West Wales is a heartland of gorgeous religious buildings, as well as spiritual revolutions. Non-conformism exploded here in the 19th century, seeing preachers amassing huge crowds at our lovely Welsh chapels. But there are also older places here to stir the stillest of souls - islands inhabited by monks, an ashram, and let's not forget our stunning cathedral in the United Kingdom's smallest city. Let's go west together. Life is peaceful here.
St Davids Cathedral, St Davids, Pembrokeshire
To arrive in the little nook of St Davids and see such a handsome cathedral is quite the experience. Centuries ago, St Davids was an important centre for pilgrims and travellers - the city being used as a crossing point between England, Wales, and Ireland. In fact, two pilgrimages to St Davids used to be considered equal to ones to Rome itself. And let's not forget the man it's named after: our country's patron saint, who we still celebrate with buckets of hwyl (fun) on St David's Day (1 March) every year.
There are ancient treasures galore here, such as the high 14th century wall built to surround the cathedral 'city', the renovated cloisters, and the shrine and stone carving of St David himself. Then there's the Tower Gate House, which hosts a lovely exhibition of the history of the site, the medieval Bell Tower, and the 12th century Abraham Stone (commemorating one of the cathedral's earliest bishops). The Cathedral Treasury is full of riches too – quite literally. Bishops' rings lined with amethysts, grand golden staffs, and medieval coins all gleam here.
Dedicated volunteers host regular tours of the cathedral on Mondays and Fridays every summer, though tours outside these hours can be arranged (email firstname.lastname@example.org for more details). The Refectory cafe next door also serves delicious lunches in their sunlit modern space. We highly recommend their award-winning cawl.
St Non's Well, St Non's Bay, Pembrokeshire
Peacefully overlooking St Non's Bay, a mile from St Davids, is St Non herself – St David's blessed mother. This sacred well was said to have sprung up when Non gave birth to her son, and its location offers magical views of the rocky coastline. A gorgeous, peaceful spot on the Pembrokeshire Coast Path (part of our wonderful Wales Coast Path), it's well worth an hour away from the town. A sweet, modern chapel next to the well is kept open for visitors too.
St Dogmael's Priory, St Dogmael's, Pembrokeshire
St Dogmael's Abbey is a 12th century abbey in a position we'd called bendigedig (excellent): on the banks of the River Teifi, near the start of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path. A millennium ago, it was also a spiritual and cultural powerhouse, with a library to die for. (One of its earliest books, the 13th century Eusebius’s Historia Ecclesiastica, survives today in St John’s College, Cambridge.) It's free to visit today, and it still feels magnificent as you roam around its ruins.
Take time in St Dogmaels to visit the lovely Coach House next door, with its interactive museum, and collection of 9th and 10th century Christian stones. There's a great cafe here too, where Pembrokeshire crab, Irish Sea lobsters and Caws Cenarth organic cheeses are regularly on the menu. A top tip from us too: come here on a Tuesday morning, and you'll find the award-winning weekly St Dogmael's Local Produce Market. Local charcuterie, wines, and woodcrafts sit among the more regular fare on over 20 stalls. Bring some empty shopping bags – and stomachs.
If you want more food-based delights, one of only two working mills in Wales is nearby too. Y Felin (The Mill) has its original early 19th century machinery up-and-running, and is still making delicious stoneground flour today. Guided tours are available every Monday to Saturday.
St Eloi's, Llandeloy, Pembrokeshire
In a small village north of Newgale, you'll find this tucked-away Arts and Crafts-era treasure. A church rebuilt in the 1920s from 12th century ruins, its architect, John Coates Carter, adored this part of Wales and rightly so. In fact, he also designed the monastery on Caldey Island.
Using local materials and Celtic motifs in his work, Carter's greatest achievement at St Eloi's was his colourful, ornamental altar screen. It features a rainbow stretching between golden Welsh castles - over Jesus and two angels - and has been recently restored to its full beauty.
St Eloi's is always open, and is looked after by the Friends of Friendless Churches.
Lamphey Bishop's Palace, Lamphey, Pembrokeshire
Medieval bishops in Wales had rather lovely holidays from real life in this very spot. The lavish Lamphey Bishop's Palace was a place of retreat for high-ranking religious men, with its 14th century great hall stretching out to an impressive 25 metres. Its surrounding countryside must have offered them all perfect peace, unless the rumours are true: singing nuns are said to still haunt the ruins.
St Govan's Chapel, Bosherston, Pembrokeshire
As spiritual stories go, the legend of St Govan is a hard one to beat. According to legend, Govan was on his way to Wales when he was attacked by Irish pirates off the Pembrokeshire coast. He ran to this cliffside, where the rock turned into a cave, giving him shelter and safety. He decided to remain there for the rest of his life to give thanks, setting up a hermitage and living off the land around him. A spring nearby was also said to have magical properties.
A tiny stone chapel was built in this spot in the 13th or 14th centuries. St Govan's Chapel measures roughly 20 feet by 12 feet, containing nothing but a bench and a small altar. To get to it, you have to walk down around seventy steep steps, but you'll never regret the experience. Legend has it that the number is never the same on the way up and down, so be sure to check.
(A note before visiting: the road to St Govan's passes through an MOD range and is occasionally closed, so call the Pembrokeshire Library and Information Centre to check first.)
Caldey Island, Tenby, Pembrokeshire
The first time you look out to sea in Tenby, you'll think your eyes are playing tricks on you – but they're not. That island you see half a mile off the coast does indeed have a huge abbey on it, built in the Italianate Arts and Crafts tradition. Cistercian monks still live and worship there too. From Easter to October, you can take a boat across to visit them.
Open to visitors between Easter and October, Caldey Island has enough beautiful treasures to make it a day trip. You can visit the historic old Priory itself, the lighthouse and the island's lovely beaches, and also purchase the fine fragrances and chocolates made by the monks.
Burnett's Hill Chapel, Martletwy, near Narberth, Pembrokeshire
A humble Methodist Chapel built by Carmarthenshire coal miners, Burnett's Hill is still a hub for the local community. Live music gigs are held monthly here, with folk, blues, and jazz bands travelling to this rural spot from around the world. Recent bookings include bands from the USA, France, and Serbia. Advice to bear in mind is provided by the community too: bring cushions for the pews, and a pocket torch to find your car afterwards (parking is in a nearby paddock).
The building itself is beautiful, and has survived largely unaltered since 1812. Hat pegs still hang on the walls, and the story of the miners who built the chapel is told on the porch. It's enough to make the heart sing along.
Mandala Ashram, Llanwrda, Carmarthenshire
Carmarthenshire isn't just a heartland for non-conformist Christianity. It's also home to the Mandala Ashram - one of the only yogic ashrams outside of India.
Swami Nishchalananda came to this beautiful, wild corner of West Wales in 1985, and set up this spiritual hermitage in an old prayer meeting house. It had no running water back then. Now it has simple communal rooms with all mod cons, and offers three vegetarian meals a day, amidst sessions of yoga and meditation.
Ashrams are not affiliated to any particular religious beliefs, and all interested groups open to the idea of spirituality are welcome. Costs range from £30 a night to £495 a month, but concessions are also available. The panoramic views of the western Bannau Brycheiniog (Brecon Beacons) also soothe the soul.
St Teilo's, Llandeilo, Carmarthenshire
The history of the Welsh language itself can be found in the grounds of the lovely St Teilo's parish church. This was the original home of the Llandeilo Gospel Book: a beautiful 8th century illuminated Biblical manuscript containing some of the earliest surviving examples of written Welsh in its margins.
In an exhibition space under the lovely medieval tower, a digital copy of the book can be found (the original was moved to Lichfield Cathedral in the 11th century). The older parts of the church have also survived a lot - including fires during the 14th century Welsh revolts, and partial destruction by Yorkist soldiers during the Wars of the Roses. Set on the southern edges of the lovely Brecon Beacons market town of Llandeilo, it is open from Tuesday to Thursdays from 11am to 1.30pm, and Saturdays and Sundays from 11am to 4pm.
Tabernacle, Morriston, Swansea
There are striking Welsh chapels, and then there's the mighty beauty of Tabernacle, built in this industrial town near Swansea in 1872. Its minister, William Emlyn Jones, had taken a local architect and a local contractor on a tour of Britain to takes notes of fine details on other chapels. The result was one of the largest and most expensive chapels ever built in Wales.
Tabernacle sits on a sweeping hillside, and has eight impressive Corinthian columns at its entrance. Inside is equally breathtaking, with its downward-swooping choir gallery and distinctive three-case organ. Appointments to see the chapel interior can be made via a contact form on Tabernacle's website, but it remains an active place of worship, holding regular services. Concerts happen here as well, courtesy of the mixed chapel choir who have made the chapel their home. Hearing glorious Cymraeg (Welsh language) resounding in this beautiful place is as close as you can get to our Duw (God).
St Cenydd's, Llangennith, Swansea
Take a short detour from the Wales Coast Path to visit Gower's largest medieval church, St Cenydd’s, which dominates the gorgeous surfing village of Llangennith.
The church, part of the Gower Church trail, dates back to a 6th century llan or churchyard, and amazingly enough, it retains its original footprint. Step inside to find an impressive carved effigy of a 13th century knight, presumed to be one of the local De la Mare family, and the remains of a medieval doorway to the cloisters of the long-demolished priory next door. There's also a 9th century gravestone with gorgeous knotwork carvings, which is believed to have marked the grave of St Cenydd itself.
Those interested in more modern treasures will find interest here too. Intricate carvings by local craftsman William Melling adorn the 20th century lych gate, font lid, and other items of church furniture. Getting in here requires something modern as well: borrowing the key from the local surf shop, PJs.
Moriah Chapel, Loughor, Swansea
There are charismatic Christian ministers, and then there was Evan Roberts: the man who led the 1904 Welsh Methodist Revival from the sprawling village of Loughor. He gave services here at Moriah, his chapel, until 4 or 5 o'clock in the morning, and it is said he was greeted by the kind of screams and adulation later directed at superstars. He is buried here at the impressive family grave, and his birthplace, Island House, is only a minute's drive away.
Moriah is still an active chapel today, with gymanfas (Welsh singing festivals) often being held here. Visitors are also welcome to attend regular prayer meetings and coffee mornings. At other times, contact the chapel secretary via the Moriah Chapel website.
Beulah Calvinistic Methodist Chapel, Margam, Port Talbot
Octagonal chapels are unusual things. The lovely Beulah Calvinistic Methodist Chapel in Margam, near Port Talbot, is very proudly ours. We call it Capel Y Groes after the village for which it was originally built, or The Round Chapel – we soften those corners.
Grade II* and made of sandstone and slate, Beulah was built in its current form in 1905. It had to be moved in 1974 for the development of the M4 motorway, but it survived the trip. It has sat in Tollgate Park near Margam since 1976, and is still a beautiful sight today.
Margam Abbey, Margam, Port Talbot
The lovely Margam Abbey was once the richest monastic houses in Wales. Today, it not only holds four mass services on a Sunday, but also serves its community in other ways. It has a music foundation which encourages young people to play in its beautiful building, and runs a simple restaurant in the nearby parish hall. Called the Abbot's Kitchen, a Pilgrim's Afternoon Tea or High Tea here can be combined with an abbey tour, and followed by a service of Said Evening Prayer.
The abbey's old schoolhouse also hosts an impressive Stones Museum. This features a staggering 1,500 year old memorial inscribed in Latin, ancient grave slabs, and stunning cartwheel crosses. There's more than enough to stir the soul about the passage of time, and keep West Wales' treasures in your mind for many years to come.
Explore West Wales' faith and pilgrim trails
As well as the inspiring locations already mentioned, there are a couple of trails and tours you can follow to discover more about the religious history of West Wales.
The Carmarthenshire Antiquarian Society worked with the History Points website to create the Carmarthenshire Enlightenment tour. It's a trail of interesting places in the life of school teacher and priest Griffith Jones, who worked tirelessly to promote literacy in the local communities.
The National Churches Trust's Sacred Wales webpage has some lovely circular coastal church walk suggestions, including Manorbier, St Dogmaels and Trefin.
The Cistercian Way, linking monastaries, abbeys and churches long distance circular pilgrim route around Wales has sections in Pembrokeshire, Carmarthenshire and Swansea.
Saint Illtyd's Walk is a 64 miles (103 km) waymarked trail between Pembrey Country Park and Margam.