South Wales II: St. David’s Cathedral

Heading north to St. David's CathedralAlas, it’s raining.  Ugh.  Although we’re here in South Wales to hike some of the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path, today is definitely not the day!  So we’re off to St. David’s Cathedral, which is located nearby on the most westerly point of Wales.

Time for a little history, of which St. David’s has seen a lot!  It goes back almost 15 centuries.  St. David (patron saint of Wales and one of the earliest identifiable figures of Welsh history) founded a strict monastic community here sometime before his death in 589.  The community survived frequent plunder by Vikings over the next 500 years – a number of bishops were killed – while steadily achieving renown as a religious and intellectual center.  After William the Conqueror subjugated England, he visited St. David’s as a pilgrim in 1081.  In 1123 the Pope decreed that “Two pilgrimages to St. Davids is equal to one to Rome, and three pilgrimages to one to Jerusalem”, making St. David’s one of the most important shrines of medieval Christendom.  A new cathedral was quickly constructed in 1131.  King Henry II visited in Illustration of St. David's Cathedral and the Bishop's Palace in the 1500's1171, leading to an increase in pilgrimage and necessitating a larger cathedral; the present cathedral was begun in 1181 and swiftly completed.  King Edward I conquered Wales (post Northern Wales I: Conwy) and visited St. David’s in 1284.  In 1328 the reigning bishop of St. David’s started work on the impressive Bishop’s Palace, shown in the illustration above.  St. David’s Cathedral was further modified over time, with St. Mary’s College and cloister added in 1365 and the Holy Trinity Chapel in 1509.  An inadequate foundation and the effect of an earthquake in the mid 1200’s caused the walls of the west nave to lean outwards; ultimately the ceiling was replaced with Irish oak, in 1530.  In 1648 during England’s Civil War, Cromwell’s forces all but destroyed the Cathedral and stripped the lead from the Bishop’s Palace roof.  200 years later, in 1862, the Cathedral was restored.

Magnification from the illustration of St. David's complex in the 1500'sEnough history -let’s take a look at this very interesting cathedral!  Its overall appearance is nicely captured in the picture to the left, which is a magnification from the illustration above.  The entrance gate to the compound is in the upper right corner; the wall in the illustration no longer exists, but the massive gate, dating to the 1300’s, remains, as shown below.  After passing through the gate, your way down to the cathedral takes you past a cemetery (conventional wisdom said the closer you were buried to a church, the better your chances for heaven; I suspect the church benefited from that notion).  The picture to the right, below, shows a sprawling Cathedral; the

additions over subsequent centuries are very apparent.  Also in view as we approach the Ruins of the Bishop's Palace, built in 1328Cathedral is the ruined Bishop’s Palace.  It would have been spectacularly beautiful back in its day.  I’ll show you more a bit later.

The left picture below shows Ginger entering the Cathedral from the underwhelming south side entrance, the “Porch”, which leads you to one side of the nave.  It’s today’s entrance, but I rather suspect that the original – or at least intended – entrance was the more impressive west entrance, shown in the right picture below.  I say that not only because the

west entrance is so much more impressive, but because it gives a frontal entry into the nave; and the nave, the oldest surviving part of the cathedral (1100’s), is stunning when viewed from the back, as shown in the left picture below.  It’s built in Transitional Norman style (ie, they experimented with some pointed arches).  Originally the nave had no seats.

The pulpitum, the stone screen shown at the back of the nave, separates the chancel (domain of the clergy) from the common people and is from the 1300’s.  A detail of that screen is shown in the right picture; it’s also gorgeous.  This nave is so very different from your usual Norman cathedral (for an example, see post Durham and its Norman Cathedral).  It is also spectacularly beautiful (in the nave picture above, ignore the raindrop on my lens, smudging the organ).  The impressive Norman arches marching down the nave are each carved in a different pattern.  However, what really gets the WOW! effect is that surprising ceiling.  Yeah, maybe it doesn’t quite fit – the oak ceiling is from the 1500’s and is anything but Norman; it’s in 3D, ornately carved, maybe even frilly – yet it’s still stunning.  Somehow the combination works, perhaps because the arches in the ceiling mimic the stone arches.  Details of the ceiling are shown below.

Original survey of St. David's cathedral church in 1715The layout of the Cathedral, shown here, is from a survey of the main part of the Cathedral in 1715; missing from the survey is the cloister and associated buildings.  Beyond the nave the survey shows a number of rooms and chapels that were added later (as mentioned earlier).

We’re off to see these additions.  Each is beautiful, and, surprisingly, each of them has a radically different floor and ceiling design!  Below are some of the different floor patterns

with their ancient tiles; some floors are intact and complete, others are made with restored pieces.

Leaving the nave, we enter the choir.  The pictures below look back through the pulpitum into the nave.  The murals are remnants of an earlier screen from the 1100’s.

Now the choir!  It was built from the late 1400’s into the 1500’s.  It’s a very open structure, as shown below, with some very nice wood carving (we’ll come back to that 3rd picture

later).  The nicely carved misericords (“mercy seats”, discussed in the post The Lincoln Cathedral) are from the 1500’s; a few examples are shown below.  At the edge of the choir is the carved Bishop’s Throne, where the Bishop sits when officiating special ceremonies.

OK, now we’re going to look up, into the Cathedral’s tower.  Wow.  It’s gorgeous.  The

back end of the choir looks into the high altar, as shown previously in the pictures of the choir (3rd picture).  The high alter is really impressive!

The mosaics behind the alter are exquisite.

The stained glass windows are beautiful.

And then there’s that incredible ceiling.  This area is soooooo impressive!

There are a few more chapels to show.  The pictures below show the south aisle and, at its end, the Chapel of St. Edward.  That roof is only from the early 1900’s; the original had

fallen into disrepair after Cromwall’s troops had stripped its lead in 1648.  Behind the High Altar is the Holy Trinity Chapel with fabulous fan vaulting, shown in the left image

above; the right picture shows the very interesting ceiling of St. Andrew’s Chapel that you glimpsed earlier from the choir.  The Chapel of St. Thomas BecketThere are two more chapels.  The Chapel of St. Thomas Becket, shown here, was built in the early 1200’s but remodeled in the 1300’s (the ceiling is from the 1300’s).  In the layout schematic of 1715 shown earlier, this room is called “The Chapter House”.

The remaining chapel, St. Mary’s, is shown below. It was originally constructed in the late 1200’s, modified in the 1300’s, and a vaulted roof added in the 1500’s.  Cromwell stripped away the lead roof in the 1600’s, leading to the collapse of the vaulted ceiling in the 1700’s.  It was restored in the 1900’s.  In spite of its travails, the chapel’s many medieval features have been preserved.

I’ll finish the Cathedral with the cloister, mostly for completeness; it’s not very exciting.

Just beyond the Cathedral are the impressive ruins of the Bishop’s Palace.  It must have been quite beautiful.

Alas, the weather does not change from rain and strong winds, and there is no respite in sight.  So our desire to hike the Coastal Path of Wales will be unrequited.  Too bad!  We think it would have been fabulous.  Next lifetime?

Bridge across the River SevernThis last picture is us leaving Wales across the very beautiful bridge that connects to England.  It’s still raining.

Next post – England’s Peak District.



South Wales I: Pembrokeshire and the Coastal Path

Well, the plan was to visit South Wales, see the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, and hike some of the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path.  The Coastal Path is mostly at cliff-top level and goes for 186 miles, with a total of 35,000 feet of ascent and descent; so maybe we won’t do all of it!  In 2012 the travel guide Lonely Planet rated the coast of Wales No. 1 in its “Best in Travel: top 10 regions”; pictures of the Coastal Path from the Pembrokeshire web site are shown below; oh yeah!  We have high expectations.

Below are pictures of Welsh countryside as we enter the region – pastoral splendor!  It’s


Road sign in South Wales, maybe for those pesky tourists clear that farming is a big deal here.  It’s also clear that the Welsh have a very dry sense of humor – that or they’re incredibly anal, as suggested by this sign at the edge of the road.

We decided to splurge and stay in a real castle; how cool is that!  The Roch Castle was built by a Norman knight in the 1100’s as an outer defense of “Little England”, an English-speaking and English-culture region within Wales near Pembrokeshire.  As shown below, it’s a real castle in all respects but remodeled to be very comfortable on the inside.  We loved it!

The views from the castle ramparts are impressive.  Long-term readers of this blog (should there still be some!) will know that I am enamored by how changes in sunlight and clouds affect the colors and moods in which we see the world.  In a small way that effect is shown below – pictures of the same general areas, taken from the castle ramparts, a half-hour apart.  Set 1 is here, before sunset:

Then, in the glow of sunset:

Small but beautiful changes!  Not bad views, with a glass of wine in hand.  In a  castle.

The castle’s breakfast menu is shown in the first picture below.  Yum!  Laverbread, by the way, is a Welsh national delicacy made from a particular seaweed, coated with oatmeal and fried; it’s healthy and really good.  That evening we had dinner at the castle’s

associated restaurant, a complimentary taxi ride away to the nearby town using Wales’ two-way one-lane roads.  Don’t drink and drive!  Our meals are shown above; the Welsh eat pretty well!

We’re off to Porthgain, a small city within the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park and on the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path.  It would be nice to do a hike along the coast, but it’s

raining and windy and pretty awful.  Maybe it’ll clear?

Porthgain was a prosperous industrial harbor in 1850, when it exported slate from its own quarries and several others.  It had a water-powered mill that sawed the quarried slate slabs before shipment.  In later years it turned to brickmaking, and later yet to crushed

roadstone, until in the 1930’s it could no longer compete in the modern world.  Today the harbor is dominated by the ancient large brick hoppers that were used to store the crushed roadstone.  In that last picture above, the large opening there at the left is a tram tunnel.  When the quarry got too deep and it was difficult to extract the slate and waste, this underground tunnel was built to deliver it to the harbor.  Doing all that tunnel digging by hand – through rock – boggles my mind.

The harbor is still home to local fishermen.  We stop at The Shed, a small bistro on the harbor, where we have a simple but quite impressive late lunch.

We decide to walk along the harbor past the ancient hoppers; it’s getting late and it’s still overcast and gloomy, but the rain is at most a thin mist.  The wind, however, is strong and

gusty, and that’s a problem.  A cliff-edge walk in strong winds, with a pounding sea below, is maybe not a great idea.  Indeed, a number of locals have warned us not to be on the Coastal Path in windy conditions.  Still, we’ve come all this way, and just past the hoppers there’s an access path going up the ridge to a gate marking the Coastal Path.  How can we not do that?  Against Ginger’s better judgement, we take a quick hike up the ridge so we can at least see this Coastal Path.  The track up is muddy and slick, and Ginger decides to stay put at the top; I want to explore a little further – I’ll be careful, and be back soon.  Ginger asks for the car keys, just in case ….

One striking observation is the number of abandoned stone houses along the path.  They are each pretty isolated, and obviously old.  Although Bronze and Iron Age settlements and

Norman castles can be found along the Coastal Path, I suspect that most of the abandoned houses I’m seeing are from the more recent slate mining period.  But doesn’t that building in the middle picture look a bit like a castle?  Alas, no time to stop and poke around.

The coastal scenery is twilight-gloomy but very impressive, as shown below.  Those white pillars on the headlands are called “The Beacons” and were built to guide ships into the

narrow entrance of the harbor.  That abandoned building/farm that we saw earlier in that previous set of pictures is also shown in the last picture above.  It looks interesting and I’m drawn to it, in spite of the fear of going on.  No, I’m not fearful of dying by being blown off the cliff; I’m afraid Ginger is gonna kill me for taking too long.

The abandoned building/farm is shown below.  It’s pretty big!  Nearby is a small

abandoned quarry.

Well, it is time to trot back to the waiting Ginger.  Yep, in good weather this Coastal Path would be outstanding.  As I head back, I see a lighthouse that has come online (shown below).  Finally there’s the path down to Porthgain; hopefully Ginger is patiently waiting below, but she did take the car keys ….

Next post: if it’s raining, we’ll visit St. David’s Cathedral.