- It certainly has bustle and crowds, but it was much more refined and polished than we had anticipated.
- It has mostly avoided brashness and the usual seaside tat.
- There is definitely an emerging ‘cafe society’ feel to the town, and we thought the pedestrianised area worked well.
- Although Tenby town is probably only half a mile across, it is a warren of intriguing little ginnels, back lanes and shady byways.
Ports of Call
Alex Whittaker casts a weather eye over Nelson’s favourite Bristol Channel port …
You may be surprised to discover that as well as being a historic port, famous Tenby is also an ancient walled town. It has fine beaches, a bustling townscape and has long been associated with fishing. Its English name, ‘Tenby’, is a close relative of the Welsh word ‘Dinbych’ (as in Denbigh). This refers to a small fort or castle. Indeed, Tenby’s full name in Welsh is ‘Dinbych y Pysgod’ or ‘Small Fortress of the Fish’. Tenby may be a famous seaside town, but we discovered that there is much more to it than fish and chips, and buckets and spades.
Tenby (51.6727° N, 4.7036° W) lies on the Bristol Channel, which has a reputation for strong currents, large tidal ranges and occasional big seas. All-tide havens are few and far between. Since parts of the Bristol Channel have a tidal range of 50 feet or 15 metres, prudence is required. Much of this Welsh coast dries, so your arrival and departure times must be chosen with care. Note that local high water at Tenby Harbour is -0510 Dover and -0012 Milford Haven.
Now, although our 24ft sports cruiser has a planing hull, it has flattish rear sections. So we reckoned that we could take the ground at Tenby well enough – providing, of course, we remembered to slide the ‘trailer switch’ on the Morse engine control to trim the outdrive out as flat as possible. If your own powerboat meets such rudimentary requirements, all will be well to beach at Tenby. If not, Tenby is a superb port to visit on a hot summer’s day just for the top of the tide. Tie up to the quay wall, buy an ice cream and mingle with the motley.
From seaward, imposing Castle Hill divides the town’s two famously huge holiday beaches. The harbour lies to the west of Castle Hill and St Catherine’s Island. A breakwater extends north-west of Castle Hill. The pretty little harbour is compact and much encumbered with craft moored to long submerged chains. With the tide out, all the pretty little hulls scattered on the sand look like toys in a bath whose plug has been pulled out.
Tenby dries over fine hard sand, and is protected by a substantial quay wall. This extends for 120 metres. There is a red light at the end of this pier, which assists greatly with any night approach. At low water, the sand dries out a long way past the pier. For vessels with a draught of up to 1.4 metres, entry to the harbour may be made for two hours either side of local high tide.
Tenby Harbour Yacht Station
The harbour master’s office is situated on the main quay wall (tel.: 01834 842717). After a fallow period, money has recently been spent on the harbour, and the new facilities include a new office, a meeting room, stores, disabled toilet and shower facilities. Out in the bay are the 12 original visitors’ buoys. These are allocated on a first-come-first-served basis. They are suitable for craft up to about 21 feet. The buoys are probably half a mile’s brisk rowing back to the quay wall, so it would be better to sport your outboard. However, these moorings are not maintained regularly, so you moor at your own risk. Since there is no charge, a donation to the RNLI is appreciated in the box provided. A yachtsman told me that 10 new outer moorings have been laid in the bay for those vessels that cannot dry out. The use of the mooring and onshore facilities is a modest £15 per night.
Tenby has overcome its earlier reputation of being mostly a fishing port. These days leisure sailors are welcome, but facilities remain basic. Budget cuts meant that Tenby did not have a harbour launch when we visited in summer 2017, though this situation may improve. There is drinking water on the harbour wall, and thence access to the no-frills toilet and shower facilities. We noted a substantial mobile crane on the harbour wall for boat use. If lying against the wall, it is wise to keep clear of the harbour steps, since these are used by local trip boats. If tending your lines as your boat dries against a sea wall holds no fears, then a longer Tenby stopover is for you. For our part, Mrs Whittaker and I tend to avoid such ‘cruising sauvage’ these days, but we do admire its practitioners.
Tenby Sailing Club
The fine stone clubhouse is situated right on the harbour. Its actual address is 15 The Harbour (tel.: 01834 642762). We were told that you can have a pint here before tackling the town.
There is no alongside fuel berth in Tenby Harbour, but petrol and diesel may be fetched (with your own cans) from the local garage. Sadly, this is about half a mile distant, so it’s better to arrive at Tenby with fuel aboard. However, all is not lost. We were told that the harbour master will run you to the garage and back with your fuel.
There is a slipway on Castle Beach and there are toilets and showers nearby. We did not brave this slipway as we were unwilling to tackle the high-season road traffic. Alternatives exist, such as Freshwater East about 8 miles away – easily close enough to ‘day-cruise’ into Tenby on a high tide, while passing lovely Caldey Island on the way. Just note that new powerboating friends at Freshwater East warned us that the sand at the foot of their slipway has snarled a few Land Rover Discoveries, with deep sand, about 3 feet from the bottom of the slipway, being the issue. Apparently, there is a chap with a tractor at the house at the top of the slipway who will launch your boat for you for less than 20 quid. Unfortunately the telephone number given me didn’t work, so I can’t quote it to you. Other local contacts suggested nearby Saundersfoot slipway and Lydstep Holiday Village, as detailed below.
In brief, Woolhouse Rocks lie on the eastern approach, and Highcliff Bank sits 1 mile south-east of Castle Hill. Note also that government gunnery ranges extend all along this coast (details below).
Approach from the east
This is more straightforward than from the west. A full study of the Admiralty charts listed below should be carried out when planning your passage, but essentially, a line passing just outside Worm’s Head to Caldey Island should bring you south, after passing yellow danger area buoy DZ3, on a line to Castle Hill, being careful to skirt the shallows off Woolhouse Rocks.
Approach from the west
This is trickier due to overfalls at Linney Head and St Govan’s Head, which should be given a good offing to seaward. However, there are other, most unusual hazards approaching Tenby. These come not from the usual rocks, shallows, wrecks or overfalls, but from the Carmarthen, Pendine, Pembrey, Castlemartin and Manorbier gunnery ranges, which extend for many miles out to sea. You can ring up an individual range for safe passage times on the numbers below. However, we reckoned it would be best to restrict our passage to the weekend, when the ranges are usually closed.
Castlemartin 01646 662637 (recorded message giving range times)
Manorbier 01834 870105
Pendine 01994 453243
Pembrey 01554 891224
Wind and sea
Pemrokeshire is one of the sunniest but also one of the windiest parts of the UK, and the approach to Tenby is exposed. No problems on a settled day, but any significant winds from the north-east are highly likely to make your visit untenable. Note that even in high summer, sunny days can coincide with brisk winds and seas too rough even for the local commercial sightseeing boats to launch off the beach. Having said that, our revered editor assures me that he has shipped into Tenby in an open RIB in mid-November without mishap. Quoth Hugo (rather cryptically): ‘Cruised there from North Devon in a 6m RIB via Lundy one November. Mighty seas …’
Local boaters also warned us about local summer sea mists and fogs that can suddenly engulf a craft. Indeed, over our three-day stay in high summer 2017, it was very misty each morning, though it did burn off later. However, local powerboaters warned us to automatically record our track out from the slipway onto our chartplotter, so that retracing in any sea fog would be viable.
Freshwater East Boat Club
While scouting for launch locations around Tenby for this article, we spoke to extremely helpful local boaters at Freshwater East Boat Club. On a clear day you can see Lundy Island from their superb beach. Members have their own boatyard and clubhouse, an outboard’s throw from the free public slipway. They are really friendly, practical, no-frills powerboating people. If I didn’t live 150 miles away, I would instantly apply for membership! In high summer the public slipway here can get very busy, as can the local car park. We thought the road down to the slipway was a bit tight for trailing, but delightfully rural. I reckon that I could get our previous Bayliner 21-footer on its two-wheel trailer down there. It might be a little too tight for our current four-wheel trailer/Bayliner 24-footer combination – but perhaps not impossible if we could rely on the local tractor to launch and recover.
Mrs Whittaker and I had never visited Tenby before. We had predicted a typical Welsh seaside town, but it turned out to be not what we expected. Tenby is quite unlike the seaside towns we know and love from North Wales. For a start, neither of us was expecting fortified medieval town walls. The pastel shades of the buildings were a delight too. Then there were some really quirky bits of local architecture, like a miniature Greek temple (No. 1 Laston House) overlooking the sea. This came complete with a Greek inscription:
ΘΑΛΑΣΣΑ ΚΛΥΖΕΙ ΠΑΝΤΑ ΤΑΝΘΡΩΠΩ ΚΑΚΑ
Which, being a scholar and a gent, I instantly recognised as a quote from Euripides:
The Sea Washes Away the Sins of Men
Alternatively, I may have just googled it … Anyway, it was built with sea baths inside, so you get the gist.
Although Tenby town is probably only half a mile across, it is a warren of intriguing little ginnels, back lanes and shady byways. The tall houses facing the harbour are situated much higher than you might expect, many of them fine Georgian properties. One such was East Rock House, where Admiral Lord Nelson, Sir William Hamilton and the erring Emma kept their scandalous, but oddly English, ménage à trois. That was in 1802.
East Rock House is in a superb location. It commands stunning views of the beach and harbour ahead, with a convenient range of pubs and bars to the rear. These gracious houses give the town a wealthy but somewhat theatrical feel, as if Tenby were a big stage. Perhaps a bit Under Milk Wood, but with more of an upmarket, almost Regency twist. I have to confess, Tenby does seem a trifle more English than Welsh. However, this part of Pembrokeshire is renowned for it, or rife with it, depending on your persuasion. (I speak as an Englishman exiled to Wales these past 35 years.) Incidentally, not many powerboaters know that Dylan Thomas, a local lad from about half an hour away at Laugharne, gave his first public reading of Under Milk Wood at Tenby’s Salad Bowl cafe.
We noted that the smaller properties around the harbour had once clearly been the abodes of modest fisherfolk. With their low lintels, narrow doors and small windows, many of these are now painted in pastels. All were beautifully ‘upkept’. Tenby has a great range of shops, well beyond ‘gift shoppes’ as such, and many under imaginitive independent ownership. Mrs Whittaker and I both bought things and spotted even more groovy things that we would have liked to have bought. Mind you, we could not find a proper chandlery. We did conclude that the quality of the local fish and chips, eaten in the open air, was outstanding. After three days of hard consumer research, we reckoned that the range of pubs, cafes and restaurants at Tenby would match all likely tastes and pockets. We did note that all the pub-style eateries we patronised over our stay at Tenby gave good food at fair prices. Even our esteemed editor Hugo and his old friend Charles Mangles admitted to us that their favourite restaurant was Plantagenet House on Quay Hill, by the Lifeboat Tavern. This is situated in Tenby’s oldest house and dates from the 13th century. US President Jimmy Carter is reputed to have taken afternoon tea there. We noted that there was no blue plaque to record said presidential visit, nor that of our esteemed editor …
Tenby Museum & Art Gallery
This compact institution has been likened to Dr. Who’s Tardis. It is part museum, part art gallery, and also a local history resource. Its maritime history exhibits are of great interest to any true boater. However, I wished to see any work by the celebrated painter Augustus John. There is a famous pub named after him in my native city of Liverpool. In the museum I was astounded to discover that Augustus was born here in Tenby, and not Toxteth.
Imposing Castle Hill separates the town’s two huge beaches. It has the remains of a 13th-century castle, and a high-level footpath built by the Victorians, which offers a truly superb walk in fine weather. Definitely a ‘must-do’ on any visit to Tenby. It’s so bracing, you could bottle the ozone.
St Catherine’s Island
Alternatively known locally as St Catherine’s Rock or Ynys Catrin, this rocky outcrop is just across the sands of Castle Beach and is accessible by foot when the tide goes out. It is surmounted by a fine Napoleonic fort. There is no doubt that St Catherine’s lends a certain grandeur to the prospect of Tenby. Mind you, if you don’t get out much, you may also recognise St Catherine’s Island from an episode of BBC TV’s Sherlock Holmes. It was the prison used to contain Sherlock’s psycho sister. Note also Sker Rock, 200 metres off the island – a good reason not to pass too close by sea. Finally, just east of St Catherine’s Island is The Pool, which has the virtue of never having less than a 5m depth.
Tenby is most unusual in having two fine lifeboat stations, each perched atop steep girdered ramps. The old one has been sold into private hands, and is now magnificently repurposed with a red roof and grey cladding. Originally designed by W.T. Douglas, it was in service between 1904 and 2005, and was converted to residential use in 2011. A unique private home, complete with über-cool integral boat-launching facilities, you may have seen it featured in TV’s Grand Designs. Further along is the impressive brand-new RNLI lifeboat station, all slick efficiency and sleek modernity, but perhaps lacking the functional simplicity of the older building. Significantly, Tenby’s new lifeboat house is one of the busiest in Britain. The combination of these differing maritime edifices alongside each other is most striking. Two lifeboat houses really do enrich Tenby.
Tenby by rail
Tenby is situated relatively remotely from major areas of population. Handily, it is on the rail network. The railway station is in Warren Street.
We saw at least three dotted around the town. This greatly pleased Mrs Whittaker, who even found one built into the town’s walls.
Gas and chandlery
Morris Brothers up on St Julian’s Terrace stock both Calor and Campingaz. They also have a limited range of basic boat chandlery. Not bad at all for a local hardware shop.
Park & ride
The town is full of traffic in high summer. Instead, we preferred to use the convenient Salterns park & ride car park on the outskirts. In 2018, it cost three quid a day. We did not bother waiting for the free bus, but greatly enjoyed the brisk 10-minute walk into town. On the way we gawped at a boathouse hewn from the rock. We also admired a number of ex-seaside boarding houses, now smart private hotels. Their tiny bars looked very inviting on a hot summer’s day. Incidentally, the mini-hike from the park & ride quickly delivers you to the historic old town walls. Inside the walls is all the bustle of the old town. Outside, you can follow the line of the ancient walls – an interesting Tenby activity on a fine summer’s day.
We reckon that half the fun of powerboating is happening upon wildlife in its own element. This part of the world is famous for its marine wildlife, and perhaps also for the range of local businesses catering for the demand. The harbour has a number of fabulous traditional wooden booths offering tickets for fishing trips. Local charter boats take anglers out on the hunt for mackerel, tope and bluefin. We were told that mako sharks have also been sighted. Tenby trip boats also offer photographic seal safaris, and the local islands have Atlantic grey seals and seabirds such as cormorants and puffins. Local boaters told us that common dolphin are often seen off St Govan’s Head. Astoundingly, turtles have been found too. Apparently they hail from Cornish waters.
There are many excellent cruising destinations within reach of Tenby. However, as already mentioned, care must be taken with the gunnery ranges, and one’s passage planning must always take into account the lack of full-tide havens.
Caldey Island (Welsh: Ynys Byr) lies just 2nm south of Tenby, and is famous for its ancient priory. It also has its own private post office, private water supply and museum. The Tenby day trip boats shuttle to and fro when weather and tide allow. There are nine monks and around 50 islanders living on Caldey. The monks still make their famous chocolate, and of course, the local wildlife is spectacular. If you plan to visit Caldey by boat it will repay careful study of your charts. For example, Caldey Island at its north end is connected to St Margaret’s Island by a string of rocks, so there is no passage. In addition, there can be a strong tidal stream around Caldey – up to 3 knots at springs. Note also that there is a shoal, Giltar Spit (marked by a red lateral can buoy), about a third of a mile off Tenby South Sands. Local boaters told us that Caldey Sound has both red and green lateral marks, but you may find yourself almost upon them before you spot them. Priory Bay is the main anchorage, and although it has a reputation of being generally safe in most wind directions, it also has a reputation of being bumpy in many of them! Landing on the island is restricted between the hours of 10.00am and 6.00pm. No visitors are allowed on Sundays.
There are a number of destinations within a few hours’ cruising of Tenby. One such is Freshwater Bay – by repute, the best surfing beach in Wales. It has dunes and a long sandy beach, but also suffers from big waves, dangerous rips and hazardous currents. These make it unsuitable for family beach days, or anchoring off, but fine for a fast blast past on a calm day. There are often ships anchoring off the bay. Freshwater Bay is also the venue for the Welsh National Surf Championships in May.
We based ourselves at the Greenhills Hotel (which we greatly liked) in the lovely and tranquil little village of St Florence. This was a better base than Tenby itself, since it was away from the madding crowd, and provided private parking. Our joy was complete when the hotel owner, a great lad called Mark Phillips, proved to be a keen ribster. He told me about a superb boating location just down the lanes from the hotel, at a spot called Manorbier. You can’t beat local knowledge. Manorbier proved to have a fine sandy beach backed by dunes. It is ideal for anchoring off and swimming to shore on a fine calm day. There are toilets, a cafe and ices on the beach. The bay is overlooked by ancient Manorbier Castle. Just note the obvious rocks awash in the centre of the bay. Study your chart. A truly idyllic spot that we revisited at least twice.
This is likely to be full of sea kayaks, fast powerboats and jet skis in high summer, many from the smartly kept Haven Caravan Park. The park has its own slipway and tractor service, so it could offer a suitable accommodation base for trailer boat folk. We noted some moorings to the east, which we presumed were reserved for summer craft.
This is where we explored the slipway, boat club and launching facilities. The tide goes out a long way, but when it is in, this is an ideal lunch stop at anchor.
Another pretty drying harbour, enclosed by a pier and wall, and at 2nm, very close to Tenby. We did not get a chance to visit but everyone told us we should. I was informed by a local boater that if you draw less than a metre, you can creep in from half tide. A local yachtsman also told me that there were now new pontoons outside the harbour.
Harbour master: VHF Channel 11 / 01834 812094
Tenby was not at all what we expected. It certainly has bustle and crowds, but it was much more refined and polished than we had anticipated. It has mostly avoided brashness and the usual seaside tat. There is definitely an emerging ‘cafe society’ feel to the town, and we thought the pedestrianised area worked well. We were delighted when a horse-drawn carriage came around the corner, complete with a rather impressive ‘banksman’ to signal the turns. Some of the eateries we tried were really very good indeed. All the simple locally sourced pub food we ate was well up to standard, at prices that did not cross the threshold of pain.
We had not realised that Tenby has such a rich military maritime history, and the tangible links with Admiral Lord Nelson delighted us. In fact, we spent an instructive half-hour sitting at a pub table (the Hope and Anchor) sipping cider and minutely examining the Admiral’s old home. When the front door opened we could see right through it to the beach.
Although Tenby is built on a very intimate scale, we were unprepared for the sheer drama of the relationship between the town and the harbour. It really is special. From a powerboating point of view, the bay is superb, and even though it dries, Tenby is also a useful staging post. In settled weather, over an appropriate tide, it offers a spectacular landfall. However, while we felt that Tenby Harbour was a great day cruise/top-of-the-tide location, it did not strike us as a particularly convenient trailer boating venue. This was mainly due to our wimpy preference for fully serviced non-drying pontoons, and easy slipway access. One has to take into account the bustle of the town, the holiday traffic and the trickiness of getting down to the slipway. This is not a huge problem, since local RIBs do it every day. However, we preferred the other launching alternatives that exist locally. Best to arrive at majestic Tenby by sea, on a bright sunny day, on the top of the tide – just like Lord Nelson.
Local high water at Tenby Harbour is -0510 Dover and -0012 Milford Haven.
Tide Times online has extremely useful live data:
We used the trusty Navionics app on our iPhones for all our planning.
Ordnance Survey map
Tenby is a great place to get out and about, and offers many fine walks and stunning sea views. Paper OS Map 158 is very useful for planning, though many will choose a smartphone version while on the move.
Tenby by road
The A478 serves the town, connected via the A477, A40 and A48 to the M4 motorway some 40 miles (64km) away. The nearest airport is Cardiff.
Approximate cruising distances
Lundy Island: 29nm
Caldey Island: 2nm
Old Castle Head: 5nm
East Freshwater: 8nm
St Govan’s Head: 10nm
Ten Tenby facts
- Tenby is mentioned in the 9th-century Book of Taliesin, but got its first charter in 1290.
- The ancient castle walls were built by the Pembroke Earls in 1264.
- Tenby used to be known as ‘Little England beyond Wales’.
- During the Wars of the Roses, Henry Tudor, the future King Henry VII of England, sheltered at Tenby before sailing into exile in 1471.
- The Tenby Merchant’s House dates from the Tudors.
- The celebrated painter Augustus John was born in Tenby.
- Nelson lived in Tenby for a while.
- It was at Tenby in 1566 that Portuguese seamen landed the first oranges ever seen in Wales.
- The writer George Eliot visited the town in 1856, gathering material for her next book.
- It is a little-known fact that the ‘equals’ sign in mathematics was invented by a Tenby resident, Robert Recorde.