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Review: Wales’ rich maritime heritage explored in Pembrokeshire’s Mediæval Ships by David James

21 Nov 2021 5 minute read
Saint David, sea-sick on his journey to the holy land. Misericord: Saint David’s Cathedral. Wellcome Images

Jon Gower

In July 2020 the sapling of a ginko tree was planted in the grounds of the Kure Naval Base in Japan, gifted to the city by the people of Pembroke Dock.  This happened with much ceremony as it commemorated the links between the west Wales town with Admiral Togo Heihachiro, who once lodged there, and, furthermore with a 2,200 ton armoured corvette called the Hiei which was constructed in its shipyards for the Japanese Navy.  To thank the people of the town the then Lieutenant Togo gave them a ginko tree, to be planted in his lodgings at the master shipwright’s house. He, of course went on to become one of the country’s most feted and decorated war heroes. He took on the Chinese navy before defeating the Russian Baltic Fleet and so saving Japan from invasion. Little wonder then that this connection with Wales is taken seriously, and there are plans to plant other trees in places connected with the illustrious admiral.

Much of this came about because of the efforts of David James, a member of that diligent legion of amateur historians who delight in digging deep into their local patch, often unearthing nuggets, if not whole seams of fascinating information and insight. James also campaigned for a memorial to ten Japanese sailors buried in nearby Angle, further deepening the links between Pembroke Dock and Japan.

His latest book is a rattle bag – to borrow Seamus Heaney’s phrase – a bright assortment of stories, facts and vignettes which started life as an investigation into the ships that feature on the seals of two Pembrokeshire towns, Tenby and Haverfordwest which developed into an intention of building a scale model of the ship connected with the latter. But as so often happens with such historical detective work he found himself being taken down various avenues – and the occasional rabbit hole – exploring heraldry, Viking ship design and the many places in the county whose names connect with the Viking Age, from towns such as Fishguard to islands such as Skomer and Skokholm.


Most fascinatingly James examines some of the misericords, or wooden carvings in the choir of St Davids cathedral.  One of these shows four men rowing a small boat through choppy waves, one of them so green about the gills that he is being violently ill, while one of his fellow passengers seems to be comforting him by patting him on the back. Another actually shows a clinker ship being built, with two shipwrights taking a well deserved break from their labours. The cathedral also has some medieval graffiti, scratched into stone and the occasional graffito also connects with the sea, as befits a small city which was, in the so called Age of the Saints as busy as Crewe Junction, as Gwyn Alf Williams memorably put it.

David James both draws on and outlines the life of Geraldus Cambrensis, the sometimes unreliable Norman observer who gave us The Journey Through Wales and a range of documentary sources which helped him not only understand the methods used in building ships but also work out how to replicate them in his own miniaturised but no less detailed version. He built his in the authentic Viking fashion, creating the outer shell first and then equipping it with ledges, frames and beams.  He researched the shapes of hulls and the sails they used as well as the way in which castles might be built on a ship to convert her from merchant use to being able to attack and plunder. In the process he learned a whole new lexicon of words to describe ships’ parts and equipment, from seizing grapnels and clinker strakes to the crow’s nest and the cross pattée which is a sort of Christian cross which appears very early on in medieval art. And when the whole model had taken shape it was time for some colourful and symbolic decisions about which heraldic devices should decorate the sails.

The resulting craft was built with a mixture of love and precision and is now safely lodged in the museum at Haverfordwest.  This book, in a sense, shadows that building process and offers further evidence of James’s life-long and seemingly boundless interest in the sea, which has seen him restore craft and then sail in them as well as fashioning a small flotilla of model ships, lecturing about the sea, being a dinghy sailing instructor and working as a river pilot on Miford Haven. The sea is in his blood, courses through his veins. David James’s passion and enthusiasm shine through in all of his books and they collectively remind us of the very rich maritime heritage and history of west Wales which he has done so very much to chronicle, champion and explain.

Pembrokeshire’s Mediaeval Ships is available to buy, for £ 9.99 and postage, from the author ([email protected]) or by writing to 44 West Haven, Cosheston, Pembroke Dock SA72 4UL.

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j humphrys
j humphrys
2 years ago

Having trouble keeping up with all this tears great books, but here’s another “must have”!
Maybe two or three, as part of my family are seafarers. Good Christmas presents?

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