Tales from Wales. Part 3: Islands & Cathedrals

August 5, 2017

If you’d like to walk the wall with me on my last visit to Pembroke Castle, step this way!

Today we’re heading to the RNLI lifeboat station at St Justinian’s, a small harbour situated on the southwest peninsula of St David’s Head, and the departure point for our offshore adventure around Ramsey Island. Yay!

St Justinian’s Harbour

Pre-booking our tickets over the phone turned out to be a canny move as the boat trips are incredibly popular during peak season. Alternatively, you can drop into the booking office in the nearby town of S David’s, where a shuttle bus runs every half an hour from the Tourist Office car park to the departure point. I’d definitely recommend using the park and ride as there’s limited roadside parking at St Justinians.

By a stroke of unusual good fortune, we did manage to find a space. From here we walked the short distance to the harbour, and after clambering down a steep flight of concrete steps – which are not so accessible if you’re less mobile – joined the queue of awaiting tourists in the tiny cove below.

The two main operators providing boat trips to the islands of Ramsey, Skomer, Grassholm and further afield to the Irish Sea for a spot of whale & dolphin watching are Voyages of Discovery and Thousands Islands Expeditions. Although both offer similar value for money and choice of destinations, we opted to travel by pleasure boat, which is only offered through Thousand Islands.

I’ve no doubt my younger self would’ve elbowed her way to the front of the queue to hop onboard the inflatable jet boats, however, my 40-something back didn’t fancy being jolted up and down every time we hit a wave. Or, knowing my long track record for calamity – being fished out of the sea.

While I did feel a teensy bit guilty seeing the gutted look on my sons’ faces when I broke the news to them, I was more gutted we hadn’t chosen the extended all day trip to the island of Skomer. Okay, the tickets were on the pricey side at £50 per adult, and left you with 4 hrs to kill on the island before the boat returned, but…

It’s also one of the biggest Atlantic puffin colonies in Britain.

I know – puffins!

See what I mean!

I suppose the first class meal we enjoyed later at the Golden Lion pub in Newport almost made up for missing out on these adorable wee fellows. Almost.

But before that, a seafaring adventure awaited us. 😎

So, with a brisk climb up the steep timber steps of the 130-year-old listed lifeboat station and down the slipway to board our boat, we set sail for the Ramsay Sound.

According to our knowledgeable guide for the journey, the reef of jagged rocks covering this notorious stretch of water, aptly named The Bitches, has brought down many a passing ship. Not that this seems to deter sea kayakers, who come here regularly to experience the thrill of the turbulent whitewater – including my mad dad in his younger days.

The notorious bitches

As I peered through the blanket of white mist that had erased the surrounding coastal views, I was starting to doubt we’d see much of anything. Until that is, the colossal four hundred feet cliffs of Ramsey Island suddenly emerged in front of us. If anything, half-shrouded in mist, the sight was all the more breathtaking.

In Welsh, Ramsey is named after St David (Dewi Sant), the patron saint of Wales. The island was previously owned by the church, who farmed the land here for hundreds of years until it was sold into private ownership in the early 1900s. Nowadays, it’s a designated nature reserve owned by the RSPB and managed by a full-time resident warden.

The landing point on Ramsey. You can just see the warden’s house in the background.

From April through to October, visitors are permitted to land on Ramsey to take in the spectacular 640 acres of exposed rock, wild heathland and abundant wildlife. At this time of year, the island is ablaze with flowers, gorse and purple heather, which also provides a safe haven for many varieties of breeding birds such as buzzards, ravens, peregrines, and the rarer chough. Shame the weather was so grim or we’d definitely have come ashore.

Sadly, there aren’t any puffins on Ramsey, but we did spot plenty of nesting guillemots and razorbills perched on the exposed rocky clefts and a group of Atlantic grey bull seals sunning themselves on the sheltered beach below. Although we saw only one female bobbing in the water close by, come late August others will return for the breeding season. Ramsey is home to one of the biggest grey seal colonies in Britain, with several hundred pups born here every year. Harbour porpoises are also regular visitors but were keeping a low profile during our visit.

I absolutely loved every minute of the one hour journey we spent exploring all the dramatic sea caves and craggy coves around the island as gulls swooped and squawked overhead, all of which was over far too quickly. We returned to St Justinians bright-eyed and bushy-haired (some us, anyway) and all the hungrier from breathing in the invigorating sea air.

In fine fettle and the day still young, we drove to the town of St David’s for a spot of lunch, followed by a visit to its renowned cathedral.

St David’s Cathedral from the gateway.
Side view of the cathedral, hillside cemetery & Bishop’s Palace behind.

Built in 1181, the cathedral stands on the former 6th-century monastery founded by St David who played a pivotal role in spreading Christianity throughout the pagan Celtic tribes of Western Britain and some parts of Europe.

Over the course of his travels, he founded 12 other monasteries, including Glastonbury. In medieval times, many believed he was related to King Arthur. And according to Welsh tradition, it was St David who advised Welsh warriors to wear a leek in their helmets to distinguish them from their Saxon enemies on the battlefield, which is why this humble vegetable became one of Wales’ national emblems. It’s probably more likely the Welsh connection with the leek goes back much further to the time of the druids, but it certainly makes for a good story.

In later life, St David was made Archbishop of Wales but remained bishop of his own parish until his death on the 1st March 589 AD. In his last sermon, he told his followers to ‘do the little things that you have seen me do and heard about.’ Centuries later, in 1120, he was officially declared a saint by Pope Callixtus II and St David’s Day became the national day of Wales.

The cathedral has been a significant place of worship and pilgrimage since the Middle Ages and remains a thriving church to this day. It’s been raided and destroyed countless times by marauding Vikings and later in the 17th century by Parliamentary soldiers. St David’s shrine was also stripped both of its precious metal and the monk’s bodily remains. Today, the shrine stands empty in its original position in the presbytery. Bones discovered in the cathedral have since proved not to be his.

The building has gone through many restorations in its time, which is evident from the eclectic architecture. In contrast to its rather austere exterior – which still bears some of its 12th century Norman/Gothic features – the interior is lavishly decorated and a treasure trove of history. Standing at the back of the nave gave us a great vantage point to take in the ornately carved pulpitum that separates the nave from the choir, and huge wooden crucifix suspended from the ceiling, a 20th-century replacement of an earlier one.

I probably missed many of the cathedral’s finer details as I was too busy gaping up in awe at the beautifully carved oak ceiling and studying all the fascinating inscriptions on the stone tombs of past bishops and medieval knights lining the aisles. The rest of the family were clearly less awestruck because when I turned around they’d already skedaddled. Sensing a disturbance in the force, I decided not to linger.

When I eventually found them slouched dejectedly on a bench in the cemetery, I was forced to reconsider dragging them around the ruined medieval Bishop’s Palace, another important historical site situated within the walls of the cathedral grounds. Instead, I uttered three little words that magically brought their gargoyle-like expressions back to life.

Time to go!

Bishop’s Palace

Knowing I’d pushed them too far over the boredom threshold, I waited with Littlefinger cunningness until after they’d stuffed themselves with gooey dessert at the pub later to spring on them our next destination.

Entrance to Castell Henllys hillfort

Fingers crossed they don’t bury me under one of the Iron Age forts in retaliation. 😮

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