Ifan Powell is an ordinary everyman in 1950s Welsh-speaking Wales; an office worker in Bangor, he likes nothing better than to take a week off in August to visit the Eisteddfod. Despite his enthusiasm for the Welsh language and culture, he has no time for political nationalism which, in his view, would just lead to his beloved North Wales being dominated by the South.
One year he finds that he can’t get time off work during Eisteddfod week so, instead, he takes a fortnight off in May and goes to stay with an old friend called Tegid, who is a teacher in Cardiff. Tegid introduces him to a friend from the University, a Dr. Heinkel, who is doing research in the field of time travel. No-one has yet made a journey through time, but Dr. Heinkel theorises that certain personality types are more suited to it than others. He realises that Powell fits the profile better than anyone he’s met before – a K1 – and he persuades Powell to take part in an experiment. Powell is initially reluctant, but Dr. Heinkel and Tegid talk him into it.
Powell loses consciousness during the experiment, and when he comes round he’s in unfamiliar surroundings. There are two men in the room that he doesn’t recognise, and the older one introduces himself to him, in Welsh, as Dr. Llywarch. The other is his assistant, Gwilym. Dr. Llywarch explains that they were in Cardiff in the year 2033, and they were expecting Powell’s arrival because they’d read about it in Dr. Heinkel’s papers.
Over the next few days, Llywarch shows Powell around the city and points out what has changed since Powell’s day. At the same time, a romantic attachment begins to blossom between Powell and Llywarch’s daughter, Mair, who is a prominent actress with the National Theatre.
It is immediately obvious that Wales is now independent and extremely prosperous. Llywarch explains to him how the Welsh economy functions – in modern terms we’d call it a free-market economy dominated by small family businesses and larger Co-operatives – and shows how Welsh culture has achieved global prominence with various cultural icons in sport and the performing arts who are known all over the world.
A surprisingly prominent role in this new Wales is given to religion. There has been another great Revival (on the scale of 1859 or 1904) and the churches and chapels are full, though most of the denominations have come together to form a single Welsh Church which has both Anglican and ‘chapel’ aspects to the way in which it operates.
The only dark undercurrent is a fringe political party called the United Britain League, which campaigns for Wales, England and Scotland to be reunited under the English monarch (even though Wales is already a member of the Commonwealth and has good relations with England). The ‘UBL’ has a paramilitary wing, called the ‘Purple Shirts’, and a few days into his stay Powell is kidnapped by them and imprisoned at a secret location which turns out to be Nant Gwynant. They want him to take part in a UBL election broadcast to tell everyone how much better life was in the 1950s when Britain was one country, and how great it would be to turn the clock back. If he refuses, then they threaten to hold him prisoner indefinitely and prevent him from returning to his own time.
Powell refuses, despite being tortured by receiving injections which cause him extreme pain. After some 24 hours in custody he is rescued by some dissidents within the Purple Shirts movement who, it turns out, only joined up because the enjoyed the drilling and shooting-practice but weren’t signed up to the organisation’s political agenda. They arrange for Powell to be collected in Beddgelert by Mair Llywarch, while his captors are arrested.
For the next day and half, Mair takes Powell on a leisurely journey from Beddgelert back to Cardiff taking in various sites along the way, including a farm, a quarry, a sawmill, a nuclear power station, a creamery and a coalmine.
Eventually after a further day or two in Cardiff, it’s time for Powell to return to his own time. He doesn’t want to go, both because he prefers this new Wales to the old one, and because he is in love with Mair and wants to stay with her. Llywarch tells him kindly that he must return, since the dangers of living out of your own age for long periods are still not well-understood. Even so, Llywarch encourages him to work, in his own age, towards making Wales the country he’s seen in Llywarch’s age.
On arrival back in his own time, Powell cannot forget all he has seen and longs to go back, to the future Wales and to Mair. He tries to persuade Dr. Heinkel to help him, but Heinkel refuses. He explains that, unlike the past, the future is not set in stone and if Powell were to travel to 2033 again he may find a very different world. Even so, Powell won’t take no for an answer, and eventually he prevails.
On his second visit to 2033, Powell arrives in a rather shabbier laboratory than Llywarch’s and the professor who meets him, a Dr. Spencer, says “another deuced Welshman” as Powell arrives. It’s obvious that Dr. Spencer has no interest in speaking to a Welshman from the 1950s and foists Powell off onto a retired academic in Rhiwbina, a Dr. Richards who has some interest in Wales but still doesn’t speak the language. It emerges that in this future, Wales no longer exists as it has been wholly absorbed into England and the language has been completely forgotten. Almost the entire population lives in shabby poverty along the South coast, the rest of the country having been given over to forests, mines, military training grounds, and garish resort towns built for entertaining the working class. Violence is rife with criminal gangs fighting each other openly in the streets, and the standard punishment for gang members who are caught is to be sent to work in the Uranium mines where life expectancy is under two years. The only way to gain a modicum of social status is to become a member of one of the two main UK-wide political parties, whose policies barely differ but who maintain an illusion of democracy by taking it in turns to win elections.
Richards agrees to take Powell on a tour of Wales to look for Mair, but in such a poor and backward country this must be done by bus over very poor roads. Powell enquires how the country ever got this way, and is told that it didn’t happen overnight – it just happened through gradual erosion of individual rights, and running down of the economy, over many years.
Eventually they find Mair, working at a chemist shop in Dolgellau. Powell goes up to her excitedly and starts speaking in Welsh to her, but she – who in this Wales is called Maria Lark – has no idea who he is, feels threatened by him and calls the police. Powell finds himself thrown into a prison cell, with no prospect of a fair trial, and despairs. Remembering what he agreed with Dr. Heinkel about returning to his own time, he is able to do so with great difficulty and is obviously traumatised.
When the full story comes out, Dr. Heinkel persuades him that the future is not fixed and the Wales of his first journey into the future is just as likely to come about as the Wales of his second; but that only the Welsh people themselves can decide what outcome they want. Powell dedicates himself to the nationalist cause, determined that if he can’t marry Mair Llywarch himself then his grandson or great-grandson should have the opportunity to do so.