A short piece I wrote for Cadw, the Welsh Government’s historic environment service
Sport is a central part of the history and heritage of Wales. It has played an important role in the lives of individuals, communities and the nation. Indeed, in a country lacking the more conventional markers and apparatus of nationhood, it could be argued that sport is one of the reasons why a strong sense of Welshness has survived in the modern era.
For many individuals sport was an important part of the routine of their lives. It offered a physical and emotional escape from the drudgery and harsh realities of work and urban life. Whether through watching rugby at the local stadium, playing football in a park, racing pigeons from an allotment or even just talking over the latest betting odds, sport offered people excitement, companionship and physical and intellectual stimulation. It also accorded people a sense of self-worth and importance, whether through their reputation as performers or through their ability to pass judgement on the performances of others. Such rewards and pleasures could make life more tolerable and more meaningful. They embedded sport in people’s routines and made it more than something people just did.
The importance individuals accorded sport combined to make sport a significant part of community life too. Sporting grounds and facilities were important parts of local landscapes, places where people came together, turning collections of individuals into communities. Locals assembled there, often in their thousands or even tens of thousands. Even pub and park games could attract large crowds, as people came in search of free entertainment and to watch their friends and families represent their neighbourhoods. Being part of those crowds enabled people to assert their local and civic pride. Moreover, the larger sports grounds helped define the towns in which they stood. They hosted clubs named after those towns and were known far beyond the immediate communities. They were as much a civic space and physical symbol of those communities as any town hall, church or pub.
The strength and diversity of these communities contributed to Wales and Welshness having a plethora of different meanings. Yet, however, Wales was defined, it would be difficult to deny sport’s place in the inventing, maintaining and projecting of the idea of a Welsh national identity in and outside of Wales’s blurred borders, even if the Wales that sport has projected has varied according to time, place and context. Although the Welsh language, music and Nonconformity have also played their part, few other cultural forms are as well equipped as sport to express national identity. Its emotions, national colours, emblems, songs and contests all make it a perfect vehicle through which collective ideas of nationhood can be expressed. Rugby and football internationals in particular have mobilizedWales’s collective identities and passions. They gloss over the different meanings that the people of Wales attach to their nationality, enabling them to assert their Welshness in the face of internal division and the political, social and cultural shadow of England. This put national sporting grounds at the heart of the nation.
Sport needs places to be played and its sites, ranging from national stadiums to pub bowling alleys, are part of the historic environment. Many may not be unique or architecturally impressive but they mattered to the people who used and lived around them. Some have helped define the nation itself. All are part of our collective heritage.
Aerial shot of The Vetch Field, Swansea, 1959. A football ground clearly rooted in the surrounding community.