The smallest city, and a goal for medieval pilgrims
This part of Dyfed has much in common with Cornwall -greystone headlands thrusting into the turbulent ocean, lonely coves approached by winding lanes, and the traces of past industries in the form of mills and quarries active until earlier this century. In the 6th century Ramsey Island became a holy place and a destination for generations of pilgrims, while Wales’s patron saint founded St David’s, now the smallest cathedral city in Britain.
This rock-and-pebble bay on the western side of Strumble Head is easier to see than to reach. The clifftop lane is bordered by a small car park, a youth hostel and a memorial to the local poet Dewi Emrys, who immortalised in the Pembrokeshire dialect the beauty of this lovely stretch of coastline. There are magnificent views of the completely unspoiled coast from the clifftop. Reaching the bay involves a long descent down a steep path, followed by a hard climb back to the road.
Picturesque cottages, once the homes of numerous sea-captains, make upTrevine. A poet, William Crwys Williams, made the village well known to generations of Welsh schoolchildren when he wrote about the lonely little ruined mill overlooking the beach at Aberfelin to the west of the village. The poem begins: ‘Nid yw’r felin heno’n malu,
Yn Nhrefing ym min y mor’, or in English: ‘The mill is not grinding corn tonight,
In Trevine, on the edge of the sea’ and it predicts the changes which were to come to the countryside all too soon. Like many of the local corn mills, the Trevine mill was a centre for the local community until it closed in 1918. The old millstones still lie there, and below the mill, the stream which provided its power plunges into a pebble-and-sand cove sheltered from the open sea.
A lane leads down to a narrow inlet, where a small and attractive village is centred around a picturesque pub but surrounded on every side by the ruins of industry that died some 50 years ago. The granite cliffs were quarried for their stone, which was crushed in the huge plant overlooking the quay. The plant closed in 1932. Coasters came inshore to reach the compact little harbour, protected by two breakwaters, and load the crushed stone; they were guided by cairns on the headland, which were painted white to stand out from the surroundings. There is also a ruined brickworks.
Today the harbour, with plenty of parking space, is a safe haven for pleasure craft, and the village is a gooc’ base for exploring the coastal footpath.
Follow the lanes down from the main coast road between Cardigan and St David’s to find this beach of dark grey sand made of fine particles of slate pounded by the sea. Abereiddy’s past is hidden around the headland at the northern end of the bay. There are the ruins of a once busy quarry, and on the other side of the main headland is a hollowed-out harbour where the clear water is turned to a deep Mediterranean blue by the slate walls. The harbour provides an ideal anchorage for small boats, and is known locally as the Blue Lagoon. The clifftop path leads to Traethllyfn, a sandy bay sheltered by 150 ft walls of rock.
This wide expanse of sand, set into a curving bay to the south of St David’s Head, is one of the finest surfing beaches on the Welsh coast. The lanes leading to it are well signposted from St David’s, and there is a large car park. Lifeguards are on duty during the holiday season, and the beach is divided into different areas for bathing and surfing.
It was at Whitesand Bay that St Patrick was said to have had a vision of converting the whole of Ireland to Christianity, and from there that he sailed to turn his vision into a reality. A memorial tablet next to the carpark marks the site of St Patrick’s Chapel.
North of the beach the coves of Pwlleuog and Porthmelgan are secluded and sandy, but bathing is dangerous in the currents swirling around St David’s Head.
The legends attached to this holy island date back to the 6th century, when a Breton saint named Justinian built a cell there. Craving solitude, he took an axe to the land bridge which at that time joined Ramsey to the mainland, leaving only the rocks now called the Bitches. According to the legend Justinian proved too stern a disciplinarian for his followers, who cut off his head.
Boat trips around the island, starting from Porthstinian daily in summer, give an impressive view of its precipitous cliffs, capped by groups of noisy sea-birds, and of the heads of bobbing seals in the waters at their foot. Landings can sometimes be arranged locally.
The lovely but rockbound cove takes its name from St Justinian, the saint of Ramsey Island, and the spot where the saint was buried is marked by a ruined chapel at the top of the hill overlooking the lifeboat station. There are boat trips to Ramsey Island, and to the surrounding coves and inlets.
The clear waters of this narrow little Inlet attract fishermen, small-boat sailors and divers. The lime-kilns, now carefully restored, on its banks show that it was once an important port of call for coasters bringing limestone for burning to produce fertiliser for the local farmers. The old harbour wall probably dates back to the early Middle Ages, when this secluded spot was the port for St David’s.
Judged by size alone, St David’s hardly rates as more than a large village. Its cathedral, however, qualifies it as Britain’s smallest city. It was founded by St David, the patron saint of Wales, in the 6th century. The cathedral dedicated to him dates from the late 11th century, and its secluded position in a fold of the hills helped it to survive the turbulent years which followed its building. The fine fan vaulting in the roof of the Holy Trinity Chapel forms a canopy of intricate patterns, and there are witty carvings on the choir-stall misericords. Building the cathedral proved to be a long and difficult task. The tower collapsed in 1220, and the foundations were badly shaken by an earthquake in 1248.
St David’s became a centre for pilgrimage; in the Middle Ages, two visits to St David’s earned the same merit as a single visit to Rome. A casket behind the altar contains bones found during restoration work in the last century and said to be those of St David and St Justinian. In the grounds of the cathedral stand the ruins of the Bishop’s
Palace, built in 1340 by Bishop Gower and destroyed only two centuries later by a successor, Bishop Barlow.
A lane leading southwards from St Dav’d’s main street leads to a clifftop car park overlooking Caerfai Bay, which can be reached by a steep and winding path down the face of the cliffs. At the bottom is a safe, sandy beach, under stone cliffs tinted in contrasting patches of red, purple and green. The purple stone from Caerbwdi Bay, to the east, was used to build St David’s Cathedral.
Steeply overhanging hills give Solva the appearance of a narrow Scandinavian fiord. Its seclusion at the head of a winding creek protected the village from the attention of passing pirates and raiders in earlier times, and today makes it a popular sailing and boating centre.
At one time the rocks along this treacherous coast claimed a high toll of shipping, and in 1770 it was decided to build a lighthouse on the Smalls, to the west of Skomer. It was the scene of a grim tragedy in 1802 when its keeper, Thomas Griffiths, died during a violent storm. His partner, Thomas Howell, lashed Griffiths’s body to the gangway until help could arrive, so that he could prove Griffiths’s death had been due to natural causes. Help took three months to arrive, by which time Howell was half mad. Since that time the minimum crew of a lighthouse has always been three keepers.
The beach at Newgale, with its 2 miles of broad, safe sands, is not only ideal for surfing in the right weather, but must be one of the easiest beaches to reach on this stretch of coast, as the main road between St David’s and Haverfordwest runs along the edge of the shingle bank behind the sands.
The sea retreats a long way at low tide, sometimes uncovering the stumps of a prehistoric drowned forest. At the northern end of the beach is the so-called Brandy Brook stream, said to divide the Welsh-speaking north of Wales from the English-speaking south.