18th – 22nd January 2022
Marloes Sands – Pembroke Dock
26 miles/3149 ft total ascent
My knees and my ankle were absolutely throbbing. No pain-relieving measures were doing any good and I knew I couldn’t continue going up and down the steep, long slopes today. To continue in general I was going to need joint supports and pain relief that was a bit more effective. I would aim for Milford Haven via an inland route, avoiding the cliffs.
The sunrise was angry and magnificent, the sky surrounded in bands of fiery red as I cut through the farm tracks on the Dale headland to make my way to the lanes. Going this way would probably cut about seven miles off what would have been today’s distance but it didn’t take much time for me to stop being annoyed about it; it wasn’t long before the great tall towers of the refineries reared up on the horizon. I cannot imagine a path that took me any closer to them would have been filled with happiness and wonder.
When I got to Herbrandston the welcome sign stated that it was a ‘doubly thankful’ village. I had absolutely no idea what this meant. What would a singularly thankful town be? What are they grateful for? Maintained roads? Ample parking? Bins get collected on time?
No. According to a dog walking local, a doubly thankful village was one where all the men that went to fight in either of the World Wars came back alive. There are only two of these places in the whole of Wales, and only fourteen total out of tens of thousands in the whole of Great Britain. The remaining twelve are in England; neither Scotland nor Northern Ireland remained unscathed.
War memorials in the UK are small and very local. A post office or a firehouse or a council office might have a plaque on the wall stating the names of the past employees of that place that died in those wars. Unobtrusive, simple memorial statues, sculptures or plinths sit somewhere central but generally unnoticed until November when they become covered with wreaths of paper poppies. These things are so ubiquitous that they are are as part and parcel of any locality as red postboxes, bus shelters and over-watered hanging baskets. It was suddenly a very odd thought that here was a place without a single plaque, with nowhere to lay wreaths because no men died; where the church bells had no one to toll for on November 11th.
It was a quick onwards walk to Milford Haven where I aimed for the pharmacy in the supermarket.
After days and days of glorious rugged coasts and perfect scenery, of cliffs and coves and quiet paths, small bays and dramatic rocks, easy and extraordinary camping, views in all directions and just small villages to pass through, Milford Haven came like a splat down to earth. It arrived suddenly. When a day ago I had been sitting on a tiny shingle bay out at St. Martins looking out on Skomer Island, now I found myself shadowed by the huge, cold and looming industrial clutter in a place that was entirely without colour. It was just grey.
I said before that the journey around the Pembrokeshire Coast could not be compared to the ascent up Everest because there was no death zone around Milford Haven. I take that back. Hope, dreams, laughter and the last memories of happiness go to Milford Haven to die. The place is so soulless that hearts break and the cracks turn to stone upon entering. Up until getting there I had been prepared for the pharmacist to tell me to rest for a couple days, and been likely to listen, but upon buying my new supports and solpedeine and hearing him say those words I knew there wasn’t a damn chance I was staying here. I was so eager to leave that, in that moment, I would rather my legs fall off. As long as they fell off once I had left.
I was going to get to Pembroke Dock as fast as I could. I actually had no idea if it was going to be any better than Milford Haven, but it surely couldn’t be any worse.
Milford Haven was established by Quaker families from Nantucket, with the original intention of setting up a whaling station. Coming from across the pond, they automatically designed the layout of the city to a grid pattern typical of North American towns, instantly putting a Briton used to the winding, nonsensical, labyrinthine roads and alleys of everywhere else on the island in an instant state of unease and suspicion. How can one trust a town so formulaic when it doesn’t even have an irritating one way system or two way streets that only fit a car and a half wide?
The whaling station never came to be but, as evidenced by the absolute forest of refinery towers, environmental concerns have never been the reason to stop anything being built here. Despite a significant history with both fishing and the navy, these days the town is dominated by the towers of Esso, Texaco, Gulf, BP, ExonnMobil and Amoco and all their tankers. Despite all this, the refineries only created 2,000 jobs for a population of 14,000 where the percentage unemployed is regularly at 30%.
Pembroke Dock was quite a few more agonising miles into and around the huge natural harbour. You could still see the refineries at a distance, but the place had far more colour. Old ladies insisted that they give me huge bars of chocolate in the launderette and there was an amazingly cute dog.
The lesson here being; it is never the wrong choice to leave Milford Haven.
Pembroke Dock – Freshwater West
21 miles/2593 ft total ascent
Across fields and marshes away from Pembroke Dock, and refinery towers were always in the distance. I had got far away from a few, but today new ones would come right up close.
First though was Pembroke, and I soaked in the lovely castle because I knew what was coming up.
Pembroke, and by extension Pembrokeshire, has an etymology from around 950AD when it was an area within the Kingdom of Dyfed and went by the name Penfo which translates as ‘Land’s End’. Whilst North Wales holds Edward I’s ‘Iron Ring’, the castles down here are primarily Norman. Pembroke Castle, surrounded on three sides by water, was kept intact by Edward I, and continued to be fortified more and more by every generation as it passed hands through marriage, missteps and gifting.
It was through the last that Henry VI granted the castle to his half-brother, Jasper Tudor, who brought his pregnant, widowed half-sister, Margaret Beaufort in to stay. She gave birth to her son, Henry, here. He would grow up and go on to ride through Wales, gathering Welsh soldiers on his way to Bosworth Field where to defeat of Richard III saw a Welshman take the crown. The Tudors would be, without much doubt, the most famous (and infamous) Royal House to sit on the throne.
It was time to get cracking and limp on. The pain was better after being rested, iced, compressed and elevated, even just overnight. Now my joints were bound firm and were slightly more eager to move.
Down the river and then up the main street of Monkton, then through woods and fields and muddy tracks. This part of the path was so bitty it was the most I have checked the map in one day. Eventually I looked where the path started to head to take me right down to the water to pass around the front of the refinery. I really didn’t want to go there or do that, so I continued straight on the lane down the back of it, keeping the hideous industrial mess and all its smoke away from me.
I emerged out above Rhoscrowther and sat by the bay for a small break. Looking ahead I saw only the pretty bays curving out to sea. Then if I turned my head to the right, oh, there was the refinery. Lovely.
I carried on left, away from the harbour and all the grim chimneys, to the fields and woods that brought me, via a series of small gates and a lane decorated with fake birds, onwards low-level until I reached the fort above West Angle Bay. I had somewhat quickmarched the last ten miles, determined to put as much distance between myself and the smog of Milford Haven harbour and all its refineries. The cafe was shut, but I used the picnic benches to sit at and heat me up some lunch.
Dogs of all types seemed to instantly flock. It’s just noodles! I told them. MY noodles! Various owners appeared to gather their pets. They apologised because, of course, their dogs ‘weren’t normally like this’.
Lovely views without a single refinery started to appear as I slowed down. Out at sea, Rat Island was followed by Sheep Island. I can’t find any specific stories that reference why they got those names, but other ‘rat islands’ became so after accidental introduction of rats lead to all native bird and insect species being consumed and the islands being overrun. One would assume that Sheep Island was once where sheep were kept to graze, but its a tidal island so it wouldn’t be the best grazing spot if the sheep could just keep running off it at low tide.
Valleys dipped, and footbridges crossed small streams and, eventually, I reached the dunes of Freshwater West. The wind was due to be quite heavy tonight, but I found the perfect nook amongst the sandwalls to place my tent. Throughout the night I would hear the wind absolutely screaming, but remain completely untouched.
Freshwater West – Freshwater East
16 miles/1715 ft total ascent
The moon had been so bright last night that I had got out of the tent to check that there wasn’t actually someone standing on top of the dune with a massive spotlight. No, it was just a really big, happy moon.
There was somewhere I knew I had to go this morning. I wasn’t really bothered myself, but I had many friends that were avid Harry Potter fans that would not have been happy with me if I hadn’t sought out the grave of Dobby the Elf.
I understand the appeal of the Harry Potter books. I do not understand the appeal of Dobby the Elf. As far as I remember reading, he was just a super stalker that tried to ruin Harry’s life repeatedly in the name of protection rather than communicating his concerns and then guilt tripped something massive when told off for it. He dies in the end though, and his death is to save Harry so I guess that often redeems all a character’s past sins. In reality though, if any of us had a friend like Dobby, we wouldn’t want them as a friend for very long.
Enough people disagree with me that a whole pile of painted stones had been placed on the film location of his grave; here at Freshwater West. It had been dismantled by the council a few times, and rebuilt. It seems the council has eventually admitted defeat.
If you are searching for the grave, let me assure you, it’s not as overcomplicated as the couple sites that give directions make it sound. At the southern carpark (with the memorial statue and toilets), go straight down onto the beach itself. Turn and walk right looking up at the dunes until you spot a huge mound of out of place rocks after roughly 100 metres. That’s all there is to it. It’s about halfway up the height of the dune on a ledge of sand.
It’s a pretty sobering thought to know I’ll never have as much of a legacy, or as devoted a bunch of mourners as a fictional house elf. Maybe I should start messing up the lives of those I love more, and then sacrifice myself at the end but that all sounds like a lot of hard work and not a lot of fun. I also have a strong feeling it might backfire because I’m not fictional.
That job done, the lane took me onwards. Today was going to be exciting! The coastline here was full of all manner of contorted and twisted stacks and arches. The Elegug Stacks, filled with bird nests, would sit like stout sentrymen out at sea, and, even more exciting, the single celled hermitage of St. Govan would be in a small, tight cove at the base of the cliffs with its uncountable amount of access steps and healing spring.
I was looking forward to it all, it would be awesome. As long as the firing range was open.
Red flags banned my access, instead diverting me over a grass track that ran by the road for many miles. The abandoned villages of Flimston and Longston, presumably used for military training, were eerie spaces where empty churches, homes and farm buildings sat, overgrown, now just wandered about by grazing sheep like the setting for a horror film. The Castlemartin Military Training Area covers 6,000 acres, extending into the sea and the walk around it would therefore consume a significant part of my day. The red flags flying had really bummed me out.
As it is only one of two armoured fighting vehicle ranges in the UK, a few tanks were on display with information boards outside the high fences. I glared at the tanks. Why would I want to look at tanks when I was here to look at rock stacks and eccentric saints’ lairs? I don’t give a shit about tanks! I would have given the tanks the finger, but remembering how that came back to haunt me with the cows on the Llyn Peninsula I decided against it. Instead I just gave them really bitchy looks.
I have a feeling I was meant to emerge back at the coast somewhere a little sooner than through the Bosherton Lilyponds, but that’s what happened. I wouldn’t call the network of bridges over the ponds unpleasant, but it might have been nicer if there were actually lillypads in the lillyponds. God, I was in a right mood today. Was it even possible for me to find anything to not complain about right now?
The reddening sand took me up the dunes onto the headland where I could look out to the cliffs ahead. Now all fully sandstone, they glowed orange, shaped straight up and down as if plonked out of a cake tin. Ah, yes; a good lot of rocks always does the trick.
Despite being sedimentary, the deposits that made up red sandstone didn’t settle beneath the sea. Instead they would be exposed on dry and arid regions in a dune formation or as ephemeral river deposits. Millenia of exposure saw the iron rich crystals break down and oxidise the iron into haematite. The haematite acts like a thin paint on the outside of each grain and absorbs every colour apart from red, which they reflect, giving the cliffs their va va voom.
The headlands were flat and large, limestone started to interrupt the sandstone and carbuncles of stone lay coiled in valleys, sprung up and shifted around by all the earth’s movements. The path visited the quiet Barafundle Bay and went back up steps to tread through winding, woodland paths until the Stackpole Quay slipway, where a family sat having a small afternoon picnic.
I continued winding around the magical headlands until I reaches the head above Freshwater East. A perfect, tent-sized spot sat behind gorse bushes with a view straight out to the water. It was perhaps slightly early but, now I had stopped, it was also extremely cold so I set up the tent before the sun started to set.
Dudley the excitable puppy found me and was chased down by an out-of-puff gent. The man explained that Dudley was still just a puppy, but was also a total prick. It clearly had not been his idea to get the puppy.
He complimented my choice of pitch, saying he had often thought of going out and wildcamping himself. I asked him, if he lived here, why didn’t he? He didn’t really know but ultimately it came down to being afraid of doing something wrong, or something just going wrong and being all alone. I told him he could take a mate. Or Dudley.
Our conversation was interrupted by two older ladies coming round the head.
“Oh gosh! It’s just like The Salt Path!”
“Hated that book” stated the man. The women were instantly onto him. How dare he! Didn’t he realise it was a beautiful true story about the healing powers of nature, the kindness of strangers, and the force of true love? All three of them then looked at me, the one person there that hadn’t read the book, for my verdict.
“Problem is a lot of those type of books, whether they intend to or not, romanticise this. It’s really gruelling and often completely miserable and whilst people are incredibly kind, it’s not an everyday, or even every week thing. You have to be able to be self-reliant and its a real concern that people influenced by these stories are going to go out and get themselves caught out in a really bad way. I think its better if you don’t read these books as anything aspirational, though, of course, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be enjoyed.”
I was quite pleased with myself. I thought that was diplomatic enough. Both sides thought they’d won and neither had worked out I hadn’t read it. Dudley, his owner and the two ladies left chatting, and I settled down for a frosty night.
Freshwater East – Tenby
12 miles/2017 ft total ascent
The national animal of England is a lion. This is already ridiculous. I feel I shouldn’t have to explain this but there aren’t any wild lions in England. The Scots, not to be outdone by the English, raised them a unicorn. I suppose that if its a fictional animal, then chances are it might live in Scotland within the realms of fiction.
The Welsh scoffed. To hell with your Kings of the Jungle and Magical Steeds! Ours is a Dragon.
How that came to be is still lost somewhat in the midsts of time, but the general trajectory is believed to have started with a story out of The Mabinogian that tells of two warring dragons; the red dragon and the invading white dragon. To stop the damage and terror caused by these fighting beasts, a great pit was dug and filled with mead. The dragons drunk themselves into a stupor and were able to be imprisoned in the middle of Snowdonia. It seems methods that are advised to rid gardeners of slugs, are also effective on dragons.
Geoffrey of Monmouth picks up the story. Centuries had passed and the dragons forgotten until King Vortigen tried to build a castle on the site of their imprisonment only to have the walls and foundations demolished each night by something unseen. He found a boy with no known father, intending to sacrifice him to appease the gods. The boy pointed out that this was ridiculous, why didn’t he just free the dragons instead? On explaining what he meant, Vortigen found and freed the dragons from their prison and one last fight took place with the red dragon defeating the white.
The boy told Vortigen that the white dragon would represent the Saxons, and the red dragon would be the people of the finest king the world would ever know. He didn’t mean Vortigen, which was a bit rude, he meant Arthur. And the boy would become the wizard, Merlin, that would be the one to guide him.
A mark of Celtic Welsh pride, the heraldry of King Arthur, the red dragon may not be something native or even real, but it speaks of the power and inspiration of legends that endure far, far longer than the names of the men that record them.
I wished a dragon could come and take me on to Tenby. Everything hurt again after the mad push away from Milford Haven.
Steep steps and slopes brought me up and down all the way round to Manorbier Bay onto shingle and concrete. The next route up saw the sides of The Priest’s Nose traversed across with mercifully little rise, and an eventual plonk down by yet another military site and the accompanying fence to walk around.
The huge arch of the Skrinkle Haven rock formation known as ‘The Church Doors’ carved high into the cliffs. The vertical limestone strata it was cut from adding to its lofty majesty. This used to be a smugglers cove, but is now a beach that, in Summer, can be far more quiet than the more accessible sands nearby. The MOD range really puts people off.
There would be hundreds more steps to climb to get to Lydstep Point headland. Something that before my joints started hurting would have been an easy business but Pembrokeshire had really taken its toll now. I moaned as I went around the static caravan site and found myself hemmed by the fences of another military zone.
The wonder and bliss of North Pembrokeshire really did feel over now. Milford Haven had been the marker that things were not going to return to their former glory. I can understand how those that do the Pembrokeshire Coast on its own often start in the south and head north; that way, the south is nice enough, Milford Haven is a hellscape, but the best continues to be ahead. This way was a bit depressing, I felt like I didn’t get to say goodbye properly.
Eventually I reached South Beach near Penally and lay back on the sand for a while, downing more painkillers. It wasn’t long now. I should have something to eat but just wanted to keep going. Last night had been the first night where I felt almost too cold to sleep. I did sleep, but anytime I woke it was like I hadn’t fully warmed through and the extremity of everything felt really quite icy.
With the knees and ankles and all threatening to age me twenty years, I decided I was going to stay indoors in Tenby. Maybe two nights. I needed things to stop hurting.
With the last bit of power needed, I got up, walked up, continued upwards, then past a golf course and carried on to tarmac until I finally reached the esplanade at Tenby.
The colourful streets and the two-mile-long beach draws absolutely thousands of English holidaymakers every year. Now is not the holiday season, so much of the town was shut. How do people that actually live in these sorts of places manage it? They have a utopia of wonderful things for half the year and then everything shuts up for the other half. It must really suck to know your own patronage isn’t ever going to be as significant as Jill and Tim from Hampshire’s.
I found the cheapest room. Which was still not that cheap. I scratched the idea of staying here two nights. It would be two for the price of four elsewhere. It wasn’t even holiday season! I picked up some more fuel and new gaiters and went into the pub for a drink and a bowl of soup and was asked if I knew about Emma? Emma had passed Liverpool now, and was nearing Blackpool. Emma’s doing just fine thanks. Oh yes, yes, she’s very brave and amazing.
Tenby – Saundersfoot
4 miles/1343 ft total ascent
So I wasn’t able to stay in Tenby two nights, but I didn’t plan to go far. If I could get to Amroth that would be good, but it soon became clear that that wasn’t going to happen.
After leaving the walled city through an archway, I followed a road that became a path and kept climbing. Up steps and then up through woods. It was not particularly invigorating; the northern part of Pembrokeshire had completely spoiled me, and as I went flat across another field, I was ready to be done and onto Carmarthen.
I was going incredibly slowly. Even so I started feeling those waves of nausea that come from uncomfortable levels of exertion for the first time in the whole trip. What was the LNT for vomit? Surely you couldn’t just leave it, you’d probably have to bury it.
Once again the accumulation of the descents was far worse than going up. I only managed to go four miles before admitting defeat at Saundersfoot, finding a far cheaper room than the night before and just crashing out and barely moving until morning.
I was so, so close to the end of the Pembrokeshire Coast now. Only two miles away was the plinth at Amroth.
By the time the Wales Coast Path opened in 2012, the Pembrokeshire Coast Path had been a National Trail for 42 years already. It was in 1953, just after the Pembrokeshire Coast became a National Park, that the area was surveyed for a long distance path. Long before mobile phones and the internet, the communities it passed through were all very isolated with incredibly poor access, most relying on boats to take them any further than their settlement. Completion took 17 years, during which over 100 footbridges were built, 470 stiles erected, and thousands and thousands of steps cut into the cliffs. Whilst some spaces were already rights of way, negotiations had to be had with many private landowners and new paths created.
It was an absolutely massive undertaking and was finally opened on the 16th May 1970. Sadly, celebrations to mark its 50th anniversery were cancelled due to Covid.
There are now 16 National Trails, with the construction of the 17th, The England Coast Path, in progress. Each one of them required a huge amount of work to take them up to the standards already set. Soon there will be an 18th as the existing Wainwright’s Coast to Coast is being surveyed and assessed for NT status as we speak. A presentation will be made to DEFRA later this year with all the facts and figures of where and when and how to bring it up to the level of other National Trails, but it is anticipated that by 2026 acorns will make their way along the route.
Whilst my whole schtick are trails that are not National Trails (there are hundreds and hundreds of LDPs, why should only these 18 ever get the limelight?), that doesn’t mean I have no appreciation for them, or admiration for the extensive and backbreaking work that comes with their creation. In fact I think it is extraordinary. Started as an initiative to protect and preserve our historic and incredible countryside from development, hand-in-hand with the establishment of the National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, they have made exploration into something accessible and are easily single handedly responsible for kickstarting many people’s love of the long distance hike.