For much of my first year in Wales, my brain has wandered off into the medieval. Whether it’s a problem I’m tackling at work, huge mountains of washing up or personal battles, I think of a Knight’s quest. When I’m happy it’s like I’m with Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin, chatting about second breakfast; where as when things are dark I’m off the beaten path, walking into the claws of whatever sinister beast is waiting there for me.
Of course, this is a side-effect of an overactive imagination, but it’s also a great coping mechanism, if you haven’t tried it. Instead of letting the dark swallow you whole, remember all of the books you’ve read, the movies you’ve watched. You’re the protagonist here, therefore, this must be your defining moment. How you handle the situation will define you as either the hero or villain - it’s your choice - what’s it gonna be?
Now the medieval backdrop within my own mind, is not particularly visible as I wander the streets of central Cardiff, to work and back again. There’s noise, litter, smells of food, coffee, and urine, takeaway from the night before, and countless homeless asking for small change. There are brief time warps, as there are in any city, such as the Victorian arcades, hardly changed from their heyday more than a century ago. Yet, the majority of my life here is firmly set in the twenty-first century.
That’s why, when T and I were desperate for a weekend out of the city, for fresh air again, and preferably the sea, we were dreaming of Cornwall. Probably fuelled by my medieval fascination, Tintagel was the aim, but anyone under 25 who’s tried to hire a car will know that you are charged for youth, and at 22 we were charged a plenty. After months of indecision, my annual leave was 3 weeks away and we were almost resigned to the idea of a stay-cation.
After exhausting my usual avenues of Booking.com and Airbnb, I performed an old-fashioned google for holiday homes in South Wales. We’d been to the Mumbles before, a beautiful expanse of sand just past Swansea, but I was desperate to get further into Wales. Tenby had been recommended time and time again by friends, but we fancied more of a rural, pub, pints by the fire and walks by the sea sort of existence. Eventually I found Manorbier.
We fancied more of a rural, pub, pints by the fire and walks by the sea sort of existence. Eventually I found Manorbier.
Now I don’t know if this is because of my Literature degree, godawful southern English accent or just allround Medieval romanticism but I was pronouncing Manorbier in the most hilarious way. In my head, this tiny Welsh village was in fact a tiny French village (Man-orr-bee-ay). In fact, it’s Manor-beer. Thank god I found out before we arrived.
We took the train from Cardiff Central to Swansea, in the opposite direction to our numerous trips on the very same train to London. Here we got off to change, walking to Platform One, and joining the growing crowd of people swarming a one-carriage train. This, ladies and gentleman, was it. This one carriage was taking us all, I’d say 50-70 people, all the way along the South Welsh coast, through the little villages and sand-duned beaches. As people’s heckles went up, all realising simultaneously that it would be a fight to the death, to get their weekend by the sea, tensions rose and the conductor manually opened the doors. T stormed forwards, secured our seat and luggage and waited for me to catch up. Miraculously we all fit, with a little drama (which I’ve learned is inevitable on Welsh trains), but that’s all part of the fun.
It was a much longer walk than I had realised, from the station down various country lanes, into the village itself. T dragged our impractical case (huge, because our washing machine had broken down and we hoped to make full use of the one in the cottage), through mud and grass - but we were here - we were on holiday - we were next door to the pub! It doesn’t get any better than that.
Manorbier is perhaps the reason why ‘hidden gem’ was coined as a phrase. We were staying in a first floor flat of a beautiful Georgian house, with worn wooden floors decorated by the scrapes and nails of generations of living, next door to the pub and across the road from the Beach Cafe. We wandered through the village, beautiful buildings, one after the other, in various colours, all growing as if mushrooms fighting for the light, overlapping and sprouting.
Now Manorbier has captured my heart for three reasons. First, there’s a magnificent castle. Second, there’s a cove-like beach with rock pools and the coastal path creeps along the cliff edge. Thirdly - the castle is ON the beach. Now, you’ve had an insight into how my brain works. Imagine how many medieval legends were rushing through my brain and my blood as I jumped from pool to pool and ran up the coastal path. Tristan and Iseult, Merlin, Arthur, Branwen, all swimming around my thoughts and the bay in front of me. There’s something epic about this tiny sleepy town, further along the South Welsh coast than most people travel. It’s a lost world, it feels tinged with magic, beauty and history.
However, far less happened at Manorbier castle than in my imagination. Built in the late 12th Century by the de Barry family, most interestingly the medieval scholar Gerald of Wales was born there. He describes it as “In all the broad lands of Wales, Manorbier is the most pleasant place by far”, so he was clearly fond of his birthplace. The impressive fortifications, built to withstand invasion, were only actually attacked twice. First, in a family dispute in 1327 and then 300 years later in the Civil War by the Parliamentarians.
The position of the castle prompts your imagination to imagine battleships mooring in the bay and attacking from the sea. The view of the coast really is incredible - Gerald described it as: “Boats on their way to Ireland from almost any part of Britain scud by before the East wind, and from this vantage-point you can see them brave the ever-changing violence of the winds and the blind fury of the waters.” It’s like a Byron or Shelley poem; I just love it.
Our main aim in coming to Manorbier was in equal parts relax, eat, drink and walk. And boy, did we. We played pass the bomb, ate copious amounts of old-school sweets (thanks to my friend Jess), ate hearty pub food and drank pint after pint of Pilsner and cider. On the Saturday, the somewhat sketchy weather forecast decided to be kind to us. We planned to take the coastal path from our magical bay, all the way along the coast to Tenby and grab some dinner there. We began our day right, with a fry-up from the Beach Cafe, and we started up the coastal crawl that we had only previewed the evening before.
The wind was full and salty, the wild flowers like none I’d ever seen before.
The wind was full and salty, the wild flowers like none I’d ever seen before, and the rocks dark foreboding pillars, unnatural blocks that looked like they had been set in concrete rather than eroded by the sea. This was what we had craved for months, a real adventure, a quest on foot - for pizza and pints and ice cream. The full walk is around 8 miles, but the incredible thing is that it doesn’t get boring. As the sun bolted down on our heads, the sea became a jewelled blue, the beaches golden and each cove and path more surprising than the last. I realised how truly unfit I am, as I wheezed up inclines and screeched down steep declines.
T helped me up from my inevitable tit-over-arse moment, luckily in one of the less dangerous cliff-edges, and I pretended I was an award-winning rock climber as I scaled small rocks in one of the coves for a good picture as the tide came in. We wandered through fields of high grass, always hoping we were progressing in the right direction, eating slushies and calippo shots from a campsite and taking turns with T’s sunglasses. In a strange turn of events, the path took us past Penally, a First World War trench training camp, which led us into deep conversations and dark clouds brewed overhead. We looked out to Caldey Island, the sheep behind us and wondered who lived there. Our taxi driver later told us about the Abbey, and how he used to bunk off school as a boy and take the boat out there.
It felt like a foreign place, at home, in a novel, somewhere I wanted to be. We walked along the long sands at Tenby, the town just a few hundred metres away, slightly grumpy and in desperate need of a wee. Tenby is a strange place, small and pretty for sure, but a classic Victorian seaside town, much like Southwold or Aldeburgh at home, in that it clearly only comes alive for a few weeks of the year. The paint peels, the car parks are inundated, the ice cream vans have vendettas with one another, scouting out the next group of arrivals. We ate in an old school pizza parlour, filling our wailing stomachs with delicious dough and coffee. It was a perfect day, and one I’d do all over again.
South Wales has the beauty of Cornwall, without the people and scrappy roads. It’s friendly, fun and above all, has that untouched feeling - you heard it here first - get your arses to Manorbier.