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!

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Taking the train in the age of coronavirus

Have mask, will travel

I took a train for the first time in over five months this week. What a contrast to that last journey in March, before Britain’s coronavirus lockdown began.

Our short (eight minute) journey from Tenby to Saundersfoot was simple enough. We remembered to take our masks. The Transport for Wales guard challenged passengers who weren’t wearing masks, although the man sitting opposite us remained unmasked as we got off.

Social distancing on board

Many of the seats were out of use to ensure social distancing. Fortunately this two carriage train was not busy.

Sign of the times

To give Transport for Wales credit, the information signs on the train and the platforms were very clear.

The masked travellers

As we alighted at Saundersfoot station, it struck me that the town was likely to be a decent walk away. So it proved. I was reminded of tales of Victorian travellers leaving their trains at stations with the ‘Road’ suffix on a wild Welsh night not realising they were miles from the town in the station name. A practice followed by budget airlines 125 years later…

Remember Tryweryn…

I was intrigued to come across this sign on our two kilometre walk to Saundersfoot . ‘Cofiwch Dryweryn’ (Remember Tryweryn’) recalls the infamous flooding of Capel Celyn in North Wales to provide a reservoir for the English city of Liverpool. Parliament voted for the project, but not a single Welsh MP voted for it. The scandal was a major boost to Welsh nationalism and Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (the Welsh language society) in the 1960s and afterwards.

Saundersfoot

We finally reached the sea at Saundersfoot. This peaceful town was once a major port, exporting coal from the Pembrokeshire coalfield. We walked through a tunnel that was built for the narrow gauge coal tramway. A lovely mix of industrial history and rural beauty – not uncommon in Wales.

Exam results day memories

Today, thousands of young people were celebrating after getting their GCSE results. But these were unique results, based on their teachers’ predictions of how they’d do in an exam, rather than the outcome of actual exams, which were cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Exam memories

I still remember the tension of awaiting my O level results (the predecessor of GCSEs) 40 years ago this month. We were on a family holiday in California when the results came out. I knew the results slip would be waiting for me as I walked through the front door. The journey from the Severn Bridge back to Cardiff on the final part of the journey from Gatwick airport was excruciating. I grabbed the envelope from the pile of post and tore it open. The first thing I read was, ‘This is not a certificate’. In my nervous tension I thought that meant I’d failed! But I hadn’t. It was a mixed bag, but I’d passed maths as well as getting good results in my favourite subjects. And I hadn’t failed any.

This year, young people have had a lesson in taking things seriously from day one and not relying on putting in a performance on the day of the exam. I did poorly in my O level mocks, getting around 20% in chemistry. I enjoyed the subject earlier in my Cardiff High School career, but struggled as it got more complicated. The school told me it wouldn’t let me sit the O level, but put me in for the easier CSE exam instead. I was mortified, feeling like a failure. (Years later, a friend told me how surprised she was to see me joining the CSE class.) But it was the best possible outcome. I was at the right level, and enjoyed chemistry once again. I got a grade 1, the equivalent of C at O level.

I also sat two combined syllabus exams in maths and biology. Passing these gave both an O level and CSE.

My school report after my mock O levels makes painful reading even 40 years on. No wonder my mother read the riot act after she found me time wasting rather than revising in January 1980.

Follow the instructions…

If I thought my 1980 results experience was stressful, I had a further shock to come. When I sat my degree final exams in law in 1984 and 1985, I discovered that the University of Leicester posted everyone’s results on the door of the law faculty. That meant much jostling on the doorstep as I tried to find my results. Fortunately I was happy with the outcome. I assume things are done in a more sympathetic way in today’s online age.

Congratulations to everyone who has got their GCSE results today, including my great nephew Mylo.

The Landsker line: Pembrokeshire’s language border

We’re on holiday in Tenby, Pembrokeshire this week. This intriguing town is called Dinbych-y-pysgod (little fort of the fishes) in Welsh. Yet Tenby has been an English speaking town for the best part of 900 years.

South Pembrokeshire: an English (language) landscape

Look at the map of South Pembrokeshire above. You might think you can’t learn anything about the state of the Welsh language in a region from a map. But think again. Look at the place names. They are all in English. There’s nowhere else in Wales that the landscape and place names are all in English.

North Pembrokeshire: a Welsh language landscape

Now look at the map above, showing Pembrokeshire place names just a few miles north of Tenby. All the names are in Welsh. The border between Welsh speaking and English speaking Pembrokeshire is often called the Landsker line. That name in itself echoes the history, as it comes from a Norse word meaning divide. South Pembrokeshire has often been called little England beyond Wales.

We’re looking at the impact of events 900 years ago. The Normans and Flemish conquered this part of Wales and unusually changed the language of the landscape as well as that spoken in the market place. By contrast, the Vale of Glamorgan west of Cardiff was similarly Anglicised but was later re-Cymricised.

Vale of Glamorgan: Cymraeg a Saesneg

Take this modern Ordnance Survey map of the Vale. Welsh was banished here many centuries ago as in South Pembrokeshire yet yr hen iaith was resurgent in the 18th century. As a result, the place names returned to the old Welsh versions. In time, however, especially in the 20th century, the tide turned once again, and the Vale became overwhelmingly an English speaking part of Wales. But intriguingly the names on the map largely remain the Welsh ones.

Welshness is not just defined by the language spoken. Tenby is a very Welsh town, regardless of the language spoken on the streets by locals and visitors. At my mother’s funeral in 2018 I talked about the old saying that the dragon has two tongues. in other words, Wales isn’t solely defined by language. Our country has made enormous strides over the past 60 years to restore the status of our ancient language. Whether you recognise Tenby or Dinbych-y-pysgod, you have equal status as a Welsh person. Cymru am byth.

The joy of Tenby: pandemic pleasures

We were meant to fly to Florida on Friday, for an amazing family holiday in Walt Disney World. It was obvious months ago that the dream would have to wait. So we booked an Airbnb in Tenby in West Wales so we’d have a holiday to look forward to. We were so glad we did.

Tenby by night

We arrived in the rain, but it soon passed and we were revelling in a night walk around the old town and along the Castle beach.

I have so many happy memories of Tenby. My father Bob took me on a tour of West Wales at the end of my upper sixth school year and we called in to Tenby on the way home. A few years later I enjoyed a weekend in the historic town with my sister’s family when Siân and Ria were small. I fell in love with Tenby that weekend: it was endlessly fascinating yet also had the small town charm. I spotted the flat we stayed in – Troy House – near the harbour this weekend as we arrived. I must find that photo of Ria at the round table in the bay window overlooking St Julian’s Street leading to the harbour.

Castle beach

This is the beach I remember from those long-ago holidays. I built dams across the streams running down the beach with the girls. I was intrigued by the fort, which dates from the 1860s – so not quite the redoubt against Napoleon Bonaparte that I misremembered!

Caldey Island

We enjoyed a boat trip to (but not on) Caldey Island. This lovely island houses a Franciscan monastery. My good friend Anthony Beer and cousin Rosemary Dymond have both enjoyed retreats on this special piece of land. I can imagine the tranquility and solitude. Intriguingly, the island is a mix of sandstone and limestone, giving a contrasting coastline.

The Tenby town wall at the coast

Tenby is a remarkable example of an ancient town that has kept most of its ancient town wall. Here you can see the wall as it ends at the cliff. Below is the gate we drove through to get to our Airbnb at Scarborough House, The Paragon. (Highly recommended .)

Prince Albert monument

We climbed to admire the views from Tenby castle over the sea and the town.The weather was perfect for exploring today. I remembered the fun I had hanging from the canons at Fishguard and Tenby in 1984, and naturally had to recreated the fun… Needless to say, Owen, 12, had to do the same…

Covid carelessness: UK government’s PR failures continue

I blogged in March how the UK government’s confused communications about coronavirus were risking lives. (Careless talk costs lives.) Sadly, things have not improved.

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False hopes

These were the headlines in the UK national press on Thursday. A nation straining under lockdown got a clear signal that freedom was beckoning. The hope raised is likely to be cruelly dashed when Boris Johnson announces whether the government is to make significant changes to lockdown rules for England. That seems unlikely with COVID-19 still far from contained.

Those headlines didn’t happen by accident. They would have been based on briefings from the government’s PR teams. This was carelessness – recklessness even – ahead of a warm bank holiday weekend marking the 75th anniversary of VE Day. Caution was needed. Sure enough, the following day’s headlines marked a gut-wrenching handbrake turn:

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How could Boris Johnson have allowed this to happen? In a health crisis, words matter. The UK government has failed to apply the basic rules of crisis communications. What a contrast to the way the Scottish and Welsh governments have done things. They have been clear and consistent. You can sense the frustration in Holyrood and Cardiff Bay at the failures in London.

Matthew Parris in The Times (paywall) today brilliantly summed up the prime minister’s failure to lead and communicate. In his column, he captured the bumbling prime minister in the Commons as he struggled to string a thought together, never mind a sentence:

“The prime minister: “A-a-as I think is readily apparent, Mr Speaker, to everybody who has studied the, er, the situation, and I think the scientists would, er, confirm, the difficulty in mid-March was that, er, the, er, tracing capacity that we had — it had been useful … in the containment phase of the epidemic er, that capacity was no longer useful or relevant, since the, er, transmission from individuals within the UK um meant that it exceeded our capacity. … [A]as we get the new cases down, er, we will have a team that will genuinely be able to track and, er, trace hundreds of thousands of people across the country, and thereby to drive down the epidemic. And so, er, I mean, to put it in a nutshell, it is easier, er, to do now — now that we have built up the team on the, on the way out — than it was as er, the epidemic took off …”

Cruel but accurate. Johnson long ago perfected his persona as a bumbling, rather chaotic player. This seemed to provide a front for a man who was actually ruthlessly ambitious. Yet, now, we wonder whether it’s not an act after all – that, to quote Gertrude Stein, “There’s no there there”. Matthew Parris asks in The Times today whether Johnson is actually up to the job. He says:

“We need to be persuaded that the leader is leading: in charge, across his brief, able to bang heads together and when key decisions loom, equipped and ready to take them.”

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Wales takes the lead

It’s clear that the first ministers of Wales and Scotland have decided they cannot afford to allow London to lead coronavirus communications. True, Mark Drakeford and Nicola Sturgeon come from rival parties with little time for Old Etonian bluster. And Sturgeon in particular has an agenda to show that Scotland is better going its own way. But they have their own responsibilities in their respective nations. Drakeford announced on Friday only “modest” changes to the coronavirus lockdown in Wales, warning it was “too soon” to go further. That has to be right. Why did London not do the same? Why did Johnson delay his announcement until Sunday? It’s hard to imagine any new trends or data emerging over the weekend to justify a major change.

As Matthew Parris concludes, “This crisis is a flight into the unknown and we need the captain to stop the blustering and talk to us like grown-ups”.

Testing, testing

It’s clear now that the government seriously blundered over its target of providing 100,000 COVID-19 tests a day. At the end of April, it triumphantly trumpeted that it had reached that target on the last day of the month. But suspiciously, it then failed to meet the target on every single day of the following week. It’s hard not to conclude that the government was playing games. That’s the last way to govern and communicate during the greatest health crisis for a century.

The failures to keep promises to provide tests and personal protective equipment for NHS staff and carers recall an episode early in Churchill’s wartime premiership, recounted in Erik Larson’s superb new book The Splendid and the Vile.

Talking to a general recently evacuated from Dunkirk in 1940, the prime minister commented, “I assume then that your Corps is now ready to take the field?” The reply: “Very far from it sir. Our re-equipment is not nearly complete…” Churchill, taken aback, checked the reports that claimed that the general’s division had been replenished. The general gave a devastating retort: “That may refer to the weapons that the depots are preparing to issue to my units, but they have not yet reached the troops in anything like those quantities”. At that, according to Larson, Churchill was almost speechless with rage and threw the misleading reports across the table towards the chief of the imperial general staff. Winston wasn’t interested in massaging figures; he was outraged that the troops hadn’t got the equipment that the reports claimed had reached them. If only Churchill was in charge in 2020.

Boris Johnson could learn a lot from his hero, who became prime minister 80 years ago today. As I blogged on the anniversary 10 years ago, our greatest premier reflected:

“As he returned from Buckingham Palace as prime minister, Churchill had tears in his eyes as he told his detective that he was very much afraid it was too late. “We can only do our best.” But as we went to bed at 3am the following day, he reflected a profound sense of relief. “I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and this trial.”

2020: an Easter like no other

There’s never been an Easter like it. All the churches in Britain were closed, and family parties, day trips and holidays cancelled. Beaches and parks that would have been packed on every other sunny, hot bank holiday were this year deserted.

Priests tended to their congregations in new ways. My great friend Anthony Beer is priest at Laleston and Merthyr Mawr near Bridgend in South Wales. This Easter Anthony held Eucharist on Easter Day in the vicarage garden – as you can tell from the photo on the left, it was a very different congregation this year. (By contrast, one Easter at nearby Wick Anthony brought two lambs to church on Easter Day, as seen in the second photo!) Anthony like so many other priests is ministering to his flock by phone, email and social media.

As Anthony remarked, the Easter story is of being transported from sadness and darkness to joy and happiness. Millions around the world will have prayed and hoped for happier times around the corner.

What a contrast to Easter 2019. A year ago, we were staying in my hometown, Cardiff. On Easter Day, I cycled to our favourite Welsh beach, Dunraven, Southerndown. It was a gorgeous spring day, much like this year’s Easter weather, and I revelled in exploring familiar countryside by bike not car. I even discovered an abandoned pub, the Cross Inn near Llantrithyd, which closed in 1939 after 239 years.

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Easter Day 2019

I close this post with a photo that captured that joy of the setting of the sun after a beautiful day. This classic E Type Jaguar was parked outside my father’s then home on the Esplanade, Penarth, Vale of Glamorgan. Presumably this Easter this lovely car was standing silently at home, waiting for life to return to normal.

As Anthony remarked on Easter Day 2020, the Easter story transports us from sadness and darkness to joy and happiness. Millions around the world will be hoping and praying that happier times are around the corner.

John Humphrys: goodbye to Today

John Humphrys. Photo: BBC

Britain’s politicians will sleep more easily after this week. The interviewer they fear most, John Humphrys, is leaving Radio 4’s Today programme after 32 years.

Back in 1987, Margaret Thatcher was about to win her third term. People were starting to get concerned about global warming. And Radio 4’s Today programme had established itself as the show that set the nation’s agenda led by legendary broadcaster Brian Redhead.

I was a fan of Today from my early days. While school friends in the Seventies tuned in to Radio 1’s breakfast show, my bedside radio was set to Radio 4. I timed my morning routine to the schedule. I loved Redhead’s wit and the way he switched between caustic treatment of shifty politicians and kindness towards ordinary people who found themselves in the news.

John Humphrys quickly established himself as Redhead’s successor after Brian’s tragically early death in 1994. I thoroughly enjoyed his encounters with Michael Heseltine and Kenneth Clarke in the 8.10am interview in the run up to the 1997 general election. The Conservatives were clearly going to lose by a landslide to Tony Blair’s New Labour but the two impresarios of the Tory party had a compelling presence that few current politicians of any party can match.

My family shares similar roots to the famous broadcaster. Like me, he was born in Cardiff, not far from my grandmother’s birthplace in Splott, and went to Cardiff High School – in its grammar school days, as did my father. (It had become a comprehensive by the time I started in 1975.) Like Mum and Dad, he started his journalism career on the Penarth Times. He was the first reporter on the scene of the Aberfan disaster in 1966, and later said that nothing in his career compared to the tragic landslide that overwhelmed the Welsh village school, killing 116 children and 28 adults.

For me, the most unforgettable Humphrys interview in recent years was the one that cost the job of his ultimate boss, BBC director-general George Entwistle, in 2012. Humphrys interviewed Entwistle at the height of the Jimmy Savile scandal. The BBC boss came across as utterly out of his depth and ill-informed. I described the interview in my blog as the director-general’s exit interview and so it proved: he resigned hours later.

Photo: BBC

John Humphrys is right to go now. He has been criticised as being out of touch with the times. That may be true – the 76 year presenter appeared uncomfortable with the understandable backlash against the fact that he and other male presenters are paid more than their female peers. And Today itself can feel heavy compared with the livelier offering from the BBC’s 5 Live breakfast show. But John Humphrys has been an essential part of the national debate over the past 32 years. I will miss my fellow Cardiffian on my drive to work.

Land’s End to John O’Groats – Day 5, Monmouth to Clun

Clun: a lovely destination on a sunny day

This post recounts the fifth day of my 14 day LEJOG19 adventure, in August 2019. For tips based on my experience, please go to my blogpost How to ride Land’s End to John O’Groats. Read Day 4: Street to Monmouth

This was a shorter and easier day: just 58 miles. But it didn’t feel like it over the first five miles, a constant ascent out of the Wye valley. Just as I remembered from my 2002 ride! This prompted a thought that was confirmed as the days unfolded: I much prefer ‘proper’ hills to ascents that don’t look serious but go on for ever. But the weather was fine, and once we got to the village of St Weonards the riding was more enjoyable. This small place has cannily placed a Land’s End to John O’Groats fingerpost outside its shop. They obviously get lots of people like us stopping to take photos and buying things there!

Pembridge

I was looking forward to our lunch stop at Pembridge, Herefordshire. This village in the Arrow valley, like nearby Weobley, is a gorgeous collection of black and white timbered buildings. We had lunch in Pembridge in 2002 and it proved as lovely this time as I remembered. We sat under the 16th century market hall and took a moment in the sunshine to admire the unusual separate church bell tower. A perfect place to rest on a sunny summer’s day.

Relaxing in Clun

The rest of the day was uneventful, with an easy ride to Clun. I couldn’t help thinking of the words of AE Houseman from A Shropshire Lad:

Clunton and Clunbury,
Clungunford and Clun,
Are the quietest places
Under the sun.

Walking over the ancient bridge up to the castle ruins, I knew exactly what he meant.

Clun castle
Not so quiet tonight: the music man

That said, Clun wasn’t quite so quiet that evening when one of our group, Nigel, was invited to play the ukulele by a group playing in the Sun Inn!

Day’s stats

58 miles, 3,858 feet climbing, 4 hrs 18 minutes cycling, 13.4 mph average speed

Read Day 6, Clun to Northwich

Land’s End to John O’Groats – Day 4, Street to Monmouth

About to cross Brunel’s masterpiece.

This post recounts the fourth day of my 14 day LEJOG19 adventure, in August 2019. For tips based on my experience, please go to my blogpost How to ride Land’s End to John O’Groats. Read Day 3, Moretonhampstead to Street.

What a fabulous day’s cycling! We crossed the Severn Bridge into Wales, which was an emotional moment for me, born in Cardiff. But there were other magical moments, including passing Wells cathedral, crossing Clifton suspension bridge and having a brew stop in glorious sunshine next to the ruins of Tintern Abbey.

Glastonbury

For once, we avoided big climbs after lunch and brew stops. Instead, the day began with the Somerset levels. This is such a magical landscape, with Glastonbury Tor rising mysteriously high above the levels, and the quirky town of Glastonbury with the whiff of incense hanging in the air as we cycled through on the way to Wells. The inevitable downpour greeted us as we reached England’s smallest city, but magically the shower gave way to sunshine as we reached the beautiful cathedral.

The hill of the day followed – the climb onto the Mendips – which was a long ascent but by today we had got into a pattern for these hills: choose a low gear and take your time, rising from the saddle from time to time to vary things. It didn’t seem long before we were enjoying the long descent to Chew Magna Lake, which was bigger than I remembered it – and a lovely spot for a brew stop!

Clifton suspension bridge

The next stretch towards Bristol was a bit of a slog – a busy road and dull scenery. But the reward was cycling over Clifton suspension bridge, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s masterpiece, finished after his death. This is an example of how Peak Tours is so good at creating routes with unforgettable experiences. (Cycling through Edinburgh was another.) I was just as impressed by the route to the Severn Bridge, which was surprisingly rural compared with the route we took on my 2002 LEJOG, which went over the M5 Avonmouth bridge footbridge and past various chemical plants.

Over the Severn Bridge to Wales

The Severn Bridge has featured in my life for over 50 years, linking my Cardiff birthplace with homes, family and friends in England. It replaced the old Aust ferry in 1966, but remains the only cycle route over the mighty estuary below Gloucester. It was amazingly windy up there – which made the wind-free Forth crossing in Scotland six days later a surprise!

Croeso i Gymru – welcome to Wales!

I felt emotional as we crossed into Wales and saw the familiar bilingual road signs. Unfortunately, there isn’t a welcome to Wales sign on the cycle path – a missed photo opportunity that the Welsh government should address!

Tintern Abbey – afternoon tea

We had a lovely ride along the Wye valley to Monmouth, fortunately just days after the A466 reopened so avoiding a hilly diversion at St Arvans. The sun was shining at our most scenic brew stop yet at Tintern Abbey – and we had Welsh cakes to celebrate our arrival in Wales.

I couldn’t resist!

It was just a short ride from Tintern to Monmouth, the historic border town, and we crossed the border back into England for a few miles with the beautiful Wye to our side. We were staying in the King’s Arms, an old coaching inn that’s now a Wetherspoons hotel. Our bikes had an equally historic home for the night – the Shire Hall opposite!

The Shire Hall and Charles Rolls

I had a lovely evening in Monmouth catching up with my cousin Wendy and family. There was a poignant aspect to this as on my LEJOG stay in the town in 2002 I had dinner with my father and late mother. Happy memories.

Day’s stats

65 miles, 3,865 feet climbing, 12.7 mph average.

Read Day 5 – Monmouth to Clun