Neil Sowerby discovers the delights of Britain's smallest city
I’d like to pretend our Pembrokeshire clifftop debut was as dramatic as Dewi Sant’s. Wales’ patron saint came into this world as a wild storm lashed the peninsula now given his (anglicised) name, St Davids. Legend has it, as his mother St Non, niece of King Arthur, gave birth a sudden unearthly light brought calm and a crystal clear spring gushed up on the spot.
All this under a blue firmament with scudding clouds.
The well and adjacent St Non’s chapel remain places of pilgrimage. Our hotel, the Twr y Felin was just a 20-minute walk away, but we never made it. Mainly because there was so much else to capture our attention around St Davids, Britain’s smallest city, with its astonishing cathedral and captivating hinterland.
The furthest we ventured was a 40-minute drive south to Marloes Sands, where the cliffs are spectacular. To reach the Sands you have to negotiate a single track road, pay for the National Trust car park, then clamber down from the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path and gingerly traverse kelp-strewn rocks.
Off-season, you have all to yourself the beach recently voted fourth best in the UK. And after your return ascent the reward of Runwayskiln. This remote "coastal kitchen" is open from breakfast until 6pm with just seven indoor tables to book for the main event, lunch.
It was dog-friendly with a singer-songwriter soundtrack, served booze and well priced dishes sustainably sourced and satisfying – we shared a seafood stew and Myrddin heritage bratwurst with mustardy butterbeans, celeriac and spinach.
All this under a blue firmament with scudding clouds, perfect walking weather for the rollercoaster Coastal Path, celebrating its 70th anniversary this year. On the way back to St Davids we stopped off at Solva, an estuary settlement as picturesque as any in oversubscribed Cornwall. Even its ice cream is better courtesy of Pointz Castle, their artisan gelato based on their own dairy herd.
We parked in Lower Solva at the head of the inlet – for a pint of Brains in the Harbour Inn’s secluded garden. At high tide, the beach outside is a narrow strip but come low tide the harbour is completely dry with the exception of a stream in the middle that’s perfect for shrimping and rock pool exploration. You can walk for 20 minutes past high and dry vessels before reaching the sea and some fine sand. Caution: check the tide times. There is a chance of being stranded.
The sun lingered long into the Pembrokeshire evening. It was a different story the next day when, under lowering skies our powerboat bounced across a fierce tidal swell to circumnavigate the RSPB bird sanctuary on Ramsey Island.
Falcon Boats, is just one of several competing sea cruise operators in St David’s focused on a cluster of offshore islands. We chose them because of their obvious wildlife credentials and links to the environmental charity, the Seawatch Foundation. Oh, and there’s the almost white knuckle excitement of their using RIBs (rigid inflatable boats) to cross a tidal race that can hit 18 knots in the channel of the Bitches Rocks. Shipwreck territory.
Falcon offers bespoke tours, or one-off child-friendly trips featuring the likes of locally based illustrator Jackie Morris, famed for her collaboration with author Robert Macfarlane on Lost Words. But the standard offering is a 12-capacity mixed passenger boat. Skomer is the destination (£54 adult, £27 child) if you want to see puffins. There are 35,000 on the island. Puffin-free 250 hectare Ramsey Island is also included on that two-hour trip. We did the Ramsey one and a half hour special (£33, £18 child) and were rewarded with sightings of grey Atlantic seals and a vast array of nesting guillemots, oystercatchers, Manx shearwaters and razorbills. A plus were amazingly diverse rock formations and sea caves to venture into.
The boats sail from St Justinian, one of many coastal outliers of St Davids city. We particularly fell for Whitesands Bay and Porthgain. The former is second on that UK’s Best Beaches roster. The vast strand is attractive to surfers and beachcombers alike and the easily accessible Coastal Path is perfect for Instagram panoramas.
Porthgain, though, is something else. Seven miles north east of St Davids, the ruins around its lovely harbour are testimony to its industrial past, exporting slate and crushed roadstone to Ireland and beyond in the early 20th century.
Cliff walks will take you to the two quarries, Jerusalem and Caersalem, and a former brickworks. It’s a bracing kind of place. Refresh yourself, as Porthgain’s workforce did, at the ancient Sloop Inn on the village green. That specialises in local fish, but the real foodie draw is on the quayside.
The Shed Bistro will serve you a takeaway of some of the best fish and chips you’ll find, but it would be a shame not to book a table, lunch or dinner, to sample their unelaborate treatment of freshly landed seafood, including their own lobster and crab. We accompanied our crab and bream lunch with a Nons New England Pale Ale from St Davids Old Farmhouse Brewery.
The brewery is a neighbour on the route back into St Davids of an attraction designed to offer a very different gustatory voyage – Dr Beynon’s Bug Farm, set up by entomologist Sarah Beynon and her chef husband Andy Holcroft.
Alas, on our visit we weren’t able to sample any of the sustainable, edible insects – primarily mealworms, buffalo worms, locusts crickets – which have been central to the Bug Farm’s five years as a research project come family-friendly destination.
Bugs have never been "farmed" here on a commercial scale, mainly used in the on-site Grub Kitchen, the UK’s first full-time edible insect café/restaurant, to promote an important part of our planet’s nutritional future. All this shuddered to a halt as a result of Brexit, when EU regulation on novel foods, including insects, was jettisoned.
Sarah and Andy are still patiently waiting for the chance to serve them again. The UK Food Standards Agency are taking their time to re-regulate. Meanwhile, even the famous cricket cookies remain out of bounds on the Grub Kitchen counter.
Andy still offers a changing menu of vegan dishes and there are many other excellent reasons to call in (£7 adults, £4.50 kids). There’s a Tropical Bug Zoo, Bug Museum, British Bug House, Insect Farming Exhibition and an imaginative gift shop. Outside there’s a walled garden and farm trails.
The farmland supports the couple’s Tyddewi Herd of Welsh Black cattle, wheat and barley and acres of wildlife habitat including wildflower meadows, pasture and heath with an emphasis on conservation. I just relished the chance in the ‘Zoo’ to encounter a Brazilian White Knee Tarantula and a Tail-less Whipped Scorpion.
There’s so much gripping educational stuff, too. Take the case of the Bombardier Beetle. When threatened they mix hydroquione and hydrogen peroxide in a combustion chamber in their abdomens, causing an explosive reaction out of their rear ends. They can even rotate the tip of their abdomen 270 degrees to aim and rapid fire into the face of an attacker. This has influenced both fire extinguisher technology and new fuel injection system for cars.
All very diverting but St Davids itself was calling and what a sequestered gem it is. A 250-mile drive across rural Wales from our Pennine home is my definition of sequestered. Our base was more convenient, just a five-minute walk into the centre of this city with a population under 2000, its status down to its Cathedral, which dates back to the sixth century.
Twr y Felin (Welsh for mill tower) is a more recent establishment, living up to its own self-styled status as Wales’ ‘first contemporary art hotel’ when it launched in 2015, now packed with over 250 specially commissioned canvases. Its most striking feature is a windmill dating back to 1806. The top of what is now the three-storey Tyddewi Windmill Tower Suite was used as a GCHQ U-boat lookout in World War Two. The building below served as a temperance hotel for much of the 20th century.
Its 21 bedrooms were supplemented by a further 20 in a seamless new-build block in 2020. That’s where we stayed, in a ground floor Oriel Spacious room, whose terrace backed on to an open field where a mare and foal whinnied in the sun with St Bride’s Bay twinkling in the distance.
All very idyllic but there was essential sight-seeing to be done. Yet en route for the centrepiece Cathedral and the mighty ruins of the Bishop’s Palace it was hard not to be detained by a procession of interesting indie shops, thankfully only a few of them peddling the obligatory Welsh crafts.
Art galleries, surf shops, an impressive deli, a rare plants nursery, a chip shop with draught beer. Of the two centre pubs we preferred the lively Bishops, named after rocks out near Ramsey, with its beer garden overlooking the Cathedral.
We especially liked the community-led Really Wild Emporium that has fine coffee, an eclectic food offering and foraging courses, and enjoyed a superb last evening meal at the equally laid-back Gin & Kitchen, which shares a commitment to local produce.
The Ramsey Island hogget wasn’t on, but our oysters, lobster and whole sea bream were sublime. The gin bit? Two versions, distilled in a building across the road, the copper still gleaming in the window. We preferred the bite of the St Davids Seaweed Gin.
None of this small town rummaging prepares you, though, for the magnificence of the cathedral. The current purple sandstone version dates back to the 12th century on the site of the original sixth century monastic buildings, burial place of St David, making this one of the oldest shrines of Christendom. For pilgrims two trips to St Davids were the equal of one to Rome itself.
Yet the setting is surprisingly modest, below the town proper in grassy hollow beside the River Alin. Only one of the four original gatehouses survives from the medieval walled settlement, next to the 13th century bell tower. Across the river there is a rival monument to St Davids’ powerful past, the vast shell of the Bishop’s Palace.
The ambitious bishop who created it between 1328 and 1347 was one Henry de Gower; the magnificent banqueting halls would not survive the Reformation. St Davids Cathedral did since by then it was not a monastic foundation.
Home to the tomb of Henry VII’s father, Edward Tudor, the Holy Trinity Chapel with its fan vaulted ceiling was constructed in the early 16th century from medieval stone fragments, to be followed by the nave’s magnificent Irish oak ceiling, a masterpiece of Renaissance craftsmanship. The marshy ground on which the cathedral was built wouldn’t support the weight of a stone ceiling.
These are the pick of the building’s many architectural marvels. The west wall of Holy Trinity, close to the Holy Altar is where you’ll find the shrine to St David. The authenticity of his supposed bones, discovered in the 1920s, is disputed after carbon dating placed them from the 12th to 14th centuries.
St David himself died in 588, allegedly at the age of 147 years. Not a bad innings, if you believe that, after that stormy start to his life.
Twr y Felin Hotel, Ffordd Caerfai, St Davids, Haverfordwest SA62 6QT. 01437 725555.
B&B at Twr y Felin starts from around £250 per night for two sharing. It won AA Hotel of the Year Wales 2017 – 2018.
Its Blas Restaurant is a destination dining spot under the stewardship of head chef Sammy Owen. His menus. combining cutting edge technique with canny sourcing honouring both locality and seasons, have earned three AA rosettes for Blas, which means "taste" in Welsh. His dedication to "art on the plate" reflects the hotel’s artistic mission.
The restaurant, in the original hotel building, is home to some of the most exciting artworks in the hotel collection – spray paints of Welsh icons of song and cinema by the artist Pure Evil.
Along with 12th century Roch Castle, with panoramic views over the Preseli Hills and St Brides Bay, and 19th century Penrhiw Priory, in St Davids Cathedral valley Twr y Felin forms part of the Retreats Group.
For information about things to see and do in the area check out www.visitpembrokeshire.com.