Rated by National Geographic as the second best coastline in the world, Pembrokeshire in Wales is home to 186 miles of magnificent coastline and 50 scenic beaches. However, in addition to its world-famous landscapes are a number of fascinating historic sites which attest to the county’s intriguing history.
St David’s, the UK’s smallest city, is home to Wales’ biggest church, St. David’s Cathedral, while the numerous castles in various states of disrepair such as Pembroke Castle and Carew Castle are endlessly intriguing and picturesque. For an insight into the region’s more recent history, check out the Tidal Mill, one of only 5 fully restored tidal mills in the UK.
Here’s our pick of 10 of the best historic sites in Pembrokeshire.
1. Pentre Ifan Burial Chamber
Situated against the stunning Preseli Hills, Pentre Ifan Burial Chamber are the last remaining stones of a Neolithic burial chamber that would have originally been covered with an earthen mound. The huge 5 metre ‘capstone’ appears precariously balanced on three ‘uprights’, and has remained in place for more than a staggering 5,000 years, dating to around 3500 BC.
It is thought that the Pentre Ifan Burial Chamber was the site of multiple burials, though no bones have ever been found there, suggesting that they may have been moved at a later time.
2. Stack Rock Fort
Located on a small island in the Milford Haven Waterway, a fortification on Stack Rock was originally proposed by Thomas Cromwell in 1539 to protect the waterway, though this didn’t come to fruition at the time. It was again later felt that The Royal Dockyard at Pembroke Dock needed better protection, leading to a fort finally being built between 1850 and 1852, then upgraded in 1859 with a new building that entirely encased the original gun tower. The fort was originally designed for two decks of artillery casemates, but only the first floor was completed and used as a gun deck.
It was disarmed in 1929 then sold for £160 in 1932, and changed hands a number of times before being bought by a community interest company in 2021. Though the Grade II* listed site is not accessible to the general public, walking along the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path offers a very good view.
3. St Catherine's Fort
During the Napoleonic Wars, a chain of coastal fortifications were built around the UK, with St Catherine’s Island being chosen as a location because of its proximity to the ports of Pembroke and Milford. Wok began in 1867 and was completed in 1870, but was not fully armed for another 16 years. By 1886, it had a full armament of guns.
In 1907, the island was sold privately, and was eventually bought by wealthy South Welsh Steel Industrialists, the Windsor-Richards family. The rooms were lavishly furnished and the fort became known for its luxurious parties. The house was compulsory purchased in 1940. A Tenby businessman bought the fort in 1962, and in 1968 it was turned into a zoo for 10 years. Since the zoo left, the fort has effectively stood empty, but makes for a stunning visit when the tides are out and the winds are reasonable.
4. Tudor Merchant's House
The Tudor Merchant’s House is a 15th century town house situated in Tenby, and is the oldest house still standing there. At the time the house was built, Tenby was a busy commercial port, and the occupant of this type would have been a merchant who traded goods imported and exported from the harbour. The building consists of three storeys: the lower floor was originally used as a shop by the merchant to conduct his business, while the first floor was used as living quarters, and the upper for sleeping.
The building was donated to the National Trust in 1938, then listed with Grade I status in 1951. Today, it operates as a historic house museum with the building furnished and decorated as it would have been in the year 1500.
5. Pembroke Castle
A great medieval castle in the heart of South Wales, Pembroke Castle was originally the family seat of the Earldom of Pembroke. The castle was built alongside Pembroke River in 1093 by Arnulf of Montgomery during the Norman invasion of Wales. During the tumultuous reign of Charles I, Pembroke Castle was attacked by both Royalist and Roundheads as the castle occupants’ sympathies shifted: first siding with Parliament then later the Royalists. Cromwell himself led an attack on the castle in 1648. After 7 weeks of siege, he ordered the castle’s destruction. Pembroke was therefore abandoned and fell into decay.
In 1928, Major-General Sir Ivor Philipps acquired the castle and set about restoring the walls, gatehouses and towers to the glorious castle we see today. Pembroke Castle’s 12th century stone structure is today open to the public and is the largest privately-owned castle in Wales. The castle is also noteworthy for being Britain’s only castle built over a natural cave, known as the Wogan, which has been inhabited since the prehistoric era.
6. St. David's Bishop's Palace
A 12th century pope decreed that two trips to St Davids were equivalent to one to Rome, meaning it became a centre of pilgrimage for the entire Western world. Thousands flocked to the area to see the new shrine to St David in the newly-built cathedral. Bishop St Davids decided that his home needed to echo the magnificence of the cathedral, and between 1328 and 1347 turned the existing bishop’s home into an immense palace that was suitable for holding feasts, dispensing justice and welcoming pilgrims.
The Reformation led to a decline in the cathedral complex, including the palace. The lead was stripped from the roof which began a period of slow decline. Nonetheless, the cathedral remains an awe-inspiring sight.
7. Caldey Abbey
Caldey Abbey is an abbey of the Trappists situated on Caldey Island off the coast of Pembrokeshire. Caldey Island has been known as a centre of Cistercian activity since Celtic times, and thrived during medieval Europe. However, the abbey today was built by Anglican Benedictine monks in 1910. It is considered to be the most complete example of Arts and Crafts style in the country, featuring roughcast red tiled roofs, and large brick basement arches. In 1929, the abbey passed to the Trappist order. In 1940, there was a fire which destroyed much of silver and ebony fittings.
Today, there are around 10 members of the abbey. The abbey is known for its production of lavender perfume, shortbread and chocolate. Although the Abbey itself is closed to visitors, it is still possible to see the monks during either of the two services that run every day.
8. St David's Cathedral
Dewi Sant, or St David, founded a monastery on the site of the present cathedral in the sixth century, and in the 12th century, the Pope recognised St Davids as a place of pilgrimage. The monastery was attacked many times, and in 1089 thieves stole many precious metals from St David’s shrine. The present cathedral dates from the 13th century, though was partially restored in the 18th century to address damage made under Oliver Cromwell.
Later additions were made, and the building is now the biggest church in Wales. Highlights include the ornate ceilings, with the carved oak ceiling over the nave dating to the 15th century.
9. Carew Castle and Tidal Mill
Set in a scenic location overlooking a 23-acre millpond, Castle Carew is one of the most architecturally diverse in Wales as a Norman fortress from the west and an Elizabethan mansion from the north. The site of military activity for more than 2,000 years, the castle is constructed almost entirely from local limestone, and though it was originally a Norman stronghold, features like the defensive wall were converted into a Tudor range in the 16th century. The outer ward features earthworks that were built by Royalist defenders during the English Civil War in the 1640s.
Close to the castle is Carew Tidal Mill, one of only five restored tidal mills in the UK. Though the Mill is no longer in operation, the machinery is still intact. Exhibition, audio commentary and interactive displays explain how the mill would have worked, and more generally investigate the use of water as a sustainable energy source through the ages.
10. Narberth Castle
Narberth Castle is a ruined Norman fortress in the town of Narberth. The ruins date from the 13th century. The castle never changed hands throughout the Glyndŵr Rising in 1400–1415, and was then slighted after being taken by Oliver Cromwell during the English Civil War. Excavations have discovered more than 20 graves on the north side which date from the 12th-13th centuries, suggesting the area might have once been the site of a church.
Today, the picturesque ruins are popular amongst locals and visitors to the area alike.