I bought a little silver disc necklace here. On one side it has a bee – a symbol of St David – and on the other is a dove, the symbol of Ireland’s St Aidan. It was produced to commemorate the forging of a new pilgrim route intended to reinvigorate connections between the people of Wales and Ireland.
This year St Davids Cathedral is marking the 900th anniversary of Pope Callixtus II decreeing that one pilgrimage to St Davids was equivalent to two pilgrimages to Rome. I have just missed out on a big weekend here. On Friday the Prince and Princess of Wales were here for a private service to commemorate the anniversary of Queen Elizabeth’s death, and there were events on Saturday and Sunday featuring former Archbishop (of Wales, then Canterbury) Rowan Williams. On Monday it was my turn, along with a few other pilgrims.
We’re not far from Fishguard and Pembroke, from where you can get a ferry to Rosslare, Ireland, so perhaps I should expect to hear a lot of Irish accents today. But I don’t hear a single one. All the way down from the north of Wales to mid Wales the predominant accent we heard was Scouse, but today that is completely gone (it is a Long And Winding Road from Liverpool to here!) and it’s predominantly neutral English accents, my highlight being a gentle Brummie one. There’s not much Welsh heard either, in contrast to the northern parts.
Like St Asaph, the approach to St David’s is along a decent country A-road with no hint of a bustling metropolis. We know that St David’s is small, and was a city from as far back as the 12th Century, a status which was lost in 1886 due to an administrative matter, but which was restored by Queen Elizabeth II in 1994. (Have you noticed how we now no longer call her “The Queen”?, strange the small adjustments we keep making one year on!). The population of St Davids is around 1800 people, which actually feels quite a small number for what we find. I see a sign for ‘City Centre’ and smile.
t feels a bit like Malmesbury (pop c.6000) with a single high street and a couple of side roads, but St David’s has a Mountain Warehouse, Trespass, Fat Face, Crew, Weird Fish and many thriving independent shops. Notably not a Boots or WHSmith, but what sustains these businesses? My village of 800 people just about sustains a pub, a convenience store, a small school and a church.
It’s the hoards of tourists, which I am struggling to cope with. Three days ago we left a very busy campsite which we had chosen solely because it had a launderette, but we generally like very small places with only basic facilities. We went from that to a tiny ‘Greener Camping’ site (Kitewood Camping) where we stayed in a Tipi in the woods and literally saw nobody else all the time we were there. Upon arrival in the cathedral car park there was a queue for the parking tickets.
Having skipped the queue by paying by app I moved quickly on to the Cathedral itself, where I found a queue to get in. Somebody was moaning that ‘they want 10 quid’ (it’s a suggested voluntary donation, politely staffed, no pressure, unlike, say, Salisbury whose policy is much more “You shall not pass”).
I notice a sign giving opening times. There has been an early service of Morning Prayer and there will be another service in the late afternoon a little while after the cathedral closes to visitors. The opening hours are quite generous, but I wonder why they close the building while those services are happening. I go in, and my question is immediately answered – because of the sheer number of visitors.
It’s not particularly peaceful as I stand in the Nave and look around. A backing track of monastic chant is playing, which adds atmosphere, but is struggling to make itself heard! On several occasions I count the number of people I can see, and it’s never less than 40 – just in that part of the building. In Newport, St Asaph and Bangor, there were a few others for a few minutes. Brecon had a steady stream, probably 20 in the building at any one time. But St David’s is the standout ‘winner’ (so far) in terms of tourism.
There is always a tension in such cathedrals to balance their primary role as a place of worship with the fact that they are a tourist attraction. This one in particular promotes itself as a place of pilgrimage, and very successfully. It is noticeable how they are playing the game well. There are unintrusive displays and information boards all around, but which blend in – and give just the right level of information too. If you want to know more you can follow QR codes to their website, and there is a free public WiFi network to enable this.
There is a cafe / restaurant in the Cloisters, and not one but two shops. The shop in the Cathedral sells typical souvenirs and books of an ecclesiastical nature – this is where I buy a much needed mug, my necklace and a book on British Cathedrals which would have been useful 3 years ago! The other shop, a 2 minute walk away in the grounds sells much more touristy stuff that would appeal to a more general audience. Why not? There are thousands of people pouring through here. Maximise your income by whatever legitimate means you can. A sign tells me that it costs £2700 per day to keep the building going. I imagine there isn’t too much difficulty raising that based on a day like today.
Having sat down for a few moments to get over the busy-ness and hustle and bustle I am finally able to take in the magnificence of the nave. Uniquely, the floor slopes upwards from West to East. Only a few degrees and you don’t necessarily notice it at first, but once you do you can’t miss it. This is a ‘feature’, presumably relating to the site not being level, which has the effect of raising the screen between nave and quire to a higher prominence than it otherwise would have.
Lighting is used to good effect, highlighting the pale stone screen which was modestly built by a former bishop to house his tomb, as well as to separate nave and quire. Atop the screen are golden organ pipes in an oak casing, and hanging from the roof is a large wooden crucifix – which do seem to be a feature of the Welsh cathedrals largely absent in the English. Each one is subtly lit to distinguish it from the surroundings.
And then I look further upwards. A row of clerestory windows with great detailing is topped by the most elaborate ceiling. The cathedral shop has books dedicated to the ceiling alone! The nave is furnished in limed oak benches, with matching liturgical furniture, and supplemented by the very practical wood and metal chairs that clergy and lay people alike love and the conservation bodies hate! But conservation bodies don’t have to repeatedly stack and unstack them.
When the Nordic Nomad is walking the cities she says “look up”, as above modern shop fronts there are usually amazing higher storeys. Look up here and get a glimpse of the ceiling in the place where we worship the Carpenter.
With it being so busy I have to pause frequently to wait for a scene to clear in order to get a decent photo. This gives me time to people-watch. Those for whom this is simply a place to visit, to kill a bit of time, who walk through fairly briskly, possibly not even noticing that I am there, because I’m not moving, walking straight across my otherwise empty shot. Several of my strategically timed photos have a stray arm or leg in the edge of shot. At the other end of the scale those who are taking in more detail and don’t move away quickly enough. And occasionally, like me, those who are looking up, down, around, spotting things that other won’t see. The ceilings, the wording in the monuments. Seeing the mundane amongst the bright and shiny. How many will see the wall painting underneath an archway in the quire, or the old Welsh flag hanging in the Lady Chapel, or the board of former Bishops and Archbishops hanging high above a vestry, or the view through from behind the High Altar via a hole in a Celtic stone cross?
The font is at the back near the West Doors, and is underneath a small rose window in the south aisle. The window sits above the substantial remains of two previous window reveals, and is mirrored by another in the north aisle.
Moving eastwards you have to ascend a short flight of steps. A lady with an older lady who is using a walking frame (her mother?) is trying to persuade Mum to use the stairs. She takes the walker whilst I stand behind and threaten to catch Mum if she falls. That is sufficient motivation for Mum to practically sprint up the steps!
This brings us into the South Transcept, which houses a substantial part of the organ in a limed oak and pink casing, with walls washed in a creamy golden colour. A spectacular wooden vaulted ceiling is above, and there is a glimpse into the central tower which sits above the crossing. There is no public access from here to the central space under the tower, so a glimpse will have to do for now. There is also a substantial oaken wall separating off about a third of the space here as vestry space, hiding a clear view of the southern wall of windows and a huge board recording Patriarchs (whatever they are) since 570, Primates of Wales since 841, and Bishops of St Davids since 1115.
There is also a shrine here which I initially mistake for St David, but it’s not as I discover later. The shrine sits in an archway formed by stones of alternating light and dark stones. Overall this is a very colourful space, although it seems to have little function other than as a passageway, and I guess a gathering and forming up space for processions.
Here I find a display banner with a poem “Think Small” by Sion Aled Owen, dating from 2020:
A village that thinks it’s a city,
tucked away in a far corner
of a nation
that’s sometimes just part, so it seems,
of another Nation more Great,
With it’s surprise, surprise oratory
waiting to be found
by those who seek
And though the many-chambered edifice
now ascending the valley
would have shocked Dewi
with the descending visitors
the shy sanctuary,
the status understated,
hidden in plain sight
from the heart of the smallest city
I dare imagine,
have warmed a final smile
gracing his legacy:
Moving further east a short corridor aisle brings you past a number of tombs, including that of 12th century prince, Lord Rhys ap Gruffydd, to the Edward the Confessor chapel with its pink alabaster altar, screen and tomb, with carved scenes from Revelation.
Another poem by Sion Aled Owen is here – “The Accidental Pilgrim”, perhaps speaking to any number of those wanderers who find themselves here today.
I don’t know why you’ve arrived
Whether just because we’re there,
Or out of faith’s determination,
Like the myriads who came before
To earn celestial favour.
But no, it can’t have been always have that, a frigid spiritual transaction,
The miles, the blistered steps, from horizon to horizon
To pay for paradise
There had to be a frissioning of souls
In tired haste
The last mile to Glyn Rhosyn,
Surprised by the sudden sight
Of journey’s end almost at journey’s end.
At least the last mile was down hill.
And here you are
Diverted by curiosity from the Coastal Path,
Seeking some solace on a vacation rainy day
Or on a taster tour from your ship
Granted an hour to inherit centuries.
Or coming with heart already aflame
To claim the shrine’s promise.
Here you will find croeso
And a whiff of heaven,
Not for sale,
Not to be auctioned for your deserving deeds,
As in truth it ever was.
By intent or ‘just looking’ chance.
That poem sums up everything I’ve already concluded about this place. Busy, busy, busy, but why?
Next is the eastern extremity of the cathedral, the Lady Chapel, one of two places set aside for prayer and contemplation. Even in this bustling place it is possible to find peace and quiet. Here is a fine carving of Madonna and Child, a painting of the child David and St Non (his mother) in a boat to Brittany, and a polished slate sculpture of praying hands and a dove. This last one is high on a wall – most will probably not see it. The chapel is dominated by the East Window, one of the few pieces of stained glass in the building – most windows are plain. After a short reflective pause I move on to the Holy Trinity chapel which sits sandwiched between the Lady Chapel and the old outer wall of the High Altar. Here the lighting is subdued, there is a small altar underneath a vaulted stone ceiling with a painted royal coat of arms. People shuffle through what I imagine is the sort of space that trembling ordinands are brought the day before their ordination for that cosy chat with the Bishop. Sorry, I mean the “Bishop’s Charge”.
Then onto the most sacred space in the Cathedral, the fairly intimate Quire, High Altar and St David’s Shrine. David / Dewi is buried hereabouts. I say intimate, because its a relatively small area, constrained on all sides by screens in various materials. The eastern wall has three tall niches with glowing golden mosaics, with four small stained glass windows above. The floor is tiled in (medieval?) encaustic tiles, and the quire’s dark furniture behind me provides contrast. The shrine is decorated in gold, red, white and blue. The ceiling high above our heads is red, cream, green, blue and gold. This has to be one of the finest, most ornate spaces in Wales. The tomb of Edmund Tudor (father of Henry VII) stands centrally here, just in front of the Sanctuary. Yes, the Tudors were Welsh!
Pilgrims to David’s shrine must cope with the busy-ness here, I have to wait quite a long time for the crowds to clear for a good photo. This is the spot where a few days ago the Wales’ stood to remember Her Late Majesty. I bet they didn’t have this problem.
Into the Quire, where the stalls have some amusing miserichords on the underside of the seats – one featuring a sailor chundering over the edge of his boat into a rough sea! There is also – uniquely – a stall set aside for the use of the monarch – easy to spot with the Royal Arms on it. Finally I can stand underneath the central tower and view the painted vaulted ceiling. It reminds me of Bury St Edmunds, and perhaps shows what their ceiling will look like in a few centuries when the colours have muted. Here also is the Bishop of St David’s Cathedra, a much more elaborate and very much less portable seat than the Archbishop’s one!
I’m almost done. I move fairly rapidly through the rest of the building, passing through the North Transcept. Here I find a simple wall memorial. Today’s Shadow of Mortality (see Brecon!) is in memory of Agnes Maud Gladstone, whose husband installed the electric light in the cathedral. It’s dated 1938, and it isn’t clear whether it was literally a single light or an entire system!
I glance in the St Thomas Becket chapel (a second quiet space) and briefly at the displays in the Treasury before looking in the fairly recently renovated Cloisters where there is a cafe offerjng a selection of light meals, snacks and hot and cold drinks.
I have enjoyed this visit. It’s a wonderful building and well worth coming to see but as you may have gathered, the sheer number of other pilgrims makes it a mentally exhausting experience for me. And this is mid-September, off peak season when things are in theory slowing down a bit.
I walk around the grounds and churchyard. I want to take this in. On my way up the hill towards the city I encounter a trio of large sculpted beehives, with a warning not to approach too close. St David would be pleased.
As I reach the peak of the ascent I see the very familiar image of the cathedral. If you do an online search for images of St Davids cathedral 95% of the images will be from this eastern city end, high on the hill, looking down on it. This is a unique perspective of a cathedral that I haven’t seen anywhere else, and it is understandable why you would use this image to promote it.
I know I’m not the only person to whom this has given the impression that this cathedral is quite a small building in a little churchyard. Nothing could be further from the truth. This angle completely hides that nave with its sloping floor, and my first view was from the other end, from below. It’s a huge construction. Allow plenty of time to take it all in, and try to ignore anybody else.
I meet the Nordic Nomad after her walk, we grab lunch and wander round the city streets. Doesn’t take long in this city.
That evening we move to a new campsite on the former RAF Talbenny airfield. Our host hands us a ‘What to do in Pembrokeshire’ newspaper, which discusses the challenges of focussing too many tourists in one place. We’ve generally been avoiding tourist hotspots and going to wild places to find somewhere to swim that isn’t chlorinated, but tourism was unavoidable today. After today’s crowds I resolve to do my bit to lighten the load on the tourist hotspots.
Clara is parked on the concrete base of some former MOD building with the single brick outline of the structure still visible. The owner shows us where the block was that housed the tailor, cobbler and barber. This place was only operational for a handful of years in the 1940s and it is easy to imagine what happened here. We sleep with the Shadows of Mortality of World War II.
One more poem that was on display in the cathedral. “I am David” by Raymond Garlick:
I am David.
in the Vale of the Roses
I have built my house,
In a solitude of stones
Crowded with daffodils
In a cleft of sea-green hills.
I am David.
The winds of winter
Spoke to me here,
The music of water,
The canticle of spring
Which all the wild birds sing
I am David.
I am the Waterman.
By the banks of the river
In a vale of sweet springs
Hidden from the sea’s salt swell,
Here I have dug my well.
I am David.
I am the Dovebearer.
I speak of peace,
I counsel joy.
In the fold of the furthest west,
Here is my stone ribbed nest.
I am David.
Under my feet
The rock of Dyfed
Has raised me up
To tower in time’s March gales
I am David. I am Wales.
St David’s last words were reputed to be “I don’t want to go”.
Oh, sorry, that’s the final words of David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor.
St David’s of Wales last words:
“Be joyful, keep the faith, do the little things you have seen me do.”