As you drive into Tenby you would be forgiven for cursing the bumper-to-bumper traffic that now fills the narrow streets every weekend. But it wasn’t always like this, once a medieval walled fishing town in South West Wales (its Welsh name; Dinbych-y-pysgod, translates roughly as little fortress of the fish) it was once a bustling merchant hotspot that played host to Henry Tudor, who hid out among its walls during the Wars of the Roses.
Despite being ravaged by plague and subsequently left to ruin by its merchant population in the 17th century, today Tenby is very much back on the map. Still favoured for its sheltered harbour and resting places, but by a different clientele. Day-trippers and holidaymakers come to stroll along the wide brisk sands and tight cobbled alleyways. Gift shops and quirky pubs pepper the town of tiny, terraces houses.
More than just a coastal resort, Tenby’s modern front is dipped deeply into ancient history. Mere meters from the concrete-clad multi-storey car park, the ancient 13th century walls that once protected Tenby’s residents, now break the breeze down into bearable wisps, gather greenery in their craggy heights and provide a resting spot for solitary seagulls.
Tenby hit my senses just as a true British seaside town should; gulls swirled overhead, their boisterous hollers clamoring for attention as they echoed out towards the surf; the rainbow-painted facades of buildings lacing the streets, forced a squint as I meandered through, and the smell of the latest catch hung in the air, as if my haddock and chips lay always just around the next slender bend.
Wales is famed for its good pubs and some of Tenby’s best drinking establishments come complete with Tudor style beams and fascinating stories. I guzzled down a Guinness and Stilton pie in The Coach & Horses, where it’s said that Dylan Thomas, the famous Welsh poet and playwright, once came for many a drink too many. I could have spent hours examining the old bric-a-brac from days gone by that hung askew on the walls, but I know not to take a sunny afternoon in Wales for granted. I needed to head towards the shoreline.
A short walk brought me out onto an energizing seafront – the perfect remedy for the sleepy contentment of a large lunch. Stone steps wound their way steeply through the natural rock onto the soft sands beneath. I paused briefly to admire the view: The very original focal point of Caldey Island and its inhabited monastery looming out of an extremely low tide. Walking onto the massive expanse of beach gave me a great sense of abandonment. Suddenly, the bubbly populace of the town behind me seemed distant and the bird squawks and shrieks of excited children were barely audible over the rhythm of the waves and the wind.
Walking further around the headland brought me onto the other side of town. A long strip of hotels and B&Bs rose above a wrought iron fence mimicking the uneven rocks below. Stranded boats nestled, tilted on the wet, glassy bay and local tour operators proffered chalkboards offering boat trips and restaurant deals. I wasn’t going to accepting any. For me, the joy of Tenby lies in wandering through it’s streets at a slow pace, having a coffee here and there, sharing a smile with a local and taking a beep breath of very fresh air. No tour operator can sell me that.
The bright afternoon passed fleetingly and before long it was time to weave my way back to the monstrosity of a car park to brave the exodus of weary day- trippers. On my way out of the cramped roads there were no horns honked or sharp words spoken because Tenby’s visitors depart in a mixed state of physical tiredness, whimsical reflection and mild food coma. They’ve been, they’ve seen but most importantly, they’ve done nothing in particular. There’s nothing more relaxing.
What Tenby lacks in cosmopolitan chic, it makes up for in bounds with its unassuming historical heart, great food and friendly fishermen. What was once an important merchant outpost now holds a very distinct purpose: Tenby has become an icon of the traditional Welsh fishing village and a pristine example of British tourism at its very best.