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Pembrokeshire, home to Europe's best national park. By Harry Mount

Blog | By Harry Mount | Jul 10, 2024

Pembrokeshire is nicknamed ‘Little England beyond Wales’ – but not because Henry VII was born in Pembroke Castle (pictured). Archaeologists working at the castle have found a medieval mansion which could well be his exact birthplace.

The county was settled by the Normans long before Henry VII was born – and long before most of the rest of Wales was conquered. And so it became Little England Beyond Wales.

In the 12th century, Flemish settlers – the brilliantly named Godebert the Fleming among them – took refuge in Pembrokeshire, too, after the great floods in Flanders in the 12th century. They were offered land by the English in return for subduing the Welsh.

And so you end up with an extraordinary Anglo-Welsh mix in Pembrokeshire: with nonconformist chapels next to medieval, Anglican churches. The inhabitants, too, are a mixture of English and Welsh, with all the best qualities of Pembrokeshire people: unflashy, wry, chatty, funny, anecdotal.

Because of the county's position below the Landsker Line, separating medieval Wales from Anglicised Pembrokeshire, there are long necklaces of Norman castles strung along the coast and the River Cleddau; and, in St David’s, you have Britain’s prettiest small cathedral.

The Pembrokeshire Coast National Park runs along the county's coastline. The rollercoaster sandstone cliffs around the castle-town of Manorbier give way to the billiard-table flat, limestone cliffs of St Govan’s Head, with its pocket medieval chapel tucked into the rocks. Nearby, at Stack Rocks, and the natural arch of the Green Bridge of Wales, there is great seabird life: choughs, razorbills, cormorants and guillemots.

A little further north lies Skomer (regular boat trips), the rat-free island that hums with bird life in the summer. There are puffins and a quarter of a million Manx Shearwaters – although it’s hard to catch a glimpse of them during the day, deeply buried as they are in their burrows. Watch out, too, for the extremely rare Skomer Vole.

Wales still suffers from a stupid snobbery from some English people. A journalist friend of mine once said to me, ‘I’ve never been to Wales,’ with pride. What an idiot! But, still, thank God – that’s an extra bit of emptiness on the cliffs not occupied by dimbos like him.

As a result, thank God, Pembrokeshire is Cornwall without the crowds. It’s empty, empty, empty…

Foodies will be disappointed. There’s no Pembrokeshire Rick Stein – although Narberth has become the local delicatessen hub.

Still, what you lose in poncey food, you gain in people-free nature. Even Tenby, the busiest holiday town – with pastel-coloured Regency houses wrapped around the medieval castle – is miraculously self-contained. Step outside the medieval walls and, in minutes, you have it all to yourself: beaches, cliffs, sea.