Starting mileage: 17307 km
Day started: 11:30
Day ended: 23:00
Two very different places today, and yet inhabited for similar purpose: retreat from the crowds and spiritual inspiration.
The small town of Laugharne overlooks the wide, flat estuary of the River Taf, twin to Towy estuary we’ve seen yesterday, and like Towy, it has a dark, heavy castle built on a promontory guarding the entrance. Like many castles on this coast, Laugharne was captured and re-captured by the Welsh and the Normans throughout the many centuries of their wars, all the way until Owen Glendower’s rebellion – which actually started in Laugharne in 1403.
But the castle (£3.80 pp) and the history of Brito-Norman relations is not the reason why people flock into Laugharne; it is the small white house a bit of a walk off the castle path, which was Dylan Thomas’s home for the last four years of his life – the Boat House (£4.20 pp so we enter only the tea room).
Dylan Thomas was arguably Wales’s greatest poet, and his presence lies heavily over the town, not only because he’s buried at the local graveyard. Laugharne inspired many of his poems, and one of his grandest works, the radio drama “Under Milk Wood”. And as you take a stroll towards Thomas’s writing shed along the estuary, with its blooming summer marshland, silent herons, mysterious cliffs looming in the distance and the grim teeth of the castle above, you can easily see why.
It’s such a different place to Cornwall, Wales; Cornwall is a land of painters and photographers, but Wales, under the hazy, disturbing, strangely cold light even in the middle of a summer heat wave, inspires crazy poets, twisted writers and moody singers.
From Laugharne we drove to Tenby, a town built by the Normans in the middle of a hostile country, which explains why it was – and still is – encircled with a massive wall of black stone, with a five-gated barbican at the main entrance. Once a rich merchant port – one of Tenby’s attractions is an NT-owned Tudor house of an affluent middle class merchant – after a period of stagnation reinvented itself as part of a “Welsh Riviera” – a cluster of resorts around a crescent-shaped bay, like a miniature medieval Torbay with golden beaches and pastel-coloured houses. There’s even the obligatory genuine Italian ice-cream parlour, established in 1919 by a certain Fecci – good strawberry sundae!
There is one more reason to visit Tenby, and that is to take a small boat (£10 pp) to the nearby cross-shaped Caldey Island, where a small community of Cistercian monks thrives on the pine-covered hilltop.
The Caldey boats depart right from the beach, past the water gate of the walls – a place from which numberless ships must have departed in the town’s medieval heyday – and grim St Catherine’s Fort. Boats seem to be running a strange ‘hunkiness’ competition between each other; the crew of each boat is made up of two people: the skipper, who looks pretty much like every skipper should, and a young, tanned hunk wearing nothing but skimpy shorts whose only job seems to be to lay about lazily and hold the ropes once in a while. I can only assume these men are employed in place of in-flight entertainment for the ladies. Sadly, there was no alternative for the male passengers.
Almost from the moment we arrived at Caldey my brain made a strange leap; seeing the Clairvaux-inspired white walls of the monastery rising among the Alpine pines and firs, I felt as if we had just landed somewhere in Switzerland or Austria; as if we had gone for a holiday from our long holiday, one without the bother of flying, packing and changing time zones. It was greatly relaxing; someone more religiously inclined could even call this experience mystical.
All good monasteries should have a similar effect on a visitor’s mind, whether they are Catholic, Orthodox or Buddhist. This is the kind of religiosity that even the fiercest of anti-clericals should not mind, a retreat far away from anywhere else for a group of like-minded people, not bothering anyone with their presence and providing a service for those who need it. The Cistercians alone of the major Catholic orders introduced by the Normans had gained popularity in Wales precisely because their abbeys were always somewhere far away, on the outskirts of civilization – marshes, islands, hilltops; the Welsh, always the practical people, appreciated the Cistercian creed of hard work and self-subsistence.
The community on Caldey was resurrected in the previous century by a group of Anglican monks who soon converted to Catholicism. The new priory – the old abbey, destroyed in the Dissolution, provides a romantic ruinous setting for the island’s restored medieval gardens – a marvel of the uniquely English Arts and Crafts style, is built in the shape similar to the Alpine abbeys, and as if to complete the illusion of a Swiss valley, the monks decided to earn their living by making… milk chocolate.
There is more to see on the island, despite its tiny size; the old priory church holds a Dark Age stone marked both with the druidic Ogham runes and a latin inscription. There’s a lighthouse at the head of the island, more ruined old buildings in the woods, and interesting cliffs which resemble a ruined castle. The only problem, which almost ruins the experience in the summer, is an abundance of vicious horse flies.
Wales is still somewhat of a wild, sparsely settled country, and there are many places like Caldey which offer a retreat from the hustle and bustle of modern life. Some places, however, turned out a bit too remote even for our liking. A campsite at the head of the Angle peninsula proved one of them. It wasn’t so much that it overlooked the vast, endless oil refineries of Milford Haven estuary, or that it seemed to be located at the end of the inhabited world. It was the light again – the cold, foreboding haze, shunning all warmth, detail and colour – and the fact that there was not a living soul in any of the caravans that made us shiver, turn around and look elsewhere.
The place we found after the Angle failure was the New Shipping Farm in Carew, and what a contrast it made – friendly, cosy, near a small village with, you guessed it, a big castle, and with a great view over the warm, golden fields towards a dried out estuary. The facilities consisted of a container with a few toilets and showers, but it was clean and fairly inexpensive (£14) so we didn’t mind a bit.