That Summer: Tenby, 1963

It may be livelier today, but Tenby retains the charm Richard Evans remembers from a childhood visit
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The Independent Travel

The lads' mag Maxim once voted it the second best place in the world for stag nights. It has golden sands and a vibrant nightlife. But this is not Miami or even Prague, but Tenby in Pembrokeshire. Portrayed in the papers last year as a town at war with marauding crowds of drunks, it all sounded a far cry from the rather genteel resort I remember from my childhood in the Sixties.

The lads' mag Maxim once voted it the second best place in the world for stag nights. It has golden sands and a vibrant nightlife. But this is not Miami or even Prague, but Tenby in Pembrokeshire. Portrayed in the papers last year as a town at war with marauding crowds of drunks, it all sounded a far cry from the rather genteel resort I remember from my childhood in the Sixties.

A week in one of the Victorian hotels on The Esplanade overlooking Tenby's South Beach was something different. It was the first time I'd stayed in a hotel - let alone in one with two stars. Every morning we climbed down steep steps to the beach, swam in the sea, built sandcastles and played in rock pools and caves. We took a boat trip to see the monks on Caldey Island and brought back sweets in a jar. Afterwards a man in a white jacket served us supper on crisp linen tablecloths with heavy cutlery. Someone made the bed for us and folded up clothes we left on the floor. I can still remember the smell of the suntan oil and the sheets as I was dropping off to sleep, the call of the sea and the gulls and the sand I brought back from the beach with me.

I was pleased to find that trains still come down from Swansea - winding along the coast and then cutting discreetly through the Carmarthenshire countryside. These days they are powered by diesel, and are just one or two carriages long rather than the steam-hauled beauties of the Great Western Railway that used to bring in holidaymakers by the thousand. What's left of Tenby railway station is a couple of minutes' walk from the medieval town walls, into which have been poured the pastel-coloured Regency terraces, the shops, the pubs and the restaurants. On one side the narrow streets spill down towards the North Beach and the old harbour; on the other, they clamber down to the sweep of the South Beach. It's still safe and clean, with golden sand, first-class bathing and views across the bay - and Fecci's Ice Cream.

There are amusement arcades and shops selling beach paraphernalia, but it's not like the more vulgar resorts of the English South Coast. In Tenby, the slot machines are tucked away behind modest shop fronts. Boats still take tourists to Caldey Island where the Cistercian monks sell visitors chocolate and perfume made from wild flowers. The Pembrokeshire Coastal Path winds east to Amroth, but to the west, past the testing golf course in the sand dunes, there's another hundred miles or so to St Bride's Bay with its remote rocky coves, seabirds and cliff-top walks.

There were no crisp tablecloths at lunch anymore, but there were lamb sausages and plenty of local fish; the cobbled lanes meander down to the harbour where the day's catch is still sold on the quayside. The sun shone for our return, but then they say this sheltered corner of Carmarthen Bay is lucky with the weather.

If you find yourself caught by one of the systems sweeping in from the Atlantic, all will not be lost however. Within walking distance there's the 15th-century merchants' house and Saint Mary's parish church - one of the largest in Wales. Henry Tudor hid in the vaults before fleeing to France and returning as king.

On Castle Hill, with its views over the beaches to the north and to Caldey in the south, the museum tells more tales of ships and lifeboats. The art gallery proudly shows off the paintings of Augustus John, the local boy who grew a beard and went a bit Bohemian after a diving accident, going on to become one of the most important artist of his generation. His legacy lives on in scores of little art shops, potteries and galleries in the area. The scenery of the National Park is a landscape artist's dream.

Saturday nights in high season can get rowdy, but rarely threatening, and no more than in the Seventies according to my sister-in-law, who tended to the wayward in her youth. She tells me, with a distant grin, that it was all going on in Cinderella's. My mother went back to that hotel on The Esplanade a few years ago and said it wasn't what it used to be. But I am glad to report that the resort of Tenby is still a little gem.

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