Fishguard, Seabourne, Wales, UK

A Pilgrimage to Wales: Or how I learned about the American invasions of Britain

Story by David A. Laws.

UPDATE 6/4/20: While other destinations are relaxing travel restrictions and bringing in measures to lure travelers back, the UK is choosing to enact stricter regulations. Despite previously opting against a mandatory quarantine for travelers, the government recently announced that, as of June 8, all arriving travelers will be required to self-isolate for a 14-day period. Under the new rules, all arrivals will have to provide an address, at which they must remain for two weeks. Those who break the rules will be subject to fines of up to $1,218.


That one nation’s hero is another nation’s terrorist is seldom addressed in parochial school history books. Most children learn of the villainous redcoats in the American war of independence. Few texts tell of the American invasions of Britain. Or that one of these incursions led to the printing of the first one-pound note. These were unexpected connections I uncovered as I pursued a pilgrimage to Wales (Cymru in the Welsh language) to discover the place of my grandfather’s birth in the coastal county of Pembrokeshire (Sir Benfro).

With fewer than three million people, the whole country of Wales has less than half the population, and is smaller in area, than the state of Massachusetts. Although its exports of larger than life celebrities, Shirley Bassey, Richard Burton, Anthony Hopkins, and Tom Jones, are world famous, many foreigners cannot identify their country on a map of Europe. England, its massively populated neighbor to the east, overwhelms it in so many ways.

“Little England beyond Wales.”

As the western-most county, Pembrokeshire is about as far away from England as you can travel in Wales. However, because of strong Anglo influence dating back to a pilgrimage by the Norman king William the Conqueror, all major towns and villages have both English and Welsh language names. This, coupled with its gentle rolling landscape, in contrast to the craggy mountainous features of most of the country, supports its popular description as “Little England beyond Wales.”

Fishguard (Abergwaun), the port for the car ferry to Rosslare and the shortest sea route from England to Ireland, is a convenient base to explore the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park. Established in 1952, it is the only area in the United Kingdom to be so designated primarily for its spectacular coastline. Access to nearly 200 miles of coastal trails allows visitors to savor history, crafts, wildlife and rugged scenery at the unhurried pace of the friendly local people. Standing on an imposing headland overlooking the bay and harbor, Fishguard offers inviting tourist amenities, while still focusing on the daily needs of its citizens. During my pilgrimage to Wales, while exploring the narrow streets of this small 18th Century market town, that my grandfather thought of as the big city, I stumbled across the Last Invasion story.

Tapestri Abergwaun: The Welsh Answer to the Bayeux Tapestry

Located in Fishguard public library is a remarkable 100-foot long embroidered tapestry that consumed over 40,000 hours of stitching by 80 local people. Called the Welsh answer to the Bayeux Tapestry, Tapestri Abergwann commemorates the 1797 landing on a nearby beach of 1,200 French troops. Led by Colonel William Tate, a colorful Irish-American officer from South Carolina, the incursion was all over in a couple of days. A longer lasting outcome of Tate’s adventure was the printing of the first one-pound note. The invasion sparked such a national panic and run on the banks that the Bank of England was forced to introduce paper money to redress the shortage of gold.

French forces landing at Carregwastad in 1797, Wales, UK
Lithograph of American-led forces landing at Carregwastad in1797.( Photo: Courtesy National Library of Wales)

According to Terence Odlin, Associate Professor of English at Ohio State University, although it “seemed threatening enough at the time, in the long view of history it now appears almost farcical.  The invasion force proved to be a hapless bunch. After a looting spree, some were too drunk to fight, and a few of the more lovable invaders spent their time playing with a Welsh child.” Prominently featured in the tapestry, heroic local legend Jemima Nichols, in the formidable traditional dress of tall black hat and red cape, is shown rounding up frightened French soldiers with her sharp pitchfork.

Section of Tapestri Abergwaun, Wales, UK
Section of Tapestri Abergwaun( Photo: Courtesy Fishguard Library)

Set snugly at the foot of wooded cliffs, the sheltered harbor of Fishguard Lower Town (Y Cwm) has flourished as a port since the 11th Century. Simple white-painted stone fisherman’s cottages line the riverbank. They have featured in several movies, most notably Richard Burton’s 1971 interpretation of Welsh bard Dylan Thomas’s “Under Milk Wood.”

My uncle, who lived in England, often spent childhood-summers with his Welsh grandmother. He whiled away many hours on the Lower Town dockside learning Welsh from the fisherman as they mended their nets and readied their boats for sea. One evening at supper he proudly showed-off new phrases he had picked up that day. His stern grandmother promptly washed his mouth out with soap and threatened to put him on the next train back to London if he ever used such foul language again.

Cannons at Fishguard Old Fort, Wales, UK
Cannons at Fishguard Old Fort.( Photo: Courtesy netNicholls, Creative Commons)

Welsh (y Cymraeg) is an ancient Celtic language that is still widely spoken on a daily basis. Boosters in England, Australia and the USA also work to keep the language alive, although the only natural speaking overseas community is in Patagonia, Argentina.  Today, virtually all of the population is bilingual. As in Canada, public notices and signs are printed in both languages. Visitors need not fear being misunderstood, but might occasionally have to struggle with Wenglish, a local dialect of English with idiosyncrasies that derive from the structure and usage of y Cymraeg.

Hugging the cliff edge dividing upper and lower towns, the Marine Walk offers scenic views of Fishguard harbor and rugged headlands jutting out into the ocean. John Paul Jones, patriotic ‘Father of the US Navy’ or mercenary pirate depending on your national allegiance, roamed these waters in the 1780’s. In true American-mercantile tradition, he ceased his bombardment on payment of a ransom. The Old Fort displays cannons installed in 1781 to repel any future assault. The cliff-top fort provides a bird’s eye view of the half-mile long stone pier protecting the entrance to the ferry terminal. Originally it was built to berth Cunard’s New York bound transatlantic steamships; a critical design error forced large vessels to move to a deeper port at Southampton in England resulting in the suicide of the chief engineer.

Vintage railway poster of Fishguard ferry terminal, Wales, UK
Vintage railway poster of Fishguard ferry terminal

186 Mile Coastal Hiking Trail

The Marine Walk follows a short segment of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path. Stretching for 186 miles along deserted sandy beaches, secluded estuaries, craggy cliffs and windswept moorlands of this remote coastline, the trail is the centerpiece of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park. Casual day ramblers, or rugged backpackers tackling the full length of the trail, are seldom out of sight, sound or smell of the pounding Atlantic surf. Many hostelries, restaurants, and pubs cater specifically to this clientele.

On the Pembrokeshire Coast Path, Wales, UK
On the Pembrokeshire Coast Path( Courtesy deadmanjones, Creative Commons)

As with Ireland, no traveler to Wales should ignore the possibility of inclement weather. Atlantic storms sweep in from the ocean bringing days of gusting winds and driving rain. This is the time to visit the small family operated businesses that maintain traditional crafts and agricultural pursuits. Buried in the valleys where the water flowed fast enough to drive the huge old wheels, woolen mills continue to weave colorful blankets and fabrics. Potters, slate carvers, jewelers, carpenters and glass blowers welcome visitors to their studios.

East of town the horizon is dominated by the Preseli Hills. Archeologists believe the Altar Stone and eighty other massive dolerite bluestones were carved, then dragged and floated 240 miles to Stonehenge from these lonely, often mist-shrouded, slopes around 1600 BC. Numerous stone circles and burial chambers show local evidence of these early Celtic inhabitants. Castell Henllys, a reconstructed hill fort 12 miles from Fishguard, provides fascinating insight into the daily lives of these ancient people, including livestock displays of Iron Age breeds of cattle, sheep and pigs.

St Davids Cathedral, Wales, UK
St Davids Cathedral.( Photo: Courtesy skjdksfkssdflkfsld Creative Commons)

Twenty miles from Fishguard, the ancient cathedral city of St. Davids– -(Tyddewi –literally David’s House)–provides spiritual as well as physical haven from the weather and modernity. Britain’s smallest city has no traffic lights, no boarded-up shops and no fast food chain restaurants: a city designation in the UK requires the presence of a cathedral.

Resting in a deep hollow on the edge of town, the massive, square-towered sandstone minister of St. Davids with an Irish oak nave roof celebrates the birthplace of the patron saint of Wales. Begun in 1181, the cathedral has been an important place of pilgrimage for centuries. Pope Calaixtus II ruled that two pilgrimages to St. Davids equaled one to Rome and that three equated to visiting Jerusalem itself. The cathedral supports the strong musical tradition of the Welsh nation. St Davids and Fishguard both host important annual international music festivals.

Mathry – Hill town overlooking the ocean

Mathry stone church, Wales, UK
Mathry stone church( Photo Courtesy ceridwen Creative Commons)

My own pilgrimage was consummated down a narrow winding lane just off the Fishguard to St. David’s highway. My mother’s instructions were to first find Mathry (Mathri), the village where my grandfather walked up the hill every day to school. As I crested a rise in the road, I was struck by its likeness to a classic Italian hill town. A tiny community of stone cottages, farms, a church, The Farmer’s Arms pub, and the Siop Fach (Small Shop) tea room and antique store. Mathry clusters around a square occupied by the parish church dedicated to “seven sainted men” of Mathry at the crown of a gentle green hill overlooking the ocean. The old schoolyard echoed with the shrill shouts of boisterous Welsh children at play. But even as the farm on one edge of the square was filled with lowing cattle, the old stone barns on the other side rang with workmen’s hammers converting them into holiday cottages and retirement homes.

Finally, around a sharp bend and just over a bridge spanning a slow meandering creek stood the little two-story farm cottage I had heard about since childhood. I noted the rough stone floors and peered into cramped bedrooms with dormer windows peeking through the steep slate roof. I tried to imagine living as a family of eight children in this tiny home, not much larger than many of today’s family rooms.

Slowly I made my back up the narrow hill track. Tall grass and a profusion of wild flowers tumbled down steep banks under tidy clipped hedgerows. Purple willow herb, soft red campion, white yarrow, towering cow parsley, blue vetch, brilliant red poppies and sweet-smelling meadowsweet spilled into the pathway. I realized this annual burst of summer color was probably the one constant across the many ages that I had explored during my pilgrimage to Wales in the past few days. Celts, mediaeval pilgrims, my forebears, and foreign invaders from the Vikings, John Paul Jones and the hapless Colonel Tate, to today’s tourist hordes armed with their one-pound notes, all brushed through the same herbaceous beauty of this mellow and ancient land.

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Fishguard Tourist Information Centre:

Many bed and breakfast, farmhouse, and small hotel accommodations are in older buildings. If you require private bathroom facilities (called en-suite) confirm that they are available before you book. Be aware that a tax (VAT) of 20% applies. Always check to see if this is included in a price quotation.

See also the UK-Travel page.