YOU don’t expect to come out of a fish and chip shop with a perfect pearl of wisdom. Cod in crispy batter, yes; golden fries, sure, but the artisanal ethos ranks well below mashed peas and curry sauce.
But it was in a chippy tucked away down a narrow lane in the old-fashioned seaside resort of Tenby, Pembrokeshire, that I got the answer to a question I had been pondering since arriving in this most remote corner. of Wales: where are all the tourists?
The scenery was as spectacular as anything Cornwall or Devon can offer, but whether strolling along huge sandy beaches, strolling the candy-colored streets of Tenby, or tackling the headlands rocky and surf-soaked coves from the coastal path, we practically had the place to ourselves.
“It’s a different world here,” said the cheerful guy wrapping our double haddock and big chips.
“Most people don’t even know what’s here, so they stick to what they know. But it is safe, friendly and beautiful. Why would you want to be anywhere else?
He was right, of course. We happily drive five hours to Cornwall and pay more to join the summer crowds and traffic jams, but rarely think about South Wales.
Admittedly, we were visiting well out of season, on a windy week in November, but the feeling of loneliness was palpable – and in uncertain times like this, the absence of crowds is a relief.
Tenby is a lovely place – the perfect blend of fishing port and holiday town that has been spared the sleazy trappings of most seaside resorts. Instead of neon-lit amusement arcades and fairground rides, there are independent fishmongers and butchers, craft workshops, surf shops and an indoor market brimming with fresh local produce. Friendly pubs sell good local craft beer and fishermen offer mackerel fishing trips from the harbour. It’s polite, cheerful and quirky.
We climbed subtropical palm trees to a ruined castle and chatted with the volunteers at the curious rescue station. Built on stilts at cliff height, the lifeboat is launched on a steep slipway. The former overwater lifeboat station, which teeters precariously above the sea next door, has been transformed into a family home, featured in an episode of Channel 4’s Grand Designs.
Former Tenby lifeboat house. Pembrokeshire. Photo: Tim Hughes
Our house for the week was more landlocked but also a design lover’s dream.
Chart House is a Grade II listed five bedroom Victorian townhouse set down a narrow lane linking the town center to the cliff top, from where steps lead down to an award winning beach.
What appears to be a cozy family home opens up, Doctor Who’s Tardis style, to a handsome home that spans five floors (including an attic playroom).
There are five bedrooms, a choice of two living rooms with TVs, a pair of bathrooms and an en-suite, and the children’s video game den in the attic. The heart of the house is its spacious modern kitchen and dining room. Evenings were spent cooking fresh fish and wonderful steaks bought five minutes away, and playing games at the big table. It would be perfect for a large group of friends – or a few families. You can be as social…or not, as you want.
We liked it. In fact, we liked him a little too much, and it was always a bit of a hassle to get out of it. Although we were here to walk and the famous Pembrokeshire Coastal Path beckoned us – in fact it passes a few yards from the front door.
The coast protected by the national park is a riot of splintered rock with arches and sea stacks – including the iconic Green Bridge of Wales and steeple-shaped Church Rock. And there’s no shortage of quirks and curiosities.
From Tenby you can catch a boat to the monastic island of Caldey, home to a community of Cistercian monks, colonies of seabirds and even red squirrels. If monks and cormorants are your thing, visit in the summer. When we arrived we were told the next boat was in April.
Instead we walked along the cliffs through the wilderness of Castlemartin Army Range (make sure the red flags don’t fly), to the tiny St Govan’s Chapel – a 14th century stone church built into a cleft in a rocky promontory.
If you didn’t know it was there, you’d miss it – which is pretty much the point. Now a place of pilgrimage, it marks the spot where the 5th-century Celtic missionary Govan hid to escape a band of pirates. According to legend, a crack opened in the cliff, in which the holy man hid. You can still see his ribcage “indenting” on the rocks – or something very similar to it.
Avoiding the buccaneers, Govan decided to stay, living on sea fish and drinking water from the spring that still bubbles above the chapel.
It’s a magical place, especially on a winter’s day, with the waves crashing against the rocks in fierce explosions of spray. We were the only ones there.
A slightly more famous saint is celebrated further north. St David – or Dewi – the Patron Saint of Wales, is buried in the city’s cathedral (the smallest in the country), which bears his name. Dewi is famous for a somewhat bizarre, and perhaps superfluous, miracle in this hilly part of Wales… the creation of a new hill.
More miraculous, perhaps, is its cathedral. It’s a large structure with a sturdy tower that would be more at home in a big city rather than a gentle tangle of windswept cottages and monastic ruins. It is also well hidden, practically invisible until, reaching the crest of a hill, it is revealed in all its glory at the foot of a steep wooded valley.
It’s hidden for good reason. As well as pirates, these lands were plagued by Vikings – some of whom stole St David’s shrine. More vandalism was dispensed by looters through the ages, down to the Protestants of the Reformation. It is now a somewhat surreal place of peace.
The road back to Tenby runs along wide beaches facing the Atlantic. Again the only people we saw were hardened surfers who took Pembrokeshire to their hearts. It seems a shame to reveal the secret, but why let them have fun? Go, stay and explore; don’t tell everyone about it.
Stay: Chart House, Tenby is a luxury detached townhouse, sleeping 10 people in five bedrooms.
Welcome basket at Chart House – the Welsh cakes in particular were a big hit
Price: £1,388 for up to six people for three nights off peak. In mid-peak season, Chart House is rented out as a “10 person” property, with all five bedrooms available. Prices start at £2,743 per week for up to 10 people (or £560 per night).
Delivered: A Covid policy from Book with Confidence offers a full refund if a member of your party tests positive close to the holidays. Book on charthouse.uk
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