FOR one reason and another — partly that I was busy and partly that I wanted to wait until the trees had stopped trying to have sex with my nose — I allowed six weeks to elapse between my previous walk and this one. It was probably a little too long.
I was feeling slightly out of practice as I arrived back in Newgale (Niwgwl) and looked at the path climbing up out of the village onto the clifftop. Certainly, it was long enough to miss a window of several weeks’ worth of glorious weather; it was overcast with threats of drizzle when I finally returned.
The threat of drizzle turned out to be an idle one. This I was very glad about as I’d somehow contrived to leave my coat at home. Fortunately, I feel no cold, less so even than other mammals (we mammals have active homeostasis but it comes at the cost of a faster metabolism than reptiles. And that’s why I have to eat a constant diet of chocolate. I have to. Honest. There’s no other way…)
It quickly became apparent that whatever the weather, this walk promised to be colourful. For a start, the gorse was in bloom.
This in itself was hardly remarkable, gorse flowers all year round, but it seemed to be making an extra-special effort because almost all the gorse was in bloom and it was showing an intense canary yellow. Indeed, there were places where my eyes suffered sensory overload and everything else looked a bit purple as my retinal cones struggled to compensate.
In other places the compensation was built-in, with the vivid blue-purple of bluebells and the bright pink of sea thrift. Throw in a variety of white flowers, and some surprisingly colourful lichens and the whole walk was something of a polychromatic frenzy. It was great, even in the dull light.
Ponies and Plummets
Excess yellow not usually being considered dangerous the path experimented with some actual jeopardy by putting some semi-feral ponies in the way.
I eyed the ponies warily — I tend to think of ponies as unpredictable, bitey nutjobs, which I mostly justify on the grounds that they really are unpredictable, bitey nutjobs. The ponies looked back with utter disinterest. It was almost as if they knew I’d already eaten all the chocolate.
I edged round them anyway. Naturally the only direction in which that was possible was closer to the cliff edge than I’d have liked.
Random Bus Bloke
Near Dinas Fawr, I met a man coming the other way who greeted me warmly while I largely failed to recognise him. It transpired that we’d both caught the same bus from Haverfordwest but he’d stayed on it and continued to Solva in order to walk back to Newgale. We were mildly self-congratulatory in that we’d both kept about the same pace and therefore met roughly halfway. He was stopping at four and half miles, though, while I planned to do another twelve beyond that. But I would be pausing at the four and a half mile mark, which would take me to Solva:
Solva is the name of both a river and the village that sits near its mouth, both taking that name from the Norse for ‘sunny inlet’. The mouth of the river has cut a steep-sided ravine and Solva is split into Upper and Lower parts, which are respectively above and within the ravine.
As an extremely sheltered anchorage, Solva was the principle trading port of St Bride’s Bay in Mediaeval times and continued to be important until the late nineteenth century.
I passed by the rocky site of another Iron Age promontory fort and then descended into Lower Solva where I forewent a pub in favour of the Café on the Quay (the centre building on the quayside in the previous photo). There, I obtained a delicious fresh crab sandwich and a cold drink and generally took a short break.
The building to the left of the café is a lifeboat house, donated to the RNLI in 1869 by a Mrs Margaret Egerton in memory of her husband, Charles. Or so says an inscription on its side. I’m assuming he wasn’t a duck.
Although Solva’s primary industries today are tourism and chasing fake ducks downstream, it is also home to Pembrokeshire’s oldest continuously working woollen mill, which was built in 1907. The mill still produces carpets and rugs today although it also has a tearoom and a shop to take advantage of the tourism.
I still can’t get over the ducks. They all have names. That’s marvellous. And they say the English are eccentric? Er, people that is, not the ducks. They don’t say anything at all.
Hot Pink Camo
I must have left Solva at about the same time as a couple who were also walking to Whitesands Bay. We had probably passed each other several times but not noticed when the déjà vu started to bite. On any other day, the girl’s hot pink top would have been pretty memorable but, with the flowers giving it their all, she was just lost against the background. In particular, the next section of the cliff path had more thrift and other pink flowers than before. I’d never have thought of hot pink as working like camouflage…
In addition to the walking couple I also passed a field full of shire horses, which peered over the fence and regarded me incuriously. Shires are the gentle giants of the equine world and you can see why, if you’d been breeding a horse for its cart or barge-pulling power and enormity you’d also want it to be as placid as possible. A wild pony temperament in something double or triple its size would be frankly terrifying.
Wreckage and Rocks
I spectacularly failed to take any photos of the horses that came within a mile of being in focus, and quickly headed off before the whole field could walk over to see what I was doing.
I soon encountered two men, walking in the opposite direction, who hailed me as a fellow perambulator. We spoke briefly, with the obligatory comments on the weather — ‘it’s not raining’ is practically headline news in West Wales — before they directed my attention to the waters in the cove below.
The two men told me a terrible tale of how, back in the ’80s, a tug had mistaken the narrow, rocky bay of Porth y Rhaw for the mouth of the Solva. Not only had it foundered on the rocks, they said — they actually said ‘floundered’ but I’m assuming that Sudden Flatfish Attack didn’t happen — but two other tugs followed it into disaster, assuming the first one knew what it was doing. All three were wrecked with all hands. This was a tragic disaster, they said, and I agreed that if that’s what happened then it was.
That’s not at all how it happened. Not at all.
What Actually Happened
A little research reveals that the three tugs in question were wrecked in 1981. And that’s about it for accuracy.
Former Mersey tugs, they had been sold to Greek owners and were on their way south. The lead tug, previously Weather Cock but now renamed Vernicos Alexia, was towing the other two, Vernicos Georgios (formerly Pea Cock) and Vernicos Barbara IV (formerly Heath Cock).
Alexia, experiencing engine problems, was unable to steer properly in bad weather and fouled the tow line, disabling her propeller. They dropped anchors in an effort to hold position but the anchors failed to bite and they drifted onto the rocks. The tugs were write-offs and left there to rust but the crews were removed by lifeboat and helicopter. But I guess that’s not as exciting as ‘everybody died through stupidity’. Or possibly flatfish.
Porth y Rhaw
Porth y Rhaw seems an odd name as it literally means ‘port of the shovels’, although it could also have originally been a reference to oars.
The remains of yet another promontory fort overlook the cliff and, although much of the site is now swimming, enough remains to show that it had serious defensive walls and ditches and at least eight roundhouses.
The mysterious wall above sits beside the stream in Porth y Rhaw, all that’s left of a once extensive mill. Originally a corn grist mill, it was converted to a woollen mill and factory by its owner, a Mr Sylvester, and operated from the early nineteenth century until about 1915. The mill was powered by three leats which would be filled overnight and then released as needed during the day.
Dyes were supplied once a year by sailing boat, which would sit offshore while the miller rowed out to it. Presumably its skipper was keen to avoid a spectacularly colourful shipwreck. Again, no one dyed through stupidity.
The next section of path was fairly straight and flat for quite a way before finally descending to meet a stream at Caerbwdy Bay. Here, as in many places along the Pembrokeshire coast, there stood the remains of a lime kiln.
From Caerbwdy Bay, the path climbed back up to the cliff top, passing yet another ancient promontory fort and rounding into the next bay, which was Caerfai. On the way I passed fields of sheep and low stone walls and one of the latter had partly collapsed. One of the fallen stones had this on it:
Caerfai Bay has a small, sandy beach which is the closest one to St Davids. The path spat me out into a car park above the beach and I availed myself of a bench for a bit of a rest. At this point, I was only a mile from St Davids, where I would be spending the night, and I would actually be getting further away for much of the rest of my walk.
I opted not to cut my walk short and head up the road to St Davids. I still had plenty of daylight and a fair amount of go left in my legs. So, I left Caerfai and its handful of cottages (and rather more caravans) behind and set off along the suddenly busy cliff path into the next bay: St Non’s.
St Non’s Bay
St Non, Nonna or Nonnita was, according to tradition, the mother of St David, the patron saint of Wales. As ever, the accounts vary wildly but she is generally said to have been raped by the king of Ceredigion c. 500, with David the result. In her later years, she travelled to Cornwall and then to Brittany, where she died.
The Catholic Church, which has more saints than you could shake a crozier at, doesn’t recognise her as one.
St Non’s Chapel
Near to the retreat and modern chapel, which is the westernmost Catholic chapel in Wales, lie the ruins of an earlier chapel, which has not been reliably dated but is traditionally held to have been St Non’s house and the birthplace of St David. This is probably very exciting if you’re Welsh and religious; being neither I merely noted it was interesting and hurried on towards the inlet of Porth Clais.
Porth Clais is a narrow inlet with a twelfth century harbour that served nearby St Davids and became quite busy and important from the sixteenth century.
Quiet and almost empty now, it still serves a handful of fishermen and recreational sailors. And canoeists. I know it caters for canoeists because I encountered a whole gang of them, coming the other way along the path. They were heading for this:
Porthclais itself lies further along the path, deeper into the inlet of Porth Clais. There’s not much to it — a rather impressive bank of ruined lime kilns (in use from 1650 to 1900 according to an informative plaque) and a car park. The latter sits on the spot where Porthclais Gasworks once stood and it, in turn, was built on the site of a natural spring which is traditionally held to be the place where St David was baptised.
A man in a kiosk at the car park sold me an ice cream on the sole condition that I didn’t ask for mango sorbet, which he’d got none of. I did my best not to ask for mango sorbet.
According to legend, Porthclais had an even more famous visitor sometime in the late fifth or early sixth century, in the form of King Arthur. It was there, according to the Mabinogion, that the enchanted giant poison-bristled boar Twrch Trwyth arrived from Ireland, where he had once been a king before being transformed into a beast on account of his wickedness.
Arthur, who had been in Ireland hunting Twrch Trwyth to assist his cousin Culhwch (who in turn had been set the task of hunting it by his beloved Olwen’s father, the giant Ysbaddaden), pursued it across the Irish Sea and into Wales.
Carreg yr Esgob
I sped onwards from Porthclais, having carefully checked my ice cream for any sign of poisonous boar hairs. The coast undulated a little, though the path remained fairly level, and carried me round to the next bay. Here the gorse and other flowers were really blooming their little hearts out — that’s why they don’t have hearts, obviously — while offshore I could see the slanted stone arch of Carreg yr Esgob.
The path became a little more rugged in places, but not too much so, and I made reasonable time to Pen Dal-aderyn, the westernmost point of mainland Wales.
There, I encountered Hot Pink Girl and her bloke again, shortly followed by a woman heading to Porthclais who asked how far it was in minutes. I figured she must mean ‘how long did it take to walk that?’ rather than ‘could you tell me the distance in sixtieths of a degree?’ and I answered accordingly, which seemed to alarm her almost as much as the other reply would have done. She clearly thought she was closer to Porthclais than she was (it was about three miles by coast path, or one and a half as the raven flies).
Ravens were entirely a possibility. About half a mile off Pen dal-aderyn lies Ramsey Island, which is an RSPB bird sanctuary with an impressive array of feathered creatures including the aforementioned Corvus corax. It also has buzzards, peregrine falcons and razorbills amongst others.
Ramsey’s name is Norse although the precise etymology seems to be uncertain — ‘ram island’ is the simplest, most probable explanation. In Welsh it is Ynys Dewi or ‘St David’s Island’.
Ramsey’s primary link with the saint is as the home of St Justinian, a sixth century Breton hermit who was also St David’s confessor. Appointed Abbot of St David’s Cathedral (in St Davids), Justinian became quickly disillusioned with the attitude of the monks there and moved to Ramsey Island with a handful of loyal followers in order to set up a stricter regime.
St Justinian’s particular brand of what would today be described as ‘religious extremism’ didn’t find universal favour even amongst those he took with him as, according to tradition, it got him murdered by beheading.
Of course, mere decapitation is not meant to discomfort the likes of saints and Justinian is supposed to have picked up his head and crossed back over to the mainland before popping off to meet his Maker. His body was said to have been buried in a now ruined chapel at St Justinian, a tiny hamlet on the far side of Ramsey Sound.
Now that I was on the final stretch the weather decided to take a turn for the worse with a powerful gusting wind blowing up from nowhere and stripping the warmth from my body. That’ll teach me to mock saints on their home ground. Hot Pink Girl and her bloke passed me by as I struggled with a warm jumper — I wanted to put the damned thing on, the wind wanted to blow it all the way to Kent.
‘I was wondering why you weren’t cold,’ said Hot Pink Girl as she passed.
Eventually I triumphed and, clad in my warmest garment, I made my way to Whitesands Bay, which is St Davids’ main beach. Behind it towered the bulk of Carn Llidi, 181 m of stubby rock but I had only eyes for the beach, where I could sit down and have a warm drink in the café.
Whitesands Bay (Traeth Mawr, ‘large beach’) wasn’t nearly as sheltered as I’d have liked and I was just trying to raise enough energy to walk the final two miles into St Davids when a little coastal bus appeared in the car park and saved me the bother.
The Coastal Bus
The driver chatted amiably and successfully guessed where I was staying (he lived almost next door, it turned out). Moments later, he was flagged down by Hot Pink Girl and her bloke, who likewise turned out to be staying at the same place and who would also be walking further along the coast the next morning. They were pretty exhausted.
‘I saw you ahead of us,’ Hot Pink Girl said, ‘and to keep going I imagined that you were a mass murderer and I had to catch you.’
‘Your first impression of me was “mass murderer”?’ I queried. The girl nodded without hesitation. Her bloke looked out of the window in an ‘I’m not getting involved in this’ sort of way.
The bus deposited us in St David’s and I checked in, had a bath and then went off in search of food. I didn’t murder any masses so far as I know.
St David’s is the UK’s smallest city, holding that status purely by virtue of its cathedral until 1888. Automatic, unchartered, cathedral-related city status ended in that year and, although St Davids continued to call itself a city, legally it was just pretending until 1994 when it was given the necessary letters patent. It feels more like a small rural town, which is essentially what it is. I rather liked it.
This time: 16½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 1,362½ miles