It’s entirely possible that when you read the heading of this article you thought that I had fallen asleep on my keyboard. Or that I had consumed a rather large quantity of alcoholic beverages. Or – to borrow a phrase from the bitingly satirical American publication The Onion in describing the Welsh language – it might have simply looked like the alphabet has vomited.
But I assure you that Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch is indeed the name of the place I’m writing about. If you’re thinking someone made up that name as a bit of a laugh…well, you’d be sort of right. Its name was elongated in the 1860s with the specific purpose of pulling tourists in. Judging by the sheer number of day-trippers who troop through here to have their picture taken by the famous sign, the ploy has worked.
Llanfair PG, to call it by its abbreviated name, is the second longest single worded place name in the world (the first is in New Zealand). Its English translation is ‘The Church of Mary in the Hollow of the White Hazel Near the Fierce Whirlpool and the Church of Tysilio by the Red Cave’. If you were hoping to gallivant around the neighbourhood ticking off all these things, then prepare for disappointment. The one accessible landmark these days is St Mary’s Church, sat on the banks of the Menai Sea that cleaves Anglesey from the homeland, where a statue of Horatio Nelson also resides.
There are a couple of other sites of minor interest. A toll-road gate still stands, and a monument to the Marquess of Anglesey, Henry Paget – Wellington’s right hand man at the Battle of Waterloo – looms over the town. Paget has gone down in history for the following exchange with Wellington, after having had his leg blown off toward the end of the fighting:
Paget: “By God, sir, I’ve lost my leg!”
Wellington: “By God, sir, so you have!”
For me, classic stiff-upper-lip British stoicism at its finest. The monument – both grand and understated at the same time – is a fitting tribute to these virtues. Apparently, you can climb to the top of it for panoramic views of the surrounding area, but it was shut when I visited. A sign, perhaps, that the local tourist board believes that people are merely interested in the cheesy photo opportunity.
This is very believable, for ultimately, commercialism wins out at Llanfair PG. Opportunities to get pictures of the sign without others milling by it were few and far between, yet I did not spot a soul at the church itself. If you need any further proof, look no further than the huge souvenir outlet based right next to the train station that sells an extraordinary array of Welsh-branded tat.
I would not put this place near the top of my list of favourite Welsh destinations, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I had a cheesy grin on my face when I first caught sight of the famous sign. Because whatever you make of it, you’re always aware of an intangible aura around Llanfair PG; the sort of aura found in those places that draw people to their otherwise unremarkable streets by the power of their name alone.