A WEEK ago (as I write this), I awoke bright and early from a rather odd dream which left me wondering, for a moment: where had all the lobsters gone? Reality gradually asserted itself and I realised three things in quick succession…
Firstly, that I had awoken before my alarm and that it would go off any moment.
Secondly, I observed that the light peeking through the curtain was dull and grey rather than golden with sunshine, as it had been the day before.
Thirdly and most importantly, the lobster maître d’ would not be fetching me my coffee; if I wanted coffee I would have to get up and get it myself.
The coffee, once I had it, helped with the whole ‘waking up’ thing.
The 2nd B in ‘ B&B’
Once I was properly awake and abluted, I headed downstairs for breakfast and sat looking out across the bay towards the Rhoscrowther Oil Refinery. The refinery’s slender towers were indistinct amid haze and the sea, which had been bright blue the day before, now looked silver.
‘True,’ said the landlady, when I commented on the fact that the weather was not as nice as yesterday. ‘But it’s still nice out. Cold though.’ I stared out of the window again, in time to see a gust of wind blow a startled seagull sideways. By ‘nice’, I decided, she must mean ‘not actually raining’.
Actually, when I got outside, it wasn’t particularly cold and, though it stayed a bit hazy, the grey was slowly giving way to blue. There was still wind admittedly, but it didn’t seem too bad.
I decided to take a different route back to Westdale Bay than the one by which I’d returned to Dale on the previous evening. Although the main difference seemed to be that I was fifty meters south of the path I took last time. Even so, it carried me past things I’d not really seen yet, such as Dale’s cemetery, which lies to the west of the village, in sight of the church but not close to it.
St James’s Church
Dale’s church, dedicated to St James the Great, is a grade II listed building with a fifteenth century tower while the rest of it dates from substantially later even before it was remodelled by Victorians. I only really got to see the tower and that in silhouette. Not least because this was much closer:
Dale Castle was built in the thirteenth century following the English conquest of the area (this part of southern Pembrokeshire has been English-speaking since the twelfth century and is often known as ‘Little England beyond Wales’).
The castle has passed through many families and is currently held by that of the Lloyd Phillips, who have sold off many of the peripheral parts of the estate.
A footpath led me from beside the castle to Westdale Bay, where I discovered that the main reason the wind hadn’t been too bad in Dale was because I had had a mile of peninsula between me and its unbridled fury. Alas, no longer. Resignedly, I pulled on my woolly hat, mostly to keep my ears warm, and buttoned up my coat — the latter more to stop it acting like a sail than a futile bid to keep out the cold.
From Westdale Bay I had a view out to Skokholm (Ynys Sgogwm), a bird sanctuary island that, until 2005, had been one of those peripheral parts of the Lloyd Phillips estate. The sky behind it was shifting gradually from grey to blue-grey and then (I hoped) on to blue. The sea had likewise lost its silvery hue.
With a hop, skip and a jump, or something vaguely approximating those things, I set off. The path immediately climbed, as it had to first get out of Westdale Bay. Up on the cliff top the wind really got going and I found myself thankful that it was blowing onshore rather than offshore.
The path took me past a couple of houses, near the cliffs and in the middle of nowhere. This little cluster of buildings, which looked a bit like a small suburban close had escaped into the country, has the wonderfully improbable name of ‘the Hookses’. They were, I later learned, what was left of a farm called Hookes Vale.
Just beyond the Hookses, the cliff-top was wide and flat and exposed. A few sheep were taking shelter behind the raised bank of a ditch and that sight made me feel better about grumbling to myself about the wind. Because when sheep take shelter that’s never a good a sign.
The ground on which the sheep were sitting was paved with broken concrete, broad swathes of which ran in various directions, while other blocky shapes marked out structures that weren’t there. These were the ruins of RAF Dale.
Built in 1941 as a satellite of RAF Talbenny it was home to 304 Squadron, which flew Wellington bombers and was mostly manned by Polish exiles. In 1943, it was transferred to the Royal Navy as RNAS Dale and served as an air training establishment until 1947.
Most of its buildings were demolished in 1980 and 1981 as part of a derelict land reclamation scheme and the site is now privately owned. In 2005, it was used to host an illegal rave, with 2,500 people turning up to party and Dyfed-Powys Police resorting to roadblocks to try to prevent anyone else from joining them.
I continued on my way with Skokholm lurking off to my left. Its name is Norse and means ‘wooded island’ although it’s actually mostly covered in grass these days. On my Ordnance Survey map it’s labelled as ‘Skokholm Island’, which is a rather unnecessary piece of toponymic tautology. But ‘toponymic tautology’ is itself delightfully alliterative, so I’ll let it go just this once.
Ahead of me, thanks to the turn of the coast, I espied some more islands, namely the tidal island of Gateholm and, beyond that, Skomer Island.
The path now curved around the edge of a sandy bay for about a mile. This was Marloes Sands, which takes its name from the nearby village of Marloes.
The village in turn takes its name from the local terrain, ‘Marloes’ deriving from the Old Welsh for a bare moor. But lying in Little England beyond Wales, as it does, it is not pronounced remotely Welshly but is simply said as ‘marlas’.
Gateholm’s name isn’t Welsh at all but, like Skokholm, is derived from Norse, in this case meaning ‘goat island’. It didn’t appear to have any goats on it though.
What it does have is Romano-British remains, with the tell-tale signs of various buildings dating back to at least the sixth century.
I was soon approaching Wooltack Point, which is the closest point to Skomer Island and, paradoxically, that meant I went from having a rather good view of the island to having none at all as the headland obscured it.
Skomer (Ynys Sgomer) is a nature reserve with the largest colony of Atlantic puffins in southern Britain and also a unique mammal — the Skomer Vole (Myodes glareolus skomerensis), a distinct form of the Bank Vole. There are also standing stones and Iron Age remains on the island, which can be reached by a ferry from the nearby bay of Martin’s Haven.
The ferry runs from the first of April and so had already begun for the season as I made my way down into Martin’s Haven, having passed by Wooltack Point. I might well have been tempted to take a trip to the island but, as it turned out, I’d missed the boat by ten minutes and I didn’t fancy waiting most of an hour for the next one. Besides, it would only mess up my plan for the day.
Celtic Cross Carving
Incorporated into a wall on the road down to the beach was a stone with a Celtic cross carved into it. According to a handy plaque, the stone was found in 1984 in the foundation course of a Victorian wall and dates from between the seventh to ninth century.
More than thirty such stones have been found in Pembrokeshire and its location by Martin’s Haven has been taken to be indicative of the importance of sea travel to the Celtic church in Wales, Ireland and Dumnonia.
The path next climbed to a high point, which was graced with the imaginative name of High Point, before curving around another bay and heading north to the Nab Head. The wind was temporarily lessened, on account of its full force being caught by Skomer Island and Wooltack Point instead.
To the north, I could just about see more land across the sea. This too was part of Pembrokeshire and lay a good nine miles away, at the far end of a major embayment called St Brides Bay.
The Nab Head
On my way out to the promontory called the Nab Head, I passed a couple of other walkers who looked quite miserable battling the howling wind. I was having a whale of a time though, picking my way along the cliff path.
The Nab Head looks like pretty much any other headland and, like so many others, it has archaeological remains. The head was occupied by Mesolithic peoples about 10,500 years ago, at which point it wasn’t a headland but an inland hill three or four miles from the coast.
St Brides Haven
A little further around the coast I came to St Brides Haven, a tiny bay at the southern limit of St Brides Bay. The first I knew about this was when I spotted St Brides Castle through a farm gate:
St Brides Village
St Brides (Sain Ffraid) is a tiny village with just a couple of houses and an old Norman church plus of course the aforementioned ‘castle’.
St Brides Castle
The castle building actually only dates from the first half of the nineteenth century, when it served as the baronial mansion of the Allen-Phillips family. It was rented to Lord Kensington in 1880, who later took ownership but then had to sell it due to death duties in 1920.
From 1923, it was Kensington Hospital, which specialised in treating TB until 1945. The hospital then served as a convalescent home before being sold off in 1978 to become holiday accommodation.
The Pump House
One of the buildings in St Brides was labelled as the ‘Pump House’ and was open to the public. I duly peeked inside and found several information displays which confirmed that, yes, it was indeed a pump house. It had, I learned, been built in 1904 to provide fresh water to St Brides Castle, which stands some 750 m to the west, taking its water from a spring 250 m to the east. The reservoir holds 16,000 gallons and the engine and pump are still in working order.
In Want of Water
I left the pump house feeling somewhat thirsty, which was unfortunate because I’d run out of water and there was nowhere in sight where I could buy more. I realised that my first occasion to get some more lay at least three miles away in Little Haven and so I set off apace, the quicker to get there. The universe, meanwhile, mocked me terribly, ensuring that the path not only crossed streams but that at least one of them tumbled off the cliffs in a little waterfall that practically screamed ‘look! Water! Nah nah-ne nah!’
I turned away from the waterfall and looked out to sea. Just offshore was an islet named Stack Rocks, which I fondly re-imagined as some terrible beast surfacing from the waves.
I kept a watchful eye on Stack Rocks but it turned out the sea was watching back.
An Uncertain Structure
The coast curved around, as coasts do, so that I was looking at Stack Rocks end-on, which made it look like a small, round islet. Ahead of me, I espied Borough Head and beyond that, the village of Broad Haven. Little Haven lay out of sight, hidden behind Borough Head.
The tree-lined path spat me out onto a road, upon which I entered the village of Little Haven. These days, Little Haven is a tiny little touristy village but back in the early nineteenth century no less than five collieries were shipping coal out from its beaches, using flat-bottomed boats that they beached and refloated with the tide. Later, as the century drew towards a close, bathing became fashionable and the tourist trade never looked back.
I didn’t find a suitable shop in Little Haven but I did find a selection of open pubs and cafés and chose one of the former more or less at random. There, I downed a coke, which is mostly water and sugar — a ridiculous amount of sugar, 35 g in fact — followed by a couple of gin and tonics.
35 g of sugar not being remotely a substantial or suitable lunch, I also ordered some food the better to fuel the rest of my walk.
Haven Fort Hotel
When I felt sufficiently fed and rested, I set off again, following the road out of Little Haven towards Broad Haven. Looming over this road was a squat, squarish shape with pointy-arched windows that called itself the Haven Fort Hotel. This hotel was never a fort, having been built as a mansion home in about 1870 for the wealthy Goldwyer family. Its online reviews suggest you either love the place or hate it.
The road between the havens was narrow with passing places, each marked by the traditional ‘passing place’ sign which, diamond-shaped and written in capitals, is clearly an old-time gatecrasher into the Worboys road-sign scheme.
I read somewhere that these are actually being phased out now, in favour of almost identical signs in which the diamond is rotated forty-five degrees to become a square. The rationale behind is this is allegedly that diamond-shaped signs are reserved exclusively for trams, now that more urban tram systems are being reintroduced. I don’t see that there’s all that much scope for confusion but what do I know? I don’t drive. I don’t even own a licence.
Broad Haven has a similar history to its neighbour, Little Haven, but both the haven and the village are larger. A handy sign explained that the beach had hosted bathing machines in the later nineteenth century. It also boasted that amongst its modern attractions was a 300 m stretch of wheel-chair-friendly, fully-accessible cliff path at a place with the unlikely name of Haroldston Chins.
Not far from the sign I found the shop I needed, stocking up on water and snacks.
Beyond the Havens the path would become more strenuous, although not hugely so. It undulated a little as it carried me northwards, passing at one point an upright stone erected as a memorial to Olympic yachtsman Glyn Charles. ‘He loved Pembrokeshire,’ it said.
Glyn Charles (1965-1998) competed for Britain in the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. Admittedly he won no medals but simply competing at Olympic level is impressive. In 1998, while he was training for the 2000 Sydney Olympics he entered the Sydney to Hobart race, becoming one of six people who died when 80 knot winds and 40-foot waves cut a swathe through the 115-boat fleet.
In all, five boats sank, sixty-six retired from the race and fifty-five people had to be rescued in what was Australia’s biggest maritime rescue. Glyn Charles was lost when his safety harness failed at the stitching; his body was swallowed by the waves.
I was still wondering who he was, having not yet looked him up, when I passed a sign warning that semi-feral ponies were grazing the next section of path. This was less than ideal to my mind as they can be somewhat unpredictable.
There were indeed ponies and I gave them a wide berth. They, in turn, ignored me with contempt, which suited me fine. As I was leaving them behind, I encountered a man out walking his dogs, neither of which were on leads, and I thought it only fair to warn him that there were ponies, since they’re not too keen on unrestrained wolves.
The man was initially somewhat blasé, airily remarking that he walked here all the time and that his dogs were used to ponies. Then he hesitated.
‘Actually,’ he said, as if admitting a great secret, ‘I just try to keep us as far from the ponies as possible.’ Sensible chap, I thought.
Once past the ponies, the path got an awful lot easier. For one thing, it was metalled. For another it was perfectly level, a state of affairs that continued for about 300 m. This was Haroldston Chins.
After 300 m, I was back on the usual cliff path, which in this case made an immediate lurch through someone’s field. Directly in front of me was Druidston Haven, dominated by the Druidston Haven Hotel. I felt a pang of regret that I wasn’t staying there. Not so much on the hotel’s account — I know very little about it — but because I was feeling quite tired and could cheerfully have stopped. My previous illness and unrestful sleep was catching up with me, I think.
I gave some thought to continuing by road but elected to stick with the path, which immediately headed down to beach level and then ascended a bunch of steps. The undulations were starting to pick up a bit.
Glancing back, I saw a bizarre, futuristic building, which turns out to be a house called Malator. Malator was built in 1998 for Bob Marshall-Andrews, QC, former MP for Medway. An earth house, it is largely underground and no doubt has excellent green credentials. It certainly looks weird..
A short stretch of undulating coastline later, I found myself at Nolton Haven, a small village beside a narrow inlet, which is graced with a long, flat beach when the tide is out. As is often the case, Nolton Haven takes its name from a neighbouring village, in this case Nolton, which in turn derives its name from old-tun.
At Nolton Haven I sat and looked at the map for a bit. I was nearly done for the day but I didn’t fancy any more unnecessary undulation. I therefore resolved to leave Nolton Haven by road, reassuring myself that the road between Nolton Haven and Newgale still had good views of the sea.
Roch & Brawdy
The road dropped me gently alongside a beach of shingle, over which it continued in order to reach Newgale (Niwgwl), which was another small village.
I was actually staying in a B&B about a mile from Newgale on the edge of the village of Roch (Y Garn) and so had a slightly worrying trek along the A487 in order to find it. When I did, it turned out that they’d not received my booking from Laterooms. This was my third Laterooms problem in as many weeks (they’d never had any issues before) and I now seriously doubt that I’ll trust them again.
Ty Coed De
Fortunately, the couple who owned the B&B (Ty Coed De, meaning ‘Southwood House’) had a room free, which they gave me, adding that if they knew I was coming they’d have picked me up from Newgale to save me risking life and limb on the A487.
My room was nice and this time I slept like a log, without any weird lobster dreams.
The Next Morning
Breakfast the following morning was awesome, with locally sourced eggs and dead pig products, while the bread for toast and the marmalade were made by the owners themselves.
I let the landlord give me a lift back down to Newgale so that I could walk back to Nolton Haven on the cliff path I’d foregone for the road. It was lovely but I think I made the right decision the previous evening: it was hard going in places and the views were no better. Tired as I was, I’d not have enjoyed it so much.
From Nolton Haven I walked the back roads to Haverfordwest, whose boundary was marked by a pre-Worboys sign, where I caught the first of several trains that would carry me home.
This time: 18½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 1,346 miles