The most westerly point of Wales is one of the country’s most enchanting. The chief town of the region, Haverfordwest, is rather soulless, but it’s useful as a jumping-off point for the stunning St Bride’s Bay. The coast here is broken into rocky outcrops, islands and broad, sweeping beaches curving between two headlands that sit like giant crab pincers facing out into the warm Gulf Stream. The southernmost headland winds around every conceivable angle, offering calm, east-facing sands at Dale and sunny expanses of south-facing beach at Marloes. At Martin’s Haven, boats depart for the offshore islands of Skomer, Skokholm and Grassholm. To the north, there’s spectacularly lacerated coast around St Davids peninsula, with towering cliffs interrupted only by occasional strips of sand. The tiny cathedral city of St Davids is most definitely a highlight: rooks and crows circle above the impressive ruins of the huge Bishop’s Palace, sitting beneath the delicate bulk of the cathedral, the most impressive in Wales.
The north-facing coast that forms the very southern tip of Cardigan Bay is wild, rugged and breathtakingly beautiful. It’s also noticeably less commercialized and far more Welsh than the touristy shores of south and mid-Pembrokeshire. From the crags and cairns above St David’s Head, the coast path perches precariously on the cliffs where only the thousands of seabirds have access. Hidden coves and secluded beaches slice into the rocky headlands, which are at their most magnificent around Strumble Head, where a picturesque lighthouse flashes its warning from a tiny islet. From here, there’s only wilderness to detain you en route to the charming town of Newport – unless you’re heading for Fishguard and the ferries to Ireland.
Weather permitting, boats run from Martin’s Haven to Skomer Island, a 722-acre flat-topped island whose rich birdlife and spectacular carpets of wild flowers make it perfect for birdwatching and walking.
Though no landings are permitted, fast cruises leave from Dale to loop around Skomer and Skokholm Island, a couple of miles south of Skomer and far smaller, more rugged and remote, noted for its cliffs of warm red sandstone. Britain’s first bird observatory was founded here in 1933, and there are still huge numbers of petrels, gulls, puffins, oystercatchers and Manx shearwaters.
The same company also offers cruises out to the tiny outpost of Grassholm Island, more than five miles west of Skomer. Some 80,000 or so screaming gannets nest here, and though they do not land, boats stop to watch the wildlife.
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’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.