How rugby gave birth to a national anthem – A walk above the Rhondda Fawr valley

At the top of Ton Pentre village, halfway up the Rhondda Fawr valley, a single track walking path climbed steeply up towards the Bwlch mountain. I was walking today with three friends, Andy, Jeff and Tim. We had started five hours before just outside the town of Pontypridd and we were a little weary at this point. We plodded past the ruins of an Iron Age fort. To our left, the imposing Llwynypia Forest towered above us.

“I bloody well hope we’re not climbing up through there,” said Jeff, both knees heavily strapped in a vain attempt to make up for the lack of functioning anterior ligaments. Halfway up we stopped to catch our breath and to marvel that someone had installed a park bench high up on one side of the ridge. Later, when I checked Google maps someone had tagged the location as “Percy’s tiny bench”.

As we rested on the brow we could just make out a figure waving at us from far across the valley just below the forest tree line. It was man, in his 30s or early 40s perhaps. He had his arms spread wide and was singing, no bellowing Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau (Land of My Fathers) – the Welsh National Anthem – just as if he’d been among 70,000 other supports at Cardiff’s Principality stadium cheering on the Welsh rugby team. Except he was on his own and literally rocking the valley with his passion.

A walk from Porth to the Bwlch Mountain

If this reads like a cliché – Welshman sings national anthem halfway up a valley – well it happened. And the story gets stranger still. The anthem had been composed just a few miles away in Pontypridd back in 1856, originally as a hymn titled Glan Rhondda. Over the years it gained great popularity at music and other cultural festivals throughout Wales. However, Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau wouldn’t be adopted as Wales’ national anthem until 1905 when it was sung at the very first international rugby match between Wales and the New Zealand All Blacks (the so-called Game of the Century as both teams were considered the strongest in the world).

The back story was uncanny given where we were standing right now – looking back down the Rhondda Fawr towards Llwynypia and the town of Tonypandy. According to The Official History of Welsh Rugby Union, the idea to sing the song came from Tom Williams, a former Welsh international player who, in 1905, was one of the selectors of the national team. He had been born into a farming family around Llwynypia and still worked as a solicitor in the town.

The All Blacks were famous even back them for the Maori-inspired war dance known as the Haka that they performed before kick-off. Williams suggested to the Welsh team that they sing Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau as a response to the Haka and the idea was embraced by Wales’ biggest newspaper, The Western Mail. In the build-up to the match, the paper encouraged fans also to sing the anthem at the match. As the story goes, once the All Blacks finished performing the Haka, the Welsh players, led by the captain, Teddy Morgan, broke into song. More than 40,000 Welsh fans joined in and a tradition was born. From that day on Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau was adopted as the Welsh national anthem even though the official one was God Bless the Prince of Wales.

So it seemed fitting that today, as the stranger across the valley belted out the first verse, Tim decided to join in, bursting at the top of his lungs into the famous chorus, “Gwlad, GWLAD, pleidiol wyf I’m gwlad (Country! COUNTRY! O but my heart is with you!).

It was a comic but oddly touching moment – two strangers singing the Welsh national anthem at each other from across the valley – but it seemed to capture a spirit of solidarity I felt for fellow walkers wherever I travelled through Wales.

It was only later, when I’d done more research about the area, that I shared the story of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau and the All Blacks with my friends.

“Thank God Tim didn’t try to perform the Haka. That’s all I can say,” said Jeff.

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