The City of St Davids lies in the south-west corner of St Davids Peninsula surrounded by some of the most stunning Pembrokeshire coastlines and countryside. It is easily the UK’s smallest city by population: home to 1,797 in the 2001 census. The next smallest, St Asaph, is also a Welsh cathedral city but has nearly twice as many residents. Over the border, Wells is a bustling metropolis of 10,406 in comparison. So how is a place that would struggle to justify being called a town labelled a city?
The approach to St Davids is distinctly rural, a quiet road winding through rough, sheep studded fields. Suddenly, to the side of the road a large and seemingly new sign proclaims “Welcome – City of St Davids – Britain’s smallest City”. Its twin towns are then given as Naas in Ireland, Orléat in France and Matsieng in Lesotho. All of this is, of course, rendered in English and Welsh, with a warm “Croeso – Dinas Tyddewi” given to the Cymry.
The divide between country and town is minimal – fields give way to a handful of bungalow lined streets until, seconds later, you are in the middle of the city. The word ‘city’, with its connotations of heaving masses, hustle and bustle, bright lights and dark alleys in particularly unsuited for St Davids. There are certainly people walking around its two main streets, but they could be counted in tens rather than thousands.
At best, a place like St Davids could aspire to be called a market town – it has a few banks, a post office and a cluster of shops. A vibrant tourist trade ensures it has a disproportionate array of cafes, pubs and hotels. In appearance, however, it is far from being a city and is ridiculously small compared with the UK’s largest towns. The city label is stamped everywhere – on the street signs, bins and at the City Hall – so how did this small community gain the ultimate urban accolade?
It is only when you walk through the Porth y Twr gatehouse that you see the very solid foundations for St Davids’ claim to city status – it is a cathedral city. Set in a river valley and almost hidden from the city, St David’s Cathedral is a breathtaking sight made all the more stunning by being revealed so suddenly and without warning. The present Cathedral is Norman in origin, with modifications made to its external appearance and internal fabric all through its long history.
Lying just across the shallow river Alun are the ruins of the Bishop’s Palace. The Cathedral and the extant Palace must have made an awesome impression on locals and the thousands of pilgrims who converged on the shrine of St. David. Even in ruined form, the Palace is impressive and its hollowed, roofless shell give an evocative backdrop for the Cathedral.
So is having a cathedral enough to make a place a city? It used to be – crown records from the 16th century suggest having a diocesan cathedral was enough to label an urban area a city. But this has not been the case for a long time – plenty of towns hosting ‘new’ cathedrals are not automatically promoted to city status (e.g. Blackburn, Guildford and Middlesbrough) and many of the new cities granted on the Queen’s jubilees or at the Millennium do not have cathedrals (e.g. Preston, Brighton and Hove and Wolverhampton.
In St Davids’ case, the position was ambiguous. It could claim to have been a city since time immemorial. It had . The matter was referred to Buckingham Palace and, in 1994, St Davids, along with Armagh in Northern Ireland, were officially granted city status “in recognition of their important Christian heritage and their status as cities until the last century”. This was no surprise to the residents who, in the words of the Dean of St Davids, “have always known we are a city but it is nice to have it confirmed officially”.
St Davids’ European twin towns seem to be well chosen to reflect its own unusual position: Orléat has a roughly comparable population and also boasts a disproportionately large church (the Église Saint-Bonnet d’Orléat). Naas is ten times larger, but early settlers to the town were from Pembrokeshire and its parish church is dedicated to St David.