ON THE third day of my last walking trip, I awoke bright and early and — just for a moment — enjoyed very much the knowledge that it was Monday and that I had taken a day off and so didn’t need to get up for work. Also, as I would only be walking about ten miles that day, I didn’t need to get up early to start walking either.
The Right Kind of Nothing
The thought did strike me, as I stepped into the shower, that it was also a day for which I wasn’t getting paid but I dismissed that with the scorn it deserved. I know several contractors who see any day on which they don’t work as money lost but I refuse to embrace this particular brand of counting eggs as chickens. Not gaining something in the first place is not the same as losing it, even if the end result is similar. Anyway…
A Civilised Start
The point is that I got up at a civilised hour and enjoyed a full
English Welsh breakfast before checking out of the hotel, a theoretically simple task which actually turned out to involve my roaming the building looking for a staff member to drag back to reception, there to do check-outy things.
Outside it was bright and sunny with negligible cloud cover, which actually served to enable any last vestige of warmth to radiate off into space. It was bitterly cold. I immediately resolved to keep moving for fear that my blood might freeze in my veins should I stop for even a moment. My initial movement was directed down Main Street towards Pembroke Castle (Castell Penfro).
Pembroke Castle is one of the more impressive castle ruins to be found in Wales and I remember well being delighted with visiting it as a kid. The danger with those kind of memories though is that when you visit it again as an adult, in this case thirty-odd years later, it turns out to be so much smaller than you remember it.
Within the outer curtain wall, Pembroke Castle contains a large green courtyard and a round-towered, stone-domed keep. The keep dates to the late twelfth century and was built for William Marshall about a century after Roger de Montgomery, Earl of Shrewsbury constructed the original motte and bailey.
A strong gatehouse faces into Pembroke town, defended with no fewer than three portcullises, while the river protects it on two sides.
The castle proved its defensive worth several times in its first thirty years as the Welsh tried unsuccessfully to attack it. The De Montgomery family managed to lose it anyway, forfeiting it for rebelling against King Henry I. The castle became the seat of the Earls of Pembroke, who also fortified the town.
This defensive effort really ought to be why Pembroke Castle didn’t fall to Owain Glyndŵr and his rebels in 1400 but actually the castle’s constable, Francis à Court, simply bribed Glyndŵr not to attack it.
Fifty-two years later both the castle and the earldom of Pembroke were given to Jasper Tudor, half-brother to Henry VI.
Jasper’s nephew, also called Henry, was born in the castle in 1457. He would go on to become a major figure in the Wars of the Roses, effectively ending them at Bosworth Field by defeating Richard III and being crowned Henry VII. It doesn’t get much more major than being ‘the winner’.
The Civil War
When Henry’s Tudor dynasty had given way to the Stuarts, bringing the English Civil War, Pembroke declared for Parliament and survived a Royalist siege. Parliamentarian forces then captured several other local towns and castles including Tenby and Haverfordwest. In a remarkable show of not knowing when they were on the winning side, Pembroke’s civic leaders then chose to change sides and launch a Royalist rebellion.
Not only was Pembroke pretty much already surrounded by veteran Parliamentarian forces but Oliver Cromwell himself led the seven-week siege (the castle was still formidable, even if its occupiers weren’t that bright). Cromwell, like any proper Puritan, was utterly lacking in Christian forgiveness — he had the rebel leaders charged with treason and ordered the castle destroyed. Which it was, more so than it looks today.
The modern castle, Grade I listed though it is, was extensively restored in the 1880s and again in the 1920s. The latter restoration was by Major General Sir Ivor Philipps whose family still owns it today; it is the largest privately-owned castle in Wales. Large enough not to seem smaller than you remember, even.
The Mill Bridge
So, while thinking ‘that is as big as I remember,’ I crossed the Pembroke River by means of a bridge below the castle ramparts and took a turning that brought me back to the river bank, where my resolution to keep moving was rather put to the test.
Pembrokeshire Coast Path
Backtracking slightly, I spotted the acorn waymark of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path and realised that I had been going the wrong way anyway. Well, naturally.
The actual path veered away from the worksite and sent me off through woods and fields in the direction of Pembroke Dock. Visually, it was lovely, with the path flanked by green leafy trees that clearly thought it was meant to be spring even if the weather disagreed.
Unfortunately, it was anti-sun with which the path was dappled, a mysterious phenomenon that looks just like sunlight but actually drains the heat from your body instead of warming it up. This was especially noticeable in the fields, where the lack of tree cover allowed the wind to have a go at freeze-drying me.
Gritting my teeth, more to stop them from chattering than for any other reason, I pressed on.
After a while, the path deposited me into a field in which was one solitary cow that stared at me as though I was mad. Or maybe she was: cows are herd animals after all, clustering together for protection. One all on its own is a recipe for fear and neurosis, which I find is less than ideal in an animal five times your size.
The cow continued to stare as I picked my way past her but she made no move to come closer, nor to turn and run away. It was as though she were frozen to the spot, which was an actual possibility. Have I mentioned at all that it was cold?
At the top end of the field was an enclosure full of chickens and a gate leading onto a street. By passing through it I was suddenly thrust back into an urban environment, climbing a hill in the back streets of Pembroke Dock.
Pembroke Dock (Doc Penfro) is an actual town, not just the dock area of Pembroke (although that was largely the intent when it was constructed in 1814). Prior to that it was just a fishing village called Paterchurch, the buildings of which have long since been replaced.
The waymarks directed me from one street to another and I was just thinking that my walk appeared to have become rather suburban when I found myself at the top of a hill looking out across Pembroke Dock and the Cleddau Bridge, with Neyland on the far side of the Daugleddau Estuary.
Given that I knew I would be crossing the Cleddau Bridge later, I was slightly perplexed when the waymarks directed me to walk in completely the opposite direction. They initially took me past the ruins of ‘the Defensible Barracks’, which were built in 1846 and housed first the Royal Marines and then a series of varying army regiments.
General Charles Gordon was stationed there before he later took service with the Emperor of China, crushing the Taiping Rebellion, and then fought and died in Sudan.
Another famous inhabitant was the actor Arthur Lowe who was stationed there in WW2. He of course would spend his later years playing the part of the pompous Home Guard officer, Captain Mainwaring, in Dad’s Army (while, in a lovely piece of circular association, Mainwaring’s corporal, played by Clive Dunn, was a veteran of Sudan).
The Defensible barracks sat high on the hill but the path now doubled back on itself and dropped down the hillside to deposit me in the town centre.
Pembroke Dock is having a bit of a hard time in this post-industrial age, with the loss of its shipbuilding and several other businesses, not to mention the recent recession. Sadly it shows, with a number of premises empty.
The path led me towards the waterfront and the oldest houses in Pembroke Dock, dating from the dockyard’s development. Also here was a building which I recognised instantly for what it was.
The icy cold had lessened slightly by this point, the air perhaps chilled by the deadly anti-sunlight to the point of being so negatively cold that it became warm by some curious Einsteinian reversal. I foolishly thought for a fleeting moment that I might take my coat off. The weather, having none of this plan, immediately increased the strength of the breeze, throwing the concept of wind chill back into the mix.
It took my breath away. And then froze it.
I hurried away from the riverside, along which the wind was whistling like some eerie heat-stealing banshee. I found myself on a major road, passing a curious roundabout with this little building in the centre of it, which I vaguely remembered seeing as a child. Back then I wondered what it could possibly be. Now I know:
Approaching the Bridge
Across the roundabout, I climbed another hill, the road rising and looping around to deposit me on the Cleddau Bridge (Pont Cleddau), a toll bridge opened in 1975, thus putting the ferry out of business.
Construction & Collapse
The bridge is the same age as my brother but it should have been closer to mine. It was started in 1968 but it unfortunately not only looked like 70s architecture but also shared the same shoddy standards.
Consequently, it partially collapsed in 1970, killing four workers and injuring another five. Which is just the kind of thing you want to dwell on when you’re crossing a bridge around 40 m high and you’re not that great with heights.
Acrophobia (not vertigo, which is the sensation of dizziness) does not depend on the actual height but on a variety of environmental cues. For me, artificial structures are more worrying than natural features, and metal railings feel less substantial than, say, gorse bushes. Which makes no rational sense. Hence it being a phobia.
Cleddau Bridge felt pretty high to me, especially when a howling wind was threatening to hurl me off it. Not that there was really much chance of that but I did make sure my woolly hat was pulled down securely on my head. Turning my face away from the wind resulted in looking straight downstream.
Let it Snow
It was there, on the bridge, some 40m or so above the River Cleddau, that I was to learn the proper power of wind chill. Which is considerable. I was just thinking to myself, ‘this wind really is icy,’ when it started snowing right on cue.
Of course it did.
Neyland & Llanstadwell
On the far side of Cleddau Bridge there was a brief respite from the wind, although not the snow, thanks to the gorse bushes flanking the A477. This curved around and crossed a second, smaller bridge which spanned Westfield Pill.
Below the bridge, there was a marina full of small boats, many sitting uselessly on the mud that had been exposed by low tide. The river bank on the far side was towering, steep and wooded and the path left the road to pick its way along it through the trees.
South Wales Railway
A far less undulating footpath could be spotted down below, running directly alongside Westfield Pill. This was once the course of the railway, which arrived in 1856 to form the terminus of the South Wales Railway, where passengers could transfer to steamships sailing for Ireland. Neyland declined in importance in 1906, when a new harbour at Fishguard stole its steamer traffic. The railway limped on but closed in 1963.
Since I wasn’t travelling by train, this closure failed to delay me. And so I arrived in Neyland.
Neyland was just a tiny fishing village before Brunel decided to make it an international ferryport. It used to have a statue of the great man but someone stole it in 2010. Given that it was eight feet tall and made of bronze, this was no mean feat in itself.
An octagonal Royal Mail pillar box (of the type designed by John Penfold and manufactured between 1866 and 1879) still stands in the high street, emblazoned with its ‘VR’ royal cipher. Pillar boxes are worth a lot less than bronze and rather harder to steal.
It was pretty clear that, with its port and railway long gone, Neyland had seen better times. A number of buildings near the waterfront were boarded up and derelict, which I found rather sad.
The path (and road) passed alongside the shore and, now in contemplative mood, I sat and rested on a handy bench. Although I had not actually walked all that far, my feet were complaining from the previous day’s effort. I did my best to ignore them.
Neyland and Llanstadwell are distinct for all that they are contiguous and while both are characterised by a series of coloured houses, those in Llanstadwell are painted in more vibrant shades. A bit too vibrant in some cases — one was a vivid, headache-inducing shade of green.
The path into Llanstadwell was a narrow road with no pavement beside it, so dodging the occasional car became necessary. Most of those cars turned out to be builder’s vans for there was a veritable frenzy of building work going on, making alterations to many of Llanstadwell’s houses.
St Tudwal’s Church
Gulf Oil Refinery
Beyond Llanstadwell the path climbed slightly and then snaked its way past the old Gulf Oil refinery, constructed in 1966 on what had been farmers’ fields and opened by the Queen in 1968. Designed to process 119,000 barrels per day, the refinery served for nearly thirty years.
In 1985, Gulf Oil became Chevron Corporation by merging with Standard Oil of California, which was just one of many companies formed from John D. Rockefeller’s original Standard Oil Company in 1911 (when having 91% of the market turned out to be too much of an all-powerful corporate monopoly for even the USA to stomach).
Chevron Corporation continued to operate the site for a little over a decade but then closed it down in 1997. Today, the site is occupied by the SemLogistics oil depot and the Dragon Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) terminal, neither of which are actually that visible from the path.
Not Seeing It for the Trees
The footpath past the refinery site was mostly leafy and wooded with mild but frequent undulation. For much of the time, though the water was on one side and the refinery site on the other, I couldn’t really see much of the refinery at all on account of most of it being hidden from view by what little shows along the perimeter. That changed a little when the path climbed an incline and led me directly along the outside of the fence but, even then, not a lot of it is visible when it’s right next to you; you need a little distance in order to gain a wider view.
An Unwanted Perspective
To my horror, I suddenly gained a quite different view, one which I had not been anticipating, for the path crossed over the road that leads from the refinery down to the pipeline pontoons. It managed this by means of a bridge — so far, so traditional — but the aspect that I had a problem with was this: the floor of the bridge was constructed from a steel mesh.
Much like the burghers of Pembroke, my brain decided that it was now time to rebel. It had been mostly okay with clambering up steep inclines on cliffs which might fail catastrophically at any moment. But a bridge where you could see through the floor was just a bridge too far.
When I was four I, hated a bridge over the Kennet in Reading that had narrow gaps between its floorboards. Thirty-nine years later, I was rediscovering that discomfort.
Don’t look Down
Still, I wasn’t going to go back. The sides were high, the bridge was presumably designed and built with the intent that it wouldn’t collapse. It wasn’t even very high — it was much lower than cliffs that had posed me no problem. It was also much lower than the Cleddau Bridge I’d crossed earlier. Although that actually had collapsed once, so maybe I wouldn’t dwell on that. Best to just get it over with…
I gritted my teeth and crossed it, staring ahead rather than down. It was ridiculously windy, mesh not making much of a windbreak. It wasn’t quite as bad as I feared but I can’t say that I loved it.
Let’s Do It Again
Safely on the far side, I set off apace, charging down a gorse-flanked path, trying to put as much distance between me and the mesh-floored bridge as possible. It was something I wanted to forget about. Unfortunately, this undue haste just meant I reached the second mesh bridge even quicker.
Well, of course.
The second bridge spanned several pipes connecting one of the docking pontoons to the refinery’s tanks. It was even less high than the first one, plus it had a mesh roof too, which should have made it feel more enclosed and secure. And it would have, had the floor of this bridge not wobbled.
That really didn’t help.
Ashamed of my earlier hesitance regarding the previous bridge, I resolved to step boldly onto this one and cross. I thus stepped out, placing my foot down firmly, and felt the mesh sheeting shift beneath my weight. As did all the others, every step of the way. This was about as disconcerting as I was willing to deal with.
The Third Bridge
My relief on reaching the far side was tempered somewhat by the lurking fear that third such bridge might lie ahead. There were certainly more pontoons, which suggested I’d be crossing more pipes. And so I did. Fortunately, the third bridge’s decking was sheet metal not mesh and I practically sauntered across it, grinning with undisguised relief.
I was now deposited onto an open grassy bank, with a view of the third and final pontoon below. A handy sign informed me that this had been part of Newton Farm until they built the refinery site all over it. Up ahead, in the distance, Milford Haven beckoned. But first, I needed to turn inland and follow the path towards a road.
By now, the sun, no longer filtered through dappling leaves, was surprisingly bright though still not warming. The blue sky in which it hung was dotted with ominous clouds of dark silver-grey, whipping along on a wind that felt straight from the Arctic. The clouds, as if encouraged by my attention, had another go at snowing and, for the next half hour or so, I got to experience the odd sensation of having a mini-blizzard blown directly into my face while the bright sun shone on my left ear.
Beside my right ear was a metal fence that looked so corroded I was surprised the wind didn’t just blow it apart.
The path duly carried me to the B4325. At the point where I joined that road I saw a wind turbine standing in the field opposite, its blades stock still despite the Arctic pseudo-hurricane driving horizontal snowflakes. Not wanting to be frozen solid myself, I pressed on…
The B4325 dropped down into a valley and the settlement of Blackbridge, which sat beside a crossing of a stream called Castle Pill.
It being a B-road, I had to dodge the occasional car as I made way down to the pill although one nonplussed me by pulling up and stopping. Its driver, who had spotted me walking towards Milford Haven in the icy wind and intermittent snow, simply wondered if I needed a lift. That simple but generous question warmed my heart. The rest of me was slowly going numb.
Once I’d crossed Castle Pill, the footpath parted company with the B4325 and carried me into Milford Haven town via seaside suburbia.
On the way, I passed a handy shop, in which I bought chocolate while the shopkeeper told me — in case I hadn’t noticed — that the weather was too cold. I agreed without sarcasm; we British bond in adversity. Besides, I was close to the end now; I could afford to show a little human nicety myself.
A little further along, the route overlooked the estuary. There I found a monument relating to an aspect of war that has no room for nicety at all, namely a nautical mine. It commemorates the Royal Navy Armaments Depot which was based in the town and specialised in mines. The depot existed from 1934 until the early 1980s, when it closed.
Milford Haven History
Milford Haven (Aberdaugleddau — ‘mouth of the two Cleddaus’) was founded in 1793 by Sir William Hamilton, whose wife (Emma) was Admiral Lord Nelson’s mistress.
Sir William intended it to be a whaling centre designed on a grid pattern. As it turned out, there’s not really a noticeable grid pattern and was actually a naval dockyard until 1814 (when the dockyard moved to Pembroke Dock) and then an oil port.
It was quite successful as the latter; in 1960, the Esso Company built a massive refinery on its doorstep (opened by the Duke of Edinburgh), which grew to become the UK’s second largest just in time to be shut down in 1983. It’s still owned by ExxonMobil (as Esso became), which now uses it to house a terminal handling LNG.
Interestingly, Esso was another company that originated as part of Standard Oil, in this case Standard Oil of New Jersey (the name ‘Esso’ is simply Standard Oil’s initials said aloud). Over time, Esso acquired other brands and renamed itself Exxon (though keeping Esso as a brand name) before merging with Mobil to form ExxonMobil. Mobil, meanwhile, started out as Socony, or the Standard Oil Company of New York.
Honestly, the US oil business has a sufficiently deviant family tree to put those of royalty firmly in the shade.
A Quick Recap
So to recap: Milford Haven has (or has had) fishermen, oil tankers and nautical mines. Sounds like the makings of a top grade disaster movie…
Milford Haven Station
Fortunately for me it also had a station, although to call it a ‘station’ is to overly glorify the mere halt that it actually would be, were it not the end of the line.
The railway arrived in 1863 and would most likely have been torn up a century later were the town not a sufficiently busy port to keep it going.
Munching on foodstuffs bought from the supermarket opposite, I waited patiently for a train to arrive to begin my long journey home. When I finally made it back to London, it had snowed properly there.
This time: 10½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 1,313 miles