I recently made a memorable visit to Whitesands Bay, Pembrokeshire. I was visiting St David’s cathedral and city and took a detour as I hadn’t before been out to see the striking landscape of Whitesands Bay.
As well as walking along the coast, and exploring the war memorial, I went to the site of St Patrick’s Chapel. It has been the location of a very important excavation of an early medieval chapel and cemetery by Dyfed Archaeological Trust: there project website is rich in information about the 2014 and 2015 season, and the 2016 season yielded even more information.
This is a rescue and research excavation of a site that is being eroded by the action of the sea and wind. Excavations have revealed over 80 burials in wind-blown sand, including two cross-shaped grave markers. Radiocarbon dates focus on the 7th-9th-centuries AD for the graves.
I was unable to visit the dig in the last 3 seasons due to other commitments, so I got to sample the rather different experience of the out-of-season visitor.
So what does the visitor learn from the spot in Chapel Field?
Display and Warning
Next to the car park is a small sign explaining about the chapel and a modest artist’s reconstruction of how the chapel might have looked, set against the dramatic seascape and coast of St David’s head. This sign warns against camping and lighting fires on the scheduled monument, as well as indicating the nature of the site in the briefest of terms. A new heritage board would both serve to explain and protect the monument far better, including the demonstrable evidence that beneath the ‘medieval pilgrim’s chapel’ was a burial site dating perhaps as far back as the 5th century AD.
The chapel had been excavated in 1924, and so I was delighted to come across a nice early memorial slab commemorating the archaeological intervention. It states:
LIES A CHAPEL
DEDICATED TO ST. PATRICK
— 6TH-1-TH CENTURI—
Third, were the subtle traces of the recent archaeological interventions, after only a few weeks already the trenches, whilst visible, were merging into the landscape. Visitors seems unaware of their presence. The view is so much more eye-catching…
The results of the archaeological research at St Patrick’s Chapel are eagerly awaited. What happens at the site and whether visitors will be afforded more information about this important early medieval chapel and cemetery remains to be seen.