In the midst of all our European jaunts, we had left behind the strong love that my husband and I nurse for our English country holidays. If anybody claims that there is nothing that compares to the countryside in Britain, that would be me. Adi would nod vigorously in assent.
On a Friday noon, we booked a cottage and drove through the cool evening, four hours away from home. It was late at night when we rolled into the pebbled driveway of the cottage tucked into a quiet hamlet in the Carmarthenshire county of Wales. A tablet on the front door announced it to be Penrhiw (pronounced as pen-ru, it means ‘head of the street’). The landlady, Naomi, showed us into a compact annexe at the rear of the house that overlooked a vast network of fields. Outside the door stood a pair of wooden chairs, a small slatted table and a portable fire-pit. Adi immediately started rambling about his visions of jacket potatoes and butter.
There was no wifi, no mobile network. Suited us just fine. Technology is too much with us anyway, you think when you look up at the open sky on a dark night, see the stars grow brighter, more popping up by and by; herds of cuddly sheep that materialise when morning dawns to stare at you warily, cows who chomp away contentedly in herds and horses that trot up to meet you from their patches of green.
The morning started with a meeting. With Naomi’s two new piglets. Off the driveway was a glade of white and lilac summer flowers and tall trees and walking down its muddy track, we came upon a pen from which emerged the pair of squealing and grunting piglets. One of them had differently coloured eyes – one was blue, the other brown.
Tenby: Our drive along the rugged coastline in the adjoining county of Pembrokeshire led us to Tenby, a town with a significantly long Welsh name, Dinbych-y-pysgod. It is supposed to sound something along the lines of ‘dinbeekhapusgod’ which means ‘fortlet of the fish’, derived from the nature of the town’s original trade. I thought Tenby suited us fine anyway. Walking in through its Five Arches Gate which are remnants of a once castled town, we came upon a bustling Welsh town. Pastel coloured house fronts spoke of Victorian revival architecture – the town was a picture of abandonment and decay after the English Civil War and a plague in the mid-1600s – till the Victorians turned their attention to Tenby. There was an increasing emphasis in Victorian England on bathing holidays in English towns because the Napoleonic wars of the time made it difficult for the posh crowd to frequent European spa resorts. The man who became associated with reviving Tenby was merchant banker and politician Sir William Paxton. He bought a house in Tenby in 1802 and decided to design it into a ‘fashionable bathing establishment suitable for the highest society’.
Only some walls and a tower of the castle remain of the once medieval walled town of Tenby. Outside one of these walls, by the harbour, an old man with no teeth but a wide smile pasted upon a sorrowful face played tunes on an accordion. The afternoon demanded a good tuck-in at a pub and it was followed by dollops of heavenly ice cream from a small shop. The continuous pealing of church bells as the sonorous background music, we surveyed charming cottages, in vivid colours dominate the harbour of Tenby that hugs the Celtic Sea. Henry VII escaped in a boat from this harbour to Brittany during the War of the Roses.
A fort stands high above a tidal island off Tenby, mysteriously aloof on a limestone outcrop facing the sandy beaches of Tenby. It is St. Catherine’s Fort that was built in 1867 to fortify the British empire against attacks from the French. Your ears would probably perk up if I told you that a couple of years ago Tenby was vying with beaches in Portugal, Croatia and Italy for the most-beautiful-beach-town-in-Europe tag.
Carew Castle: In the industrial town of Milford Haven stands Carew Castle. The castle and its tidal mill overlook a tidal estuary.
This is a castle that has a family home kind of a touch to it unlike its neighbour, Pembroke Castle, which is austere and typically Welsh.
I was transfixed by stories narrated by the woman who walked us though it in a small group. Its cellars, dark kitchens and chapels, and garderobe (cloakroom) came alive with tales of people who lived there. She was a good storyteller, that woman.
The story that got me was that of Princess Nest of Deheubarth (regional name for the realms of south Wales). Nest was born around 1085 to Rhys ap Tewdwr, king of the Deheubarth. Her famed beauty got her the nickname, ‘Helen of Wales’, and a highly eventful life. She became Henry I’s mistress and then the same Henry I married her off to Gerald de Windsor, an Anglo-Norman baron. She was later abducted by a Welsh prince called Owain who is said to have been her cousin and very much in love with her.
Nest had borne 21 children in her lifetime and lived into her 50s (a ripe old age in those days). “Though she is spoken of in a cavalier manner, I believe Nest was a survivor. In those days, women had to marry to be safe and give birth to seal in their security. She must have been quite intelligent to survive the difficult years she was born into,” our guide pointed out.
Carew Castle was part of Nest’s dowry when she married Gerald, a man who was 40 to her tender 14 years. It was their son, William who adopted the name ‘de Carew’.
As for Nest, she left behind her legacy with the Tudor and Stuart monarchs of England as well as Princess Diana and US President John F. Kennedy.
Skirting past the darkened interiors of the castle, which are home to bats and owls, we heard so many more stories – the ghastly tale of a cruel man called Rhys ap Thomas who took over the castle when the de Carews went broke. Rhys ap Thomas betrayed his friend and backed Henry Tudor when he came back to England to claim the throne. He was rewarded generously when Henry became the king. This Thomas kept a vicious barbary ape in the castle and mistreated it.
At the end of it, the ape ripped his throat apart one stormy night and died in the chamber too.
The castle is said to be haunted by that ape. A visitor to the castle had apparently caught the ape staring down at him from one of the windows. In that very apartment where the ape killed his master, I was deemed a ‘snail murderer’. A loud crunch beneath my boot-clad feet and to my dismay I discovered the remains of a hapless snail.
Do look out for the Elizabethan wing which were built by the Lord Deputy of Ireland, Sir John Perrot. He had acquired the castle after its last owner, Rhys’ grandson, was executed by Henry VIII for treason.
Barafundle Bay: Limestone cliffs and dramatic red sandstone cliffs stand guard over the sandy beaches and jewel coloured waters of Barafundle Bay. It is a part of an old grand home, Stackpole Estate, that is located between the villages of Stackpole and Bosherston near Pembroke. The estate with its property of farmland, lakes, woodland and beaches is now part of the National Trust. It was owned by the Cawdor family, descendants of Thane of Cawdor who is celebrated in Macbeth – Macbeth was made Thane of Cawdor by Duncan in the play.
We could not help but be mesmerised by the waters here, the collapsed caves in the bay and the various cliff-y walks that always lead to breathtaking views. We only saw a handful of people exploring Barafundle and that made us feel that we had the bay all to ourselves.
St Ishmael: If you are passing through St Ishmaels, a village in Pembrokeshire, and you see traffic halted on a narrow country road, you shall know that the miscreants are two adorable hunting dogs, running ahead of the cars. A woman is probably running after them trying to get them into the car so that she can hand them over to the Pembrokeshire County Council as abandoned dogs.
That is how we ended up chasing Holly. We were the second car in the line-up and the thought of dogs having been abandoned was awful enough to get us off the car and try to help out the above-mentioned woman.
Both were beagles, one a pure-bred, and the other a mix. The pure-bred beagle pretty easily allowed the woman to pick him up (why walk and run when you can get a ride, right?). The hybrid beagle on the other hand kept on running ahead and even growled at the woman.
After about two miles of jogging behind her – in which time the woman decided to go drop off the first dog at the council – I was stunned to see the dog leap into the arms of an old man. It turned out that, Holly the hybrid beagle, and her friend the pure beagle, have a penchant to run off. They are hunting dogs, so when they catch a scent in the air, off they go.
“They are my daughter’s dogs. She left them with me because she had to move to Cardiff,” said the man with a suitably harassed expression. Quite understandable when you find someone chasing two dogs every other day.
Marloes: After ravishing a bar of Bournville – because chasing a dog is hungry business – we reached Marloes Peninsula. It is a world made up of silence – because you are pretty much two of the four people out there – and prickly yellow gorse bushes and sprays of wild flowers. Jagged cliffs drop off into miles of sandy beaches. A few miles away stands a white 17th century lighthouse which used to be run on coal, funded by the toll charges paid up by ships that passed by.
We walked on that windy peninsula, admiring the various strata of sandstone marking the cliffs and glowing golden in the setting sun. We sat and admired the mine of geological treasures that Marloes is. Why, one of those formations even resembled a shoe. My father studied geology and I could understand his fascination with the subject, seated on the heather of that peninsula as we saw in front of us fractured stacks, folds of volcanic rocks and sea caves.
Across us, over miles of blue ocean waters and headlands that claw their way into the ocean, stood the islands of Gateholm, Grassholm and Skomer, known for their colonies of puffins, choughs and seals.
The walk to Marloes which is a part of ‘Little England beyond Wales’, an area in Wales. The name is a reference to the fact that it has been English in character for centuries despite its geographical distance from England.
When we reached our cottage, we spent the evening barbecuing chicken tikka over charcoal and warming ourselves on that chilly evening by a blazing fire. We smelled thoroughly smoky by the end of that evening, but as we sipped on a rosé wine and snacked on those delicious charred morsels of meat, we were in our own little heaven under a sky bejewelled with stars.
St. David’s: We were in Britain’s smallest city – in terms of size and population. In it, Wales’ patron saint, St David is said to have established a monastery and church in the 6th century. That church is no longer there but in its place is the spectacular St. David’s Cathedral. This cathedral goes back to the times of the Normans, before which stood another cathedral that was plundered by Vikings and burnt down.
Looking at its grand visage, I could imagine why this cathedral was a much-hailed pilgrimage in the early days when starting with William the Conqueror, many kings and queens had paid it a visit. St. David’s Cathedral is beautiful not because it is bombastic. In fact, it is austere in its wooden interiors which are reminiscent of its medieval past. You cannot help but gawk at the ceilings and floor tiles that crop up inside. Do look out for the remains of St. David which are kept inside the cathedral.
If you have time, spend some time in the city which houses a cute assortment of houses and boutiques. And do fall prey to the crunchy onion rings at The Sound Café. It is worth its batter.
Walks and drives in the heather-clad mountains (or hills) of the Brecon Beacons National Park are just serene and filled with natural beauty. Once in a while, the tiniest of hamlets pop up along with pubs, but for the most part it is filled with miles and miles of green pastures dotted with sheep. There are more sheep than men out there. I promise.
There are plenty of trails and drives to choose from within the park. We took the A4069 Black Mountain Road that took us on sinuous, curved roads through the park and led us to the Usk Reservoir. The other route we drove down was the Abergavenny-Penderyn route.
There are six peaks within the park that is supposed to have been named after an ancient practice of lighting beacons on the mountains to warn of invaders attacking.
I am quite ready to relive the magic of south west Wales, all over again. For how often do you have a holiday spending time with curious horses, friendly cows, naughty hunting dogs and charming piggies?