For the first time in 800 years, the cathedral in Britain’s tiniest city will be empty this Easter Sunday.
Several thousand visitors would have been expected to pour into St Davids Cathedral this weekend. Instead, the Bishop of St Davids has invited them to pause at 10.30am on Sunday as she presides at the Easter Eucharist – from her kitchen.
Thanks to coronavirus, several dozen of the small businesses in this seaside city in Pembrokeshire, west Wales, will also be losing out on visitors.
Easter, and the warmer weather it tends to bring, signals the awakening of the tourist season for hotspots across Britain.
St Davids starts to see long lines form at beachside ice cream vans. Surfers hit the breaks on Whitesands Bay, tourists rent kayaks and coasteering guides, and then fill up on pasties called oggies before heading back to caravans and campsites.
Instead, businesses have either sent staff home on furlough, reinvented themselves… or packed up.
St Davids Cross Hotel, which has 16 rooms costing up to £145 a night, had been fully booked this weekend and most of next week. More than 100 guests have cancelled.
“With the weather we’ve got down in Pembrokeshire at the moment, it’s been absolutely glorious for the last week and it’s going to be very nice next week,” says Alex Perkins, the hotel’s manager. “I suppose now we just hope that we’ll make it up in the summer or the winter.”
Initially, the three-star hotel tried to adapt to the pandemic with takeaway food, and even put on a delivery Sunday roast service for Mother’s Day. But as time went on, the owners decided to completely shut and furlough the staff to reduce chances of transmitting the virus. “We’d rather people do stay at home than travel down to us,” Alex adds.
Down the road, The Meadow cafe has made a slightly more unusual operational swerve. Co-owner Nick Michell has set up a health and fitness training service, offering one-to-one training through an app and remote coaching.
The 47-year-old says: “I was a personal trainer beforehand and I was intending to incorporate some of my services into what we do at the cafe, with a wellbeing offering.” Now that the cafe has closed, the fitness plans have been jolted into fruition.
He’s enthusiastic about the switch, but this is only his third year of running the cafe, along with his wife – and they really needed a solid season.
“When you take over a tourist business, it takes a couple of years to build up your reputation and it’s normally your third year you start reaping the rewards of what you’ve sown,” he says. “So we were literally on the cusp of getting some return on the investment we put in.
“This weekend, Easter, is up there in the top four weekends of the year. We would be extremely busy – Easter’s always a very busy time down here anyway because it’s the first of the big holidays after winter.”
The farmhouse-style cafe will benefit from the business rate relief, and the owners will take up the government’s offer to pay 80 per cent of the salary for the 10 furloughed staff. In the summer, another 10 workers are usually hired – a marker of the boom of the local economy in the tourist season. But the virus could wipe out work for locals. St Davids has a population of around 1,600 but the city’s visitors reach into the hundreds of thousands throughout the year.
As for business loans that are being made available by the Welsh government, Nick, who has an 18-month-old daughter, is not keen. “Loans are loans and you’ve got to pay them back,” he says. “With any new business, you invest significantly at the start. So we have already invested quite a lot anyway. We’re reluctant to refinance, to continue reinvesting with the unknown that is the future.”
Unknown really is the word – the three-week lockdown marker is about to arrive, with no sign of an end yet in sight. And if we’re slowly eased out of paralysis, cafes, hotels and restaurants fear measures will still restrict customers.
The pandemic has hit at a cruel time. “We rely on from now until September to get probably 75 per cent of our income for the year,” Nick adds. His wife Emma, a yoga instructor, may soon be joining him in setting up remote classes.
Back at the cathedral, Dean Sarah Rowland Jones still has high spirits. “We’ve got a community Whatsapp group, there’s stuff on Facebook, there’s a lot of people ringing each other up,” she says. “People are being particularly assiduous in looking out for one another. The rest of the year, the resident community is small. So in that sense, it’s quite easy to know who’s who and to watch out for everybody.”
The locals who make up the congregation are also still able to join in by watching the cathedral’s YouTube videos, she adds.
And at a time of uncertainty, at least they can be fairly sure that next year’s Easter Sunday service won’t be held in the bishop’s kitchen.