Land of my fathers

21st July 1995 at 01:00
Arnold Evans sets off on a six-week jaunt round Britain, starting with a magical journey through Pembrokeshire, where the past still clings to the present

Some people are born with silver spoons in their mouths; others with some enviable talent. I was luckier I was born in Solva. It might have made me incurably smug, but that seems a price worth paying for the privilege of having had as my playground the awesome grandeur of this most spectacular stretch of the Pembrokeshire coastline. Asked to write about six of Britain's most intriguing places, it was only the other five that gave me any pause for thought. I knew I had to start here in Dewisland (David's Land): a peninsula on the Dyfed peninsula a finger stretching from a hand already reaching out across the Irish Sea.

A word of caution. There is also something notoriously beguiling about the area. Stop in Solva long enough for a coffee, and you'll have enough time to appreciate its undoubted picture postcard appeal. Stay any longer, however, and you run the risk of being so bewitched you'll never find the willpower to leave the thousands who came to Dewisland on holiday, and ended up buying homes here are proof enough of that.

The Welsh readily describe this as "gwlad yr hyd a lledrith" the land of mystery and magic. It might sound like Celtic blather but, in fact, should be treated as nothing less than a health warning. This is a place of mermaids and sea beasts; of fairy islands that mysteriously appear above the waves to lure anyone who gazes too dreamily out to sea. This is the location of much of the Mabinogian those disturbing Celtic folk tales that chronicle the exploits of monsters, maidens and more flawed heroes than are in the current Welsh Rugby XV.

It's a land, too, of saints. Dewisland seems to have attracted them in much the same way as Cannes collects starlets. Their presence is still recorded in humble ruins and proud place names: St Justinian, St Teilo, St Caradoc, St Bride, St Elvis (seriously), St Aden and of course our pride and joy, St David.

He was born at St Non's where you can see the holy well that magically sprang up in readiness for his christening. On the seriously spooky road to Porth Clais, you'll find Cleygr Boya. An old druid crone once lived here. Hell-bent on tempting David and his monks from their vows of chastity, she sent her nubile and naked daughter to cavort before them. As boys we always cycled particularly slowly passed Clegyr Boya in the hope of seeing what would undoubtedly be the sexiest ghost in Christendom.

It's along that same road that King Arthur rode in his dogged pursuit of the illusive Twrch Trwyth a killer boar that cost him quite a few sleepless nights, and even more fearless knights. These stories might not be verifiable but you'll believe every word once you're walking on that Porth Clais road or along the shoreline where the past clings on to the present as doggedly as sea pinks to the cliff face.

With the likes of Arthur coming here for a spot of huntin', it's not surprising that Dewisland has always prided itself on attracting what the Welsh call the "crachach" a word that translates badly as "the smart set". The typical twosome, for instance, turned up at Solva this June. Liz and Phil anchored Britannia outside Solva harbour, and were greeted, without undue pomp and circumstance, by the locals on Solva quay. They'll be talking about it for months at the Palace that is. In Solva, they've grown accustomed to visitors of all sorts popping in.

Indeed, since my boyhood, providing for tourists has been the village's only growth industry. No doubt, it was because they were conscious of this that worthy teachers insisted that we celebrated the region's manifold attractions. You know the sort of thing: What Dewisland Has to Offer the Discerning Visitor (two sides, best handwriting).

We knew what was expected of us. We'd wax lyrical about the 180 miles of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park. It is, we'd say, a geologist's paradise, as well as the habitat of guillemots, puffins, razorbills and kittiwakes. The purloining of eggs is strictly forbidden, we'd add and underline (our fingers crossed). We'd commend the various beaches Newgale, Caerfai, Whitesands and a dozen others for the opportunities they afforded the seawater angler, surfer and serious sandcastler.

The antiquarian, we added, will find much that is noteworthy. There are, for instance, the churches, and castles left by the Normans to whom the Welsh tourist industry will be eternally grateful. But the Normans are virtual newcomers. Since prehistoric times, settlers and invaders have arrived here, much as the Queen did not in sensible shoes and waving, but by sea. Remains, dotted along the headland, bear mute testimony to the lives they eked out for themselves here: cromlechs, standing stones, Celtic crosses. There are the remnants of Iron-Age forts that once guarded the inlets, and of Celtic churches that dotted the shoreline. But even as we dutifully noted these places of alleged interest, we chewed our pens and wondered why there were none of those real attractions that characterise a seaside holiday: helter skelters and candyfloss; kiss-me-quick hats, and a chance to see what the butler saw.

Things haven't changed that much this corner of Pembrokeshire still caters for the crachach. You'll find it far easier to track down Carew green-lipped oysters, Teifi salmon, or Solva lobster than a toffee apple or a bag of chips. Instead of hordes of hucksters, you'll find a sandled colony of artists, weavers and lovespoon carvers.

You will be able to take your children around a rare breed farm and a couple of aquaria but disabuse them of any expectation of arcades, discos, knees-ups or a taste of the hi-di-high-life. If the children rebel and two consecutive wet days can create monsters as ghastly as any in the Mabinogion there is plenty to do within a shortish car ride. Many a small but savage breast, for instance, has been soothed on the white knuckle rides at Oakwood Leisure Park on the Tenby road.

The Queen, it seems, had no time for such diversions. She headed directly for St David's to bestow on it the status of "city". If the word conjures up images of a bustling conurbation, high-rises and anonymous shopping malls, rest assured St David's is actually a village with a population of 1,700 (although it can feel like 17 million on a wet August afternoon). What makes it special, is that you'll find here what must be the loveliest cathedral in Britain.

Almost completely hidden in a murmuring valley, the cathedral is edged by farmland and, being near the tip of a peninsula, the sea is never more than a brisk walk in any of three directions. It somehow combines architectural splendour with a primitive almost tangible sense of the holy. Perhaps it's because of the rural setting. Perhaps it's because it's been a place of worship since those Celtic saints came marching in. Perhaps it resonates with the accumulated prayers of the countless pilgrims who have journeyed here through those dark centuries when it was believed that two pilgrimages to St David's were worth one to Rome.

Even if today's travellers are drawn to the cathedral out of nothing more than a vague curiosity or with no higher motive than to hack 1,500 words of purple prose, they will not spend long in its warm shadows without feeling as blessed as those early pilgrims were. If only for a fleeting moment, they will experience that overwhelming sense that perhaps it all does make sense: that all will be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

I'm in the nave, scribbling this. The sun teases the stained glass; in some recess somewhere, the cathedral choir is practising: Christ have mercy upon us. In the distance, seagulls are arguing the toss; a cow lows and, although its mid-afternoon, a cockrel crows as bewitched as the rest of us by the timelessness of it all.

So that's it. Yet another failed attempt at describing What Dewisland Has to Offer The Discerning Visitor in my best handwriting. There will be places that yield themselves more readily to words, I hope, as I set off on a jaunt round Britain. But before I go, I'll take one last trip to Clegyr Boya to check if there's a ghost about. For old time's sake.

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