Travel: On the trail of the Red Dragon
- Credit: Marcus Oleniuk
To Wales in autumn – ‘damp, demanding and obsessively interesting’, in the words of the great (half-Welsh) travel writer Jan Morris. There's 8,000 square miles of the most exhilarating and wildly fluctuating landscape to explore. Ridges, valleys, mountains, lakes and passes, wild rambling moors - and you're never more than 50 miles from the sea.
It was to the sea we headed, to explore three of the most interesting towns on the Pembrokeshire coast. First stop was Tenby, an impressive, walled town with characterful narrow streets winding down from a medieval centre. A prosperous port in the 14th and 15 centuries, it remodelled itself as a fashionable resort in Victorian times. On a shivering, sodden walk on Castle Hill, overlooking South Beach, we peered out through the mist to the ghostly shape of St Catherine’s Island, topped by the remains of one of ‘Palmerston’s Follies’.
A string of these stone forts were built along the south coast in the early 1860s as the British prime minister prepared for likely invasion by Napoleon III with his iron-clad battleships. Even from our rain spattered vantage point it was clear that the Tenby fort was one of the most impressive of its kind.
Our accommodation here was the nearby Trefloyne Manor, which has an impressive 18-hole parkland golf course attached, set in rolling countryside in the Ritec Valley with impressive tree-lined fairways. I had left the clubs behind so could only look on enviously from the balcony of our very comfortable Hayloft Mezzanine Suite, located in the converted coach house away from the main – primarily Victorian – building.
It came as no surprise to learn that the Benyon family, who own and run Trefloyne, opened their doors to NHS workers during the pandemic lockdown. We were struck by the buzz of the place and the genuine enthusiasm of all the staff.
From Tenby we headed further west on a 45-minute journey towards another historic town – St Davids. We halted a few miles outside to settle into our latest accommodation with a difference, the extraordinarily preserved and restored Roch Castle Hotel, built by Norman knight Adam de Rupe in the 12th century.
The castle’s charming and helpful manager Lily guided us up the steep, narrow, winding staircase, passing turreted windows which would have once launched arrows at armies below, to our room, Ap Gruffydd, one of six and named after the great Prince who defied the English in the 13th century.
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If the journey from the fortress felt like going back nine centuries, this was now definitely 21st century comfort. The king sized bed was luxurious, the bath was simply enormous, and best of all was the armchair by the double aspect windows, from which you could immerse yourself in your book while looking up now and again to enjoy the panoramic views out over Pembrokeshire.
Onwards we went to Wales’s westernmost point, the cathedral city of St Davids. Really it’s just a village with only up to 2,000 inhabitants, but of course its importance lies as the country’s spiritual and ecclesiastical centre.
The cathedral, built in 1181, reached via the Thirty-Nine Steps (representing the thirty-nine tenets of Anglicanism), is architecturally splendid and packed with fascinating stories amongst its plaques and tombs. But what stays with you the most is the advice – paraphrased but etched many times into the Cathedral walls - that Wales’s patron saint delivered to his followers in his final sermon a week before his death. ‘Be joyful, keep the faith, and do the little things’ – as simple and as good an outlook on life that any of us, believers or non-believers, would do well to follow.
Our resting place for two nights was the Twy R Felin hotel, which means ‘mill tower’ in Welsh, and indeed includes a windmill dating back to 1806. Twy R Felin was consciously remodelled and renovated to reopen in 2015 as Wales’s first ‘contemporary art hotel’.
So it is like stepping into an art gallery – especially the vast, vaulted main lounge where scores of striking, colourful abstract canvases adorn the walls. Many were commissioned to evoke the Pembrokeshire landscape, but there are striking portraits too.
Twy R Felin’s Blas restaurant gave us the best culinary experience on our trip. My starter of chicken parfait with apricot, peanut and toasted brioche, followed by pan fried halibut, roasted carrot, mussel sauce and sea herbs, were so utterly delicious I had them two nights running!
The rain eased off enough for us to stride out on a spectacular three mile coastal walk, stopping to admire a lovingly constructed (in 1935) little chapel in the name of St Non, mother of St David. From this reflective spot we drove just a few miles out of town for a completely different experience. We paid a visit to Dr Beynon’s Bug Farm, a scientific research centre and working farm in its own right, but a living museum of creepy crawlies – and also featuring the UK’s first edible insect restaurant.
Our guide was young Callum Nicholls, hugely engaging and supremely knowledgeable, who spun us a brilliant story about the work of an army of ants, and who does his very best to change people’s views of spiders, turning fear into mere curiosity, and then respect.
The final leg of our trip took us on a two-hour journey east to the attractive Victorian seaside town of Penarth, ‘the garden by the sea’, lying just across the Barrage from Cardiff Bay.
Most visitors are drawn to the town’s well-kept esplanade and its recently renovated pier, which stands majestically looking out over the Severn estuary. It was a lovely, bright, breezy Sunday afternoon, and we strolled past the superb Art Deco pavillion to the end of the pier to watch the gathering of fishermen working to haul in their catches of whiting, mullet, cod and bass.
We settled down for our final night on Welsh soil at Holm House Hotel, previously a private accommodation on Marine Parade that has been dubbed ‘Millionaire’s Row’.
We had the best room in the house, Flat Holm – which you can see from the room’s little balcony on a fine day - named after the island six miles out in the Bristol Channel which is now a prime nature reserve and a key breeding colony for lesser and great black-backed gulls.
The rain had receded and the sun was out so reading a thriller on the balcony, whilst gazing out over the hotel’s pretty garden to the Bristol Channel beyond, was a most pleasurable experience. The suite had a most comfortable king sized double bed, sofa, and an old fashioned free standing copper bath in the corner of the bedroom.
We left Penarth on the Monday for the four and a half drive back to Suffolk after what had been a joyful (as St David would have it) journey along the coast of the Red Dragon.