15 things to do in and around St Davids, Pembrokeshire

St Davids is Britain’s smallest city (population 1800) and makes an excellent base to explore Pembrokeshire. Despite being a city St Davids is the ideal place to visit if you enjoy the outdoors, be it walking the Pembrokeshire coastal path, surfing or coasteering. Read on to find out things to do in and around St Davids, Pembrokeshire.

1. Bishop’s Palace, St Davids

Located adjacent to St Davids cathedral, Bishop’s Palace was built in the 13th Century to house the bishops and entertain guests. Nowadays it’s a ruin but an impressive one and well worth an hour of your time.

Bishop's Palace, St Davids
Bishop’s Palace, St Davids

Inside there are plenty of areas to discover, up and down winding staircases. The dark undercrofts were great for hiding and jumping out on the kids, whilst the towers provided great views. Information boards are dotted around the site to give you an insight into how life would have been.

Check the CADW website for Bishop’s Palace opening times as they vary according to season. A family ticket for 2 adults and 2 children costs £10.50.

2. Solva

Just a couple of miles from St Davids, Solva wins my award for the most picturesque harbour in Pembrokeshire, possibly even in Wales. It’s particularly lovely when the sandy beach is revealed at low tide. Wander along Trinity Quay for a spot of boat and people watching or head into the village to visit cafés and galleries.

Solva, near St Davids
Solva, near St Davids

We walked from Solva over Gribin ridge to the pebble beach at Gwadn. The kids messed around in the stream before walking inland up the valley. At this point we discovered the stream the kids had been playing in earlier was the (treated) outflow from the sewage works! Despite this late discovery we all enjoyed the walk and the sudden need to wash our hands was a good excuse to visit a cafe.

3. Enjoy an ice cream at Gianni’s, St Davids

Gianni's ice cream, St Davids
Gianni’s ice cream, St Davids

It’s not the cheapest but you get what you pay for. £2.50 buys you a cone of Gianni’s organic home-made ice cream in a huge variety of flavours. We sampled many of these throughout the week, including salted caramel, raspberry dodge and mango sorbet. There’s a daily alcoholic choice, a dairy and sugar free option and even bacon flavour ice cream for your dog! Gianni’s is located in the High Street in St Davids; easily identified by the queues in sunny weather!

4. Whitesands Bay

Looking at the photo below you could almost imagine it was taken in sunny California. Although you can guess from the lack of people sunbathing that it was taken in colder climes.

Whitesands Bay, Pembrokeshire
Whitesands Bay, Pembrokeshire

If you’re a fan of golden sandy beaches then you’ll love Whitesands Bay, just outside St Davids. This large beach is popular with families and is one of the best in Wales for surfing. There’s a large car park, cafe, toilets and lifeguard service throughout the summer months.

If you prefer smaller beaches take a short walk north along the coastal path to Porthmeigan. There are no facilities here but it’s a quieter choice if Whitesands is too busy.

5. Walk around Ramsey Head

Just about any walk along the Pembrokeshire coastal path will reward you with spectacular scenery and wildlife sightings. If, like me, you prefer circular walks, you’ll enjoy a walk on the Treginnis Peninsula.

We started at Porthclais, a couple of miles from St Davids, and followed the coastal path around Ramsey Head. We headed inland near St Justinian’s back to our starting point. A highlight of this walk are the views over to Ramsey Island, which is separated from the mainland by a treacherous reef called The Bitches. Popular with experienced kayakers, the tides race through the channel creating whirlpools and eddies.

6. St Non’s chapel

St Non’s chapel is a 20 minute walk (or short drive) from the city and is said to mark the birthplace of St David. The small ruin and holy well are located in the middle of a cattle field.

St Non's chapel, near St Davids
St Non’s chapel, near St Davids

There’s not much to see but it’s a peaceful place to spend a few minutes. From the chapel you can walk down through the field to reach the coastal path. Bring a picnic and enjoy the view.

7. St Davids cathedral

The cathedral is the reason for St Davids city status. Although we didn’t go inside we walked down through the cemetery to reach Bishop’s Palace so were able to appreciate its architecture.

St Davids Cathedral
St Davids Cathedral

It’s in a beautiful location, evidently built in a dip to hide it from invaders coming from the sea. It survived an earthquake in the 13th Century but was almost destroyed by Cromwell’s forces. Fortunately it has been restored and visitors can enjoy its splendour. Find out more details here.

8. Watch the jumpers at the Blue Lagoon, Abereiddy

The Blue Lagoon, a few minutes walk from the beach at Abereiddy, is an old slate quarry. Popular with coastering groups, the quarry has several high ledges that brave souls can dive from into the incredibly blue waters. Alternatively, scaredy cats (like me) can just sit and watch.

9. Climb Carn Llidi

If you’re feeling energetic the 595ft summit of Carn Llidi makes a good destination for an afternoon walk. We parked at Whitesands Bay and walked north along the coastal path around the headland before walking up the shoulder of Carn Llidi.

carnllidi

The last few feet to the summit requires a scramble which I opted out of as it was quite windy on top. Fortunately the views are just as good a few feet below. You can supposedly see Ireland on a clear day but I was quite content with views of the coastline and Whitesands Bay.

10. Go on a boat trip

There are several boat operators vying for business in St Davids. These offer plenty of choice, from landing trips on the RSPB reserve of Ramsey Island to evening wildlife cruises and jet boat rides.

Boarding the Dale Princess, Skomer
Boarding the Dale Princess, Skomer

We chose to visit Skomer island which necessitated a longer drive to the boat departure point at Martin’s Haven. It was worth the extra effort and early start; you can read about our trip here.

11. Have a BBQ on the beach

One of our most memorable evenings was spent barbecuing chocolate stuffed bananas and toasting marshmallows on the beach. We carried foil wrapped bananas and a disposable barbecue down to the beach. I kept watch whilst the kids went off to play on a rope swing in the woods behind Aber Mawr beach.

BBQ bananas on the beach
BBQ bananas on the beach

The chocolate bananas took a while to cook but were definitely worth the wait. Although next time I’ll remember to bring some tissues as they were rather messy to eat!

If you’re going to do something similar remember to take all litter home with you and leave no trace of your visit.

12. Rockpooling at Caerfai Bay, near St Davids

We joined a sea safari at Caerfai Bay organised by Pembrokeshire National Park. Starting from the top of the beach our guide pointed out the different rocks, mosses and flowers. We walked down towards the sea, stopping often to explore the different creatures in the rock pools. We learnt lots about barnacles, sea anemones and limpets; a couple of the group got to taste seaweed too.

Rockpooling
Rockpooling

13. Enjoy the wildflowers along the Pembrokeshire coastal path

Spring and early summer are a great time to enjoy the wild flowers. Thrift and brightly coloured gorse bushes line the coastal path and helpfully cheer up photos on dull days.

Flowers of the Pembrokeshire coast
Flowers of the Pembrokeshire coast

We found groups of heath spotted orchids whilst walking on Carn Llidi, bluebells on Skomer and campion, spring squill and foxgloves almost everywhere along the coast. There were also plenty of others that I didn’t get around to identifying!

14. Visit the art galleries

Pembrokeshire is home to a large number of artists and many villages have galleries and craft shops. Whilst keeping an eye out for child related breakages isn’t the most relaxing way to spend your time we do enjoy picking up mementos of our stay. St Davids in particular has a couple of good options including Oriel y Parc and Oriel y Felin. Some of the artists also have their own galleries, including one of our favourites, Chris Neale.

15. Seal spotting

We only saw one seal on our most recent visit; however if you’re visiting in autumn you’re in for a treat. The seals come ashore to pup so keep an eye out for them from the coastal path or alternatively visit Skomer or Ramsey islands.

Have you visited the area? If so, let me know if you’ve any further suggestions for things to do with children in Pembrokeshire.

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Puffins and bluebells on Skomer, Pembrokeshire

Twenty odd years ago I spent a week volunteering as an assistant warden on Skomer, a small island off the coast of south west Wales. It was a formative experience of my 20s; the beauty of the island, the conservation work and the volunteers are all ingrained in my memory.

Bluebells and sea campion, Skomer
Bluebells and sea campion, Skomer

It’s always tricky to revisit a place that holds such strong memories but I wanted to return with the kids when they were old enough to enjoy it. Our recent holiday to Pembrokeshire gave me the ideal opportunity; I knew the visit would be completely different but would I regret returning?

Puffin on Skomer island
Puffin on Skomer island

The boat to Skomer

The boat to Skomer leaves from the small bay of Martin’s Haven. As the island has a limit of 250 day visitors you need to arrive early if you’re travelling during peak season. We were visiting on the late May Bank Holiday so didn’t take any chances and were in the queue for tickets by 8am.

Our early start paid off and we were allocated seats on the first day visitor sailing. Our boat, the Dale Princess, makes the 10 minute journey several times a day which is reassuring given the notorious reputation of Jack Sound, the stretch of water that separates Skomer from the mainland. I was glad it was only a short journey as the swell was considerable despite it being a calm day.

Skomer guillemots
Skomer guillemots

As we neared the landing stage we were surrounded by seabirds, mostly puffins, bobbing in the sea around us. After disembarking we were directed up a flight of steps, past ledges full of guillemots, for an introductory talk by the warden. 

The warden described the island as a piece of Swiss cheese. This is a perfect analogy. Three of its main inhabitants live in the burrows which cover the island; puffins, rabbits and Manx shearwaters. Whilst you’re likely to see both puffins (in season) and rabbits the Manx shearwaters arrive and leave in darkness. Only overnight visitors will witness the vocal cacophony of the shearwaters that return to the island each evening.

Visitor centre and volunteer accommodation, Skomer
Visitor centre and volunteer accommodation, Skomer

We had around 5 hours which is more than enough time to walk a circuit of the island. Our first stop was a trip to the Old Farm, which houses a small visitor exhibition and, most importantly, the only public toilets on the island. It’s also the location of the volunteer accommodation, which I was keen to show the family, even though the kids weren’t particularly impressed by my reminiscing.

Skomer volunteer accommodation - 1990s vs 2015
Skomer volunteer accommodation – 1990s vs 2015

The volunteer accommodation had certainly had a makeover since my earlier visit, as you can see from the then and now photo. Our converted cowshed (top photo) had no running water and very rudimentary facilities. I’m not sure what I smelt like after a week with no shower but I doubt it was fragrant!

We continued walking on towards Skomer Head. As with much of the Pembrokeshire coast the island is carpeted with flowers during late spring. At home (Oxfordshire) the bluebells have finished for the year but they were still flowering in abundance on Skomer, along with pink campion and sea thrift. 

Walking through the bluebells, Skomer
Walking through the bluebells, Skomer

We saw plenty of rabbits as we walked. Rather disconcertedly the first one was black and white which made the kids wonder if a pet rabbit had escaped. The rabbits were introduced to the island in the 13th Century and were raised by locals for their fur and meat. Hence many are from domesticated stock and aren’t the traditional brown colour.

We didn’t actually miss out on seeing Manx shearwaters either. Although sadly they were dead ones! Skomer is home to the largest population of Manx shearwater in the world and they’re easy picking for greater black backed gulls. As we walked around the island we saw plenty of Manx shearwater carcasses in various states of decomposition. My son delighted in taking photographs of these, I’m not quite sure what that says about his psyche.

Skomer signpost
Skomer signpost

We stopped for an early picnic lunch near Skomer Head where we attempted to spot porpoise. We were out of luck so contented ourselves with views of Grassholm, renamed gannet island by the kids. The island is home to thousands of gannets, who are responsible for the snow covered appearance of the island (bird poo).

The Wick

After lunch it was on to the main attraction, The Wick. This sheer cliff is rammed full of seabirds, mostly guillemots and razorbills, which you can hear just as well as you can see. All the visitors to the island seemed to congregate here too as it’s the best place to watch puffins on Skomer.

Skomer puffins
Skomer puffins

This year’s puffin count recorded more than 21,000 individuals, the highest number ever. The footpath runs between the puffin burrows and the cliff so visitors are treated to great close up views of the birds. There was no need for binoculars, although there was a Skomer volunteer manning a telescope focused on The Wick for better views of other seabirds.

I remember my volunteer work consisted of boardwalk building and a bird count. I should probably apologise for any inaccuracies in puffin numbers during the early 1990s. It was hard to accurately count birds that wouldn’t stay in one place for long!

Puffin burrows, Skomer
Puffin burrows, Skomer

The puffin burrows are marked with numbered sticks. These help the volunteers record which burrows are occupied and which eggs have hatched. Every so often a startled puffin emerged from one of the burrows, let out a squirt of poo and escaped the cameras by heading out to sea.

Of course puffins are not the only bird on the island. They’re not even the main attraction for the serious birdwatcher. The Skomer island blog shows that a black stork flew over on the day we visited; previous visitors this year include several golden orioles and even hoopoes! Needless to say we didn’t see any of these, but we were quite content with puffins.

View over to The Neck, Skomer
View over to The Neck, Skomer

After we finally tore ourselves away from The Wick we headed back to our start point, stopping to take in the glorious views over The Neck (inaccessible to day visitors). The photo above really doesn’t do it justice as the ground was covered in swathes of bluebells and pink campion.

We arrived back at the landing stage earlier than our planned departure time so that I could take some photographs of the guillemots we’d passed earlier. As it turned out, the boat arrived early too and we were allocated seats on an impromptu 2.30pm sailing. The trip back was completely calm, no spray and no swell, much more pleasant.

Boarding the Dale Princess, Skomer
Boarding the Dale Princess, Skomer

Did my return visit live up to expectations? Of course it did, and the rest of the family enjoyed it too. Sadly there was no sign of the boardwalk we built, but the island was exactly how I remembered it, with added puffins.

If you’re visiting the area you might also like to read my blog post about things to do near St Davids, Pembrokeshire.

More info:

  • Access to Skomer. The island is open from 1 April to 30 September, except Mondays (although it is open on Bank Holiday Mondays). It is not possible to book  trips in advance so on busy days during peak puffin season you should aim to be in the queue at Lockley Lodge, Martin’s Haven before 8am. Once you’ve got to the front of this queue and paid your landing fee you’ll be allocated a boat departure time. The landing fee is £10 for adults, children under 16 and members of the local Wildlife Trust are free.
  • Taking the boat to Skomer. The boat officially departs at 10am, 11am and 12 noon (although we were allocated a place on a 9.30am boat). It only sails when conditions allow. In particular, a strong northerly wind can mean no sailings; you can check latest boat information via @skomer_boatinfo on Twitter. The boat departure point is about 5 minutes walk downhill from Lockley Lodge. The fee is paid on the boat in cash only; this is £11 for adults, £7 for children.
  • When can you see puffins on Skomer? The best time to see puffins is May to mid-July. Most have left by early August.
  • What facilities are on Skomer? There are basic toilet facilities on Skomer but that’s all; there’s nowhere to buy food so bring a picnic with you. You can however hire a pair of binoculars; these cost £5 and are recommended if you’ve forgotten to bring your own.
  • Is Skomer suitable for children? Yes, but with some reservations. There are 87 steps to climb from the boat landing stage and much of the island is rugged terrain with open cliffs, visitors must remain on paths at all times. There are only a couple of  places to shelter on Skomer so visit on a dry day. Lastly consider whether it’s the kind of place your family would enjoy. If you’re looking for beaches, a cafe etc it won’t meet your expectations. If you’re happy to wander round the island, stop to watch wildlife and enjoy a picnic you’ll be fine. There are kids trails available, pick one up from the warden at the introductory talk.
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5 free things to do in Cardiff

There are plenty of places to spend your money in Cardiff but on a recent visit we discovered the city attractions you can enjoy for free. Read on to find out more.

1. Bute Park

Bute Park is located between the River Taff and Cardiff Castle. Walking up to the entrance we passed the Animal Wall which consists of a variety of animal sculptures such as lions, a hyena and a sea lion.

We didn’t visit on the nicest of days. The rain was just stopping when we arrived so our first port of call was the cafe. Unlike a group of Japanese visitors we resisted the lure of afternoon tea (at 10am) although it was rather tempting.

Bute Park, Cardiff
Bute Park, Cardiff

The park covers an impressive 130 acres and includes an arboretum collection, fitness and play trails and a riverside path. It’s famous for its champion trees, which are the tallest or broadest specimens of their type. As ours was a springtime visit the leaves weren’t out but this meant we saw some great tree shapes (photo above).

I was also impressed by the amount of bird life so close to the city centre. We watched a jay up close for ages and also saw a tree creeper, nuthatch and lots of robins and coal tits.

2. St Fagans National History Museum

St Fagans is the most visited heritage attraction in Wales. Its 50+ historical buildings have been moved from around the country and re-erected at the open air museum. The buildings cover a wide time frame and range from farmhouses through to urinals and workshops.

St Fagans National History Museum
St Fagans National History Museum

It’s best to visit on a dry day as the buildings are spread out across 100 acres of parkland. Whilst you can shelter in the buildings there’s a fair amount of walking between them.

Some of my highlights were the coloured paintings at St Teilo’s church (picture above), the 1940s prefab and watching the blacksmith in the smithy. I also enjoyed the Ironworkers cottages, which were similar to those we visited at Blaenavon Ironworks last year.

St Fagans National History Museum
St Fagans National History Museum

We spent most of our planned time looking around the buildings and hadn’t left much time spare to look at St Fagans Castle. This was a mistake as it meant we had to rush round the rooms and didn’t get much of a chance to enjoy the castle or its grounds. Plan to spend a whole day here if you want to see everything the site has to offer.

3. Cardiff Story

Cardiff Story is a small museum providing visitors with an insight into the history of the city. It takes you on Cardiff’s journey from a small market town to a world port through to the modern capital it has now become.

It’s a good place to start your exploration of Cardiff, allow a couple of hours to see it in detail. We only popped in for a short visit but lingered over a dolls house exhibit and a ‘build your own’ model city which I think was probably aimed at younger children rather than us!

4. Cardiff Bay

It’s easy to spend an afternoon wandering around Cardiff Bay. The area was once a thriving dockyard but fell derelict as the coal industry declined. The building of the barrage and subsequent regeneration of the area has resulted in Europe’s largest waterfront development.

Some of the original buildings remain, such as the Pierhead, where we watched a short film illustrating the growth and decline of the docks. The Norwegian Church is another survivor. Formerly a place of worship for the Norwegian community in Cardiff (Roald Dahl was baptised in it) it’s now a cafe and arts centre.

'People like us', Mermaid Quay, Cardiff
‘People like us’, Mermaid Quay, Cardiff

There are new buildings too, most notably the Senned, the National Assembly for Wales, and the Wales Millenium Centre. Both buildings are impressive from the outside although we didn’t go in.

The Mermaid Quay area is a ‘leisure district’ and primarily home to shops and restaurants. It’s a nice enough place to wander but I found it a little soulless. If you’re a Torchwood fan however you might enjoy Ianto’s shrine, a board full of notes left following the fictional death of the character. It was a bit lost on me though as I’ve never see Torchwood.

5. Cardiff Barrage walk

The controversial construction of the Cardiff Barrage created the 500 acre freshwater Cardiff Bay and has contributed (some would say, at great cost) to the regeneration of the local area.

Whilst there was strong opposition to the original project the resulting trail along the barrage is popular with walkers, cyclists and kids on scooters and is an excellent choice for a city walk.

Walking out along Cardiff Bay Barrage
Walking out along Cardiff Bay Barrage

Walking from Mermaid Quay, we were waylaid by a Tardis (courtesy of the Doctor Who Experience), playgrounds and a skate park en route to the barrage locks. These control the flow of water into the bay and it’s fun to watch the bridges opening up to let yachts and sailing boats through. We also enjoyed watching the cormorants diving for fish in the fast flowing waters of the fish pass.

Cardiff barrage locks
Cardiff barrage locks

The yellow rings in the photo above are part of an art installation ‘Three ellipses for three locks’. The full set of aligned concentric circles can only be seen from one spot; they highlight the different parts that go into making the barrage work.

We had planned to take the water bus back into the city centre from Penarth but timed it wrong so ended up walking both ways. If you’re visiting late on a Sunday afternoon check sailing times in advance!

More info:

  • Bute Park is open daily from 7.30am until 30 mins before sunset.
  • St Fagans is open daily from 10am-5pm. It’s 4 miles from the city centre so you’ll either need to drive (parking charge applies) or take the bus from outside Cardiff Central station. A return adult fare is £3, children £1.70.
  • The Cardiff Story is open 10am-4pm from Monday to Saturday (closed Sundays).
  • The Pierhead building is open daily from 10.30am-6pm; the Norwegian Church is also open daily from 11am-4pm.
  • The barrage embankment is open daily; further details are available on the Cardiff Harbour website.
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Exploring the Roman history of Caerleon, Newport

I sometimes think that the places we enjoy most are those that are completely unexpected and unplanned. That’s exactly how I felt when we stopped off in the town of Caerleon, South Wales.

Caerleon was home to a Roman legionary fortress and settlement, Isca Augusta, one of just three permanent fortresses in Britain. It’s a fantastic place to visit if your children are studying the Romans as in addition to a Roman Legion museum there’s an amphitheatre, baths and barracks to explore. Amazingly they’re all free to visit!

National Roman Legion Museum, Caerleon

We started with a visit to the Roman Legion museum. This small museum is located inside what remains of the fortress and contains many items found around Caerleon. The various displays are dedicated to different aspects of Roman life and death, including how they ate, lived and worked.

National Roman Legion Museum, Caerleon
National Roman Legion Museum, Caerleon

My favourite exhibit was that of the gemstones found in the drains of the Roman baths. Most originally belonged in rings; it’s thought they were lost by legionary soldiers whilst bathing.

Inside National Roman Legion Museum, Caerleon
Inside National Roman Legion Museum, Caerleon

For younger children there’s a chance to dress up as a Roman soldier and see what life would have been like inside a barracks room. The museum has a small but well stocked shop, both my kids found something to spend their money on.

Outside there’s a Roman garden but we visited at the wrong time of year to appreciate it.

The Roman Baths

The Roman baths, just down the road from the museum, were used by the soldiers for relaxation and socialising. They originally consisted of cold, warm and hot pools, heated changing rooms and an outdoor pool (now covered, see the photo below).

We followed the raised boardwalk around the edge of the baths and were treated to projected images and sound which make it seem like the pool contains water and Roman swimmers. It’s cleverly done and is similar to the visual effects we enjoyed at another CADW location, Blaenavon ironworks.

Caerleon Roman baths
Caerleon Roman baths

Look carefully when you walk around the large pool and you’ll be able to see the imprint of a dog’s paw in one of the clay tiles. It’s amazing to think it’s almost 2000 years old.

Caerleon amphitheatre

The amphitheatre was built around AD90 and could seat up to 6000 spectators. Although it is the best preserved amphitheatre in Britain you’ll still need to use your imagination; my favourite kind of attraction. Official excavations first started over 100 years ago with the removal of 30,000 tons of soil from the site. Informal excavations had taken place beforehand as evidenced by the use of ‘Roman’ stone in some local buildings!

Exploring the amphitheatre at Caerleon
Exploring the amphitheatre at Caerleon

The amphitheatre is covered in grass and we were free to wander at will. In Roman times it would have had an upper seating tier made from wood and a sandy arena floor. The soldiers used it for parades, training and deadly gladiator battles. It’s hard to envisage this nowadays but it must have been an incredible spectacle.

Roman barracks

Close by are the remains of the Roman barracks, home to 5,500 soldiers. There are a couple of interpretation boards around the site. These explain what the foundation walls and marks on the ground are. It’s possible to make out the soldiers quarters and some large circular ovens but it would be great to see some further interpretation of the site.

We really enjoyed Caerleon. If you’re driving through South Wales on the M4 make an effort to stop off; it’s only a few minutes drive from Newport junction and it’s definitely worth it.

More info

  • The National Roman Legion Museum is free to enter and open daily (although only 2-5pm on Sunday). The museum runs lots of family events throughout the year, current ones include archery, mosaic making and the chance to meet a Roman soldier.
  • The Roman fortress and baths  and amphitheatre are also free to enter. Both are open daily except for a short period over Christmas.
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