‘I told them I wasn’t opening ’til one today’ an old lady’s voice complains as I enter the bar at the Dryffyn Arms in tucked-away Cwm Gwaun, a thickly-foliaged valley near Fishguard. It is not the reception you expect when you walk through the open front door of an ostensibly open pub to order a pint, but then this is no ordinary tavern. Quite possibly, this time-lost, no pomp no nonsense pub is the most exceptional tavern in Wales.
Why we love it…
The Cwm Gwaun Valley is so far-removed from the rest of the country it celebrates New Year on January 13th. If you did not know that there was civilisation in this cwm that snakes along a tiny riverside lane between densely wooded hillside southeast of Fishguard, from stories you had heard or the few scant articles that exist on the place online, chances are you would not venture here at all. Much less anticipate that a watering hole would be picturesquely positioned in the middle of it. Yes, back-lanes-loving visitors might be breezing through on the somnolent scenic route between Fishguard and the Preseli Hills a few miles above, but chances are much higher they are coming specifically because they have heard something about an untouched-by-time tavern that against all the odds continues to serve customers in much the same way it did 50, 100, 150 years ago.
Because of this – because a certain sort of cult traveller is coming to Cwm Gwaun specifically to sink a beer in Pembrokeshire’s most traditional pub bar none – you might have thought the Dryffyn Arms laid itself open to having its prospective clientele occasionally disappointed. Because it is quite often closed, quite often gives a no-frills welcome such as the one we got on our last visit here and has no online presence enabling people to get any idea of what to expect beforehand. But if you make it through the door and get served, you will not be disappointed. Because you will know, deep in your soul, that every other pub in Britain you have frequented in is a tarted-up version of a pub and this – this is the real, stripped-back, de-veneered deal.
The pastel-blue building is known by everyone in the know as Bessie’s, because this the name of the veteran landlady, Bessie Davies, who has been dishing out Bass bitter to customers here for 70 years, as her family have been doing with one sort of ale or another since 1840. Out of her front room. Yes, she lives on the other side of the bar and the simply furnished black-and-terracotta-tiled room bounded by pews and tables has a hatch out of which Betty or her son wander from their own quarters to serve the Bass. The beer is tapped from the cask into a jug and decanted into the glass presented to the punters. Maybe with a packet of crisps, the venerable hostelry’s only nod to the last few decades, if there are any going. The delivery truck has not made it out this far yet when we stop by, so it is just Bass.
So there we are, back at one at the door as Bessie has instructed. With a non-committal nod and a wry expression on his face, it’s Bessie’s son now that pours us the Bass.
‘None of that Felinfoel rubbish here,’ he gestures the bar towel he sets the drinks down on. (Felinfoel is one of Wales’ bigger breweries).
‘So why do you have the towel?’ I ask.
‘Bar towels like this are hard to come by,’ he answers cryptically. ‘Now,’ he looks at our baby, deadpan. ‘That’s the little one sorted for drinks. What are you two having?’
The bar interior is empty, sunlight spilling in and catching on a picture of the Queen at her coronation. It must have been taken at around the time Bessie, who we see rocking in her chair across the corridor in her living room on the private side of the pub, first took over the running of the pub. No one, apparently, can remember the last time this room was decorated, but why would you want to put a modern spin on a bar that must be the best example anywhere of how a country Welsh pub was pre-WW2? Or pre-WW1? Or pre-20th century? Just one brew one and a hole in the wall to serve it without fanfare to the customers. Many pubs claim to be traditional. This one is tradition. Living tradition.
We take our pints of Bass out to the steeply-shelving beer garden. The fuzzy blanket of woods swaddling the valley makes it appear not stark or grand as most Welsh cwms but just very peaceful. A tractor splutters by and that is the only event whilst we are there.
This is what a drink at a pub would have been like in the past. No food. No fancy trappings. No gushing about the history or the quality of the craft ale. Just beer.
NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From the pub it is 5 miles northeast over a rather lovely stretch of moorland to one of our favourite prehistoric Pembrokeshire sites… more soon!
At a glance
Welcome: 4 You couldn’t say it was welcoming, exactly, but is very, very idiosyncratic, which makes up for it… and the welcome is not really the point. The owners know this. They know there is a select band of Pembrokeshire visitors who will come and check their rather singular pub out.
Food: n/a We didn’t see any on offer…
Location: 7 Hidden along a long, lovely lane in a sleepy valley.
Cost: The pint of Bass is cheap.
Opening hours: 1-9pm daily in theory.
Address/telephone number: Pontfaen, Cwm Gwaun, Fishguard SA65 9SE. Telephone number: nope.