Cross into Wales over the Prince of Wales Bridge, spanning the vast estuary of the River Severn, and along the M4 motorway which connects London to Wales. This land of myth and magic is shrouded in folklore and tradition, wrapped in beauty and song, built on layers and layers of history. A country of just over 3 million people living in a mainly rural landscape of 8,000 square miles (20,000 square km) with a heritage that goes back millenia.
Your tour here can take from three days or over a week. You decide. There is so much to see on this western edge of Wales. To begin with, just continue on the M4 motorway west to Junction 47 for the A483 towards Swansea (and its Welsh name Abertawe) to gain access to the Gower Peninsula. Take the A483 to the A484 and turn right for Gowerton. At the roundabout just north of Gowerton you'll pick up the B4296 by turning left and you'll now see the brown tourist signs pointing the way to Gower. Just as you enter Gowerton head right on the B4295, again with a brown signpost for Gower. Following the mudflats of the Loughor estuary, you can now circumnavigate this beautiful stretch of land, which in 1954 became the first part of the UK to be designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The B4295 will skirt the estuary and take you on a delightful drive through a number of pretty villages. When you arrive at Oldwalls make a right turn following signs for Weobley Castle, a 14th century fortified house with gate tower and crenellations. It features a Great Hall and chapel. The buildings overlook the Llanrhiddian saltflats providing a spectacular panorama. From here return to Oldwalls and head west to Llangennith. Here you can take a left down Moor Lane to reach Hill End and the dramatic expanse of Rhossili Bay.
This swathe of golden sands banked by sand dunes stretches for 2.8 miles (4.5km) and provides a wonderful chance to stretch your legs, walk southwards past the wreck of the Helvetia which ran aground in 1887. Just the wooden timbers of the hull now stick up out of the sands like ribs from a long dead sea monster. Carry on along the beach by foot to the village of Rhossili, to the fields of sunflowers that come out from late June to August. The National Trust plant 400,000 of these and with the backdrop of Worm's Head and Rhossili Down, the highest point on Gower, it is incredibly photogenic. You can continue your walk up to the limestone promontory of Worm's Head but it is only accessible at low tide, then it becomes an island. Check the tide times before you cross or you might end up stranded as the local poet Dylan Thomas found to his chagrin. He spent a lot of time on the Gower Peninsula but a forced overnight at Worm's Head caused him to stay a little longer than planned on that occasion!
A coastal path will take you at the edge of the dunes back to Hill End car park and then drive back to Llangennith and east to Burry Green to branch off right to Oxwich Bay. Follow signs to Fairy Hill and Reynoldston then briefly join the A4118 by turning left, eastwards, then a few yards further on turn right following a sign for Penrice which will take you onwards to Oxwich Castle. This narrow single track road passes through the pretty whitewashed cottages and old church in Penrice and just afterwards bear left for Oxwich. The bay will be in front of you and the castle just above to the south. There is plenty of parking at the edge of the beach.
Oxwich Castle is a ruin of a large fortified Tudor Manor House built in the 16th century. It is known as a Prodigy House, meaning it was built largely to entertain a monarch, in this case Elizabeth I. The gateway to the castle is older and dates from the early reign of her father, Henry VIII being built sometime around 1520. There is also an impressive Dovecote on the edge of the building which would have contained 300 nests, supplementing the family winter diet with meat and eggs.
If you leave Oxwich Bay car park then turn right in the village to follow signs for Swansea. This country lane follows Oxwich Marsh to the A4118 where you take a right turn for Swansea. At Sketty turn left on the A4216 to reach the A483 to return to Junction 47 on the M4.
Now head west on the M4 to its very end, it now becomes the A48 as it moves further into Wales. Before entering Pembrokeshire take time out at the oldest town in Wales, historic Carmarthen, county town of Carmarthenshire, with its riverside setting and castle ruins. Follow the A48 to the roundabout with the A40 then stick with the A40 as it crosses the River Towy, turn right and head into town on the A4242 and you will find parking on the Old Station Road.
The name Carmarthen is the anglicised name for Caerfyrddin which is said to mean the fortress of Merlin. If a place name in Wales begins with "caer" it means a fortress using the old Brythonic Celtic language spoken in these parts. The present castle ruins in Carmarthen date from the 13th century and comprise mainly of a gatehouse and a few walls. The market square lies just outside with its statue of General Nott, cast from canon seized at the Battle of Maharajpur, and its semi-pedestrianised streets with cafes, shops and bars.
To continue towards Pembrokeshire follow the A40 westwards to St Clear then at the roundabout head south west on the A477 following signs for Tenby and Pembroke Dock. At the Kilgetty roundabout take a left turn on the A478 signposted for Saundersfoot and Tenby and stay on this road until you reach the resort of Tenby itself. At the edge of the town there is a mini roundabout, turn left here following signs for the Walled Town and North Beach along Narberth Road to the North Beach pay and display car park.
Tenby's natural sheltered harbour and strategic location meant that the town would never be just a simple fishing village and was always in need of some form of fortification. The remains of its castle, the town walls and the impressive Five Arches Gate attest to that. But another war changed the fortunes of Tenby in a different way. The Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century saw an obvious decline in French vacationing and local entrepreneur Sir William Paxton developed the town into a fashionable resort. The advantage of two sheltered beaches, the 19th century belief of the virtues of saltwater and the coming of the railways in 1863 all helped to boost Tenby's role as a very popular holiday destination.
Colourful houses and palms decorate the harbour front and the sandy beaches enhance the shoreline. In the centre of town, on Quay Hill, is the Tudor Merchant's House built around 1500 and giving the visitor an insight into life 500 years ago. It is the oldest house in the town and comprises of shop, living area and bedrooms along with a display of spices and cloth and other items the merchant would deal in. The house is owned and administered by the National Trust. Just a short distance away on the promontory known as Castle Hill is the Tenby Museum and Art Gallery which opened in 1878 and is the oldest independent museum in Wales. Standing next to the ruins of the old castle the building contains exhibitions on geology, archeology, maritime history and a revealing insight into the history of piracy.
Just off the coast are two islands, the first one, St Catherine's Island is reached on foot and is open at low tide. Not much more than a large limestone rock it contains a fort, complete with gun deck, intended to protect Britain during the Napoleonic Wars but not completed until 1870, the area of land around the fort is designated an Site of Special Scientific Interest.
The second island is just over a two mile (4km) journey by boat. This will take you to Calder Island and its Cistercian Abbey. Pick up the ferry from the harbour. There has been a monastery here since the 6th century but the present Belgian Trappists migrated over here in the early 20th century adhering to the Cistercian rules of isolation, something the remote island provided. Nevertheless the monks today rely on tourism and specialise in making perfumes and chocolate. The Abbey buildings are in the delightful Arts and Crafts style and date from the 1910. Apart from the Abbey, the lighthouse and rich and varied wildlife are a big draw.
Leaving Tenby, take Marsh Road out onto the A4139 to follow the Pembrokeshire coast westwards. You will pass a multitude of static caravan parks and a number of scattered villages until you reach the B4585 where you turn left for Manorbier which will take you to beautiful Manorbier beach, historic Manorbier Castle and the ancient Kings Quoit dolmen on the Pembrokeshire Coast Path.
Manorbier Castle is amazing hidden gem, just the perfect idea of an old medieval fortress perched up high on land overlooking the ocean with towers, curtain walls, battlements and a gatehouse with a portcullis. Inside there is a Great Hall and chapel and just outside a mill and dovecote. A rear or postern gate lead away from the rear of the castle to the beach.
Although smaller than the grand fortifications found in other places, it features many of the architectural details you would expect to see in a castle. Turrets, crenellations and arrow loops along with beautiful landscaped gardens are all there to be discovered. A short walk from the castle will take you to the village and the delightful little beach.
Here you will also find part of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path which runs for 186 miles along the clifftops, bays and beaches of this peninsula. Unless you had planned to take time out to hike this entire path, there is a chance here to enjoy a brief "sample" by taking a walk over to the Kings Quoit dolmen, south from the beach. Although this small Neolithic burial chamber stands isolated from other prehistoric sites its location, with spectacular views over the sea and back over to the castle, makes the short hike worthwhile.
Head up the road from the beach and back in Manorbier village take the B4585 north by turning left. Don't go back the way you came, even though both roads heading out of the village are signposted for Tenby and Pembroke!
The northbound B4585 will take you to the A4139. Turn left here, following signs for Pembroke but almost immediately turn right for Manorbier Newton and the railway station. Keep driving along this country lane until you reach another junction where you will turn left again, and again following signs for Pembroke. You are now on a road called the Ridgeway, and as it's name suggests, it runs like a backbone over the surrounding fields. After a short while look out for a sign for Milton just adjacent to a number of small cottages. Take a right here down Stephen's Green Lane towards Carew Castle. At the end of the lane you reach Milton and the main A477 road. Turn right here to the roundabout and bear left on the A4075. Parking for the castle will be found on your left hand side.
Carew Castle was built in the 12th century, almost certainly replacing an earlier wooden fortification. Within its walls one can also find a 16th manor house. Its beauty is enhanced by the 23 acre mill pond on the Carew River that surround surrounds its northern facade. Here you will find the early 19th century Tidal Mill.
It was the de Carew family that were responsible for building the earliest parts of the castle but Rhys ap Thomas was the man behind the construction of the stately house. He had backed Welsh-born Henry Tudor, the future Henry VII, at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 and was rewarded with lands and a knighthood. His grandson fell out of favour with the next king, Henry VIII, and eventually Carew Castle was administered by the Crown until the Carew family managed to buy the property back. The castle and house were eventually abandoned in the latter part of the 17th century. Nevertheless its beautiful, enthralling ruins and waterside location makes a very attractive and worthwhile stop.
From here, leave the car park and turn right back onto the A4075 to the roundabout and then head west on the A477, back through Milton and onwards to Pembroke. Bear left on the approach to the town on the A4075 with signs directing you to Pembroke and its castle along Holyland Road. At the mini roundabout the standard brown tourist sign with the castle symbol will take you southwards down Well Hill and Commons Road to The Commons car park. The stone building across the road from the car park is the Tourist information centre and the castle is just a short walk away.
The visually impressive Pembroke Castle was initially built in the 11th century but its major rebuilding and strengthening was undertaken under the ownership of William Marshal, former Knight Errant, and later military leader and statesman under King Henry II and his two sons, Richard and John. Marshal was considered the most powerful man in the country through the late 12th and early 13th centuries. When he attained the title of Lord Marshal of England, the status of Pembroke Castle was thus elevated and a lot of major rebuilding was commissioned.
After the Marshal line died out the castle reverted to the Crown then in 1452 the title of Earl of Pembroke along with the castle and estate was given to Jasper Tudor by his half-brother Henry VI. His 13 year old sister-in-law, the recent widow of Edmund Tudor was brought here to give birth to her child, Henry who later became Henry VII at the very end of the Wars of the Roses with the death of Richard III at Bosworth in 1485.
Climb up the 80ft (25m) high circular keep with its five floors, discover the impressive gatehouse, learn from the historic displays and venture down the narrow spiral staircase to Wogan's Cavern, a spooky cave in which the castle was built over.
Now, to visit some more natural wonders along the coastline head back along Commons Road away from the castle and take a right on the B4319 all the way to the village of Merrion. Just afterwards there is a track called Ermigate Lane. At this point you are at a crossroads. You will need to head south from here, but it is a military area known as Castlemartin Firing Range so don't make this journey if the area is being used! You can check firing times and the availability of this route back at the Tourist information centre in Pembroke. If you can drive down here to the clifftops you will be rewarded with views of Elegug Stacks, The Devil's Cauldron and the Green Bridge.
Accessible at the end of this rough track is this collection of natural wonders. The Devil's Cauldron is a collapsed cave with a narrow archway entering a steep sided pool of seawater, Elegug Stacks are eroded limestone pillars just off a rocky inlet and the Green Bridge is a natural limestone arch 80ft (24m) high with a 66ft (20m) span. If you feel like a hike along this stunning coastline head east to the tiny St Govan's chapel, a 13th century hermit's cell built on the rocky shore. It will be a round trip hike on part of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path of about 5 miles.
If you return to Merrion you can get back onto the B4319 and continue west to the beach at Freshwater West, a popular surfing spot and filming location for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. A vast, wide, sandy expanse of coastline with extensive sand dunes. From here you can use the B4320 back to Pembroke.
From here drive north on the Cleddau Bridge which crosses the Cleddau estuary and opened in 1975. You will be on the A477 which you take to the village of Johnston where you join the A4076 by turning right to Haverfordwest. At the Bridgend Square roundabout in Haverfordwest head left on to the A487 signposted for St David's, bearing right at the next junction and continuing on the A487 all the way to St David's.
This small city with its beautiful cathedral is dedicated to the Patron Saint of Wales, Dewi Sant or Saint David, born near here in the year 500 and dying on the 1st March, 589, this date now being St David's Day. David was responsible for establishing a strict monastic community here and was later canonised by Pope Callixtus II in 1120, who also decreed that two pilgrimages to St David's was equivalent to one pilgrimage to Rome. This boosted the little community as a major centre of worship. Most of the present buildings, the cathedral and houses of the clergy date from just after this time.
The cathedral stands on the site of the originally monastery established in the 6th century and contains the shrine of St David and the tomb of a number of Welsh Princes along with Edmund Tudor, father of Henry VII. The 12th century pillars look stout and sturdy but over the centuries have begun to lean a bit here and there due to the marshy ground the cathedral is built on. Most of the structure is in the late Romanesque style with a 15th century oak roof with a number of later restorations by Welsh-born regency architect John Nash in the late 18th century and the Gothic revivalist George Gilbert Scott in the mid-19th century.
Lying just over the River Alun are the extensive ruins of the Bishop's Palace. After the enhanced pilgrim status of St David's in the 12th century the smaller residence of the bishops needed to be in keeping with this. In the mid-14th Bishop Henry de Gower created an immense palace with a Great Hall and two huge wings for living quarters and entertaining. After the Reformation it has been suggested that the first Protestant Bishop of St David's, William Barlow, stripped away much of the wealth and finery in both the cathedral and palace. This decline continued over successive centuries and the Bishop's Palace is a ruin today.
Being the smallest city in Britain it is easy to stroll around the area with its stone cottages dominated by its cathedral with its 115ft (35m) tower. Quickwell Hill car park is the central most parking location in the city and you can use Quickwell Hill to leave St David's northwards, following signs for Whitesand, and taking the country lanes over to Whitesands Bay. This beautiful stretch of coastline, popular with surfers gives you excellent views over to the collection of small islands off shore.
The largest of these islands is Ramsey and boat trips leave from St Justinians just south of Whitesands Beach. Just take the country lane from the beach southwards following the coast to the old lifeboat station. The hour long boat cruises circle Ramsey, Grassholm and Skomer Islands and you can watch out for the local grey Atlantic Seals, gannets, peregrine falcons, and the possibility of dolphins and whales. There is also a chance on some cruises to land on the island of Ramsey.
After a cruise, a little bit of island hopping and a chance to spot some wildlife, leave St Justinians back to the city of St David's then join the A487 via Fishguard into the spectacular Preseli Hills which are covered with Neolithic stone circles and burial chambers. Rising up to 1,759ft (536m) at its highest point, these gorse-enshrouded beautiful moorland hills are often referred to as the "Preseli Mountains" (translated directly from the Welsh "Mynydd Preseli") although their elevation isn't that high to really award them that accolade. Nevertheless the area offers a rich amount of prehistoric sites. You are on your way to visit Pentre Ifan dolmen and the Waun Mawn standing stones, the possible source of the blue stones of Stonehenge.
After a number of miles travelling east on the A487 you will eventually find a brown tourist sign reading Pentre Ifan Burial Chamber along with a local sign for the village of Brynberian. These will point to the right so take a right turn down this lane. A further righthand turn at the next sign will take you up to the site. This is a very narrow country lane but will lead you to a lay-by and parking area on your right where you follow a short path to your destination.
The Pentre Ifan Burial Chamber comprises of six uprights and a large capstone 36ft (5m) long and almost 8ft (2.5m) wide. This dolmen or cromlech is the remains of a community burial chamber some five and a half thousand years old and therefore built on the cusp of the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods. It is a visually stunning and very photogenic location, framed by the beautiful Preseli Hills.
From here, continue in the direction of Brynberian village and join the B4329 turning right and heading westwards. Continue to Tafarn-y-Bwlch and just afterwards you will see a rough lay-by on your right. Park here and take a muddy track on a short walk westwards up the hill to the stones. There are two upright stones which comprise of the Tafarn-y-Bwlch standing stones and a few metres further on two uprights and two fallen stones comprising of the Waun Mawn group. Although there are only a few stones to see here, archaeologists and historians are in general agreement that the smaller blue stones at Stonehenge were from a circle moved from here almost 5,000 years ago, and that these stones that remain here and the blue stones at Stonehenge are all of volcanic dolorite and were quarried locally. This powerful and mesmerising site rounds off perfectly your visit to this part of Wales.
From here, the B4329 will continue to the village of Greenway where you can take a left on the B4313 which will take you down to the A40 which you can use to drive eastwards back to Carmarthen and the M4 motorway.