Introduction to Wales

Wales (Welsh: Cymru), a political division of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It occupies a broad peninsula on the southwestern coast of Great Britain and includes Anglesey and several smaller islands. Wales adjoins England on the east; elsewhere it is bordered by the Irish Sea, St. George's Channel, and the Bristol Channel—all arms of the Atlantic Ocean. The area of Wales is 8,019 square miles (20,769 km2), slightly more than that of New Jersey. Maximum dimensions are about 140 miles (225 km) north-south and 110 miles (175 km) east-west.

Facts in brief about Wales
Capital: Cardiff.
Official languages: Welsh and English.
Area: 8,015 mi2 (20,758 km2). Greatest distances—north-south, 137 mi (220 km); east-west, 116 mi (187 km). Coastline—614 m. (988 km).
Elevation: Highest—Snowdon, 3,561 ft (1,085 m) above sea level. Lowest—sea level, along the coast.
Population: Current estimate—2,977,000; density, 371 per mi2 (143 per km2m); distribution, 78 percent urban, 22 percent rural. 2001 census—2,903,085.
Chief products: Agriculture—barley, cabbage, cattle, cauliflower, hay, oats, potatoes, sheep. Manufacturing—aluminum, chemicals, electrical and electronic equipment, iron, motor vehicle and airplane parts, petroleum products, plastics, steel, synthetic fibers, tin plate. Mining—coal, limestone, slate.
Flag: The flag of Wales features a red dragon on two broad horizontal stripes of white and green (top to bottom). The dragon has been a Welsh symbol for nearly 2,000 years.

Physical Geography

WalesWales lies on the west coast of the island of Great Britain.

The Cambrian Mountains, which consist of rounded, grassy uplands cut by long narrow valleys, cover most of Wales. They are most formidable in the northwest, where several barren, wind-swept peaks attain elevations of more than 3,000 feet (900 m). Snowdon, at 3,560 feet (1,085 m), is the highest peak. Elsewhere the terrain is marked mainly by long, rolling hills 1,000 to 2,000 feet (300 to 600 m) above sea level. A few mountainous areas occur in the south, notably the Brecon Beacons (2,906 feet [886 m]) and the Black Mountains (2,660 feet [811 m]). Narrow coastal plains border the uplands. Other lowland areas include major river valleys, which are most extensive in the east and south.


The Severn River, the longest in Great Britain, begins in west-central Wales, flows into England, and then curves south and west, emptying into the Bristol Channel along Wales's southeastern border. Other Welsh rivers include the Dee, Dyfi, Teifi, Tywi, Taff, Usk, and Wye, which flow from the uplands to the coast. Numerous small lakes and reservoirs dot the Cambrian Mountains. Cardigan Bay, an arm of St. George's Channel, is the largest of several bays and inlets that indent the Welsh coast.


Wales has a mild climate, tempered by the ocean, and the weather is rarely very hot or very cold. Average temperatures generally vary from about 40° F. (4° C.) in January to 60° F. (16° C.) in July. Rain, drizzle, mist, and long periods of overcast are common in Wales, where precipitation is abundant. Annual rainfall ranges from 40 to 60 inches (1,020 to 1,530 mm) in most places; Snowdon receives more than 150 inches (3,810 mm).


Historically, Wales has had an industrial economy, the origins of which date back to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. For many years coal mining dominated all other activities. From about 1880 until World War I, when the industry began to decline, Wales was one of the foremost coal-producing and exporting areas of the world. Heavy industry dominated the economy from the 1930's until the mid-1980's. Since then the economy has diversified somewhat, and services and light manufacturing have become important.


Welsh manufacturing is heavily concentrated in the southeast, in or near the cities of Swansea, Cardiff, Port Talbot, and Newport. Metal processing is a major industry and includes steel manufacturing, nickel and copper refining, and zinc smelting. Huge Welsh steel mills produce about a third of Britain's steel. Since the 1950's petroleum refining has become a major industry, centered at Milford Haven, on the southwest coast. Light manufacturing includes the making of plastics, synthetic fibers, electronic equipment, and automobile parts.


For many years coal mining was a significant industry in Wales. The rich coalfields in the south of Wales yielded mainly high-quality bituminous coal, used to make coke. By the end of the 1980's, however, these coalfields had been virtually exhausted and most of the mines were closed. Limestone and slate are quarried in the Cambrian Mountains, mainly in the north. Gold is mined in the northwest.

Agriculture and Fishing

Largely because of the climate and the terrain, agriculture in Wales is mainly pastoral. Sheep and beef cattle are raised in the higher areas, while dairying predominates in the lowlands. Less than a tenth of the land is cultivated. Oats, used primarily as livestock feed, are the chief crop, followed by corn, potatoes, barley, and wheat. Fishing is locally important along most of the Welsh coast. Milford Haven is the leading commercial fishing port.


The principal Welsh roads and railways are east-west routes that extend into Wales from England. North-south transportation is rather poorly developed. Facilities are most extensive in the south, focusing on the major seaports of Cardiff, Swansea, and Newport. Milford Haven is a leading British petroleum port. Port Talbot, near Swansea, handles metal ores mainly. The largest airport is at Cardiff.

The People

The Welsh, a Celtic people, are noted for their individuality, a result of long being largely isolated by their rugged terrain from outside influences. Taking great pride in their Celtic ancestry, they have preserved much of their ancient culture.


In 2001 Wales had a population of 2,903,085. The overall density was about 362 persons per square mile (140 per km2). More than two-thirds of the people lived in the heavily industrialized southeast, where the density was much higher.

The largest cities are Cardiff, the capital, with a population of 305,349; Swansea, with 181,906; and Newport, with 137,020.

Language and Culture

English and Welsh are the official languages. Nearly a fifth of the people speak Welsh. The 1993 Welsh Language Act created a government-sponsored board to promote the use of Welsh, particularly in government and business.

The Welsh are well known for their musical and literary traditions. Choral singing is a popular pastime. The Royal National Eisteddfod (festival) is an annual event featuring competition in poetry and song. Another annual cultural event is the Llangollen International Music Eisteddfod. The Welsh National Opera is internationally known.

The legends of King Arthur have their roots in medieval Wales, and Arthurian legend plays a prominent role in Welsh literature and music. Outstanding Welsh writers include Dylan Thomas, Richard Llewellyn, Gwynn Jones, and Saunders Lewis.

Wales has several important museums and cultural institutions. The National Museum of Wales is in Cardiff. In Bodelwyddon Castle is an art museum. Aberystwyth is the site of the National Library of Wales.


Nearly all the people are Protestants. There is no state church. The predominant churches are the Calvinistic Methodist Church of Wales (Presbyterian), the Methodist Church in Wales, the Union of Welsh Independents (Congregationalist), the Welsh Baptist Union, and the Church in Wales (Anglican).


Education is compulsory for children from age 5 to age 16. The public education system is similar to that of England. The University of Wales consists of the University of Wales, Bangor; University of Wales, Swansea; University of Wales, Lampeter; University College of Wales (Aberystwyth); University of Wales College of Medicine (Cardiff); and the University of Wales College of Cardiff.


As part of the United Kingdom, Wales sends 38 representatives to the British House of Commons. There is a secretary of state for Wales in the British cabinet. The Welsh assembly distributes monies allocated by the British government. Wales is divided into 22 regions, each with an elected council.


The earliest known inhabitants of Wales were a dark-haired people who migrated from the European continent during the Stone Age. Wales was conquered by the Britons, a Celtic people, about 600 B.C. They called their country Cymru, derived from a word meaning "fellow countrymen." Cymru was occupied, but not subdued, by the Romans in their conquest of Britain in the first century A.D. When the Romans withdrew in the fifth century Britain was invaded by Germanic peoples: the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. The Anglo-Saxons, who called the western area Wealas, "land of the foreigners," tried unsuccessfully to control it.

After the Norman Conquest, 1066–71, Norman barons established large estates and fortresses along the Welsh border and gradually expanded into south and central Wales. In the 1200's Llewelyn the Great, from north Wales, won control over most of the country. By recognizing Henry III of England as his overlord, Llewelyn became Prince of Wales. Following a dispute, Llewelyn's domain was conquered by Edward I. Edward made Wales an English principality in 1284, and in 1301 designated his son Prince of Wales—a title since borne by each male heir apparent to the English throne.

The Tudor family of Wales came to the English throne in 1485, and Wales was incorporated with England under a single government by Henry VIII in 1536. The Welsh, however, retained a strong sense of their own identity.

Beginning in the 1880's, the Liberal party, and later the Labour party, promised home rule for Wales, but no action was taken. Nationalist sentiment grew after World War II, and in the late 1960's there was occasional violence by militant nationalists. In 1975 the British government announced plans to give Wales limited home rule, including an elected assembly. In a 1979 referendum, however, the Welsh turned down the proposal. In 1997 there was another referendum, this one on the creation of the National Assembly for Wales. It passed narrowly. The new body was granted limited powers, primarily in disbursement of the British budget for Wales. Wales maintained all its seats in the British Parliament. In 1999, Wales elected its first National Assembly. Labour narrowly won the most seats and Alun Micheal was elected Wales's First Secretatry.