“When conservation activists suggest that communities who’ve depended on hunting and especially fishing or whaling, should change and use their skills to promote ecotourism we’re often accused of wanting those communities to take up a source of income reliant on modern values and transient activities. Tourism however has a long history.
I spent Easter in West Wales, a seemingly remote and now sparsely populated part of Britain. I visited small coastal settlements such as Aberporth where you can compare photographs taken at the end of the 19th century with the harbour side village today. That’s the site of the lime kiln, that’s where a row of cottages once stood, that’s where the boats were hauled up onto the beach and here a modern installation shows the skeletal frame of a half built fishing vessel.
It’s good that some things have gone. People no longer heat their homes with a mixture of coal dust and clay and the typhoid epidemic that wiped out the poor remnants of a slate quarrying community nearby is a thing of the past too. But while there is no more need for the traffic of small coastal cargo boats that moved about the necessities of life a hundred years ago something else has vanished from this coast. The herring.
As with the North Sea coast of Britain, vast shoals of herring also used to travel up the Welsh coast. The fishing boats followed them and hauled up nets full of the little fish. The cry of street traders was “herring with two kinds of roe!” The fish were all caught when they arrived to spawn. Not surprisingly the fishery collapsed along with the coastal freight trade in the early years of the 20th century and the communities have never recovered.
Further south along the coast you reach the smallest city in Britain, St. Davids. The cathedral, dedicated to the local saint who gave his name to the city, is small and has a history of just getting by during the hard times of the Reformation and the Civil Wars of the 17th century. Saint David (Dewi Sant in Welsh) founded a small community of monks on the cliffs in the 6th century A.D. No-one is quite sure exactly where as they would have lived in simple beehive shaped cells made from the local stones and leaving little trace when they left.
During the 9th and 10th centuries two bishops of this community were killed during Viking raids and as a consequence the community moved to the sheltered, hidden away spot that is the site of St David’s today. In the 11th century the cathedral was rebuilt, the invading Norman kings having tried to stamp out the veneration of Saint David gave up and decided to exploit the cult instead. They lobbied the Pope who agreed that St David’s could be a place of pilgrimage and that two trips to St Davids’ equaled one trip to Rome and three trips could even equal a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
Pilgrims flooded to St Davids’, they all needed accommodation, so a hall was built for them as part of the Bishop’s Palace. The rich gave money and goods, the poor gave their labour and worked for the Church to pay for their keep. The small city grew and prospered from these medieval tourists.
You may wonder why I’m writing so much about this Saint – St David is now the patron Saint of Wales, he’s all about wearing a daffodil on 1st March, or is it a leek? And anyway, isn’t he something to do with rugby?
Dewi Sant didn’t play rugby and didn’t have any special link to daffodils. There is a legend that the leek or the daffodil became symbols of Wales when a Welsh noble on the way to becoming king of England ordered his troops to wear a leek or a daffodil as a badge of identity. The daffodil may have been chosen as it flowers around 1st March, the traditional date of St David’s death, but why the leek?
Many Christian ascetics didn’t eat meat, fish or dairy. Milk was believed to be made from blood and dairy products were called “white meats” and forbidden during times of fasting such as Lent. Many people recall the ignorance of the past which classed beavers and porpoises as “fish” and the Church told the faithful it was O.K. to eat them in Lent. Fewer recall that spiritual leaders such as Dewi lived on bread, “herbs” and water. In other words St David and his followers were vegan in order to live simply and take only the minimum that they needed from the world their God had given them. Leeks were a staple of the medieval diet and especially for the followers of Saint David.
The images of St David in the cathedral show him with a bird perched on his shoulder, much like that other Christian ascetic, St Francis. The Shrine of St David has been refurbished in recent years and contains a casket within which are a few ancient bones. All sites of pilgrimage needed relics and conveniently in the 13th century the clergy found what they declared to be the bones of St David in the cathedral churchyard. Of course this will have boosted the numbers of tourists, sorry, pilgrims, to the shrine.
The modern renovations and improvements have included a restaurant, the refectory. Bearing in mind the dietary rules of St David I walked through the newly rebuilt cloisters to the refectory entrance, hoping that I’d have no trouble finding a vegan meal and a coffee with soya milk. I read the bill of fayre with horror, Welsh beef and lamb featured heavily. The sound I heard may have been diners arranging their chairs around tables groaning with carcases, or it may have been Dewi Sant turning in his grave.
Back to the Ceredigion coast and the seaside town of New Quay where you will find two businesses willing to take tourists out to watch the famous population of bottlenose dolphins. One business will also take tourists out on fishing trips, the other doesn’t. I chose the latter.
In summer the resident families of dolphins are joined by pods travelling north to follow the spawning mackerel. In the past they would have also followed the herring.
The children on the boat grinned and whooped as we saw a small family, two adults and a calf. The calf keeping so close to his/her mother they almost touched. It was wonderful as the dolphins chose to approach us, the adult first and nearest and the mother and calf more cautiously. A spray blown child next to me agreed that this was the only way to see dolphins, wild and free and that keeping them in tanks in aquaria is cruel.
The dolphins, the seals and the seabirds draw modern tourists to West Wales. The tourists all need somewhere to stay, food to eat and all the services of modern life. The wildlife can save and enrich the human communities. From the scientists recording the sightings and behaviour of the dolphins to the child who has just seen her first dolphin, they’re all changed by the experience for the better.
I returned to the vegetarian guest house where I was staying and to a magnificent vegan dinner including an excellent leek pie. I hope Dewi Sant would’ve approved.
As he lay dying the saint told his followers, “do as I have and take care of the little things”. From his community on the cliff tops Dewi Sant would surely have seen the dolphins and whales following the little fishes up the coast, their hunting beneath the waves shown by the seabirds gathered to take their share of the fish near the surface. “Take care of the little things.”