TENBY, a delightful summer destination for tourists, is a town steeped in ancient history. Through the passages of time Tenby has seen many changes, but it has been on the leisure map for over 200 years.
The Welsh translation of Tenby – Dinbych-y-pysgod – means ‘little fortress of the fish’, an apt name for this seaside town in Pembrokeshire on the western side of Carmarthen Bay, surrounded as it is by an imposing medieval stone wall.
Tenby’s hilltop position led to its early settlement as a Welsh stronghold, which was replaced in medieval times by a Norman Castle and walled town. Part of the town walls survive to this day and are an attractive feature at the entrance to the old town.
In the past, Tenby was known as ‘Little England beyond Wales’. From the early 19th Century, Tenby became a fashionable holiday destination for both the Welsh and the English, and its attractions to the holidaymaker are just as obvious today, with fantastic beaches stretching to the north, west, and south of the town.
Alongside the beaches, notable features include the Pembrokeshire Coast Path, the 13th Century medieval town walls, including the Five Arches barbican gatehouse, Tenby Museum and Art Gallery, the 15th Century St Mary’s Church and the National Trust’s Tudor Merchant’s House.
The old town castle walls have survived, as does the Victorian revival architecture in a pastel colour scheme. The economy is based on tourism, supported by a range of craft, art and other stores. The area in and around Tenby is home to approaching 400 listed buildings and a feature of the town is its narrow cobbled streets.
But the main attractions are the sheltered, sandy beaches and the coastal boat trips from Tenby’s harbour to offshore monastic Caldey Island.
Just 20 minutes away by boat, the holy island of Caldey Island is an oasis of calm where you can watch seabirds or relax on a tiny beach. Owned and run by a community of Cistercian monks, it’s open to the public on summer weekdays and Saturdays.
St Catherine’s Island is tidal and has a 19th Century Palmerston Fort which was closed to the public in 2016. The Army had control of the fort during 1887–1895.
As for beaches, you are really spoiled for choice. Aside from the harbour, Tenby is blessed with no less than three sandy beaches, ideal for sailing, mackerel fishing trips, snoozing and just eating ice cream.
Families can head to the safe Harbour Beach or use the easy access slipway to get down to Castle Beach, rated best beach in the UK by The Sunday Times in 2019.
For the slightly more adventurous, there’s also Goscar Rock over on North Beach and after clambering on that you can head over to the beachfront snack-bar or, if you’re looking for somewhere to run around on, check out South Beach, the most spacious of Tenby’s beaches.
Through both the Georgian and Victorian eras Tenby was renowned as a health resort and centre for botanical and geological study. Many features of the town were constructed to provide areas for healthy seaside walks. Due to the walkways being built to accommodate Victorian nannies pushing prams, many of the beaches today still retain good disabled access.
Tenby has wonderful coastal walks right on the doorstep. One of the most enjoyable routes, the Pembrokeshire Coast Path, takes you north to Saundersfoot, an up-and-down 4.5 mile stretch with fabulous views of Saundersfoot Bay from the headland at Monkstone Point.
Find out about the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park at the friendly National Park Centre and shop. It’s located near the Five Arches, a fortress-like section of Tenby’s impressive medieval walls.
At Castle Hill, you will find the Tenby Museum and Art Gallery where, if you can tear yourself away from the wonderful sea views, you can enjoy paintings of the same scene, along with other notable Pembrokeshire landscapes and portraits. Established in 1878, this is the oldest independent museum in Wales.
St Mary’s Church on Upper Frog Street, in the centre of town, is a fine church to explore with a tall, slender spire. It mostly dates back to the 15th Century, a heyday for the town. Inside, it’s light and airy, with carved ceiling bosses and 500 year-old memorials to former mayors.
In 1852, the Shipwrecked Fishermen and Mariners’ Royal Benevolent Society deployed a lifeboat to the town, taken over in 1854 by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. In 1905, a slipway-equipped lifeboat station was built on Castle Hill. It was replaced by a modern station in 2008.
The current RNLI Lifeboat Station is open to the public in summer – you can see the lifeboat when it’s not in action, and buy RNLI souvenirs in the shop. The last station, nearby, is now a private house that featured on Channel 4’s Grand Designs.
Another attraction is the Tenby Ghost Walk, a short tour of some of Tenby’s more mysterious corners, where you can hear tales of ghost pirates, witches and UFOs from the storyteller.
Tucked away on Quay Hill, above the harbour, the Tudor Merchant’s House is a museum of the life of a wealthy merchant and his family at the turn of the 16th Century. The merchant’s shop, kitchen and living room are furnished in the style of Tudor times.
Tenby railway station serves the town on the Pembroke Dock branch of the West Wales Line. Trains run in each direction; westwards towards Pembroke and eastwards to Whitland, Carmarthen and Swansea. During peak season, trains run direct from Paddington to Tenby.
In 1970, the Tenby Sea Swimming Association started the Boxing Day Swim. It is Tenby’s main Christmas attraction now, with approximately 600 swimmers, most in fancy dress, watched by thousands of onlookers. Each swimmer who enters for a charity receives a medal.
Tenby hosts the Welsh Ironman Triathlon in September. There is also the Tenby Aces Cycling Club, Tenby United Rugby Club and an 18-hole Tenby Golf Course that provides links golf by the coast.