?

They allowed for our ignorance – they announced the hymn numbers in English as well as Welsh – and so we sang, among many more, Calon Lân, Marchog Iesu, Diolch i’r Iôr and, of course, Cwm RhonddaArglwydd, arwain trwy’r anialwch.

At the end, after a long extempore Welsh prayer, the congregation would spill out onto Goat Street and everyone seemed to want to greet us. “Nice to see you!” “Hope you have a good Festival.” After about ten minutes or so of good wishes, they were all gone, off to their homes and, when the last figures vanished from sight, we walked down the street to the Farmer’s Arms for yet more singing – of a different kind generally, although Calon Lân often made its appearance, as it does when any Welsh singers get together – and “Welsh singers” tends to mean anyone from Wales!

I remember singing it with a Welsh actor in a restaurant in Islington (we were a little the worse for wear but the waiters applauded us at the end!) and with a teacher in a school dining-room in South Shields. And Michael Bogdanov used it (in four-part harmony) in his excellent – well it would be; it was Bodger after all – Wales Theatre Company production of Under Milk Wood which toured all over the UK.

And of course everyone sang Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, the Welsh national anthem, as fervently as any chapel congregation singing their hymns!

So, the Cymanfa Ganu made a big impression on me and to this day I still enjoy hearing – and joining in! – Welsh hymns. I’m not religious – far from it! – but I was brought up a Methodist and Methodism, the hymn book tells us, “was born in song.” So we, as the Calon Lân chorus says, “Canu’r dydd a canu’r nos” – sing by day and sing by night!

Theatre really does give you a wide – and sometimes quite odd – range of experiences!


One thought on “Singing Hymns in Welsh

  1. A trip down memory lane – St.Davids in the seventies and the Arts Festival were very happy days for me, and now bang up to date. As a child of Methodism, I recently spent 14 years in the wilderness of the West Highlands of Scotland. There are plenty of Roman Catholic Churches and a plenitude of “Wee Free” Presbyterian places of worship but not a Methodist chapel for 60 miles. Next Sundaywhen the Methodists of Dundee are raising the roof, I’ll think of you.


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