It looked ideal 50 years ago, and it’s much better now, with delectable deli lunches and great craft beers to wash away the sand.
We pulled over to the side of the road and Dad pumped up his Primus burner to brew tea, as usual, with tea leaves. Teabags were still considered innovative at the time. Then a vehicle hand-painted with flowers pulled into the layby. It was 1969, and we were on our way to Tenby; the same summer, hippies flocked to the Isle of Wight festival to witness Bob Dylan and the Who.
Although our automobile was unmistakably blue, was it a Morris Minor or a Ford Cortina? I’m not certain. In any case, I was a young child thrilled with anticipation of a summer vacation at the beach. Tenby, I was assured, has a sandy beach, an island fortress, and several caverns.
The place exceeded my expectations in every way. Mum was pregnant and Dad was feeling expansive: for the first time in my memory, we ate in a cafe — the apple pie and ice cream are my most distinct memory of the week. When Dad declared himself a vegetarian, the waitress was taken aback. “Crikey,” she stated emphatically. “How many of those are there?” There was considerable debate before a salad was declared feasible. 1 lettuce, 1 sliced tomato, 1 bottle salad cream As LP Hartley almost stated, the repast was from a faraway nation.
When I return to the town 50 years later, it appears to be mostly unaltered, at least on the surface. The scenery is breathtaking, with ancient walls, densely packed pastel-painted homes, and wonderful beaches. My child’s vision would never perceive anything other than wonderful about such a location, but there are traces of decay and economic difficulty now. When John Wesley arrived in 1763, it was far worse than that: he saw the town mostly deserted and destroyed, more than a century after the plague had wiped away half the population.
The revival began in the early 1800s with William Paxton, who spent a large portion of the money he gained in Bengal with the East India Company. He constructed houses, stables, roads, and a water supply system, as well as a bathhouse fit for the most civilised gentlefolk. As a result, a coastal vacation resort was born: basically the location that exists today.
That apple pie recollection was so strong that I went in quest of the café, but ended up at the Stowaway, which is a great improvement. It’s a fantastic location for a coffee and croissant, tucked away in an old boat store beneath the arches, overlooking the picturesque port. From there, I make my way into town via Upper Frog Street, which is where you can stock up on beach and picnic goods.
Not just vegetarians faced difficulties in 1969. Mum insisted on searching for wholemeal bread rather than the only bread available, “white stodge.” Not any longer. Loafley Bakery & Deli, on the corner of Bank Lane, is about as close as I can come to my ideal picnic spot: its “graze boxes” include bits of home-baked breads, quiches, sausage rolls, and cakes, as well as olives and other goodies.
Food in Tenby, as in the rest of the UK, has undergone significant changes, mainly for the better (though I exclude packaging). In 1969, olive oil was only available through chemists, and beer quality had sunk to an all-time low. This was two years before Camra’s quest to combat insipid industrialised brewing was begun. Now, the Harbwr and Tenby breweries, both located in town, produce excellent beers and have excellent food outlets – the Taproom and the Sandbar And Cwlbox, respectively.
We camped in Lydstep in 1969 and explored the beaches and coves. For an eight-year-old, it was pure fantasy: the caverns at Church Doors beach, adjacent to Skrinkle Haven, resembled something from a Famous Five adventure (my vacation reading), and it remains a magical location.
The coast west of Tenby is breathtakingly beautiful all the way to Stackpole Head. To truly immerse yourself in the caverns and sea arches, consider Tenby Coasteering or Climb Pembroke’s cliff explorations.
Heading east, Dylan Thomas’s house and writing hut at Laugharne are delightful; indeed, the entire hamlet is a pleasure to wander around. Brown’s Hotel, Thomas’s favourite bar, remains an excellent spot for a stay or a pint. Other interesting excursions include a visit to St Catherine’s Island, which features a restored Napoleonic fort operated by volunteers, and a boat journey to Caldey Island’s monastic village.
In 1969, we had only a week. I recall the sadness I felt at the prospect of leaving, but many other details remain fuzzy, and I must seek assistance from my mother, who is now 87. For instance, what kind of blue automobile were we driving? She contacts me. “It was a white Vauxhall Viva. I discovered the receipt.”
My recollection of the layby event is slightly transformed almost instantly: the blue vehicle fades to white. What a marvellously inventive thing memory is. My childhood memory of Tenby, on the other hand, has remained undisturbed by modifications and revisits, remaining the pinnacle of beach loveliness.