St Davids is tiny. It’s Britain’s smallest city in terms of both population and size; really, it’s no bigger than a village. But thanks to its role as the final resting place of St David, Wales’ patron saint, it’s home to a magnificent cathedral built on the site of a monastery founded by St David. See the cathedral and the Gothic ruins of the Bishops Palace nearby, and stroll along the sandy beach.
Sleeping in a Welsh castle
When you wake up in Roch Castle Hotel, take a moment to think about all the other people who have slept within these walls before you. Since it was built in 1195, the castle has housed knights, courtesans and prime ministers. During the civil war, it was a royalist stronghold; today, it’s a scheduled Grade 1-listed ancient monument and while the phenomenal views from behind its battlements are the same – the castle was a lookout for invasions from the sea – the six bedrooms are pure 21st-century luxury, and the castle is decorated with specially commissioned artworks, inspired by Pembrokeshire Coastal National Park.
Day 1: Pembrokeshire
Pembrokeshire, in West Wales, has Britain’s only coastal national park, its smallest city and a host of heritage attractions from Iron Age forts and prehistoric burial chambers to castles, cathedrals, and chapels built into sea cliffs. To get the best of all worlds check in to Roch Castle for a luxury hotel experience in a castle with a dramatic history and rooms that overlook the stunning Pembrokeshire Coast National Park.
Don a hard hat and go underground at the UK’s only known Roman gold mine. Dolaucothi Gold Mines were in use from Roman times to the 20th century, so you can find out what it what like to crawl into the depths of the Earth with just the most primitive tools to hand. Above ground, explore the Doloucathi estate on horseback, follow the Miner’s Way trail and keep your eyes peeled for red squirrels.
Pembroke Castle is remarkable for many things. For starters, it’s the only castle in Britain to be built over a natural cavern, King Henry VII was born here, and it was clearly built to withstand attack, which it has done many times throughout its tumultuous past. The exhibition rooms show how life would have been throughout the castle’s past, and its story is unfurled by five Earl figures, each with a fascinating tale to tell.
Day 2: Laugharne and Carmarthenshire
Drive (1 hour) or take public transport (approximately 2 hours 30 minutes) from Pembrokeshire to Laugharne on the estuary of the River Taf in the region of south Carmarthenshire. The town is famed for its links to internationally renowned poet Dylan Thomas. Fans of the poet might recognise it as Llaregubb from Thomas’ radio play, Under Milk Wood, or from his much-loved Poem in October. Stay at The Brown’s, where Thomas whiled away many hours.
Dylan Thomas spent the last four years of his life at the Boathouse, living there with his wife Caitlin and their three children, from 1949 to 1953. It was here that he wrote Under Milk Wood, Do Not Go Gentle and Over Sir John’s Hill. Overlooking the “heron-priested” Taf estuary, The Boathouse is now a heritage centre with original furnishings, memorabilia, audio-visual presentations, a themed bookshop, tea rooms and viewing platform.
Perfect Victorian gardens, besieged family mansion, poet’s inspiration: there are many sides of Laugharne Castle to get acquainted with. The 13th-century castle probably started life as a Norman ringwork castle, and has seen civil war battles, illegitimate sons and great fires in its time, but it’s most famous for its association with Dylan Thomas who wrote in its summerhouse. Poke around and see if inspiration strikes you too.
On the western edge of the Brecon Beacons National Park, the picture-perfect market town of Llandeilo bustles with colourful shops selling antiques, confectionery, clothes, jewellery, children’s toys, furniture and artworks. Close by is the Carreg Cennen, a 12th-century castle perched on top of a steep precipice overlooking the national park. Not far away is the National Botanic Garden of Wales and the world’s largest single-span glasshouse. Altogether now: “Croeso i Gymru” (Welcome to Wales)!
Day 3-4: Cardiff
From Laugharne, it’s an easy journey (1 hour 30 minutes by car or 2 hours 45 minutes by public transport) to Cardiff. Wales’ compact capital city is a great base for a raft of heritage activities, with Doctor Who connections, sporting heritage, and magnificent Cardiff Castle; climb the Clock Tower, relive the experiences of those who took shelter in the castle’s tunnels during World War II, and marvel at the replica trebuchet.
The National Museum’s building is almost as impressive as its exhibits, which is really saying something as it includes Wales’ national art, geology and natural history collections. Don’t miss The Evolution of Wales section, which traces the country’s journey from its earliest geological origins to the end of the last Ice Age, via film, sound, light and specimens such as moon rock, dinosaur skeletons, fossils and woolly mammoths.
Busy Cardiff Market has been around in one form or another since the 1700s. It’s tucked away in an impressive Victoria structure under one great big glass roof, where it’s been for over 100 years. Wander the aisle, marvel at the produce and pick up some of those iconic, quintessentially Welsh – and delicious – morsels: Welsh cakes. You could even join one of Loving Welsh Food’s Cookery Workshops and learn to make your own.
Cardiff’s compact nature means it’s a great city to explore on foot. Follow a trail through Bute Park – the ‘green heart of the city’ is an internationally-significant Grade-1 listed historic landscape – and discover its famous arboretum collections. Or join a tour led by Blue Badge Guides through the historic city centre or Cardiff Bay, home to the National Assembly of Wales and the Victorian Pierhead building.
Day 5: Bath
On your last day, make the short hop (1 hour 15 minutes by road or 2 hours by public transport) across the English-Welsh border and head to the city of Bath, a hub for yet more iconic heritage experiences. This historic city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site where Roman ruins sit alongside grand Georgian architecture. Highlights include Bath Abbey, the Roman Baths, the sweeping Georgian Royal Crescent and strong links with Jane Austen.
Get your bearings across the city as you soak in the naturally hot thermal water of Thermae Bath Spa’s idyllic open-air rooftop pool. The views stretch past church spires and along honey-coloured chimney tops towards the hills in the distance. If you can, time your visit for the late afternoon and watch the sun set as you soak. And remember, you’re in the same mineral-rich waters that drew the Romans here over 2,000 years ago!
Author Jane Austen spent a lot of time in Bath, so it’s no wonder that she’s now one of the city’s top draws. The annual Jane Austen Festival (September) is a highlight and the 2017 event is set to be extra-special as it marks the 200th anniversary of Austen’s death. Join the Grand Regency Costumed Parade, attend talks, tours and balls, and take part in all kinds of workshops like dancing and silhouette cutting.
The Roman Baths are among the best-preserved Roman remains in the world. You won’t find it difficult to picture Roman civilians plunging into the waters, especially when you meet the costumed characters that roam the site. Check out the interactive museum and don’t miss author Bill Bryson’s audio tour. Afterwards, try the water at the Pump Rooms – it tastes just the same now as it did then!