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Frequently overlooked in the stampede towards the resorts of Pembrokeshire, Carmarthenshire is a quiet part of the world. Kidwelly, with its dramatically sited castle, is the only reason to stop before Carmarthen, the unquestioned regional capital but one that fails to live up to the promise of its status. Better to press on up the bucolic Tywi Valley, visiting the National Botanic Garden and the more intimate grounds of Aberglasney on the way to Llandeilo and the wonderfully sited Carreg Cennen castle. On the coast, the village of Laugharne has become a place of pilgrimage for Dylan Thomas devotees, while Tenby is the quintessential British seaside resort, built high on cliffs and with views across to monastic Caldey Island.
Celtic monks first settled Caldey Island (Ynys Pyr), a couple of miles offshore from Tenby, in the sixth century. This community may have been wiped out in Viking raids, but in 1136 Benedictine monks founded a priory here. After the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536, the island was bought and sold until 1906, when it was again sold to a Benedictine order, and subsequently to Reformed Cistercians, who have run the place since then.
A short woodland walk from the island’s jetty leads to its main settlement: a tiny post office, the popular Tea Gardens and a perfume shop selling the herbal fragrances distilled by the monks from Caldey’s abundant flora. The narrow road to the left leads past the abbey to the heavily restored chapel of St David, whose most impressive feature is the round-arched Norman door.
A lane leads south from the village to the old priory, and the remarkable, twelfth-century St Illtud’s church, which houses one of the most significant pre-Norman finds in Wales, the sandstone Ogham Cross, under the stained-glass window on the south side of the nave. It is carved with an inscription from the sixth century, which was added to, in Latin, during the ninth. The lane continues south, climbing up to the gleaming white island lighthouse, built in 1828, from where there are memorable views.
In the early eighteenth century CARMARTHEN (Caerfyrddin) was the largest town in the country and it remains the regional hub, a solid, if hardly thrilling, place best known as the supposed birthplace of the wizard Merlin.
The most picturesque part of town is around Nott Square, where the handsome eighteenth-century Guildhall sits at the base of Edward I’s uninspiring castle. From the top of Nott Square, King Street heads northeast towards the undistinguished St Peter’s Church and the Victorian School of Art, which has metamorphosed into Oriel Myrddin, a craft centre and excellent gallery that acts as an imaginative showcase for local artists.
Dylan Thomas was the stereotypical Celt – fiery, verbose, richly talented and habitually drunk. Born in 1914 into a middle-class family in Swansea’s Uplands district, Dylan’s first glimmers of literary greatness came when he joined the South Wales Evening Post as a reporter. Some of his most popular tales in the Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog were inspired during this period.
Rejecting what he perceived as the coarse provincialism of Swansea and Welsh life, Thomas arrived in London as a broke 20-year-old in 1934, weeks before the appearance of his first volume of poetry, which was published as the first prize in a Sunday Referee competition. Another volume followed shortly afterwards, cementing the engaging young Welshman’s reputation in the British literary establishment. Having married in 1937, he returned to Wales and settled in the hushed, provincial backwater of Laugharne. Short stories – crackling with rich and melancholy humour – tumbled out as swiftly as poems, further widening his base of admirers, though, like so many other writers, Thomas only gained star status posthumously. Perhaps better than anyone, he wrote with an identifiably Welsh rhythmic wallow in the language.
Thomas, especially in public, liked to adopt the persona of what he perceived to be an archetypal stage Welshman: sonorous tones, loquacious, romantic and inclined towards a stiff tipple. This role was particularly popular in the United States, where he journeyed on lucrative lecture tours. It was on one of these that he died, in 1953, supposedly from a massive whisky overdose, although it now seems likely he was a victim of pneumonia or diabetes and incompetent doctors. Just one month earlier, he had put the finishing touches to what many regard as his masterpiece: Under Milk Wood, a “play for voices”.
On a natural promontory of great strategic importance, beguilingly old-fashioned TENBY (Dinbych-y-Pysgod) is everything a seaside resort should be. Narrow streets wind down from the medieval centre to the harbour past miniature gardens fashioned to face the afternoon sun, and steps lead down the steeper slopes to dockside arches where fishmongers sell the morning’s catch.
First mentioned in a ninth-century bardic poem, Tenby grew under the twelfth-century Normans, who erected a castle on the headland in their attempt to colonize South Pembrokeshire and create a “Little England beyond Wales”. Three times in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the town was ransacked by the Welsh. In response, the castle was refortified and the stout town walls – largely still intact – were built. Tenby prospered as a port between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, and although decline followed, the arrival of the railway renewed prosperity as the town became a fashionable resort.
Today, wandering the medieval streets is one of Tenby’s delights. The town is triangle-shaped, with two sides formed by the coast meeting at Castle Hill, and the third by the remains of the 20ft-high town walls, built in the late thirteenth century and massively strengthened by Jasper Tudor in 1457. In the middle of the remaining stretch is the only town gate still standing, Five Arches, a semicircular barbican that combined practical day-to-day usage with hidden lookouts and angles acute enough to surprise invaders.
The River Tywi curves and darts its way east from Carmarthen through some of the most magical scenery in South Wales as well as through a couple of budding gardens: one, the National Botanic Garden of Wales, and the other a faithful reconstruction of walled gardens around the long-abandoned house of Aberglasney. The twenty-mile trip to Llandeilo is punctuated by gentle, impossibly green hills topped with ruined castles, notably the wonderful Carreg Cennen: it’s not hard to see why the Merlin legend has taken such a hold in these parts.
Fifteen miles east of Carmarthen, the handsome market town of LLANDEILO is in a state of transition, with a small kernel of chichi cafés and shops just off the main Rhosmaen Street.
There’s little to see in town, but a mile west is the tumbledown shell of the largely thirteenth-century Dinefwr Castle, reached through the gorgeous parkland of Dinefwr Park. Set on a wooded bluff above the Tywi, the castle became ill suited to the needs of the Rhys family, who aspired to something a little more luxurious. The “new” castle, half a mile away, now named Newton House, was built in 1523, and is now arranged internally just as it was a hundred years ago.
Isolated in rural hinterland in the far western extremes of the Brecon Beacons National Park, Carreg Cennen Castle is one of the most magnificently sited castles in Wales. Urien, one of King Arthur’s knights, is said to have built his fortress on the fearsome rocky outcrop, although the first known construction dates from 1248. Carreg Cennen fell to the English King Edward I in 1277, and was largely destroyed in 1462 by the Earl of Pembroke, who believed it to be a rebel base. The most astounding aspect of the castle is its commanding position, 300ft above a sheer drop down into the green valley of the small River Cennen. The highlights of a visit are the views down into the river valley and the long, damp descent into a pitch-black cave that is said to have served as a well. Torches are essential – continue as far as possible and then turn them off to experience spooky absolute darkness.