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Description

Lede
“Old Fenton … knew everything, and when you fancy you make a discovery in Welsh Archaeology or Topography, you are sure to discover sooner or later that he had found it before you” - Introduction by Ferrar Fenton in 1903 edn., p.xxxii.

Story
During the 1790s Richard Fenton was busy touring his native Pembrokeshire and gathering material for his Historical Tour of Pembrokeshire, published in 1811 to highly positive reviews. This enormous work, beginning and ending in Fishguard, contains a great deal of information in its 587 pages and includes a map along with 75 pages of appendices. There are comments on the history of towns, villages, churches, castles and prehistoric sites he visited on his twelve Itineraries, alongside information on customary practices and folklore, descriptions of archaeological excavations, remarks on industrial developments, the growth of tourism and the activities and ancestry of the local gentry – several of whom were close relations. An entertaining yet in many ways idiosyncratic publication, it also contains scathing criticism of the establishment. The book was subsequently censured by Bishop Burgess of St David’s who took exception to Fenton’s comments on the virtual ruination of the See by his predecessors. Fenton’s caustic (but, wisely, unpublished) reply is still in manuscript form at the National Library of Wales.

Of the many places evoked in this tour, Fishguard itself is dealt with rather curiously. Setting out on his first journey from the port town, Fenton observes that he is saving his main description of it for the end of the tour. Heading south, however, he does give us a bracing and lyrical view of the whole bay:

Few sea prospects possess more beauty than this, for here the eye is not suffered to lose itself in a boundless expanse of ocean, but is limited to a space where every object may be distinctly measured, and from its excursions over which it never returns unsatisfied. Its sinuous coast consisting of projections endlessly varying in shape and height, and backed by a gradation of retiring distances formed by hilly and mountainous inland inequalities, exhibits an outline, though not of the grandest character considered as Pembrokeshire rocks in detail, yet unrivalled for pleasing variety and general effect.

He returns some 500 pages later to the town ‘where home and all the domestic joys that result from conjugal and parental affections, a retirement of my own creating, after absence doubly dear, await to crown my labours’. And yet here he seems reluctant, or is perhaps too exhausted, to spend a great deal of time describing it, quoting at length from an admiralty report on the harbour, and finally handing over to his son ‘a young antiquary’, whose focus remains very much on the prehistoric past. Fenton does, however, make some memorable comments on the little town’s jumbled lay-out, which even in the 1790s seems to have caused headaches for the town planners!

Fishguard, like most other places suddenly becoming large and populous, built without reference to any plan as to form or extent, and tortured to follow the direction of the few ancient houses unhappily so placed as not to be capable of falling into the ranks of any projected openings meriting the name of streets, labours under many defects that will not admit of being easily remedied from those morbid excrescences everywhere producing deformity, and in some places almost choaking up the circulation.

Richard Fenton also published an edition of a Tudor History of Pembrokeshire and two witty satires, A Quest in Search of Genealogy (1811) and Memoirs of an Old Wig (1815), both published anonymously. The many unpublished letters and manuscripts which lie behind all these publications have a great deal still to reveal.

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