This was our third trip to escape the Covid-blues and this time Ruth and I headed to the North Pembrokeshire coast for a spot of hiking. The weather played ball and out of our 7 days we spent 5 days outside. The first day, we visited St. Davids, as the hiking conditions were less than ideal on the last day we did not even venture outside because of a continous torrential downpour.  However, 5 days of hiking out of 7 is not bad going as far as we were concerned. I definitely needed the exercise and I would have happily prolonged the experience…

St. David's Cathedral

As the weather was not particularly attractive we spend most of our time in St. David’s Cathedral, the present incarnation of which dates back to the 12 century, as a shrine for St. David,  a bishop and monk who established a monastic community in the area in the sixth century.  After his death St David, who is reported to  have performed many miracles,  was buried in his monastery,  although the exact spot is not known. His body and belongings would have been kept as relics in a reliquary, which would have had pride of place in his monastery. St. David’s being the targets of Viking raids, it was only a question of time before his shrine, covered in precious metal, would be stripped of it’s valuables and destroyed. This happened indeed in 1089 after (unlike the monks and bishops) it had survived  two previous raids in 999 and 1080. 

In 1115, with the area under Norman  control, King Henry I of England appointed Bishop Bernard as Bishop of St. Davids who started with the  construction of a new cathedral, which was consecrated in 1131. In 1123, Pope Calixtus II  granted Bishop Bernard’s request to bestow a papal privilege upon St Davids, making it a centre of pilgrimage for the Western world. In it  the Pope decreed that “Two pilgrimages to St Davids is equal to one to Rome, and three pilgrimages to one to Jerusalem”.  This led to such an increase in the number of pilgrims to St. David’s that 50 years later a larger cathedral was required. The present cathedral was begun in 1181 by the Norman Bishop Peter de Leia and completed not long after. However, the cathedral was structurally not very stable and the central tower collapsed and was rebuild twice during the following century. 

St. David's Cathedral in Pembrokeshire
St. David's Cathedral

A new Shrine of St David was built in 1275 by Bishop Richard de Carew, after the loss of the earlier Shrine in 1089. At first, this Shrine housed a body, believed to be St David’s, miraculously discovered outside the Cathedral. These bones are now lost,  probably having been dispersed during the Reformation, and till today St. David’s relics remain elusive.

In the fourteenth century, Welsh Bishop Henry Gower (1328–1347) remodelled and extended the cathedral. These  included the nave, the choir and the major, ornate, stone screen. The latter can can be found  in the nave and houses his tomb effigy. Bishop Gower was a remarkable character and a rare example of a Welshman as bishop in the Norman period. He became Bishop of St Davids in 1328 after a lengthy education at the University of Oxford and serving as the University’s Chancellor. A great medieval builder, he also commissioned the impressive Bishop’s Palace, home to the Bishop of St Davids until the Reformation of the sixteenth century. In additioned, he strengthened the fortifications of the wall surrounding the Close. Porth-y-Tŵr (The Gate of the Tower) built up against the Cathedral’s octagonal bell tower is the only surviving gateway from this fortification.

St. David's Cathedral in Pembrokshire
St. David's Cathedral

Religious reformers of the sixteenth century, known as Protestants, resented the excesses of wealth and corruption they saw in the Church. They also demanded the Bible be available in commonly spoken languages, rather than the Latin used by the clergy and scholars. Protestant Bishop William Barlow was appointed Bishop of St Davids in 1536. He stayed until he was moved to be Bishop of Bath and Wells in 1547. Determined to make a complete break with St Davids’ medieval past, he did away with the shrine of St David. He removed and destroyed or dispersed all the relics and treasures held by the Cathedral, including the contents of the monastic library. Today we can only hear about the Cathedral’s medieval collections from the medieval scholars who used them. Only a very few fragments survived and are scattered in other collections around the world. Despite all this, Barlow’s lifetime also saw the installation of the magnificent nave timber ceiling. With its hanging ornately carved pendants, it is the only cathedral ceiling of its kind in Britain. It is made mostly of oak panels, below which hang twenty-two ornate carved pendants each is 1.5 metres in height and just over 1 metre wide. The sides and corners of the nave roof are also adorned with half- and quarter-pendants.

The Pembrokeshire Coast

The next 5 days we happily spent hiking along various bits of the Pembrokeshire coast. The Pembrokeshire Coastal Path is the first designated National Trail in Wales. The walk takes you through bird strewn skies, past historic sites of human interest and every kind of maritime landscape from precipitous limestone cliffs, red sandstone beaches, immense headlands, estuaries and flooded glacial valleys. In the few days at our disposal, we covered most of the coastal Path along St. David’s Peninsula, hiked from the Garn Fawr Iron Age Fort to Strumble Head and back and trekked along Marloes Sands with an old friend of ours. We had planned a trip to Skommer Island to see the puffins, but the weather, although good enough for hiking, wasn’t good enough for sailing accross to the island. This was a bit disappointing, especially since all the other crossings during that week had by now been fully booked. Looking at the bright side, we now have a good excuse to return at a later stage.

Porthgain Harbour

We stayed in Llanrhian which is within walking distance of Portghgain, which boasts a photogenic harbour, some abandonded brickworks, a very decent pub, the Sloop Inn  and an amazing fish & chips called The Shed BistroFrom about 1878 slate and granite, was exported from Porthgain aboard six specially-built 350-ton coasters. Due to the large demand for the stone, the harbour was enlarged in 1902 and 1904. During the summer of 1909 one hundred and one shipments totalling 13,000 tons were made. Rock, won from the coastal quarries above the port, was transported by a network of tramways  to a crushing and grading plant just above Porthgain and operated by traction engines. The crushed rock was then fed down into a series of fine brick hoppers which flank the harbour, whence it was loaded onto cargo vessels moored beneath. There was a also brickworks on site, and bricks for the hoppers were baked and later exported to Llanelli, with `seconds’ shipped to Dublin. In the inter-war years trade did not recover sufficiently and the crushing plant closed in 1931.  The remaining ruins provide a pretty spectacular back drop to the Porthgain Harbour.

Entry to Porthgain Harbour
Traeth Llyfn Beach
Traeth Llyfn Beach
St. David's Head
Strumble Head Lighthouse

Carew Castle

The castle stands on a limestone  bluff overlooking the Carew inlet, part of the tidal estuary that makes up the Milford Haven. The site must have been recognised as strategically useful from the earliest times, and recent excavations in the outer ward have discovered multiple defensive walls of an Iron Age fort. The Norman castle has its origins in a stone keep built by Gerald de Windsor around the year 1100. Gerald was made castellan of Pembroke Castle by Arnulf of Montgomery in the first Norman invasion of Pembrokeshire. He married Nest, princess of Deheubarth around 1095. Nest brought the manor of Carew as part of her dowry, and Gerald cleared the existing fort to build his own castle on Norman lines. The original outer walls were timber, and only the keep was of stone. This still exists in the later structure as the “Old Tower”. Gerald’s son William took the name “de Carew”, and in the middle of the 12th century created an enclosure with stone walls incorporating the original keep, and a “Great Hall” inside it. The current high-walled structure with a complex of rooms and halls around the circumference was created in about 1270 by Nicholas de Carew (d.1297), concurrent with (and influenced by) the construction of the Edwardian castles in North Wales. At this time, the outer ward was also walled in.

Carew Castle in Pembrokeshire
Carew Castle

The de Carews fell on hard times in the post-Black Death  period and mortgaged the castle. It fell into the hands of Rhys ap Thomas, who made his fortune by strategically changing sides and backing Henry Tudor just before the battle of Bosworth. Rewarded with lands and a knighthood, he extended the castle with luxurious apartments with many Tudor features in the late 15th century. An inner doorway is decorated with three coats of arms: those of Henry VII, his son Arthur and Arthur’s wife Catherine of Aragon. This allegiance turned sour. Rhys’ grandson Rhys ap Gruffudd fell out of favour and was executed by Henry VIII for treason in 1531. The castle thus reverted to the crown and was leased to various tenants. In 1558 it was acquired by Sir John Perrot, a Lord Deputy of Ireland, who completed the final substantial modifications of the castle. The Elizabethan plutocrat reconstructed the north walls to build a long range of domestic rooms.

Perrot subsequently fell out of favour and died imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1592. The castle reverted to the crown and was finally re-purchased by the de Carew family in 1607. In the Civil War, the castle was refortified by Royalists although south Pembrokeshire was strongly Parliamentarian. After changing hands three times, the south wall was pulled down to render the castle indefensible to Royalists. At the Restoration  the castle was returned to the de Carews, who continued to occupy the eastern wing until 1686.


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