I had a cunning plan to make the best possible use of Easter and its attendant four-day weekend by walking great distances along the Pembrokeshire coast. It was a good plan and I liked it, but the common cold virus had other ideas and decided to prove that it’s not only Martian tripod pilots that it can bring low if it wants.
I thus spent Easter feeling somewhat sorry for myself and occasionally wondering if I’d somehow stuffed a hagfish up my nose.
The cold turned out to be visiting for only the Easter holiday and went off to annoy others in the following week. This left me feeling much better as the next weekend approached and, at the very last minute, I suddenly decided to go walking then instead.
So I did.
Returning to Pembrokeshire
Coughing in Cardiff
As has been my wont in the past I caught a coach down to Cardiff on the Friday night. On this occasion the coach was quite old and had little room. I also developed a horrible itchy cough during the journey — apparently the Helpful Mammal Hotel for Viral Vacations was still open for business after all. This was less than ideal.
My actual hotel, when I got there, had some confusion as they’d only been sent partial details by Laterooms, through which website I’d booked. Fortunately though, this was soon sorted and I was able to retire to my room where I got almost no sleep at all on account of the aforementioned cough.
Doom and Disaster
At this point, I have to admit, my walking weekend seemed quite doomed. Fifteen miles of undulating cliff paths while coughing uncontrollably at any exertion whatsoever seemed like an obvious disaster.
The Helpful Mammal laughs in the face of disaster. In between coughs.
The Early Train
My journey back to Milford Haven was fairly uneventful, although I did get to see dawn break over West Wales.
Fairly Dim Fare-Dodger
I also got so see a young lad failing to fare dodge as he first tried to head for the toilet as the guard approached (a brilliantly original ploy that the guard was in no way looking out for) and then claimed that he’d fallen asleep and had meant to get off at the station he’d actually got on at.
Still, at least he had daylight to walk in when the guard kicked him off at the next stop.
Surly Shop Assistant
It was coming up to nine and fully light when I disembarked at Milford Haven, where I bought myself a sandwich for later from a shockingly surly shop assistant who communicated purely in variously inflected grunts of ‘hnngh!’
A Sunny Outlook
The forecast for the day was for sunshine, which seemed a tad optimistic. So far spring had gone tragically AWOL and the White Witch seemed to be running the weather. Still, the sky was promisingly clear as I looked out over Milford Haven’s harbour, although that could just mean that there wasn’t any cloud to keep the heat in.
The start of my walk was of course urban as it led me through Milford Haven’s streets out into its suburbs. There, I passed a small side-road leading to what I thought should be a cliff. I wandered off-piste to take a look and found this:
Below the fort lay Gelliswick Bay, which takes its name from the Norse personal name ‘Gellir’ and vik meaning ‘bay’.
Vikings established a small settlement in the area in the seventh century. They’d hardly recognise it now. This stretch of Milford Haven is dominated by the sight of the massive jetties which service the South Hook LNG facility, the largest in Europe. In concert with the Dragon LNG facility, which I’d passed previously, it can handle a quarter of the UK’s demand for
Liquid Natural Gas (LNG).
Leaving Milford Haven
Suburban streets soon gave way to a rough path with high banks of gorse and brambles on either side. This led me away from the town and towards an excellent view of firstly the tiny islet of Stack Rock, which is the site of another such fort, and then towards and past a third one, namely South Hook Fort.
South Hook Fort
South Hook Fort was built at the same time as the others but, despite its position on high, looking over the Milford Haven waterway, it was never fully armed. Sold off in the 1930s and then re-armed during WW2, it became part of an Esso oil refinery in the 1960s. The Esso refinery is already as much a thing of the past as the fort is and its site is now occupied by the massive LNG terminal. The fort itself lies empty apart from a thriving population of bats.
A helpful bloke out walking two dogs approached me to point out Hubberstone and South Hook forts and Popton Fort on the coast opposite. He explained when and why they were built and that Popton Fort was now offices for Rhoscrowther Oil Refinery. All of this I knew already but he seemed so pleased to be imparting the information to me that I feigned ignorance and thanked him kindly for the gesture.
His dogs, already bored with me, then impatiently dragged him away.
The Blooming Gorse
The path, which had temporarily joined a road, now broke away into scrubby open countryside, characterised by patches of gorse in full bloom. An old saying has it that ‘kissing is in season when gorse is in flower’, by which you can correctly deduce that it flowers all year round.
The coconut smell of its flowers made me feel hungry but I decided to wait a while longer before scoffing my sandwich. Apart from me, the path was completely deserted — kissing anyone wasn’t an option, no matter how much the gorse bloomed.
The path curved around the coast, giving me my first glimpse of the village of Dale, where I would be staying that night. Although still at least eight miles away by foot (or up to fourteen if I missed two tidal crossings), it was little more than three miles as the crow flies. Or the dragon…
While Dale takes its name from the Norse word for valley, it shares that name with the town below the Lonely Mountain in The Hobbit. Like Amroth, which I had passed when first entering Pembrokeshire, it didn’t appear (from a distance at least) to be showing any Middle-Earth qualities.
Dragons Do as They Please
In Dale’s case this was probably a blessing as its fictional namesake was laid waste and emptied by Smaug. The dragon was, I thought with a smile, probably far too busy being the national emblem of Wales.
Thinking about dragons does not, so far as I know, require you to shout ‘RAR!’ at the top of your lungs unless you’re six. Or me, apparently. RAR!
Anyway, long before I would reach (dragonless) Dale, I first had to cross Sandy Haven, a small beach and inlet with a tidal crossing involving both stepping stones and a small footbridge. The crossing can be used two and a half hours on either side of low tide and I was expecting to reach it with plenty of time to spare.
Sandy Haven Pill
For once my expectations were entirely met; Sandy Haven Pill was little more than a narrow, shallow ribbon of water when I got there. Had it been high tide the story would have been different, as indicated by the impressive expanse of tidal mud.
I was pleased to have crossed Sandy Haven by the crossing as that’s what I’d assumed when I worked out my plan for the day. Had the crossing been inconveniently underwater a four mile detour would have become necessary. Well, either that or wading.
Royal Mail Van
On the far side were a couple of houses, in front of which I somehow endeavoured to get in the way of a postman who, to judge by his apology to one of the residents, had just tried to deliver a letter to the wrong one. I, in turn, apologised for almost walking into him and went on to step around his Royal Mail (Post Brenhinol) van. Given that Royal Mail vans are bright red — pillar box red, in fact — even I could spot one of those before walking into it.
Little Castle Head
The path climbed out of the valley, as paths do, and gave me a view of rugged rocks and the coastline ahead. Keeping with the theme of spotting things intended to be visible, I could see a navigation mark standing tall on the next headland (on which an Iron Age fort once stood).
Great Castle Head
Dale Draws Nearer
The path undulated a little but quite gently and at one point crossed a tiny stream with what might be described as ‘stepping stones’ and what might be described as ‘just some small, handy rocks’. Far out on my left, the Rosslare Ferry was sailing towards Pembroke Dock while ahead Dale came back into view.
Watch House Point
I headed further along the coast, rounding Watch House Point, which housed an artillery battery in WW1. I was starting to believe that every possible bit of cliff top had been fortified at some point, when I came across this ruined tower with its charming Norman arch and lancet windows…
It was, it turned out, a Victorian folly and only as ruined as it was built to be.
Not far beyond the folly was Monk Haven, a fairly secluded beach made even more secluded by a twelve foot high crenellated wall that mostly screened the beach from the woodland behind it. The wall, once again, was nineteenth century and marked the boundary of the Trewarren Estate.
The wooded valley behind the wall had been planned as a wooded pleasure garden when Trewarren House, on the outskirts of nearby St Ishmael’s, was built in 1845.
Soon after Monk Haven I came to the tiny hamlet of Musselwick, where I had a choice of two routes: one high-tide route and the other low. I’d made a careful note of the tide times and was pretty sure that I’d just missed the window of opportunity for taking the low-tide route along the beach.
In a spirit of gratuitous optimism, I decided to pop down onto the beach anyway. There, to my surprise and confusion, I found the path entirely passable, with a significant gap between the leading edge of the incoming tide (well below the path) and the high-tide mark (above it).
Feeling pleased yet puzzled, I made my way across the pebbles to the mouth of the Gann Estuary, where a small sign warned me that here too was a tidal crossing that could only be used within three and a half hours of low tide.
Gann Tidal Footbridge
I had been expecting the Gann tidal footbridge. I had also been expecting to arrive well after that three and half hour limit had expired (I checked my watch and, yes, I was about twenty minutes too late). I had also been expecting, in consequence of this, a two hour detour in order to cross the Gann. What I had not been expecting was that the footbridge was in no immediate danger of inundation. I could just go straight across.
Zips & Zulu Time
On the far side I decided to check my tide times again and, in my keenness to do so, ripped the zip right off my bag. It was while I was mentally counting to ten and carefully and calmly — ever so calmly — rethreading the fastener back onto the zip that I suddenly realised in what manner I had gone astray.
The tide times were in GMT. They are almost always given in GMT. My phone clock however, was telling me the time in BST and was therefore an hour ahead. Or to put it another way, my phone believed it was summer. The tide tables recognised no such thing; for the sea, winter was eternal.
Mutually Oblivious Elders
A shingle bank led me to a road where an elderly couple were sat near their car, looking out over the estuary. He was explaining in detail about a series of bird sightings he’d read about. She was nodding and saying ‘hmm’ in all the wrong places. Not only was she not listening to a word, but he was oblivious to her obliviousness. Behind them were the Dale Lime Kilns.
Dale Lime Kilns
A Black Arrow
I now joined the road and allowed it to lead me into Dale. There was still no sign of fictional dragons, who would require an archer to shoot a black arrow into a gap in their scales.
Having arrived in Dale, I found a café and so had a nice cup of tea and a good sit down, plus the Ultimate Food of Walking (a bacon sandwich) while I enjoyed the view across Milford Haven.
Tremendously Trusting B&B
Continuing my journey would take me past the place where I was staying, which seemed to run on a remarkable amount of trust as the landlady had revealed to me the secret of how to get in while she was out (she would be out).
All being well, I decided to call in and drop off some of the stuff in my bag. All was not well. The cunning secret of gaining entry — which I shall not reveal here — had been completely (and probably inadvertently) invalidated by one of the other guests. I would just have to carry things for a bit longer.
In the meantime, I had another headland to walk around, bringing me back in a circle to Dale.
The road led to Dale Point and a field studies centre in yet another fort, after which it became a simple path along the edge of a field.
Up ahead was a second navigation mark, intended to line up with another to indicate the safe path into Milford Haven.
West Blockhouse Point
From this position on the jutting peninsula that ended with St Ann’s Head, I could see the town of Milford Haven across the water, still only about four miles away if measured directly.
Between West Blockhouse Point and St Ann’s Head lay Mill Bay, a location that Richard III must have wished had been defended by a fort. For it was there in 1485 that the exiled Henry Tudor landed to resume (and then end) the Wars of the Roses. Henry was careful not to come alone though — four thousand men landed with him from fifty-five ships.
Fifteen days later at Bosworth, near Leicester, his victorious forces slew Richard with a poleaxe to the back of the head. Henry Tudor, as King Henry VII, founded a new royal dynasty.
St Ann’s Head
St Ann’s Head itself is the tip of a peninsula that forms the northern and western limit of the Milford Haven Waterway. It is graced by a lighthouse, built in 1841 as St Ann’s Low Light. There was also a High Light but that was decommissioned in 1910. The old lighthouse and the long-unnecessary lighthouse-keepers’ cottages are all private homes and holiday accommodation now.
I narrowly avoided being run over by a 4×4 on the only road on the headland; the vehicle’s driver was clearly as lost as one can be when one is on a road that has no turnoffs and ends less than ten yards ahead. Having let him reverse uncertainly away, I setoff apace, for I was nearly at my journey’s end.
I crossed the aforementioned road near a small, high-sided, rock-strewn cove with the delightful name of ‘The Vomit’ and then set off along a series of rugged and rocky bays. Off to my right I realised I could see islands:
Skokholm & Skomer
I officially ended my day’s walk at Westdale Bay, a small, sandy bay about two thirds of a mile due west of Dale. Here I sat for a while watching the colours swirl — a landslip had spilt red sandstone into the waters and a great pink-brown cloud was being mixed this way and that.
I still needed to get into my overnight accommodation though, so I set off back towards Dale, which I could see clearly by looking down the valley from which the village takes its name.
Upon my return I was able to phone the landlady and get actual access to my room. She told me that I could find food in the village pub (the Griffin) but that I might need to book. As it happened, the staff at the Griffin somehow fitted me in (they were busy and the food was excellent).
By now my cough had completely vanished but although I felt healthy, I also felt very tired. And so I retired to sleep the sleep of the just. I would need it too, I figured; I planned to walk a longer distance on the morrow.
This time: 14½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 1,327½ miles