ST DAVIDS (Tyddewi) is one of the most enchanting spots in Britain. This miniature city – really just a large village – sits at the very westernmost point of Wales in bleak, treeless countryside, above its purple- and gold-flecked cathedral, the spiritual heart of Wales. Traditionally founded by the Welsh patron saint himself in 550 AD, the shrine of St David has drawn pilgrims for a millennium and a half – William the Conqueror included – and by 1120, Pope Calixtus II decreed that two journeys to St Davids were the spiritual equivalent of one to Rome. Today, with so many historical sites, outdoor-pursuit centres, surf beaches, good cafés, superb walks, bathing and climbing, St Davids and its peninsula are a must.
From the central Celtic cross, the main street runs under the thirteenth-century Tower Gate, which forms the entrance to the serene Cathedral Close, backed by a windswept landscape of treeless heathland. The cathedral lies down to the right, hidden in a hollow by the River Alun. This apparent modesty is explained by reasons of defence, as a towering cathedral, visible from the sea on all sides, would have been vulnerable to attack. On the other side of the babbling Alun lie the ruins of the Bishop’s Palace.
St Davids Cathedral
St Davids Cathedral’s 125ft tower, topped by pert golden pinnacles, has clocks on only three sides – the people of the northern part of the parish couldn’t raise enough money for one to be constructed facing them. You enter through the south side of the low, twelfth-century nave in full view of its most striking feature, the intricate latticed oak roof, added to hide emergency restoration work in the sixteenth century. The nave floor still has a pronounced slope and the support buttresses inserted in the northern aisle look incongruously new and temporary. At the back of the south choir stalls is a unique monarch’s stall, complete with royal crest, for, unlike any other British cathedral, the Queen is an automatic member of the St Davids Cathedral Chapter.
Separating the choir and the presbytery is an unusual parclose screen of finely traced woodwork; beyond this is the tomb of Edmund Tudor, father of King Henry VII. The back wall of the presbytery was once the eastern extremity of the cathedral, as can be seen from the two lines of windows. The upper row has been left intact, while the lower three were blocked up and filled with delicate gold mosaics in the nineteenth century. The colourful fifteenth-century roof, a deceptively simple repeating medieval pattern, was restored by Sir George Gilbert Scott in the 1860s. On the south side are two thirteenth-century bishops’ tombs, and opposite is the disappointingly plain tomb of St David, largely destroyed in the Reformation. Behind the filled-in lancets at the back of the presbytery is Bishop Vaughan’s chapel, with an exquisite fan tracery roof built between 1508 and 1522. A peephole looks back into the presbytery, over a casket reputedly containing some of the intermingled bones of St David and his friend, St Justinian.