BY ROGER THOMAS|
I first spent some time there in the 1970s when I rented a snug, ancient, away-from-it-all retreat called Watch Cottage, which in previous centuries had been used by coastguards to keep an eye out for smugglers along the rugged, remote shores of north Pembrokeshire.
During the idyllic summer I explored the little peninsula of St. Davids. I walked the coast path, sailed to nearby Ramsey Island, and witnessed the abundant wildlife - the flowers, seabirds and seals - for which this far-flung part of Wales is renowned.
Since then, I have returned again and again, drawn by some invisible, inexplicable magnet to this deeply Celtic corner of Wales. It is reassuring to report that nothing much changes with the passage of time. The seabirds and the seals still gather here. The coastline remains untouched by human hand. The past continues to dictate the present.
Pembrokeshire has always had this effect. In the Mabinogion, the earliest recorded collection of Welsh folk tales, it was knows an gwlad hud a lledrith, roughly translated as 'the land of magic and enchantment'. If you happen to believe, as I do, that the land is somehow a repository of the life forces - the events, personalities and sweep of history - to which it has borne witness down through the ages, then the magic of St Davids begins to make sense.
In the 6th century a devout and austere religious man known as Dewi Ddyfrwr, David the Water Drinker, settled in this spot. His early Christian monastic community, founded in a grassy hollow a short distance from the sea, gradually evolved into a cathedral, while he achieved the status of Dewi Sant - St David, Wales's patron saint.
The town of St Davids became a busy crossroads in the days when sea travel was safer and quicker than overland transport, developing strong links with the Celtic countries of Ireland, Brittany and Cornwall. It also became one of the great historic shrines of Christendom and an important place of pilgrimage—two journeys to St Davids equalling one to Rome.
The resilient landscapes and seascapes of St Davids Peninsula retain strong echoes of this influential past. Quite apart from the major monuments of the Cathedral and Bishop's Palace at St Davids itself, the little peninsula is dotted with sites that possess a profundity and sanctity, precisely because they have been ignored by the passing centuries.
One of the glories of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park is the long-distance footpath that winds its way for 187 miles from Cardigan in the north to Amroth, near Tenby, on the southern shores. Although hearty enthusiasts seem compelled to tackle it all in one go, I prefer to walk it by taking one stretch at a time.
My favourite section, a comfortable 6 miles long, runs around the tip of the peninsula. The patron saint's story is central to the appreciation of this stormy, savagely beautiful coastline, and around most corners of the waymarked route you will come across reminders of the man who exercised a 'powerful grip over the minds of men.'
The walk starts 1Ĺ miles due west of St Davids at Porthstinian, where the St Justinian Lifeboat Station just manages to squeeze itself in amongst steep, vicious rocks. A ruined chapel on the headland, in the private grounds of the coastguard station but clearly visible, marks the burial spot of St Justinian, a 6th century contemporary of St David.
Justinian must have been even more pious than David. According to legend, he retreated to Ramsey Island, a mile offshore, to devote himself to God. His discipline became too strict for his followers, who rebelled and cut off Justinian's head, whereupon the saintly man walked across the treacherous waters of Ramsey Sound, carrying his head under his arm.
The path from Porthstinian leads south along the clifftop, with wonderful views across to Ramsey Island (a nature reserve accessible by boat from the lifeboat station jetty). Spring and early summer flowers thrive in a gentle climate tempered by the sea. The path cuts a narrow furrow through a colourful carpet of bluebells, pink thrift, yellow gorse and purple foxgloves. If you are lucky, you will also catch sight of Atlantic grey seals, who pop their heads out of the water or bask on the rocks. You are guaranteed to see some representatives of Pembrokeshire's famed seabird populations—razorbills, cormorants, oystercatchers and the like—that breed in great numbers along the cliffs.
Beyond Carn-ar-Wig Bay, a tiny, rockbound cleft in the cliffs, lies the most spectacular stretch of the walk. The exposed headland here overlooks the narrowest part of Ramsey Sound. The island is, at this point, only half-a-mile from the mainland, but the waters are at their most dangerous, with a fierce tide-race and a ridge of rocks, named in the carefree days before political correctness as the 'The Bitches', which claimed the St Davids lifeboat and three of its crew in October, 1910.
There are more superb views - this time southwards across St Brides Bay to Newgale Sands and the Marloes Peninsula-around the headland at Ogof Cadno. But scenic spectacle goes hand-in-hand with a sense of danger, for there are precious few places to land a boat safely on this unforgiving shore. Porth Clais, next along the path, is the peninsula's only real safe haven.
In the Age of Saints, the sheltered, narrow inlet of Porth Clais was the harbour for St Davids, a mile to the north. The early Christian missionaries would have landed here on arrival from their Celtic outposts. Supplies for the tiny cathedral city—timber, corn, malt, wool and coal- were shipped in to Porth Clais. A short distance from the quay is Ffynnon Dewi, David's Well, where Elvis, Bishop of Munster, baptized St David.
The coast path runs along the quay of this slumbering, forgotten old harbour past the kilns that once produced lime for the local farmers. The aptly named Trwyn Cynddeiriog (Furious Point), half-a-mile from the harbour, is yet another exhilarating, exposed headland. From here it is only a short walk to one of my favourite places on the entire 750-mile Welsh cost: St Non'' Bay.
Non, or Nonnita, was St David's mother. Legend says that David was born during a howling storm in about AD 500 on the grassy slopes above St Non's Bay, a spot marked by a ruined chapel. A second chapel, dedicated to Our Lady and St Non, stands nearby. This was built in the 1930s in the style of the Pembrokeshire chapels of 500 years ago. Also close by is St Non's Well, a holy well marked by a small white statue of the saint. This well, whose waters were said to have had miraculous powers for healing eye diseases, was much visited by pilgrims to St Davids. I am not the only one who thinks that this lovely location, where grassy cliffs sweep down to a crashing ocean, is a special place, for above the bay stands St Non's Retreat, a centre for spiritual renewal that attracts modern-day pilgrims.
Caerfai Bay, just east of St Non's marks the end of the peninsula walk. A sheltered bay of firm sands, it is the nearest beach to St Davids, which is only half-a-mile inland.
Because of the distance involved, many visitors to Wales bypass St Davids. This is a mistake. It is not conveniently located, yet it lies at the spiritual heart of Wales. The purple-stoned Cathedral, ruined Bishop's Palace, haunting coastline and overpowering sense of the past put you in touch with an ancient Wales. When you walk around the serrated shores of its peaceful peninsula, the real meaning of gwlad hud a lledrith shines through.
Town of Newport, Pembrokeshire
St. Davids Online
St. Davids Cathedral