North versus South
North Pembrokeshire or south Pembrokeshire? They’re very different, you know. Travel writer Roger Thomas delves deep into Pembrokeshire’s bipolar psyche
It’s not quite war. In fact the only winners are visitors to Pembrokeshire who get two bites of the cherry.
Nowadays, Pembrokeshire’s two sides sit happily next to each other, the wilder Welsh member of the family in the north, its southern sibling wearing a more sedate, settled expression. It was not always thus. In Norman times the Landsker line, a ghostly border defined by a chain of castles, was built to separate the ‘Welshry’ of the north from what became a ‘little England beyond Wales’ in the south.
The differences are rooted even deeper than history. Geology also plays its part, for in the north there’s a rugged, serrated coastline made up of some of the toughest, most ancient rocks in the British Isles, whilst Pembrokeshire’s younger southern softies, limestones, have been shaped by the sea to create stunning cliff scenery.
So where to go? To help decide, here are a few north/south snapshots from a recent trip I made with my wife Liz.
To purloin something that Dylan Thomas once said of his Swansea hometown, Porthgain on the north coast is an ‘ugly, lovely’ kind of place. The shell of an old brickworks stands in a snug little harbour still used by local fishermen. Porthgain retains its frontier authenticity despite having gone all arty and foodie, with The Shed and Sloop Inn serving sensational, catch-of-the-day seafood straight from the boat. It’s everything you’d want of a small, honest little port, flanked by an untouched coastline dusted in Celtic magic.
The contrasts at Stack Rocks south of Pembroke almost take your breath away. You’re standing on the edge of a massive curtain of cliffs unfurling into the blue yonder. The views are huge, the drama on a theatrical scale - especially when you suddenly come across the coup de théâtre, the Green Bridge of Wales, an awesome sea-arch of limestone scooped into the headland by crashing waves, a natural phenomenon alive with seabirds. You’re in the elements - quite literally - up here, amongst springy turf and hunched trees crippled by the wind. Who said that north Pembrokeshire had the monopoly on wild coastline? But it’s a different kind of wildness down south.
St Davids and Tenby
It’s not a case of Celtic shrine versus candyfloss, for Tenby is too classy a resort to be characterised by that pinky, sticky substance. But there is a compelling - almost magnetic - quality to the tiny cathedral city, founded by Wales’s patron saint in the 5th century, which draws people into its soul. Historically, two pilgrimages to St Davids equalled one to Rome. Today’s visitors aren’t necessarily religious in the conventional sense, yet they still tune into what the Celtic world called this ‘thin place’ where the dividing line between the natural and spirit worlds seems to dissolve. I always get the goose bumps when I visit purple-stoned St Davids Cathedral, hidden in a hollow beneath the town centre; or on the headland overlooking Ramsey Island, and the path leading to the holy well of St Non, mother of St David.
You go to Tenby if you like proper seaside resorts – and who doesn’t? There’s no tat. There’s no screaming funfair. Instead, there’s a gorgeous Georgian harbour. And Blue Flag beaches where you can get up to all the things that the fashionable, Boden-wearing, holidays-at-home crowd love to do. Plus the medieval town above, a maze of narrow streets crammed with historic interest. It’s a double-whammy really, for Saundersfoot is just a short hop away. Like Tenby, the harbour is the focal point, along with a big sandy beach that never gets packed. And up above there’s an enchanted forest of green lanes, woods and garden gems like the National Trust’s Colby.
The Welsh Wildlife Centre and Skomer Island
Profuse wildlife is a Pembrokeshire speciality – from springtime wildflowers to the birth of seal pups in autumn. It’s a naturalist’s version of the Royal Command Variety Performance. We started off at the Welsh Wildlife Centre based around the Teifi Marshes Nature Reserve near Cardigan. Summer visitors include kingfishers, peregrine falcons, butterflies, mute swans and mallard, but even if you don’t bring your binoculars (which you should, for the place bristles with hides) you can take pleasure in following the miles of well-signposted paths that lead you not just across marshland but along the wooded gorge of the River Teifi all the way to the romantic ruins of Cilgerran Castle. Or you can paddle your way there by canoe.
Skomer, Skokholm and Grassholm islands off Pembrokeshire’s south-western tip were named by Norse invaders. These internationally important bird reserves are, thankfully, no-go areas to mass tourism, though it is possible to land on some and take boat trips around all three. We set off on an idyllic summer’s day for a trip around Skomer from tiny Martin’s Haven near Dale on the Dale Princess, captained by Derek Lister. With his eagle-eyed help, we were lucky to see gannets giving Tom Daly Olympic-standard diving demonstrations, hitting the water cleanly at 50mph to snatch fish brought up by porpoises. We also saw seals basking on rocks, young gulls waiting for food and Manx shearwaters, who fly all the way to Brazil in winter. Derek also pointed out a zigzagging grass track on Skomer, clearly untrodden for centuries, made by Iron Age settlers. We’d only been on the boat half-an-hour, yet civilisation seemed a long way away.
Pentre Ifan Cromlech and Carew Castle
Pentre Ifan, on the shoulder of the Preseli Hills, is another magical, mystical north Pembrokeshire icon. You can imagine druids and ’60s hippies dancing barefoot on the grass around this skeletal prehistoric megalith. They do this – in spirit, anyway – every summer equinox: not here, but at Salisbury Plain, for Stonehenge was made of the same Preseli bluestones as Pentre Ifan.
In contrast to Pentre Ifan’s raw simplicity, Carew Castle in the south is an architecturally ambitious fortress that has dressed its original military shell with latter-day flourishes of finery and domesticity. It’s noticeable as soon as you enter the gatehouse, where a crumbling wall defence, weary with age, morphs into a pristine turreted extension added when the castle evolved into an elaborate Elizabethan mansion. Such counterpoints are evident everywhere in this text-book example of how home improvements changed a draughty old castle into a ‘des res’ of the period. Carew wasn’t finished with us yet, for our lesson also included a look at 19th-century Carew Mill, the only restored tidal-powered mill in Wales, and the much older Carew Cross, a tall Celtic monument that’s a masterclass in 11th-century stonecarving.
Yr Hafan and St Brides Spa Hotel
Here are two more places that epitomise the differences between north and south. On the north coast we stayed at Yr Hafan, Llanrhian. It’s difficult to believe that this small, immaculate collection of stone buildings – a mix of self-catering and B&B accommodation – was a dilapidated farmhouse a few years back. Our room was a seamless mix of rustic and modern – all sleek tiles and beamed ceilings – with a high-end bathroom straight out of a designer hotel. It’s farmhouse accommodation, 21st-century style, with hosts Jeff and Alison Morris who couldn’t do enough for you (Jeff even drove us to Porthgain for our evening meal).
St Brides Spa at Saundersfoot is a new breed of seaside hotel. In place of tired décor, dusty curtains and dreary food, this breath of fresh sea air is all about style, substance and sophisticated hospitality. It’s like one of those upscale New England harbour hotels, a palate of cool maritime colours, supremely comfortable rooms, bleached wood terraces, arty interiors and a view to die for from its infinity pool poised dizzyingly on the edge of the headland overlooking Saundersfoot harbour and Carmarthen Bay.
I’ll finish by passing you over to Liz, who is a bit of a spa junkie. Here’s what she had to say: ‘St Brides scored very high marks. This stunning cliff-edged maritime-themed spa has a saltwater hydrotherapy pool with panoramic sea views, treatment rooms opening over the sea, salt grotto, herbal steam room and much more. I opted for reflexology with Melisa, a skilful therapist with a firm, relaxing touch. Mediterranean oil blends, marine lotions and the candlelit treatment room all combined to provide one of the best treatments I have ever had.’
So what’s it to be? North or south? Another beauty of Pembrokeshire is its manageable size. Take my advice: be greedy and have them both.
Start planning your weekend or short break with our ideas for 48 hours in Pembrokeshire
Still undecided? Read travel writer Paul Gogarty's Pembrokeshire story. Paul explains why despite criss-crossing the globe, he's yet to discover 'anywhere that can quite eclispe the Pembrokeshire Coast'