A day of high blue skies saw us chasing the perfect chess piece of Roch Castle all through the twisted wooded lanes. In gaps in the hedges we could see pieces of sky which turned into sea with ships on them; rather like Elizabeth describes the frescos in The Herb of Grace.
The castle had hidden from us for days, appearing dark and ominous on the skyline, then disappearing into a dip of the fields and a belt of woodland. In fact it shelters modestly behind the new face of the village of Roch being approached through a small housing estate.
Once reached, one wonders how it could have been missed. It rears up proudly on its base of volcanic rock, surrounded by lawns, trees and shrubs, and a stone boundary wall, built to contain the gardens
I leaned on the gate and gazed up at the home of the tragic Lucy Walters, the most famous member of the family which had inspired Elizabeth to undertake her final and longest novel. The book, (The Child From The Sea) is set in the Civil War, a period of history that Elizabeth was already familiar with. But this time she was to take the Royalist perspective, writing about Charles II, his relationship with Lucy, and their ill fated son the Duke of Monmouth.
It is a miniature castle, boasting a strong corner turret and curtain wall, with high up slits for arrows and windows. My palms felt damp thinking of the young Walters climbing from them down the walls to the woods. There was one larger window which I think must have belonged to her mother’s solar, part of the modernization that poor William spent all his money to build in a vain effort to please his wife.
A legend tells of the castle’s founder, Adam de Rupe, whose fear of a prophecy that he would be killed by a viper’s bite led him to choose this isolated site. Apparently he was unable to avoid his fate, for a viper, concealed in a bundle of firewood, found its way into the castle and fulfilled the prophecy.
The main reason for it being in such good order is that it has been renovated into a high class holiday let, so access wasn’t possible on an ad hoc basis. I opened the gate and walked the first few yards up the drive, but there seemed to be no one about I could ask, so reluctantly I left. I don’t know what I hoped to see that couldn’t be seen on their web site, and it seemed unlikely that any of the family remained.
The castle was greatly neglected after the Civil War, but in 1900 Viscount St. David began extensive restoration, and subsequent owners have continued this. It is therefore considerably altered, but the tower is unmistakable for miles around, and traces of the old earthwork bailey can be seen at the foot of the outcrop.
The church however was open. It was just across the road from the castle and with Manorbier farm make up what is obviously the heart of the old village. Was the farm the one that Williams’s bailiff lived in? It looked old enough and its name implies that it was part of an estate.
The church is dedicated to St Mary, a Norman trait and had been built on a much earlier earthwork. The inside has been recently renovated and is white washed except for the wall separating the body of the church from the choir and alter which has been left as bare stone. The font by the door is old and the Ten Commandments were still painted in black on the alter wall. I remembered how the new paint on the vii commandment had enraged William, who thought the parson had done it on purpose; he left his hat on in protest.
There was no sign that the family had ever worshipped there, no grave, tomb or memorial to the house of Walter. Their entire lineage from Rhys ap Thomas, all the pride and ownership they had taken in their home was brushed away, so much dust in the long years since their tenancy.
Standing under the lynch gate as Lucy and Charles must have done after their marriage had taken place, the view in its autumnal quietness looks much as it would have done then, except that the Union Jack and Welsh flags fly from the keep, its roof now intact, no longer roofed with the glory of storm clouds as Lucy had seen it on first visit back home.
Following in the footsteps, or more accurately the hoof prints of Lucy and Old Parson, we made our way to St David’s, travelling up and down the switch back coastal road, through the pebble barricades of Newgale, where the thunderous surf was being utilized by surfers, canoeists and dogs, passing finally through the narrow streets of the smallest city in Britain.
The cathedral is contained in a bowl of land, called the Valley of the Roses, and unusually is lower than the surrounding city. Most cathedral sites derive some of their sense of separateness from being built on higher ground, here the reverse is true. Sited beside the stream is the Bishop’s palace, which is undergoing renovation. The stone and brick work are varied and beautiful, and have been crumbling since the bishop, as Elizabeth tells us, sold the lead roof to pay for his daughters dowries in the 16th century. One oriole window had had its stone tracery completed and showed the green of trees and clouded blue sky through itself like stained glass.
The stream is one of the site boundaries and is crossed by the span of a stone bridge. I think that for me this was one with the description in Elizabeth’s book, and I could quite easily conjuror up the ghosts of Lucy and Charles meeting there at the beginning of his stay with her. The grounds seemed timeless, set apart from the concourse of people in a way that the buildings couldn’t be.
The cathedral is rock like, grey and a little forbidding at first, even in the bright sunlight. Unsound foundations or an earth tremor have made one end subside a little, so that it really looks from one angle as if its about to spring.
The inside is plain, a cave hewn out of the rock, with the usual tree trunk pillars soaring to the carved and painted ceiling. To the left a Lady Chapel, to the right one dedicated to St Nicholas. The walls are lined with recumbent figures of Bishops, Knights and men of renown. The Lady Chapel had its quota of dragons and a simple, effective sculpture of a slate dove, wings spread ascending, between two upheld hands.
I couldn’t find the pilgrims way that Lucy and Old Parson had walked, but behind the alter is the medieval casket which contains the bones of St David and St Justine. It is a wooden box bound with ornate iron work and sits in a niche, flanked by prayers in English and Welsh. The casket and original shrine were stripped of gold and jewels during the reformation to dissuade people from the cult of idolatry. Even at this time of year the place was crowded, and I got very little impression of the quiet peace that Lucy and Old Parson received. The clergy were moving around in packs avoiding eye contact, seemingly to absorbed in church matters to notice the laity.
It is easier overall to slip back in time in Pembrokeshire than it had been in Hampshire, because so much has been preserved. The country lanes are still the main roads linking small hamlets, villages and towns. The intrusion of the motor car is inevitable, but kept to a minimum. Horses clip clop everywhere, and the fields are smaller with mixed farming as were most places even in my childhood in the fifties.
Yet, the area is not a museum, rural life goes on the same way it always has, even if tractors and other farm machinery make it less back breaking work. The churches ring their Sunday bells, the children pour out of their local schools, the post office and the Bakers still occupy the heart of the community. It would be one of the few places that Elizabeth would be comfortable revisiting. As she so eloquently says:
Here in the country’s heart
Where the grass is green,
Life is the same sweet life
As it e’er hath been.
Trust in a God still lives
And the bell at morn,
Floats with a thought of God
O’er the rising corn.
God comes down in the rain
And the crop grows tall~
This is the country faith,
And the best of all.