A day in…Tenby

By | Category: Travel destinations
Five Arches in the old part of town

Five Arches in the old part of town

King Henry VII, the man who ended the Wars of the Roses and started the Tudor dynasty hid from his enemies in Tenby by hiding in cellars underneath Boots. Of course, Boots wasn’t there then but places connected with the famous that have stayed in Tenby are. People like Roald Dahl and Beatrix Potter; Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton, Gwen and Augustus John, John Wesley and Sir William Paxton – the man responsible for Tenby’s revival – are all celebrated in the town. Even before Tenby became fashionable in the 1800’s it played a significant role in trade, this being the first place which imported oranges into Wales but when Wesley visited the town it was on its uppers with decaying empty houses and fishing and farming being the only industries.

But when industry and trade declined tourism took over and, in summer, the narrow streets and wide beaches attract holidaymakers who come to enjoy the beach, the trips across to Caldey Island and, from this summer, the opportunity to climb up to the fort on St Catherine’s Island.

Why a Scot, Paxton, who made his fortune in India and cemented it with a business in London, should decide on west Wales as a home is a little unclear. Maybe it was because he befriended a local on his final journey home from India; maybe it was because he liked the look or price of his estate, Middleton Hall, (today the site of the National Botanic Garden of Wales) but whatever it was, Tenby can be grateful to him. Into the town he poured money to create fashionable baths to attract wealthy Londoners, roads, bridges and a theatre.

the Tudor Merchant's House

the Tudor Merchant’s House

By 1810 the town was flourishing and Paxton had a fashionable house in what is now the main street. Today it is a hotel but is one of many fashionable Georgian houses to be found, many adorned with blue plaques listing who had lived or stayed there. The main street is filled with little shops and cafes as well as the ubiquitous banks, building societies and charity shops all of which pull in holidaymakers to find memories of their Tenby holidays.

There are older attractions in the town such as the Five Arches and the Tudor Merchant’s House both reflecting a time of prosperity long before Wesley came and gave his unflattering thoughts. Originally the entrance to the town would have been through the Five Arches. Carriages and coaches would bring people down to take the waters and later to visit the beaches as Victorians embraced the seaside. Trains replaced coaches in the 1860’s bringing people from the north-west and London.

Even today, Saturday being changeover day, there is still one direct train on Saturdays from London Paddington to Tenby and a return being a legacy of those heydays when the seaside was the holiday destination. That will end in a few years as electrification means that faster trains will just run to where the electrification ends which probably means Swansea and so a tradition of nearly 200 years will end. During the rest of the week you would have to change trains at least once. From the north-west there are a couple of direct trains each day from Manchester to Tenby but no direct trains for the return journey. Maybe people from the north-west like Tenby so much they don’t want to go home!

North Beach and the erupting rocck

North Beach and the erupting rocck

The National Trust runs the Tudor Merchant’s House which is the oldest house in the town dating back to the late 1400’s – about the time of Henry VII. Today it is found in a narrow lane much as it probably first was centuries ago but today, people pass it on the way to the beach.

And it is the beach or beaches that attract people. Split by the lifeboat station the beaches both have a few miles of sand and both – at low tide – stretch quite some way out into the Bristol Channel. The one on the northern side has hotels and houses perched on the cliffside overlooking it, one having been the accommodation for Beatrix Potter when she stayed in the town. Today it reeks of Victoriana. Some hotels have gardens across the road where guests can lounge in the sunshine or walk down to the beach where they see a huge rock emerging from the sands. So tall is it that it never gets covered at high tide but it does act as a magnet for kids and adults to climb.

Walking south, visitors reach the harbour which still has some fishing boats moored there but at low tide you can virtually walk around all the boats and across to the church, St Julian’s, which – being so close to the harbour – reminds you of the link between God and fisherman. Step outside the door, turn right and ten paces away is the harbour. It could be that the fishing wasn’t that lucrative as the road alongside is called Penniless Cove Hill!

Across the horseshoe shaped harbour is a small white building which was the home of the air sea rescue base from 1941. Here, also, was an outlet of the RAF Marine Craft which lasted right through until 1985. Why here?

Tenby harbour with the old RAF building on the quay.

Tenby harbour with the old RAF building on the quay.

Because Pembrokeshire had more air bases than any other county in Wales and with the flying boat base nearby in Pembroke, Tenby was considered a good geographical position to rescue crashed airmen. The Nissen hut in which the men slept is long since gone but walk towards the Georgian buildings on your right and you will see where Roald Dahl spent 16 summer holidays. Follow the road around and here is where the assembly rooms and the sea water baths that Paxton built.

A headland looms in front of you and here, you’ll see a bandstand, cannon and the local museum.  It’s not just any local museum though. The Tenby Museum & Art Gallery is the oldest independent museum in Wales and contains a fine collection of Welsh paintings done by the likes of Kyffin Williams, Augustus and Gwen John, John Piper,John Uzzell Edwards and the recently departed,John Knapp Fisher. This was the location of the first stone built castle in Wales but there is nothing much remaining for the visitor to see. The sight, though, is dominated by the long sandy beaches called Castle Beach and South Beach only disturbed by St Catherine’s Island which largely reopened to the pubic this year. Now you can venture into the fort on the island that once stood as the main defence for the town.

castle beach from where the Caldey Island boats leave

Castle Beach from where the Caldey Island boats leave

Head onto the seas and take the red boats out to Caldey Island which is not far offshore and spend a few hours walking the island. Forget climbing on a jetty to catch your boat. Here a tractor hauls an elongated, pontoon jetty out to the boats giving you two rides for the price of one!

On any dry, (this is Wales, after all) summer sunny day, the beach gets busy as holidaymakers take advantage of the wide and safe, soft sands. The beach may be the biggest draw but the prettiness of the main part of the town, the brightly coloured buildings and the narrow lanes that record the visit of painters and poets all adds to the attraction. Tenby is very Victorian in feel and quite “seasidish” for there is a good collection of tourist tat for visitors to buy. But where many seaside resorts have been stuck in the past and faded into glitzy video arcades and decaying buildings, Tenby hasn’t. And that might be why it is still so popular for a weekend break, a holiday or just for an afternoon enjoying the beach and the sunshine.

For more about Tenby, click here.

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