St David’s is the smallest city in Britain and lies on the River Alun in Pembrokeshire. Named after St David, the patron saint of Wales, it is built around the site of a 6th century monastery and features an impressive 12th century cathedral.
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History of St David’s
According to the hagiography, Buchedd Dewi, (Life of David) written by religious scholar, Rhygyfarch, David was born in the 5th century to Saint Non. His birthplace is thought to be just south of St David’s and is officially commemorated by St Non’s Chapel.
It is widely thought that David was educated at Whitland Abbey in Carmarthenshire, under the tutelage of an aging monk by the name of St. Paulinus.
Legend has it that David performed a number of miracles over the course of his life including the restoration of Paulinus’s failing sight. Believing St David to be blessed, the monk instructed David to become a missionary and travel around Britain converting its Pagan inhabitants.
During his travels, David is thought to have founded 12 monasteries including one at Glastonbury and then finally at St David’s at around 550 AD.
Around this monastery grew a small settlement named Tyddewi which translates as ‘David’s House’. This was eventually renamed, ‘St David’s’ in deference to the monastery’s founder.
In the Middle-Ages, St David’s became a major destination for religious pilgrims due its Cathedral, thus generating a considerable income for the town. However, the flow of pilgrims eventually slowed to a trickle and the town fell into decline.
Nevertheless, the advent of tourism in the 19th century and improved travel links significantly improved St David’s fortunes and it eventually became a popular holiday location – a status that it retains to this day.
Modern-Day St David’s
St David’s was granted city-status by Royal Charter in 1995. Despite this, it feels more like a small, vibrant town. The narrow streets are lined with independent shops, cafes and restaurants as well as an assortment of art galleries.
The visitor will also find a variety of historical sites of interest, including its famed cathedral and the impressive ruins of Bishop’s Palace. Read on as we now take a closer look at these and other top St David’s visitor attractions.
St David’s Cathedral
St David’s Cathedral is set in a hollow below the town and is mainly 12th century, although the actual site can be traced back as far as the 6th century, when a monastery occupied the same spot. The original cathedral was frequently raided by the Vikings and was eventually destroyed.
The present building, begun around 1180, was built by the Normans using local sandstone and housed numerous important relics including the Shrine of St David.
St David’s Shrine
Constructed during medieval times, St David’s elaborate shrine led Pope Calixtus II to declare that two pilgrimages to St David’s Cathedral were the equivalent of one trip to Rome itself. Indeed, the cathedral has attracted the likes of William the Conqueror, Henry II and Edward I. Sadly the shrine was destroyed during the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century.
Restoration of St David’s Shrine
Nevertheless, in 2010 an appeal was launched to return the shrine to its former glory. £150,000 was raised and on St David’s Day 2012, the restored shrine was unveiled and re-dedicated by the Very Reverend Jonathan Lean.
Raids and Renovations
As well as attacks by Vikings and raids by Cromwell’s protectorate during the English Civil War, the cathedral has endured the collapse of its tower and even an earthquake in the 13th century. It’s also undergone a variety of alterations over the years such as the restoration of St Mary’s Hall and the renovation of its cloisters.
In spite of the setbacks, the grandeur of St David’s Cathedral is still very much in evidence today. The beautiful interior, with its distinctive sloping floors, comprises the original 12th century nave, a fine Irish oak-carved roof and a 14th century screen.
St David’s Cathedral also exhibits an extensive array of historical artefacts which showcase its eventful past. The Treasury Room, opened in 2006, displays items relating to Christian worship including staffs, chalices and copes. Also of note is the cathedral library which houses around 7000 books, some of which date from the 16th century.
St David’s Cathedral Tours
Guided tours are operated every day by a team of trained volunteers and allow visitors to truly appreciate this historic place of worship.
The cathedral also plays host to a major music festival in May and June, with classical and contemporary concerts held over ten days.
Tower Gate House
An impressive 14th century gatehouse stands on the cathedral site and originally formed part of a 15-foot wall that enclosed the city. Inside the gatehouse is a lapidarium displaying a variety of religious objects including the beautifully-carved Abraham Stone – a Celtic gravestone of Bishop Abraham’s two sons, Hedd and Isaac, killed by the Vikings in 1080. There’s also a 13th century medieval bell that originally hung in the cathedral’s tower.
St Davids Bishops Palace
Sitting adjacent to St David’s Cathedral is the Grade I-listed, Bishops Palace – a ruined medieval palace from the 13th century that once rivalled the cathedral in terms of architectural splendour. Its development was overseen by a succession of bishops.
However, Bishop Henry de Gower is chiefly responsible for the extravagant carvings that can still be seen to this day. These include an arcaded parapet with arched corbels, an elaborate wheel window in the palace’s east gable and two majestic ranges which dominate the local skyline. The palace is open to the public and also serves as an open-air theatre.
Pembrokeshire Coast National Park
St David’s is set within the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park. Its creation was inspired by the region’s unique coast, which has become renowned for its distinctive seascapes of sandy beaches, weather-beaten cliffs and sheltered coves.
Along this spectacular shoreline runs the Pembrokeshire Coast Path which takes in some incredible scenery along its 186-mile stretch, including a collection of excellent bays and beaches near to St David’s.
St Non’s Bay
Directly to the south of St David’s is the dramatic, windswept, St Non’s Bay which offers some fantastic views from its precipitous cliffs out towards Pen y Cyfrwy headland.
Named after St David’s mother, the bay is widely believed to be his birthplace and is marked by the ruined St Non’s Chapel. The base walls are now all that remain of what is considered to be one of the oldest Christian buildings in Wales.
Standing in one of its corners is a large stone inscribed with a cross and circle – this is thought to date from the 7th century.
Additional stones can also be found in a nearby field that seem to indicate the existence of an Iron Age settlement. The Grade II-listed chapel is under the care of Welsh Heritage organisation, Cadw.
Caerfai is the closest beach to St David’s and is flanked by high, rocky cliffs. Accessed via a steep path, it consists of rocks and shingle, with sand slowly revealing itself as the tide recedes.
While the bay is good for bathing, the local waters are bedevilled by strong currents so a degree of caution is advised. There are plenty of opportunities to explore the uneven cliffs and rock formations which conceal a numerous caves and rock pools.
This small rocky cove is also fringed by cliffs and made up of shingle and pebbles, although a narrow strip of sand is exposed at low-tide. Protected by the National Trust, it offers a break from the neighbouring Caerfai Bay which can get rather crowded during the summer months.
Whitesands Bay is a Blue-Flag award-winning beach that can be found to the North-West of St David’s. Its broad expanse of white sand curves towards the bluff of St David’s Head – this section of the bay is particularly popular among surfers, body-borders and canoeists.
The bay’s south-end is better suited to families, with its collection of sheltered inlets. Overlooking Whitesands Bay is Carn Llidi which stands at around 600ft and affords views of Ireland on a clear day.
St David’s Head
The rugged headland of St David’s Head offers spectacular coastal vistas and is also renowned for its wildlife and historical intrigue. In addition to the abundant array of wildflowers and flora, its cliffs, as well as the nearby waters, provide a perfect habitat for numerous marine species including porpoises, grey seals and seabirds.
There’s also evidence of prehistoric occupation including an Iron-Age cliff fort, an ancient field system known as Warrior’s Dyke and the famed burial chamber, Carreg Coetan Arthur. A Roman survey of the known world, conducted around 140 AD, described St David’s Head as the ‘Promontory of the Eight Perils’.
Off the Pembrokeshire coast is a collection of islands that are a haven for bird species and aquatic life.
To the west of Skomer is Grassholm, considered to be the most important site for gannets in the UK. Supporting around 10% of the world’s population, the island serves as a breeding ground for some 39,000 pairs. Dolphins and purposes are also known to feed in the tempestuous seas that surround it.
Ramsey Island is one of the most well-known and lies about a half-mile from St David’s Head. Comprising 640 acres, it is home to a diverse range of bird such as peregrines and chough. The island also provides an ideal habitat for Grey seals.
Skomer Island is the largest of the islands and has become famous for its large Puffin colony. As well as the Puffins, the island is also populated more than half the world’s population of Manx Shearwaters.
Boat Trips to the Islands
A variety of boat trips can be booked at the Voyages of Discovery ticket office on St David’s high street. They operate throughout the year and take visitors on trips around the islands with guides offering insights into the abundant wildlife that inhabits these parts.
Before embarking on an exploration of this stunning region of Pembrokeshire, it’s well worth visiting Oriel-y-Park first. Located in St David’s on Caerfai Road, the visitor centre offers comprehensive information about Pembrokeshire Coast National Park including an interactive ‘interpretation area’ that explains the many local attractions. There’s also a museum exhibiting local artwork and artefacts as well as a gift shop and cafe serving breakfasts and lunches.
For more information about St Davids and other attractions see our post about alternative things to see in Pembrokeshire.
Images kindly provided by Pembrokeshire County Council.
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