PEMBROKESHIRE is a fascinating corner of south west Wales that has attracted travellers over many centuries. And the tiny city of St David’s in particular, named after the nation’s patron saint, being both his place of birth and where he died, has long been a major attraction.
And while the hordes head largely for resorts on the county’s southern coast such as Tenby and Saundersfoot, St David’s – known until 519AD as Glyn Rhosyn – and its hinterland has an awful lot to offer those struck more by natural beauty, history and peace and quiet. Not that you won’t come across people galore in peak season, it’s just that the place has a somewhat calmer karma.
Whether you’re striding past on the spectacular Pembrokeshire Coastal Path, an integral part of the 1400km long (870 miles) Wales Coast Path, or visiting the area by car, bike or coach, it really is worth your while taking some time off to get acquainted with this part of Pembrokeshire.
It’s not without reason that the whole coastal area was designated a national park in 1952, known naturally enough as the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park. But be aware that it doesn’t mean you can do as you wish and just wander off willy-nilly wherever the fancy takes you. The land is still largely privately-owned, with access agreed upon between the Park and landowners, subject to certain restrictions such as keeping to agreed paths and trails and refraining from damaging or littering the landscape.
Unlike many countries’ patron saints, St David was born and popped his clogs in the nation he has grown to represent. St George, patron saint of England, Georgia, Catalonia and Ethiopia, for example, is believed to have been born in modern day Turkey. Scotland’s St Andrew was from Bethsaida in Galilee, while the Isle of Man’s St Maughold was from Ireland.
Pilgrims have long made their way to this isolated peninsula, with two treks here reckoned to equivalent to one to Rome. And the centrepoint of the pilgrimage has been the site where the huge and spectacular St David’s Cathedral has stood ever since building work commenced in 1181. But the site hosted other churches previously, with St David himself having established a monastery here in the 6th century, where he and his followers led a shockingly hard and frugal life – according to tradition existing on bread and water alone. Weightwatchers eat your hearts out.
Even the most secular can’t fail to be impressed by this iconic building, sheltered from the worst excesses of the western seaboard weather by being built in a shallow dell just metres from the city centre. Added to extensively over the centuries, interior walls are often quirkily out of perpendicular, while floors seem to slope more often than be level. It offers breath-taking architecture and works of art, all set in a hushed, spine-tingling atmosphere that’s difficult to describe. If it could be bottled, it would be worth a bishop’s ransom.
St David’s remains were once believed to be those found in an ancient chest on site, although carbon-dating seems to dispute that. But it’s believed he was buried in the cathedral following his death on March 1st 589, while the restored medieval shrine to him desecrated during Henry VIII’s anti-Catholic pogrom is now a major centrepiece.
You could easily lose yourself here for the whole day, keeping yourself fed and watered in the modern refectory. How David’s followers would’ve killed for that. The cathedral’s Treasury is a cornucopia of stunning religious artefacts, including 13th century amethyst-clad rings that belonged to previous bishops, ancient chalices, and croziers.
Meanwhile the cathedral library, whose roots extend right back to a scriptorium at the original monastery where monks wrote and illustrated Biblical manuscripts, has an outstanding collection of books. The oldest book in the collection dates from 1505, although the library also holds a single leaf from the Biblical book of Exodus written in the 12th century. The collection features not just religious aspects of life, but also geography, agriculture, mathematics, science, Welsh history, and a pictorial street map of major Welsh towns dated 1610.
Do make time too to visit the massive and magnificent remains of the Bishop’s Palace next door. It was built by Henry de Gower in 1328-47, commencing immediately on his election as the 55th bishop, having decided that a man of his status deserved a bit of luxury in life. And how!
St David, the first bishop, was the son of St Non and a warlord known as Sant, from which he gained his real name of Dewi Sant. Dewi is one of several Welsh forms of the name David, and that is where the cathedral and city’s Welsh name of Tyddewi (literally David’s house) is derived from.
It’s said he was born in a house near a cliff edge in a raging storm in about 500AD, that house later being built over and replaced by St Non’s Chapel. The ruined remains of that chapel stand in a field just outside the city, near the coastal path overlooking St Bride’s Bay, and offer a place of quiet contemplation rather than being of any great architectural interest. However, do look for the Cross of St Non, a 9th century creed stone inscribed with the Celtic cross.
And while you’re there, you might as well pop along to view St Non’s Well just metres away. Believers consider its water to have powers of healing, and it was fully restored and re-dedicated in 1951 after centuries of neglect.
Also near the coastal path, owned and maintained by the St Non’s Retreat Centre, is a modern shrine to the saint. The diminutive but impressive Chapel of Our Lady and St Non was built in 1934, in a centuries-old style native to this corner of Wales, using stone from a multitude of ruined ancient chapels in the area.
St David’s is the smallest city by population throughout the British Isles, just short of 2,000 souls, and was first granted city status in the 16th century. But what it lacks in size, it more than makes up for in terms of class. It offers more than its fair share of top notch independent shopping and eating outlets, not your usual chain brands, and it all makes for an extremely laid-back and charming break from the usual hustle and bustle of everyday life.
Among the more intriguing places to eat locally is the Grub Kitchen at the Bug Farm less than a couple of kilometres outside the city. And, yes, it really does offer what you might think the name implies. But, while it’s not to everybody’s taste, it really does deserve your consideration.
The Bug Farm is a full-blown attraction for adults and children alike, as well as being a working farm and a scientific research centre. It offers a tropical bug zoo, bug museum, art gallery, indoor play area and bug farm trail. But the pièce de resistance just has to be the pretty unique Grub Kitchen restaurant, where you can feast on edible insect delicacies such as their home-prepared bug burger, mealworm hummus, cricket cookies or their standout GFC (Grub Fried Chicken).
Scientists worldwide are seriously looking at the use of protein-rich insects and grubs to ease problems with famine, so what they’re not trying to be different here just for the sake of it. This is serious science. However, if you’re not yet up to the challenge and opt to wimp out, fear not. The Grub Kitchen offers a full menu of other choices using local ingredients, including vegetarian and vegan options.
Throughout your visit you’ll be aware of the brooding presence just a kilometre offshore of Ynys Ddewi, which translates as St David’s Island but is however known in English – through its Viking roots – as Ramsey Island. It was once home to St David’s hermit confessor and teacher, St Justinian. Boats leave regularly from near the lifeboat station at the pretty little cove of St Justinian’s, some 3km west of St David’s. The island is a designated nature reserve, and offers stunning wildlife, 6km of sometimes challenging walking trails, and lung-fulls of the freshest Welsh air you could ever imagine. You’ll need sensible footwear, a packed lunch, and plenty to drink. You can book through Thousand Island Expeditions in the city centre.
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