RICH HISTORY OF A PASTEL TOWN
Sitting on the cliffside looking down on tranquil sands, picturesque Tenby has a wealth of ancient buildings and maritime heritage
Tis flecked with white, the scattered boats in the harbour buffeted gently by the waves. Gulls cry from the roof of the tiny chapel nestled against the sea wall and whirl among the pink, blue and yellow houses that cluster at the water’s edge. In February, the curves of sand that flank the harbour of Tenby are almost empty, a few walkers enjoying a stroll along the neat gardens of the promenade or making their way to the top of Castle Hill, with its ruined watchtower. The climb is rewarded with breathtaking ocean views or, turning, the narrow alleyways and medieval walls of the old town, clustered beneath the spire of St Mary’s.
Tenby lies on the western edge of Carmarthen Bay atop a point of sheer cliffs, joined by a narrow neck of land to the rocky green outcrop of Castle Hill. The hill creates a natural shelter that bisects the seafront: the busy harbour in its lee on one side; the small cove of Castle Beach on the other. Each gives way to a long expanse of pale yellow sand that stretches up the coast, in places backed by dunes, elsewhere peppered with rock pools and narrow creeks. It is a setting few resorts can match, and why Tenby, in an area noted for its natural beauty, has long been known as the ‘Jewel of Pembrokeshire’.
Castle on a hill
A stone archway, with its ivy-covered barbican, marks the path to the top of Castle Hill, short fragments of wall and the foundations of what were probably domestic buildings visible along the way. At the top, a lone tower stands in watchful silence over the sparkling sea. Benches allow long appreciation of the stunning views: waves crashing against the far shore of the bay; the holy island of Caldey to the south; Goscar Rock, called ‘God’s rock’ by Viking sailors, looming from the sand on North Beach; St Catherine’s island perched off Castle Beach below.
The tower shares the summit with a small white cottage, once home to the coastguard, as well as the Welsh National Memorial to Prince Albert: a 9ft (2.7m) tall marble statue of the Prince in uniform, paid for by the town after his death. Five cannons, thought to belong to the Civil War era, point defiantly out to sea.
Moving downhill once more, the site of what was probably the old hall of the castle is now occupied by Tenby Museum and Art Gallery, the oldest independent museum in Wales. It is a fascinating place to while away an afternoon, with collections of fossils, shells and archaeological finds,
largely donated by the Victorian collector the Rev Gilbert Smith, who excavated Hoyle’s Mouth Cave and Black Rock limestone quarry further down the coast. A dedicated gallery tells the story of life in the town, tracing Tenby’s rising and falling fortunes and its close links to fishing and the sea.
Ebb and flow
Tenby was renowned for its thriving fishery as far back as the 1200s. The best fishing ground was said to be Willes’ Mark, its precise location known only to local seamen by lining up Tenby’s windmill with the chapel on Caldey Island.
“Tenby remained prosperous through Norman rule and beyond, and the 14th and 15th centuries were a particularly good time,” says Marion Davies, a Blue Badge tourist guide, who gives tours round Tenby and the surrounding area. “The town carried out what was called ‘adventurous trade’ with the continent, importing wine and fruit and exporting fish, oysters and wool. In 1566, the first oranges in Wales came in through Tenby, and our local Harbwr Brewery has created a dark stout with a twist of orange to commemorate it. There was also more local trade of course with Ireland and England, especially Devon. But around the time of the Spanish Armada, with fears of invasion, trade with Spain and France was cut. Then came the civil war, and the final straw was the plague, which came here in 1650.
“Between a third and half the population were killed and the town sealed off. When people were free to travel, many left to set up elsewhere anew. The town was being described as ruinous. It was an impoverished place with very few trades.
“It was saved by the fashion for visiting remote places in Britain and the seawater craze of the mid 18th century, when bathing and sea air were thought to be good for the health. Tenby was close to Bath and Bristol, and fashionable people started to travel here, first by boat and later by road.”
Elegant Laston House, near the stone pier that encloses the harbour, once housed Tenby’s first purpose-designed bathhouse, built in 1806 by Sir William Paxton. Now subdivided into holiday flats, what became the town’s motto, ‘The sea washes away all the ills of men’, can be seen in Greek above the door. Inside, patrons could opt for hot or cold seawater baths or showers, and there were also dressing rooms, a cupping room and a steam room.
“The Tenby lot pleases me most and if, on view, it answers my expectations I may probably lay out some thousands in building lodging houses etc. which being much wanted, may be of some benefit to the place”
Sir William Paxton
William Paxton was a wealthy landowner, businessman and politician, who retired to Carmarthenshire in the late 18th century. Keen to develop Tenby as a resort, he lavished huge sums of money on the town, sponsoring a Bill in Parliament to upgrade the freshwater supply and building cottages, lodging houses and a theatre, and a road supported on arches along the back of the harbour. Tenby was on the map, and it never looked back as a tourist destination.
“I visit lots of places in this wonderful area, but Tenby is the hub in my wheel,” says Marion. “It’s a very historic town, with a beautiful coast for all ages, with water sports and lots of walking. It’s peaceful, but has thriving independent shops. It’s appealing on so many levels.”
Although tourism became vital to the local economy, fishing was still its blood. Locally built Tenby luggers, with their bright red sails, were once a common sight along the coast, used for both line and net fishing, and to dredge for oysters.
Before setting out to sea, fishermen would pray for safe passage and a good catch at the tiny church of St Julian’s at the back of the harbour. Its limestone rubble walls and slate roof stand sturdy against the elements; the simple interior, with its stained glass and wooden ceiling, still offer a place of sanctuary. When the weather was so bad that sailing was impossible, the fishermen would gather under a nearby stretch of wall that was once part of the original fortifications. Although their shelter has now gone, the area is still known as Penniless Cove.
Seafarers in bad weather were reliant for help on the town’s lifeboat. The first station was established in 1852 on Castle Beach, the boat being launched by volunteers, who, if unable to get it seaborne there, would pull it by hand to South Beach instead. A tally woman would attend each launch and give everyone who had helped a token that could later be exchanged for cash.
The town currently has two lifeboats: an inshore boat and an all-weather boat, the latter housed in the striking modern station, built in 2005. “You can see the boat close-up from a special high-level gallery,” says Graham Waring, who has been a Tenby boatman for more than 50 years, serving also as a coxswain on the lifeboat for much of that time. “There are exhibitions telling the story of Tenby’s maritime history, including some famous rescues. You can still see the old station, built in the early 20th century, further round Castle Hill, but that has been converted into a private residence.”
Today, Graham runs tourist trips from Castle Beach to Caldey Island, which is home to a community of Reformed Cistercian monks. “Caldey is great for a day out, with lots of walks as well as the monastery,” he says. “It’s a great place for seal spotting, with a colony at Jones Bay on the island. This coast is fantastic for wildlife, with all the seabirds, and if you’re lucky, you may spot a dolphin, although porpoises
are much more common. Twice in my life I’ve had the pleasure of seeing a huge Leatherback turtle: they come in very occasionally as they follow the jellyfish.”
Closer to home is St Catherine’s Island, a short walk from Castle Beach at low tide, but cut off as the waters rise. Those curious about the stern granite building that seems to rise out of the rocks must negotiate a bridge over an inlet and steps cut into the cliff to reach it. “This is St Catherine’s Fort, one of several forts built by Palmerston circa the 1860s,” explains Graham. “At the time, they were worried that Napoleon III was going to invade Britain. Pembroke dock was an obvious target that could be reached from Tenby, so they built a fort here to defend the town and the coast. But the invasion never happened, and the forts became known as Palmerston’s follies. The one on St Catherine’s became a private residence and, at one point, a zoo. It’s undergoing a restoration programme, but is a fascinating place.” The island is also interesting for the caves in its limestone cliffs, and much below the tide mark is a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
Quay Hill is a place where the centuries seem to slip away: a cobbled alleyway tucked behind the harbour, lined by buildings that in places almost touch across its span. Here, in the late 15th century, an unknown trader lived and worked, selling goods he could have watched arriving at the quayside: salt from the Bay of Biscay; wine from Gascony; herring and flax from Ireland. His three-storey house, built of lime and sandstone rubble, with its substantial chimney, mullioned windows and separate garderobe tower, is testament to his success and to Tenby’s prosperity in its age of adventure.
Today, the Tudor Merchant’s House is owned by the National Trust, which restored it in 1938, and has been furnished with carefully crafted reproductions to show how it might have looked in 1500. The ground-floor kitchen, behind the shop that opened onto the street, has a huge stone fireplace, with iron utensils. Tables in the hall above, where the family would have spent much of their time, are laid with a pewter service ready for their meal. The third floor has a single, small bedchamber, its four-poster bed warmed by thick curtains. There are two ‘painted cloths’, a popular alternative to tapestry in Tudor times, that depict scenes of Tenby. The delicate floral wall paintings near the entrance, hand-drawn in orange, black and yellow, are original, dating to the late 18th century.
Worn stone steps to the side of the house lead to the buzzing Plantagenet Restaurant, one of Tenby’s best-known eateries, where diners can enjoy speciality Welsh steak and cheeses, and Tenby-caught lobster and crab. Barney Stone has owned and run it for 45 years, and is fascinated by its history.
“We think this could be the oldest building in Tenby, with parts of it dating back to the 12th or even 10th century,” he says. “From the outside, the place looks like a relatively ordinary cottage, as the facade was redone in the 1700s, but once inside, there are all sorts of nooks and crannies, with exposed beams and an original medieval window. You can see the remains of a doorway in what we call the Quay Room, our downstairs coffee bar. So, at one point, this and the Tudor Merchant’s House were probably joined. Our most talked about feature, though, is the Flemish chimney, which is 40ft high and the largest we know of on a house in
“Our eyes were enchanted by the noble view that at the same moment burst upon us, of the harbour of Tenby, the Bay of Caermarthen, and the North Cliffs, with the sands at their foot, and a thin muslin cap of mist on their head”
Philip Henry Gosse, Tenby: A Sea-side Holiday
Wales. We restored it ourselves when we moved in, taking down the top 15ft, numbering every stone, and rebuilding it. We did it with lime mortar in the traditional way so it’s historically correct. The table in its hearth is one of our most requested: people love to eat there.”
Barney has welcomed many famous faces over the years, including US President Jimmy Carter, actors Alan Alda and Ralph Fiennes and sportsmen including Jimmy White. “With such an atmospheric building, we’ve also featured on several TV programmes, such as Antiques Hunt and a ‘ghostbusters’ programme,” he says. “They were convinced the place is haunted. I’d describe myself as a sceptic, although there have been a few incidents over the many years I’ve been here. Once, when the restaurant was shut, I was upstairs on my own, when I saw on the CCTV wisps of a weird, mist-like substance downstairs. It formed into the definite shape of a figure. It drifted for a little while, then disappeared.”
Surrounded by trim green lawns, St Mary’s Church stands in the busy town square, its spire rising skyward an impressive 152ft (46m). This is one of the largest medieval parish churches in Wales, founded in the 13th century and substantially enlarged 200 years later. It is notable for its chancel ceiling and its rich wooden panels studded with 75 carved bosses, including mermaids, fish and a Green Man. Sixteen carved timber angels support the chancel roof.
The church contains two medieval chapels: St Thomas’ and St Nicholas’. In the latter, the bright blue, red and gold of Margaret Mercer’s tomb catches the eye, having been restored to its original colours. Margaret died in 1610, at the age of 30, giving birth to her 11th child, and is shown reclining on her side. Her seven surviving children are depicted below her, while her husband, Thomas ap Rees, High Sheriff of Pembrokeshire, kneels above.
Here, too, are the alabaster tombs of John and Thomas White, both once mayors of the town. Tradition holds that, in 1471, John helped the 14-year-old Henry Tudor and his uncle Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke, escape King Edward IV’s men in the aftermath of the battle of Tewkesbury, the Lancastrians having been routed in one of the key battles of the Wars of the Roses. John allowed the future king to hide in the wine cellar of his house before escaping through tunnels that are reputed to lead down to the harbour and boarding a ship out of the country.
St Thomas’ Chapel contains an effigy to another mayor, William Risam, the face of which is badly damaged. This is said to be due to one of Cromwell’s soldiers firing at the statue, mistaking it in the gloom of the church for a real man praying. Cromwell was so affected by the poverty he saw when he came here in 1649 that he gave the mayor the then substantial sum of £10 to help the townspeople.
A wonderful example of a medieval memento mori lies near the door. Believed to be the tomb of John Deny, the Archdeacon of St David’s, who died in 1499, it has been carved in the form of a skeletal cadaver lying under a graceful canopy, a reminder to all who see it of death’s inevitability.
The best place to see the Grade I-listed town walls, which are some of the most important in Britain, is along South Parade and St Florence Parade. Here remains a substantial section of a defensive network started in the 13th century by William de Valence, Lord Pembroke, that originally had six towers, five gates and an outer moat, as well as nine lookout towers on the surrounding clifftops. In the 1450s, Jasper Tudor had the walls raised and widened, with parapets added to several stretches so that soldiers could patrol the walkways. They were further repaired in 1588 as the threat of the Armada loomed, the work commemorated by a carved stone plaque, almost hidden behind a tree near the South Pool Tower.
The magnificent Five Arches barbican tower controlled access to the West Gate and is the most impressive part of the walls, as well as the only gate that survives. Built of rubble
“Ah, sweet Content, where doth thine harbour hold?”
Barnabe Barnes, ÔParthenophil and Parthenophe’
stone, it has arrow loops and a crenelated parapet; its walls, as its name suggests, studded with five arches. Only one of these is original, spotted by distinctive grooves where the portcullis would slide on its chains. The others were created during the 19th century to allow traffic to move freely in and out of the town. Further down the road, on St Florence Parade, a fine square tower stands on a long stretch of wall, broken only by the Belmont Arch, cut in the 1860s so the Earl of Limerick could get his carriage home.
Tenby grew outside its walls mostly from the Victorian age as the town thrived, and trains brought more visitors. Famed for its rich natural history as well as beautiful scenery, it became a magnet for hobbyists in the age of Darwin, when collecting butterflies, minerals and curiosities was a national pastime.
Artists and writers had always tried to capture the splendour of the coast; many of their works are on display at Tenby Museum and Art Gallery on Castle Hill. Charles Norris came to the town in the early 1800s and created many sea- and landscapes of the area, as well as etchings of the ancient buildings; now a valuable historic record of those which have been lost. More recently, Eric Bradforth painted a detailed reconstruction of the medieval town as well as portraying the modern, capturing reflections of pastel-coloured houses in the harbour. They stand beside an important collection of pictures by Augustus John, one of Britain’s most celebrated portrait painters, born in Tenby in 1878, in addition to works by his sister Gwen John, Kyffin Williams and Claudia Williams.
Tenby is still home to a thriving community of artists. Anna Warchus moved to the town six years ago, working and teaching from a studio close to South Beach. “I wanted to immerse myself in the coast,” she says. “I’ve always been in awe of the sea and love swimming: that feeling of buoyancy and lightness. I often depict swimming and floating figures in my pieces. My work is informed by the process and perception of change, and capacity to experience another perspective. The sea is a real theme of my work. Water can refresh you, but it can also sometimes swallow you.”
Anna works mostly in clay, often creating extended
families of pots, exemplified in ‘Sea Shanty’, a collection of ceramic bells nestled upside down that was part of her 2019 ‘Transitions’ exhibition. “My fired, wheel-thrown pots are used as the original forms for casting smaller, almost identical pieces, which in turn become mother to the next.”
Anna credits the gallery for exhibiting works by contemporary artists alongside the permanent exhibitions. “It’s so important for artists to connect and feel a part of a bigger picture. The ancient artefacts on display in the museum carry the stories of past times and inspire from all of us some sort of emotional response.
“The people and perspectives of Tenby are ever-changing. To be working here is a gift: it is a visual and emotional feast; a truly visceral experience. At low tide, you can study limpets and barnacles clinging to the harbour wall; you can smell the slippery seaweed; you can hear the drip, drip, drip of water onto stone. Tenby is a truly special place.”
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