St Davids: a happy return to Britain’s smallest city

St Davids cathedral, Pembrokeshire

One of my favourite memories is getting a high speed train in the rush hour in London in the 1980s and finishing my journey five hours later at an isolated stone cottage near St Davids on Wales’s Atlantic coast. At first, the train was packed with commuters to Reading and Swindon, but as we travelled further west into Wales the train took on a different character. I savoured a beer watching the evening reflections as the train followed the Tywi estuary. My father collected me at the end of the line at Haverfordwest. We then enjoyed a magical car ride in the fading summer light to the dramatic Atlantic coast at Newgale and on to the quietude of St Davids, the smallest city in Great Britain.

Whitesands Bay, St Davids

I was fortunate enough to return for a work management offsite a few years ago in St Davids. I’m sure some of my London colleagues wondered why our boss had chosen such a remote location, but if you want to reflect there’s no better place to go. We stayed in the excellent Twr y Felin hotel. It was nice to be able to speak Welsh on a work trip!

Whitesands Bay

This week, I was keen to show Owen this unique corner of Wales, especially as we were staying just the other side of Pembrokeshire in Tenby. The landscape has a rawness to it – I vividly remember being captivated by the ancient looking rocky hillsides overlooking St Davids on my first visit in 1986.

“An ancient, Celtic landscape”

That first visit was balm to the wound of an unhappy first job. Being somewhere completely different did lend tranquility to my troubled situation. I discovered a wonderful little bookshop next to the cathedral and bought the Penguin book of Welsh short stories. I made myself comfortable in the loft of the cottage and fell into a world of fiction, forgetting for a while my inability to balance a till as a building society management trainee. I also revelled in our family walk along a short part of the Pembrokeshire coastal path from nearby St Justinian.

Old and new lifeboat stations, St Justinian, St Davids

This week, I felt a stab of nostalgia seeing the familiar red roof of the RNLI lifeboat station. But wait: I spotted a massive new lifeboat house next to it. The RNLI must have had a major programme of improving its facilities, as Tenby also has a big new lifeboat station. Visiting St Davids in the aftermath of Storm Ellen, with winds over 60 miles an hour, I was lost in admiration for the brave men and women who volunteer to save lives at sea in appalling conditions. My mother was a volunteer on dry land in the RNLI shop in Penarth, and I have long been a supporter of this admirable charity.

The first lifeboat house in St Davids

The new station was the third on the site. It was carved out of the rock in a massive engineering project so St Davids could launch bigger Tamar class lifeboats. Most of the building materials arrived by sea, according to a BBC report.

Old and new lifeboat stations. Photo: BBC

We passed the old cottage that was such a sanctuary to me in the 1980s. Back then, it was owned by Mervyn Jones, who served Wales with distinction as chairman of the Wales Tourist Board and Wales Gas. He was keen that his friends made good use of it, and left a front door key behind the bar of the St Non’s hotel! I noticed the signature of the former TUC general secretary Len Murray in the visitor book. Dad used to enjoy productive hours writing in the tranquility of the old building. But one morning he woke to find someone had stolen one of the wheels of his car! Not what you expect in such an isolated spot. On the wall, there was a photo of the cottage’s owner in the 1920s with Gwilym Lloyd George, the local MP and son of the wartime prime minister. Sadly, Mervyn died in 1989, and I knew reading his obituary in The Times that those very special visits had come to an end.

Back to today. Owen loved St Davids as much as Karen and I do. We shall return, although I will have to take my own books to enjoy as sadly the old bookshop next to the cathedral, which was my literary saviour in 1986, is closing down.

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