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Wales Tenby, Pembrokeshire


Tenby is a popular holiday resort in south west Wales with its walled old town with brightly coloured houses, harbour overlooked by a ruined castle and four sandy beaches.


Add in a tidal island with a C19th fort (#4) and Caldey Island with its monastery, what more could you want?



Pembrokeshire has been described as “Little England beyond Wales” as the area was settled by the Normans in the early C12th. It still feels more English than Welsh, with the population speaking English rather than Welsh. It was only since the passing of the Welsh Language Act in 1993 that bilingual signs became common.

The Normans built a castle in Tenby on the high point of the headland above the harbour in around 1090 and a settlement grew up under the protection of the castle. Tenby became a major sea port under Norman control.

Over the next one hundred years, Tenby was attacked several times by the Welsh. Following the destruction of the town by Llewelyn ap Gruffydd in 1260, a defensive stone wall with towers and gates was built. Later, a barbican (the Five Arches) was added to provide extra defence to the main gateway into the town.

The walls were strengthened and improved several times and still remain as some of the best preserved medieval walls in Britain. The best-preserved section of the town wall is from South Beach along St Florence Parade and South Parade with the five Arches Barbican as the only surviving gateway.


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By the C15th the castle was no longer a place of residence and was abandoned by the C15th. Now only part of the keep and barbican to Castle Hill (#3) survive.

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During the English Civil War, Tenby declared for Parliament. After fierce fighting, it was taken by the Royalist army, only to be retaken a few weeks later by the Parliamentarians. An outbreak of plague killed half the population in 1650.

With limited infrastructure, resources and people, the town's economy fell into decline. Most of the merchant and business class left, resulting in the town's decay and ruin. By the end of the 18th century, John Wesley noted during his visit how: "Two-thirds of the old town is in ruins or has entirely vanished. Pigs roam among the abandoned houses and Tenby presents a dismal spectacle”.

At the start of the C18th, the Napoleonic Wars prevented the wealthy classes from doing the grand tour. In 1802 a local resident, merchant banker and politician, Sir William Paxton, bought his first property in the old town. He invested heavily in the area with the full approval of the town council. He even had a Private Act of Parliament passed that enabled fresh water to be piped through the town.

With the growth in saltwater sea-bathing for health purposes, Paxton engaged engineer James Grier and architect Samuel Pepys Cockerell to create a "fashionable bathing establishment suitable for the highest society." His sea-bathing baths came into operation in July 1806 and, after acquiring the Globe Inn, transformed it into "a most lofty, elegant and convenient style" to lodge the more elegant visitors to his baths. Cottages were erected adjoining the baths with adjoining livery stables and coach house.

The Market Hall was completed in 1829 and an upper storey added in 1860 when it became the Town Hall.


The railway arrived in 1863 bringing more visitors. Tenby was back on the map again.

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Tenby cont....

Tenby Old Town with its narrow streets, is best explored explored on foot.

Tenby has a small and very attractive harbour which is tidal with boats left stranded on the sand at low tide. It is now mainly used by pleasure craft although boats still run fishing trips.



Rows of pastel coloured houses overlook the harbour with its old warehouses and Fisherman’s Chapel.




The original chapel had been demolished in 1840 when improvements were made to the harbour entrance. For a few years the fishermen worshipped at St Mary’s Church in the old town until the rest of the congregation complained about the smell of their clothes. A replacement chapel, St Julian’s, was built on the side of the quay in the mid 1870s. Clergy from St Mary’s were paid in seafood to lead the services. These were cancelled in rough weather when waves could break over the chapel.

It still holds services today and is popular for weddings.


The inside is as simple as the exterior with stone walls and wooden ceiling. There are a few stained glass windows in the south wall. The windows in the north wall retain the original pastel shades of Victorian glass.



It has a modern wood font tucked in the corner by the altar.


The old town is a rabbit warren of small streets. It is a good shopping centre with many small family owned specialist shops.



St Mary’s Church (#6) in the centre of the old town is C13th and was extended in the C15th. It is the largest parish church in Wales, reflecting the wealth and prosperity of the town during the Middle Ages.


The Tudor Merchant’s House dates from the C15th and is the oldest house in Tenby and would have been typical of a house of a prosperous merchant when Tenby was thriving port. The lower floor would have been used as a shop by the merchant to conduct his business,. The first floor would have been the family living quarters with the upper floors used as bedrooms. The first floor would have been accessed by an external staircase and toilet facilities were located in a tower at the side of the house.


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Castle Hill and Tenby Castle

Castle Hill is a popular walk with its views of the town and beaches.


The Normans built a castle in Tenby at the start of the C12th to protect the harbour nestling beneath Castle Hill. By the C15th the castle was no longer needed and was abandoned. Now all that survives is the keep on top of the hill and the remains of the curtain wall and barbican.



There is no access to the keep which now houses a weather station.

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As Tenby developed as a tourist resort in the C19th, Castle Hill with its views over the town and beaches became a fashionable place to walk with a path round the line of the original curtain wall.


The Welsh memorial to Prince Albert was erected in 1865, four years after his death, on the highest point of Castle Hill, with views across the Welsh countryside.


A bandstand was built at the end point in 1897 to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria.

The small white building dates from the mid C19th and was the coastguard station. The cannon in front has been restored.


The Tenby Museum and Art Gallery overlooking Castle Beach is in the former National School which closed in 1878. The mural on the side of the building is dedicated to the sea with the inscription from Psalm 95 “The sea is His and He made it”


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The original RNLI lifeboat station was on Castle Beach beneath Castle Hill, and was used between 1895-1905. It is being restored for use by RNLI crew and the beach lifeguards. It will also house D Class inshore lifeboat and tractor unit.

There are two lifeboat stations on Castle Hill. The old one opened in 1905, replacing the Victorian building. This is now a private house after the new and larger station with public viewing gallery and shop opened in 2005.






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St Catherine’s Island and Fort

St Catherine’s Island is a tidal island between Castle and South Beach, and named after a tiny C13th chapel built on the highest point.



The Fort was one of about one hundred forts built around the British coastline in the mid C19th by Lord Palmerston in response to a possible invasion threat by Napoleon III.

Work began in 1867 with a wooden bridge bringing building materials to the site, and took three years to complete. All were to the same design with a central open passageway allowing smoke from the guns in the casements on either side to disperse. Beyond the casements were passageways to the munition and powder stores. A lower floor contained the gaol cells and kitchens,


There were three gun emplacements at the far end of the fort on the seaward side, which can be seen in this aerial picture.

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Although the Royal Artillery were based here until 1870, they never saw action. The forts were obsolete by the time they were finished. The French navy had iron clad ships that could withstand the massive shell fire of the guns and Napoleon was no longer regarded as a threat.

The fort was decommissioned in 1907 and bought by a local business man for £500, who opened it to the public.

It was then bought in 1914 by Edward Windsor Richards, an industrialist involved in the south Wales iron and steel Industry, as a summer residence. No expense was spared. The central corridor was roofed with a stained glass roof, turning it into grand entrance hall. A massive fireplace was installed at the far end, replacing the only small fireplace in the original fort, with smaller fireplaces in the casement rooms. A generator was installed in the basement to provide electricity. The fort was furnished with antiques, and expensive furniture and works of art, including Nelson’s dress uniform and sword.

When he died in 1921, the fort was inherited by his grand daughter who held extravagant parties for rich and influential guests. She spent lavishly until the money ran out. The contents were auctioned off in 1931, raising the equivalent of £15 million in today’s money.


With the threat of war looming, the War Office put in compulsory purchase order for building, paying a fraction of what it was worth. An anti-aircraft gun emplacement was built on the landward side of the fort. The first gun proved too large and powerful and after three test firings had to be replaced by a lighter gun, as there were concerns it would make the front part of the island unstable.

The island was bought by a local family in 1962 who still own it. In 1968 it was leased to the Batt Family who opened it as zoo with over 100 animals. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t a success. The monkeys frequently escaped from their pens, making their way down to the beach, where they would steal hats, scarves, and handbags from tourists sunbathing on Castle Beach. There was no electricity, water or gas and the island was cut off twice a day by the tide. It closed 1978 and the place was left abandoned.

The Tenby Island Project arrived 2012 and began to clear and restore the site. A new group was established in 2016 to research history and continue restoration. It is still very much a work in progress and not all areas of the fort are open to the public yet. There is 30 minute video explaining the history and volunteers are keen to share their knowledge.



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St Catherine’s Island and Fort cont...

The fort is accessible for three hours on either side of low tide. Money is collected on the beach and there is a cast iron gate which is locked when the island and fort are closed to the public. There are 74 steps cut into the rock to the top of the island, including a short steel bridge over a ravine.

At the top is the WW2 anti-aircraft a gun placement which has good views across to Castle Hill and South Beach. The small building is described as the ‘dry store’ for the fort




The path climbs up to the fort, a dour limestone building reached by a bridge across a defensive ditch in front.


The wooden doors are protected by cast iron plates designed to withstand a brute force attack.


Inside, the long central passageway has a large fireplace at the far end and casements on either side. These originally had large underground tanks below supplying the fort with fresh water.

One of the casements is showing a video about the fort and there is some information in the other casements.





The central passageway would originally have been open to allow gun smoke to disperse. It is now covered to protect the inside of the fort from the elements.


The Windsor Edward era plaster on the casement walls is beginning to flake off revealing the squiggles beneath that provided a rough surface to help plaster adhere to cement. Each plasterer had his unique squiggle style to the foreman knew exactly who to pay for work done.


Beyond the casements are the passageways that lead to the rooms containing the equipment to service the guns along with shells and powder supplies. Bends and turns were designed to prevented a straight line from the gun decks to the magazines, so reducing risk of explosion.



The powder store was at the end of the corridor and up to 400 barrels of gunpowder could be stored here. Naked lights were not allowed in the passageways or storage rooms. On the far wall is a sealed thick glass window where a lamp could be placed providing the only light for working.


Shells and gunpowder were taken on rail mounted trolleys to the main gun decks.


Sliding iron doors prevented any flash from the guns firing reaching the gunpowder stored at the rear of the passageways.

A spiral staircase leads down to a lower floor


This contains the generator room from the Windsor Richards era which was used to supply electricity.


There were two small windowless cells used for drunken soldiers.The soldiers were well looked after as the cells had a bed with a latrine off as well as a bath (which used salt water).

At the other end is the kitchen with sink and cast iron stove.

On the landward side were a series of small look out rooms, protecting access to the fort. (The small rifle slits have since been filled in.)


This is a fascinating (and very different) visit.


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St Mary's Church

St Mary’s Church in the old town is one of the largest parish churches in Wales, reflecting the wealth and importance of Tenby in the Middle Ages.

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Tenby Church.jpg

The remains of a wall with two arches to the west of the church is all that remains of a two storey building known as the College . It probably provided accommodation for chantry priests and may also have been a school.


It is thought the Normans built a church in Tenby, although nothing is left of this building and the present church dates from the C13th. It was a simple stone church with with nave, chancel and a narrow south aisle with a tower added later. As Tenby continued to flourish as a port in the C15th, the church was extended. The south aisle was widened and a north aisle added with additional chapels on either side of the chancel. A spire was added to the tower and became a prominent landmark for sailors.



The wooden wagon roof with its carved bosses dates from then.



There was a major restoration in the C19th and most of the stained glass windows date from then.



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St Mary's Church cont...

The first impression when entering the church is its size and how light it is. The dark varnish of the pews and screens has been stripped, leaving the original pale colour of the wood shining through. It gives the church a very attractive modern feel.


The nave is separated from the side aisles by arcades with simple pointed arches. There is no chancel arch or rood screen although the position of the stone arch can still be seen separating nave and chancel roofs. Beyond are the choir stalls.



Steps with a red carpet lead up to the high altar.


The corbels supporting the chancel ceiling have carved wooded figures from the C19th restoration.


On either side of the north door are two wall tombs. That to the west is the cadaver tom of an unidentified cleric. To the east is the effigy of lady.



The font just inside the door dates from 1886. Round the bowl are scenes from the life of Christ with the symbols of the four Evangelists.


The carved wood pulpit dates from 1637 and was originally a three decker pulpit that has been cut down.


Most of the memorials on the walls are C18th or C19th. When Tenby became popular as a sea side resort from the mid C18th, the monied classes could again afford a suitable memorial.



The lovely arts and crafts stained glass window in the north aisle is a family memorial from the Great War, with a young soldier being crowned by Christ




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St Mary's Church cont...

St Mary’s church is remarkable for the two impressive side chapels on either side of the chancel.

St Thomas Chapel to the south of the altar steps was the first to be built in the mid C15th. It contains the original C15 font which was rediscovered in the churchyard and placed here in 1906. In the corner is the C15th bell from the church tower that rang the curfew hours .


Between the chapel and chancel are the tombs of Thomas (d 1482) and his son John White (d c1507), who were both mayors of Tenby. Thomas White is famous for hiding Henry Tudor and his uncle Jasper Tudor in the cellars of their house after their defeat by Richard III at the Battle of Tewsbury.


On the east wall is the kneeling figure of William Risam wearing his mayoral robes. He died in 1633, and was a local merchant, mayor and philanthropist. His damaged face is reputed to the result of a shot from a Cromwellian soldier aiming at what he thought was a living target...


On south side wall is the altar tombof Ralph Mercer who died in 1613.


Propped against the west wall is a slab with the relief of a portrait head. This was of Isabella Verney, the wife of John Perrott who died in 1463,


Near it is a modern memorial to Robert Recorde, a C16th mathematician born in Tenby, who introduced the equals sign to mathematical calculation.


St Nicholas Chapel on the north side of the chancel was built a few years later and still has its screen.


On the north wall is the large monument to Margaret Mercer, wife of Thomas ap Rees of the now ruined mansion at Scotsborough. She died in Childbirth in 1610, having given birth to ten children Above is the kneeling figure of her husband and along the base are the figures of their seven surviving children. The tomb has been restored and repainted.


Between the chapel and the altar steps is the Chest tomb of Robert Tully who was Bishop of St Davids and died in 1482. Its brass was removed by Parliamentary soldiers.


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