Saturated in history and charm, the picturesque seaside town of Tenby has been attracting tourists for hundreds of years, writes Angharad Moran
Surrounded by the golden curves of sickle-shaped beaches and the remains of its 13th-century defensive town walls, Tenby has been a popular seaside resort since the Victorian era when it was described as ‘the boast of Pembrokeshire’. It was a fashionable choice with the Victorian middle classes who came to reap the benefits of the sea air and water, prescribed by physicians for just about any ailment.
In 1810, after convincing the town council that more services were needed to attract wealthy tourists, Sir William Paxton played a major role in enticing tourists to the area by developing the town’s bathhouse. The building can still be seen today along with its Greek inscription proclaiming that the sea cleanses all man’s pollution.
“Visitors would be encouraged to take seawater baths,” explains Marion Davies, a Wales Blue Badge Guide who offers a range of tours around Tenby and who has an almost inexhaustible knowledge of the area. “People were even drinking up to eight pints of seawater a day,” Marion continues, “or else taking smaller quantities with port or milk.”
Today, the town remains as popular as ever. It was designated as a conservation area by the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park in 1972 and tourists continue to flock here, vastly outnumbering the resident population of around 5,000 people during the summer months. “The streets inside the town walls become pedestrianised over summer,” explains Marion “It gives the town a lovely continental feel, with cafés, bars and restaurants spilling out onto the streets.”
Tenby’s past hasn’t always been filled with happy holidaymakers; war and plague badly affected the area in the 17th century and the town went into decline for more than 100 years before the Victorian seawater craze drew visitors back again.
The remains of the Norman keep on Castle Hill, overlooking the pastel-coloured rows of Regency-style buildings huddled around the harbour, is another reminder of Tenby’s turbulent history. In fact, there has been a defensive structure on this spot since the ninth century and it is from this that the town gets its original Welsh name, Dinbych y Pysgod, which means ‘little fortress of the fishes’.
The keep and gatehouse that still stand today are the only surviving parts of a castle built by the Normans towards the middle of the 12th century, soon after they invaded. The town’s defensive walls were added slightly later, around 1296, and after being strengthened in the 14th century have remained surprisingly intact.
The town’s original quay was also developed around 1328, allowing Tenby to become a hub of trade with the continent as well as other parts of Britain. In 1566 a ship from Portugal brought the first recorded cargo of oranges in Wales to the harbour while goods such as wool, seaweed, animal hides and fish were exported from here.
Just up from the harbour on Quay Hill lies a memento of this period in Tenby’s history in the form of the Tudor Merchant’s House. The property is the oldest surviving example of a 15th-century townhouse in Wales and was once owned by a successful merchant and his family. Today, the property is under the ownership of the National Trust which saved it from dereliction 75 years ago and has since painstakingly recreated its original interiors, from the merchant’s shop on the ground floor to the family rooms on the first and second floors. Step inside to view replica furniture and accessories befitting to the time, right down to the pewter tableware and clothes strewn around the second floor bedroom.
Today, you’ll still find rows of fishing boats resting in the harbour, as well as those which ferry people over to nearby Caldey Island. The island has been home to various holy orders since Celtic times and is now inhabited by a handful of Reformed Cistercian monks. The island was home to Benedictine monks until the Reformation in 1536 after which it remained secular until 1906 when Anglican Benedictines came to the area briefly before the Reformed Cistercian order took over in 1929.
Visitors are able to take the 20-minute boat journey from Tenby to discover the island’s natural beauty, explore its sandy shores and shady woodland as well as its range of historic religious buildings. Of particular note is the grand Grade II-listed Italianate abbey built in 1910 and the Old Priory with its medieval courtyard and Ogham Stone, inscribed in ancient script.
Although not far from the mainland, the island can seem quite remote. “The boats only take people over when the weather allows,” Marion explains, “although the boatmen themselves still have to take supplies over for the monks all year round and in all weathers.”
The monks also produce a range of products that need to be brought back to the mainland where they are sold from the Caldey Island Shop, just up the road from the Tudor Merchant’s House. A variety of perfumes and delicious chocolate is made by the monks, and visitors to Caldey can even go along to the chocolate factory by the Old Priory to discover how the confectionery is made. Caldey’s perfume shop is also worth a visit and can be found close by to the island’s post office, which wouldn’t look out of place in a fairytale. This unusual building also houses a small museum where visitors can learn more about the history of the island and the lives of the monks who have lived and worked there.
Another (albeit much smaller) island just off Tenby’s shoreline is St Catherine’s, complete with its abandoned 19th-century fort. “The fort was built in such a rush because of the threat from Napoleon III,” Marion explains. “But it turned out to be more like a folly as he surrendered just a year after it was built.” Since then it has passed through the hands of several owners who have put it to a range of uses. “It was a makeshift zoo for small animals when I moved here in the ‘70s,” Marion recalls. “In any case, it didn’t last long. The building was against them from the start!” At one point the property served as a private residence housing some interesting artefacts, among which was a suit of armour, now on display at Tenby’s museum. St Catherine’s is so close to the shore that it is possible to walk there across the sands when the tide is out and during the construction of its fort a bridge once connected the island to Castle Hill. Although the public is not currently allowed access to the island, the Tenby Island Project has proposed plans to redevelop the site as
a visitor attraction and event venue, making it accessible to visitors once again.
In the meantime, visitors with a thirst for knowledge about the town and its extraordinary island, known locally as St Catherine’s Rock, should visit Tenby Museum and Art Gallery. The museum opened to the public on 26 July 1878 and has a claim to fame as the oldest surviving independent museum in Wales. Here, you’ll find a collection of works by local and visiting artists, past and present, as well as a fascinating gallery dedicated to the history of Tenby. This includes a number of items of interest such as an 18th-century bath chair – a type of wheelchair popular at seaside resorts during the Victorian era, and a 17th-century map of Pembrokeshire created by cartographer John Speed.
Whether visiting Tenby for its history or simply for the swathes of golden Blue Flag beaches that line its shores, it’s not hard to see what makes the town a honeypot for tourists, nor why it is held in such high esteem by its residents. “It doesn’t matter what time of year you visit,” Marion concludes. “From the baking-hot beaches in the summer to the more natural, wild feel of the coast in the winter – Tenby is always beautiful.”