Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire

Further to Katy’s posts on Haverfordwest and on Walking the Welsh Coast Path, here are a few thoughts on my research for the Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire chapter of the next edition of the Rough Guide to Wales. As this blog is meant to be about going beyond the guidebook, there’s not a whole lot to say because the interesting stuff is mostly going into the book!

I did notice a clear pattern of all kinds of places being open for shorter hours or closing one day per week. Tourist Information Centres in particular are being closed – welcome to austerity Britain! And bus subsidies are also being cut in a way that can’t help but damage the tourism industry (although Pembrokeshire is beginning to link together some pretty substantial and decent cycle routes). However, gardens (or at least the National Botanic Garden and Aberglasney, both in Carmarthenshire) are extending their summer hours into October – this seems a bit odd, as in Cornwall and elsewhere the trend is to open earlier in the spring, as climate change means that plants are flowering earlier every year. But I didn’t think there was much going on bloom-wise in October.

In Pembrokeshire there are three different sets of parking charges, depending on whether the car park is owned by the county council, the National Park or the National Trust, and the costs vary hugely. County car parks, mainly in towns, can be so cheap that it doesn’t seem worth maintaining the machines and paying for enforcement staff. The National Park lets you park free for the first thirty minutes, and is then not too expensive. The National Trust, however, levies a pricey fee to park all day (with reductions for shorter periods in a few places only), but is of course free for members.  At the Trust’s Dinefwr estate near Llandeilo (in Carmarthenshire) it’s no longer possible to pay for parking alone at Newton House to walk up to the ruins of Dinefwr Castle – now you need to pay £7.27 for the full visit of Newton House. The castle is accessible by public footpaths and I’d encourage you to walk in from Llandeilo if possible.

The most exciting new attraction in the area is Dr Beynon’s Bug Farm, on the outskirts of  St Davids. This will be covered in the new edition of the guide, but suffice it to say that – in addition to displays of exotic insects and so on – this is also the cutting edge of the very contemporary movement towards entomophagy, ie eating insects. As the world’s population grows towards 8 billion there’s no way that we can expand meat production (far and away the least efficient or sustainable form of agriculture) to match it, and insect farming is a very promising substitute, requiring far less land and water to produce equivalent amounts of protein. The Grub Kitchen, at the Bug Farm, is experimenting both with developing insect-based dishes, and with their public acceptability. If you think bug burgers, bug felafels and cricket-flour cookies sound tempting, be sure to go and test them out. Personally, as someone who gave up meat over 35 years ago, I feel no need for a substitute (although I do enjoy plenty of cheesey animal protein) – even so, in the interests of research, I did taste a few  bits and pieces, and found them quite unobjectionable but also felt that they didn’t taste of anything much beyond their main (veggie-based) ingredients – although ants do give a noticeable tang.

Stuffed pepper with termite-crusted goat’s cheese topping

Around two billion people in Asia, Latin America and elsewhere already eat insects in various forms, so it’s really about overcoming people’s perceptions in Europe and North America. Equally, insects can be used for animal feed, to reduce the damage done by rainforest being destroyed to grow soya.

Oddly enough, no sooner had I been to the Bug Farm than I started to notice other references to entomophagy online, such as this and this – it turns out that Nordic Food Lab, co-founded by René Redzepi (chef-patron of Noma, widely lauded as the world’s best restaurant), has also been active in this area.

I stayed one night at the fancy new Twr y Felin art-hotel in St Davids, and had a fine dinner there, with a BBC film crew at the next table. In the morning I made a special effort to switch on the TV for breakfast news and there they were (or specifically Nick Higham), announcing St Davids’ bid to be UK Capital of Culture 2021. And when I went down to the cathedral he was still there, speaking to camera for probably the umpteenth time. Obviously the smallest city in Britain (population 1800) couldn’t support a year’s cultural gallivanting on its own, so the bid will include the surrounding area, known as the Hundred of Dewisland (the Welsh form of David is Dewi), and perhaps Fishguard, which is not just a ferry-port but an increasingly lively artistic centre in its own right. This isn’t relevant to the next edition of the Rough Guide, of course, but it may be something to watch for the following one.

 

One place I visited that I knew perfectly well I wouldn’t be able to squeeze into the book was Monkton Priory, on the outskirts of Pembroke. Monkton Abbey, founded in 1098, was one of the most substantial religious establishments in Pembrokeshire (the future Henry VII, born in Pembroke Castle, was educated there), but after Henry’s son dissolved the monasteries it was broken up. The church is now Monkton Priory, a remarkably long slim edifice with the tower set in the centre of its south wall. There’s only one window on the north side (and that’s half-hidden behind the organ) and not many on the south side, so it’s lit from the two ends, giving an unusual effect. Restored after 1882, there are now Victorian frescoes in the chancel. It’s usually open, and there’s free parking outside. To the rear of the church, Priory Farmhouse is in part a 14/15th-century tower-house, which may have been the prior’s residence. The nearby Monkton Old Hall, built c.1400, is the oldest domestic dwelling in Pembrokeshire and possibly in Wales, and has a distinctive Flemish chimney at the rear; it’s now run by the Landmark Trust and you can rent it (from £450 for four nights).

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