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Visiting Tenby, Wales, with its St Catherine's Island and Fort: now it's technically an island, now it's not!

Updated on July 5, 2011
Flag of Wales
Flag of Wales | Source
St Catherine's Island, Tenby.
St Catherine's Island, Tenby. | Source
Tenby South Beach, Pembrokeshire, looking towards St.Catherine's Fort
Tenby South Beach, Pembrokeshire, looking towards St.Catherine's Fort | Source
Map location of Pembrokeshire, Wales
Map location of Pembrokeshire, Wales | Source

Defending much larger islands from a small island

St Catherine's — a rock in the Bristol Channel (Welsh: Môr Hafren ) — can at one time be an island, technically; then when the tide recedes, it is connected to the mainland again.

St Catherine's Island (Welsh: Ynys Catrin ) is in fact a tidal island.

Looking over to the island from Tenby (Welsh: Dinbych-y-Pysgod ), in Wales's Pembrokeshire (Welsh: Sir Benfro ), I wondered what imaginative tales of adventure could be dreamed up as a result of this remarkable rock formation.

Well, in fact, dreams were once reality. This rock formation near Tenby harbour has a fort built upon it. This 19th century fort on the island is known as St Catherine's Fort. It was not built as a comfortable residence in which some wealthy owner might pursue dreams. Rather, it was erected in 1870 for a very practical reason: to help prevent a French invasion, if it came.

The circumstances were these: Lord Palmerston, British Prime Minister 1855-1858 and 1859-1865) was concerned that the French Second Empire under Napoleon III was pursuing an aggressive foreign policy. (Indeed, France did attack Germany in 1870.) Thus it came about that around the coastline of the British Isles a number of defensive structures known as Palmerston's Forts were built. However, given that St Catherine's Fort on St Catherine's Island, Tenby, was completed in 1870, the same year that the French Second Empire fell, commentators with the benefit of hindsight sometimes claimed that Lord Palmerston was wrong to have built the forts, and for this reason the series of forts were sometimes called Palmerston's Follies.

So who was right? Well, who knows? (But they do say that hindsight is 20/20...) In any case, nearby Pembroke Dock was a significant port, so the Fort on St Catherine's Island did have a serious military purpose, at least, from a conceptual perspective.

Anyway, what started as an unromantic, military installation on a bleak part of the coast of West Wales has become an interesting and scenic feature at what has become a popular tourist attraction. The now militarily redundant structure incorporates 16 turret rooms and it is said that the military personnel at the fort guarded a basement of 444 barrels of gunpowder. The military presence is long gone; the only residents in the vicinity of the Fort are birds.

Also worth seeing

In Tenby itself, there are 4 kilometers of sandy beaches, which are popular with visitors. The Five Arches Gatehouse is a structure dating from the Middle Ages.

Pembroke (distance: 16 kilometres) has an impressive and large Medieval castle.

Carmarthen (distance: 43 kilometres) has Medieval castle ruins.

St David's (distance: 59 kilometres) has a Medieval Cathedral, situated in the far west of Pembrokeshire.


How to get there: Continental Airlines flies to London Heathrow Airport , from where car rental is available. London Heathrow is approximately 363 kilometres from Tenby. Rail services exist between Tenby and London Paddington railroad stations, via Swansea and Pembroke Dock. Please note that some facilities may be withdrawn, without notice. For up to date information, please check with the airline or your travel agent.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.

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