29 September 2015

Here be dragons!

Have you ever noticed that, although Wales is part of the United Kingdom, the country is not represented on the Union Jack? The crosses of St George (for England) and St Andrew (Scotland) and St Patrick (Northern Ireland) are all there but there’s no red dragon. If I were Welsh, I think I might be just a little insulted at this exclusion.

It’s not as if the fire-breathing beast is a foreign monster – the red dragon (in Welsh, he’s Y Ddraig Goch) that appears on the current Welsh flag (also called Y Ddraig Goch) is actually derived from a royal badge used by the British kings and queens since Tudor times.

So, why a dragon? Well, it seems the true origin has been lost in the mists of time. The sometimes dubious Wikipedia makes mention of the red dragon being the emblem of ancient Celtic leaders, including the legendary King Arthur – the name of Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon, translates as Dragon Head. Another source dates the dragon to Roman times, with ‘Romano-British soldiers carrying the red dragon (Draco) to Rome on their banners in the fourth-century’. The earliest historic record comes from around AD829, from the Historia Brittonum, a history of Britain by Nennius.

King Henry VII incorporated the red dragon into his coat of arms, as recognition of the fact that he and the other Tudor sovereigns, who reigned over England from 1485 to 1603, were descendants of one of Wales’s noble families.

Nowadays, the dragon is the national icon, symbolic of Wales and all things Welsh. Not only is it on the national flag, it can be seen on almost every other item you can think of, from sculpture and statuary and coats of arms to merchandise and street art. Here are just a few examples I have photographed during my two months in Wales. There will be many many more!

Cardiff City Hall dragon
The dragon who sits on top of Cardiff City Hall is a very grand beast, shaped so that his long, serpent-like body coils around him and his wings flare out sideways. To me, he looks more Chinese than Welsh. He was sculpted by H. C. Fehr, a master of the turn-of-the-century New Sculptors movement.

Cardiff Crown Court lamp standards
Several of these lamp standards stand along the front of the Cardiff Crown Court buildings, just across the road from City Hall. Each lamp standard has two dragons and they each have different personalities, though all look rather grim and grumpy. I think that's partly because they’ve accumulated too many layers of red paint over the years so have lost some of their definition.

Cardiff Crown Court front entrance
One of these dragons sits either side of the main entrance to the Crown Court, looking quite small and dainty atop their tall ornate pedestals. With one paw raised, their stance is a bit doggish, but just look at that armoured body and the flesh-tearing teeth and those sharp claws. They may be small but they’re fierce.

Crown Buildings
Just down the road from the Crown Court and the City Hall, at the other end of Alexandra Gardens, sit the Welsh Government’s main office buildings, rather drab and unprepossessing structures, but one of them does have these magnificent lamp standards out front. In the few weeks since I first photographed these dragons they have been taken away and cleaned – the photo on the right is the ‘before’ shot, that on the left is the ‘after’. And just look at the scale-like effect on the lamp standard itself.

National Assembly for Wales
The Senedd is another Welsh government building, but this is in Cardiff Bay, several miles from the central city. And in keeping with the very modern architecture of this building, the dragon that adorns its front fa├žade is also very stylised and modern.

Cardiff Bay building
I found this little dragon on the front of one of the older buildings at Cardiff Bay. I’m not sure of the building’s original use, perhaps as the office of one of the shipping companies that used the docks here in years gone by. I like this little dragon’s tongue and its curly tail.

All around the city
The last dragons for now (there will definitely be more in a future blog) can be found all around the central city, clipped on to lamp poles and along the fronts of many of the buildings. These are fire-breathing, devil-tailed dragons, that leave the visitor in no doubt as to which country they’re in and that the Welsh are a force to be reckoned with!

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