St Davids City Golf Club, Pembrokeshire
An ancient land thanks to Mike Marshman
When we play our course we are surrounded by at least 5,000 years of human occupation besides the spectacular seascapes. cloudscapes and sunsets that are a feature of this location. Being situated at the extreme west of Wales overland travel to Pembrokeshire was long and tedious until the latter part of the 19th century. So much so that in medieval times two pilgrimages to St Davids was equivalent to one to Rome. Most communication and transport of heavy goods was by sea and Whitesands beach, which you overlook from the 5th and 14th tees, was an important point of arrival and departure.
In Neolithic times igneous rock from Ramsey Island and the mainland near St Davids was quarried and made into hand axes and axe heads. These have been found around Whitesands Bay (Porth Mawr) but they were also exported throughout south west Wales and have also been found on the downlands of Hampshire, Dorset, Gloucestershire, and Wiltshire. Those found in England are likely to have travelled by sea to the mouth of the Bristol Avon then along to rivers and over the downs to those counties.
There was once thought to have been a Roman station under the dunes on which you’re now playing golf but this has now been disproved. However Carmarthen was an important Roman town (Moridunum),with an amphitheatre, and during their time there the Romans must have pushed westwards to the Pembrokeshire coast and Whitesands could well have been used for landing and embarkation. A coin hoard of bronze nummi from the second half of the 4th century AD has been found at the northern end of the beach but these low value coins may have been hidden by a Celtic family.
The harbour for St Davids is at Porthclais but from prehistory to early modern times a common method of landing and loading cargo has been to run your boat onto a suitable sloping beach at high tide and unload or load goods when the tide receded. Whitesands is ideal for this purpose and there may well have been a small creek here in earlier times. The distance to Ireland is only 30 miles and it was well used at the time of St David and the age of the saints for travel to that island as well as coastal voyages around the Welsh coast and across the Bristol Channel to the English coastline.
St Patrick, who most probably crossed from here to Ireland, is said to have been educated at Ty Gwyn (the White House) at Whitesands. When you stand on the 8th tee if you look north across the Whitesands road towards Carn Llidi you’ll see a group of three houses. The white farmhouse on the right is Ty Gwyn, a link to this tradition from the 5th century AD. The later monastic foundation of St David was most attractive to Danish invaders, despite being hidden from ships in the valley of the Alun and it was pillaged 11 times between 967 and 1091. The Viking long ships most likely beached in Whitesands Bay.
On the northern edge of the beach St Patrick’s Chapel has been subject to annual excavations in recent years. The medieval chapel overlies the site of a cist cemetery and was a stone walled single chamber built of beach boulders with clay packing with three phases of building, probably starting in the 11th century. The cemetery was used over a long period, from at least the 6th to 11th centuries and a large number of small finds including amber beads, crucible fragments, and an 11th century Hiberno-Norse ring pin have been found.
Boats continued to land on Whitesands beach into the 19th century but normally for more peaceful reasons of trade. At very low tides the remains of fossilized tree stumps are revealed on the seabed, the remains of a forest from the third millennium BC when this land was above sea level. Around the coast of south west Wales sea level has risen by 60 metres over the last 10,000 years giving rise to the memories of lost lands, towns and cities in Celtic folklore. These lands were most likely occupied in Neolithic times by seashore communities living off fish, shellfish, coastal plants, and birds’ eggs.
Until the early 20th century birds’ eggs for food were collected from nests on the cliffs while samphire, herbs, and seaweeds, both for eating and spreading on the fields, were collected. Modern food foragers still gather edible coastal plants while over the centuries many local families have existed by both working the land and harvesting the sea. The cliffs of Ramsey Island, seen from parts of the course, were also visited for the collection of birds’ eggs although here the island and farm belonged to the bishops of St Davids until the early 20th century. Since the early 1990s it’s been owned by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Another Norse connection here is Scandinavian elements in placenames on Ramsey (Hrafn’s Island) and the string of islets, the Bishops and Clerks.
As already mentioned the volcanic igneous rocks of the island were used for Neolithic axes but the first evidence of more permanent settlement come from the Middle Bronze Age. Fragments of field systems indicate a small farming community in that period. The island, fourth largest of the Welsh islands, is much associated with Celtic saints and the cathedral. The best known saint is St Justinian, the confessor of St David. He became discontented with the behaviour of his fellow monks, although theirs was a fairly strict regime, and gathered together a group to lead a much stricter life in harsh conditions. However his regime was so strict that several of his followers rebelled and cut off his head. Legend has it that he then put his head under his arm and walked across Ramsey Sound to the present Porthstinian where the chapel of St Justinian was later built.
Porthstinian, or St Justinian’s, is home to both the old and new RNLI lifeboat stations suggesting a number of wrecks around this coast. There have been a number of shipwrecks around Ramsey of both sailing vessels and steamers, on many of the rocks and small islands, including the infamous Bitches, a series of rocks and tidal races stretching across the Sound. At low water from the seashore boundary of the golf course you may see part of the superstructure of the steam paddle tug Guiding Star of Liverpool, holed on Horse Rock in 1885, while every decade of so the keel and ribs of what is thought to be the Bideford schooner Bolitho, wrecked in 1833 are revealed. Further west is the granite tower of the South Bishop lighthouse built in 1839 and converted to electrical operation in 1951. A helipad was built in 1971 but the light was automated and the tower demanned in 1983.
St Davids Head and Carn Llidi
To the north the summit of Carn Llidi (181 metres) dominates the skyline and is part of an ancient anticline of Pre-Cambrian igneous rocks that also includes Penberry to the east. All around there’s much visible evidence of human occupation from the Neolithic period onwards. Boundary stones and remains of walls indicate an extensive middle Bronze Age field system in the valley north west of Carn Llidi while remains of round houses could be contemporary with this. On the southern aspect of St David’s Head dry stone walling to a rubble bank is still visible in places. This was part of the defences of an Iron Age promontory fort, one of 96 known to exist in Pembrokeshire. This was occupied in both the Iron Age and Romano-British periods and pottery from the latter period has been found here. Stone built round houses were within the fort while remains of hut circles have been found outside and Neolithic burial chambers can be found.
Around Carn Llidi can be seen fields with boundaries that may be unchanged from the medieval period. These are a reverse S in shape. More recently Pembrokeshire, facing the Atlantic, has World War II airfields, including that of St Davids to the east of the city, and coastal defences. An early-warning radar station was located on Carn Llidi and the concrete base and a Lewis gun pit can be seen by walkers.