Simon Whaley goes looking for a hidden gem in this Welsh fishing town …
“Sorry, all boat trips to Caldey Island are cancelled today,” the operator apologises from his wooden hut in Tenby Harbour. “The sea is too rough to land,” he explained. “You could try again tomorrow.”
We’d planned to take the little boat on the three-mile trip across the sea from Tenby to Caldey Island, anchored in the Bristol Channel, to visit the Cistercian monastery based there. Downhearted, we wondered what to do instead.
“Why don’t you visit the lifeboat station?” the boat operator suggested. “Or there’s the Tudor Merchant’s House.” Suddenly, he leaned out of his hut window, furtively looked both ways, and whispered, “Want to know Tenby’s best kept secret?”
“St Julian’s,” he said, with a crafty wink! “Find it, and you’ll discover something special about Tenby, that not many others know about.” With that, he pulled down the shutters and disappeared from sight. That decided it. Armed with that challenge, we set off to explore Tenby, in search for the mysterious St Julian’s.
Tenby’s Welsh name, Dinbych-y-Pysgod, translates as small fort of the fish and, standing where we were, it was easy to see why. On our left was Tenby’s idyllic harbour, filled with small fishing boats and craft all bobbing on the high tide. In fact, the scene looked almost Mediterranean, with Tenby’s rainbow of colourfully-painted properties hugging the cliffs above the clear blue seas.
To our right, looking up Bridge Street, we could see the remains of the old fort, built by the Normans and ruined when the Welsh Prince Llewelyn last attacked the town in 1260. Thankfully, things are a bit quieter today. Striding up the cobbled Bridge Street, we notice how English the place feels. This is down to the Norman invasion when they gained a strong foothold in the southern half of Pembrokeshire. Even the seagulls sounds as though they have English accents!
Passing under the 13th century gateway and around the Old Coastguard House, which is now Tenby’s Museum, we clamber to the top of Castle Hill. Before us, extends a 360 degree view, incorporating Tenby, the coastline as far as the Gower Peninsula and most of the Bristol Channel – perfect for keeping watch. An information panel suggests we should be able to see the Devon coastline, but haze keeps it hidden from us today.
The wind buffets us, so we take shelter beside the remaining stone turret of Tenby’s old fort, which appears to be a square turret joined to a circular tower. From this vantage point, we spy a couple of large black canons, pointing out to sea. Perhaps one of them is called St Julian’s? We search around, but find nothing. Behind us stands a tall white statue, looking back towards Tenby. Could that be St Julian? No. Squaring up to him, face to face, we soon recognise this as Queen Victoria’s beloved Prince Albert. Tenby was a fashionable destination for the Victorians, especially when the railway arrived in the 1860s.
Down to our left, we spot two lifeboat stations. Two? The first has a bright red roof, perches 40 feet above the sea on a steel pier and is now a private residence. It looks like you have to walk the plank just to get to the front door. In fact, its conversion into a private dwelling featured in Channel 4’s Grand Designs programme back in 2011.
A bit further around Castle Hill is Tenby’s new lifeboat station, whose roof looks more like the undulating sea into which today’s lifeboat, the RNLB Hayden Miller, is launched. We step inside to escape the wind and see a vacuum cleaner on the lifeboat. Thursdays must be cleaning day!
Tenby’s had a lifeboat since 1852, and it’s one of the busiest stations in the UK. Standing at the end of the public gallery, it’s a steep drop down the slipway. I’m not sure I’d want to launch into rough seas from up here.
Knowing that the RNLI is funded entirely by donations, we buy some souvenirs in the shops and ask the volunteer behind the counter for some help. “Can you tell us where we might find St Julian’s please?”
She smiles. “Ah! You’re on a mission, are you? Well, don’t let me spoil your fun. All I’ll say is that you ought to be heading back towards town, you won’t find St Julian’s on Castle Hill.”
Armed with this nugget of information, we set off around Castle Hill to its easterly point, near the bandstand. Overlooking the sea, we spy St Catherine’s Island, and, in the distance, our original target for the day, Caldey Island.
With the tide in St Catherine’s Island is completely cut off from the mainland. From our vantage point we can just make out St Catherine’s Fort perched on the top of its tall cliffs. It was built in 1869 by Lord Palmerston and was one of a chain of forts designed to protect the Admiralty’s docks a bit further around the coast at Pembroke. It’s had a varied life though, because in 1907 it became a private a home, but it was compulsorily purchased in Word War II. After the war, it was sold off and between 1968 and 1979 was home to a zoo. At high tide it was more like an ark than a zoo!
Our path takes us back down Bridge Street, under another crenelated archway, and onto Tenby’s fine South Beach. It’s no good, we have to take off our socks and shoes! Giggling like children, our toes wiggle and sink into the soft, fine warm sand. An ice-cream van has driven onto the beach and has a queue of customers. We spot several licking blue ice-cream. Blue? Apparently, it’s bubblegum flavour. I prefer mint choc chip!
The tide has retreated enough for us to wander along the beach, beneath the cliffs upon which Tenby is perched. As we turn a corner we spy some old stone steps leading up to the old town walls. Unfortunately, these are no longer passable, so we climb the next set up to the Esplanade. Some of the best remains of Tenby’s old town walls are here, used to protect the town from a land attack. We follow them along St Florence Parade to Five Archways, once the south gate entrance to the town.
Slipping through, we enter the heart of Tenby, full of shops selling seaside gifts, buckets, spades, sweets and clothes. Ahead of us is the church. Aha! Perhaps this is St Julian’s. Entering Church Street we discover we’re wrong. It’s St Mary’s Church. Inside is a plaque in memory of Robert Recorde, the man who invented the equals (=) sign!
Suddenly, we spot a clue. Opposite the church, is a road called St Julian’s. It’s full of high street shops, but hidden on our left is a small alleyway. The walls close in on us, as the alleyway gets narrower and narrower, finally dropping down seven stone steps into a wider passageway. Here’s the Tudor Merchant’s House, now owned by the National Trust.
Stepping through the front door, we leap back some five hundred years, to enter the oldest furnished residence in Tenby. It feels like we’ve entered a shop, which is what this front, ground floor, room was used for. The merchant owner traded in a variety of goods, like cloth, coals, pots and even vinegar. It’s worth remembering that at this period of time, Tenby was as big a trading post as Bristol, further up the Bristol Channel. From here, boats would sail as far afield as Portugal and Spain.
Behind the shop is the kitchen, with a huge fireplace large enough to roast a hog in. All the food for the merchant’s family and his staff was prepared here. Any leftovers were given to the poor, if the mice and rats didn’t get it first! Upstairs is a large hall where the family lived and ate. Two large oak tables dominate the room. Mealtimes were messy because there were no forks. A knife was used to cut food, and after that you used your hands.
Back outside we wander down Quay Hill, which returns us to the harbour. So where is St Julians? Down by the harbour beach we spot a tiny church. Could it be? Zigzagging down Bridge Street and Penniless Cove Hill, we find ourselves outside a small church door. Lifting the handle, in we step.
There can’t be many churches with plastic lobsters, crabs and starfish all stuck to the east wall and covered with a fishing net! But this is no ordinary church. St Julian’s is the Fisherman’s Church, built to serve this sea-faring community. The interior is simple. Bare wooden floorboards make it easier to sweep out the sand that inevitably finds its way blown in through the front door, or stuck to the bare feet of those wandering in from the beach – it is only three steps away!
The wooden pews are set at an angle of 45 degrees, for it’s the only way to get two rows in this tight space. St Julian’s can hold 75, but by our reckoning, at least 50 will be standing! This is one of those places where the longer you spend looking, the more surprising sights you see. Even the narrow, colourful, stained glass windows, depicting scenes from the bible, are augmented with fishing details like anchors, sailing boats and even seaweed.
The fishing net, plastic crabs, lobsters, starfish and several plastic fishing buoys, were originally placed against the east wall in the 1960s to celebrate the harvest festival, and the decision was taken to leave them there. We’re so glad they did. It’s a wonderful scene. We even spy the two lobster pots, either side of the altar table, used as fonts until 2003!
Before leaving we sign the visitor’s book, and it’s pleasing to see others have discovered St Julian’s too. There are comments from Australian, Canadian and American visitors.
It’s a hop, skip and a jump from the church door to the harbour beach, just making itself visible, now the tide has turned. To our right we can see the hut where the Caldey Island boat operator stood and sent us on our quest around Tenby. St Julian’s was right behind us all the time! We’ve had a fun day exploring the sights and history of Tenby, and days are always better when you do something you weren’t expecting, aren’t they? Perhaps we should try some blue bubblegum ice-cream after all!
© Simon Whaley