Sunday, 1 May 2016

I know what Llanfair PG means, but can
I pronounce the longest name in Wales?

A sign on the platform at the railway station in Llanfair PG spells out the name in full with helpful hints for English speakers and visitors (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

It is impossible to resist the signs on the road between Holyhead and Beaumaris that invite the visitor to Llanfairpwllgwyngyll or Llanfair Pwllgwyngyll, the village on the island of Anglesey that boasts the longest name in Europe.

The village stands on the Menai Strait next to the Britannia Bridge and across the strait from Bangor.

Most of the 3,000 people in the town speak Welsh as their first language, so they know how to pronounce the name of the place, and they know what it means. But most of them seem to refer it as Llanfairpwll, even as Llanfair PG, rather than Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch.

The long form of the name was invented for promotional purposes in the 1860s. With 58 characters it is the longest place name in Europe, and the second longest official one-word place name in the world.

The Church of Saint Mary in a hollow near Llanfairpwll ... the church and its setting inspired the long name of the village (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

But the story of the village is far longer than the story of the name. People have lived on the site of the village since the Neolithic era (4000 to 2000 BC). Later, the area was briefly invaded and captured by the Romans under Gaius Suetonius Paulinus. The Romans abandoned it to consolidate their forces against Boudicca (Boadicea), but they returned and held the area until the end of Roman Britain.

After the Romans finally withdrew, the area fell to the early mediaeval Kingdom of Gwynedd, but by 1583, the village still only had a population of about 80.

With the end of the feudal system and the introduction of estates in the 16th century, much of the land was absorbed into the estates of the Earls of Uxbridge, who later became the Marquises of Anglesey. The inhabitants became tenant farmers on enclosures, and by the early 19th century, the village population began to boom.

In 1826, Anglesey was connected to the rest of Wales when the Menai Suspension Bridge was built by Thomas Telford. In 1850, it was connected with London when the Britannia Bridge was built and the busy North Wales Coast railway line then connected London to the ferry port at Holyhead.

The Upper Village (Pentre Uchaf) is made up mainly of the older houses and farms, and the newer or Lower Village (Pentre Isaf) was built around the railway station, with shops and workshops.

The sign at James Pringle Weavers shop spells out the English translation of the name (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

With 58 characters, the long form of the name is the longest place name in the United Kingdom and one of the longest in the world.

For visitors who do not understand what the name means, a large local shop, James Pringle Weavers, has a lengthy sign spelling it out: The Church of Mary (Llanfair) in the Hollow (pwll) of the White Hazel (gwyn gyll) near (go ger) the fierce whirlpool (y chwyrn drobwll) and the church of Tysilio (Llantysilio) by the red cave ([a]g ogo[f] goch).

Signs at the railway station spell out the name in full (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The railway station is officially known as Llanfairpwll or as Llanfair Pwllgwyngyll (“Saint Mary’s in the Hollow of the White Hazel Township”). Pwllgwyngyll was the original mediaeval township where the village is today.

But the station house has at least three signs displaying the long name. The platform for trains in the direction of Holyhead even has one long sign for the benefit of non-Welsh speakers and tourists spelling out how to pronounce the name.

This village was originally known as Llanfair Pwllgwyngyll, which appears on Ordnance Survey maps, and is generally signposted as Llanfairpwllgwyngyll. It is known to local residents more simply as Llanfairpwll or even more simply as Llanfair.

The long name was contrived in the 1860s to attract tourists

The long name was contrived in the 1860s in an attempt to develop the place as a commercial and tourist centre. The original idea was to come up with the longest name for any railway station in Britain.

According to Sir John Morris-Jones, the name was created by a local tailor, whose name he did not confide, letting the secret die with him. Other stories say the name was invented by a cobbler from the nearby village of Menai Bridge.

The name is too long for the slim column on the village war memorial (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The village war memorial simply spells the name as Llanfair P.G. – the longer versions would never fit into a slim column. But across the street from the railway station, the name is spelled out in full over the arch at the Penrhos Arms, with another English translation.

I should have called in to the Penrhos Arms to find out whether they serve shorts in the pub that displays the longest name in Europe.

A long name for a pub … but do they serve shorts? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

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