Wales – a modern maritime nation?

David Jenkins

A Welsh tramp steamer loading Welsh coal at a Welsh port - The Cardiff-owned Radnor at Barry Docks in 1925

A Welsh tramp steamer loading Welsh coal at a Welsh port - The Cardiff-owned Radnor at Barry Docks in 1925

Green Bridge of Wales
Green Bridge of Wales, A natural arch in South Pembrokeshire: Image: JKMMX [Wikimedia Commons]
Swansea copper ore barque DELTA

Swansea copper ore barque DELTA

Coasteering near Porthclais, Pembrokeshire.
Coasteering near Porthclais, Pembrokeshire. Image: Rhyshuw1 [Wikimedia Commons]

Wales has a long and often spectacular coastline, over 850 miles in length, and nowhere in the country is more than some forty miles from the sea. This proximity to the sea has given rise to lengthy periods in our history when the Welsh were enthusiastic seafarers - but this was not always the case...

Celtic highways

Travel by sea was important in pre-history, especially for the Celtic saints. Archaeology is revealing the degree to which they considered the sea to be a highway, not a barrier, and common dedications to the same saints in Wales, Ireland, Cornwall and Brittany bear testimony to their maritime missionary wanderings.

The domination of the seas around Wales by the Vikings led to a sharp decline in maritime activity, and the Welsh would remain reluctant seafarers until the 18th century when the Industrial Revolution led to an upsurge in maritime activity once more. The various heavy Welsh minerals for which there was a demand were most economically transported by sea, by ships built in Wales and manned by Welshmen.

Welsh steam coal - a premium world fuel

Of all the minerals extracted in Wales, none was more significant than coal. A premium world fuel with a status comparable to that of oil today, it was the foundation of the Welsh economy from the 1850s well into the twentieth century. Burning south Wales steam coal, ships were no longer dependent on the wind and could reach their destinations sooner and with predictable reliability, transforming many aspects of everyday life.

The demand for Welsh steam coal slumped from the 1920s onwards, and by 1957, oil had overtaken coal as the world's premier source of energy. The decline of Wales' heavy industries also had a profound 'knock-on' effect on Welsh maritime activity, with docks closing and very few Welshmen going to sea. Today, Wales is a net importer of energy - unimaginable a century ago!

The tourist industry

Thousands of people interact with the sea in post-industrial Wales, but today they go to sea for pleasure, not for profit. Sailing, surfing, fishing, coasteering and similar leisure activities - these are the maritime activities of modern Wales. Tourism is today Wales's biggest industry and its stunning coastline plays a vital role in attracting visitors to the country.

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