Unearthing the mystical past in misty Wales

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[...] they seem quite happy to be out of sync with modern times. Flanked by mysterious hills dotted with druid stones,

I don’t mean to imply that the citizens of the green and misty Cwm Gwaun are living in the past, but they’re still using the old calendar.

No, not 2016’s. They’re using the Julian calendar, which the rest of the Western world abandoned centuries ago in favor of the Gregorian version.

Christmas is celebrated here on Jan. 6, New Year’s Day on Jan. 13. A bit odd? They don’t care. In fact, they seem quite happy to be out of sync with modern times.

Flanked by mysterious hills dotted with druid stones, Celtic crosses and more than a few King Arthur legends, this corner of Pembrokeshire exudes the aura of timelessness and myth for which Wales is renowned.

I’d never felt this vibe in cosmopolitan Cardiff, well-heeled Tenby or the wave-pounded cliffs of the nearby coast. But in inland Pembrokeshire, Wales’ mystical past is almost tangible.

If you come here it will likely be to walk the resplendent Pembrokeshire Coast Path, which, justifiably, has become one of the area’s biggest draws. But it’s well worth taking some time off the trail to step back in time to the Wales of misty legend.

“There’s a sense of spirituality here that’s much older than Christianity,” said Andrew Dugmore, who was showing me around. “It’s of the earth and the sky. It’s linked to the landscape and the sense of place.”


Walk through the front door of the Dryffryn Arms pub in the village of Pontfaen — known locally as “Bessie’s” — and you’ll feel you’ve instantly stepped back 75 years in time.

The pub, sparsely furnished with benches and a quarry-tiled floor, is the front room of the home of proprietor Bessie Davies, 87, who’s been serving thirsty customers here since King George VI sat on the British throne.

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Photo: Visit Pembrokeshire

The Dryffyn Arms pub, better known as “Bessie’s.” The Dryffyn Arms pub, better known as “Bessie’s.”

We were greeted by Bessie’s voice booming out of the back room — in Welsh — offering fresh eggs for sale.

Don’t bother ordering a fancy-pants Pimms cocktail or gin-and-tonic. The only libation here is Bass ale — the flat, room-temperature version — poured from jugs filled directly from the barrel.


Above Cwm Gwaun, the brooding Preseli Hills are the setting for many of the ancient Welsh tales collected in a book called the Mabinogion, which calls the region “the Land of Mystery and Magic.”

Amid the heath and wild moorland are druid temples, burial chambers — and, at a semicircle of imposing stones called Beddarthur, the purported final resting place of King Arthur himself.

The landscape is dotted with peculiar standing stones attributed to the Celtic priests known as druids. Some have been pressed into service as fence posts, others fitted with top pieces to resemble a Spinal Tap-sized Stonehenge.

A site called Craig Rhos-y-felin is a tangible connection to the real thing: Archeologists believe this was the quarry for the enigmatic bluestones of Stonehenge.

unearthing-the-mystical-past-in-misty-wales photo 2

Photo: Visit Pembrokeshire

The stones at Pentre Ifan look line a mini Stonehenge, but are believed to be part of a neolithic burial chamber. The stones at Pentre Ifan look line a mini Stonehenge, but are...

Standing beneath the outcrop of natural pillars of dolerite and rhyolite, it certainly looks the part. And it leaves you scratching your head why the ancient builders didn’t just assemble the monument here, rather than dragging the 2-ton slabs more than 150 miles over hill and dale to the Salisbury Plain.

Some theorize that they may indeed have done just that, and moved it later. And, like everything to do with Stonehenge, there is robust scientific debate whether any of this is what actually happened.


Another Pembrokeshire mystery can be viewed on any road map. Trace your finger along the A40 highway across the peninsula, and you’ll notice that the place names to the north are clearly Welsh (such as Llanddewi Belfry) and those to the south are distinctly English (Redstone Bank, Princes Gate).

This little enclave has been known for centuries as “Little England Beyond Wales,” and the border, known as the Landsker Line, more or less follows the modern highway.

To this day the divide is surprisingly sharp, and differences go far beyond place names. Villages to the south, like Narbeth, have a typically English look, with a marketplace and manor houses. Those to the north are traditionally Welsh scattered settlements.

Cup an ear south of the line and you’ll hear English. Walk just 1 mile north and you’ll probably hear Welsh.

Oxford scientists tracing DNA in Pembrokeshire recently reported “unexpectedly stark differences” on either side of the line, with those to the north exhibiting classic Celtic markers and those to the south Anglo-Saxon versions.

It goes to show that not all of Wales’ mysteries are confined to the misty and mythical past.

John Flinn is the former editor of Travel. Email: travel@sfchronicle.com

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