Holiday resorts and holy places on the Pembrokeshire Coast Path
The southern face of Dyfed’s south-western peninsula is wilder and older than the shoreline that faces Milford Haven. It is characterised by extravagantly eroded cliffs that project defiantly into the restless sea. At the western end, natural seclusion is reinforced by Army security at the Castlemartin tank-training range, but on the sheltered eastern side lies a string of delightful little holiday resorts such as Tenby and Saundersfoot.
The little village of Angle lies at the far end of the road leading from Pembroke to the western end of the peninsula. It slopes down to the edge of Angle Bay, an almost landloeked sweep of shingle and sand, overlooked on its southern and eastern sides by the tanks of the BP oil refinery. More secluded, though less sheltered from the prevailing westerly winds, is West Angle Bay, a smaller sandy beach facing the open sea.
Angle’s position at the entrance to Milford Haven made it an important link in the harbour’s defences. The old fort of East Blockhouse was built by the Tudors, but in Victorian times General Gordon (of Khartoum) helped to survey and plan a whole chain of defensive forts. One of these, on Thorn Island, is now a hotel while another, on Popton Point, which overlooks Angle Bay from the east, is now the headquarters of the refinery.
The village has a lifeboat station near by and the harbour provides good deep-water mooring so close inshore that local sailors say they do not need to drop anchor until they can read the time from the clock in the hall of the Point House Inn.
A beautiful open sandy beach is edged by rocksand backed by ranks of dunes. Surfing is popular, but strong offshore currents and undertows make bathing dangerous. The wind-blown dunes cover Stone Age and Bronze Age sites.
Seaweed used to be collected on this shore for the making of laver bread, a South Wales delicacy. One of the huts in which the seaweed was dried out before being boiled still stands on the southern headland; it is the last survivor of more than a dozen such huts built 60 years ago.
Almost 6,000 acres of the south-western corner of Pembrokeshire are cut off from public access by the Castlemartin ranges of the Royal Armoured Corps. But during periods when training is suspended lanes lead to a spectacular walk along the cliffs.
Castlemartin village was the base of the Castlemartin Yeomanry, who were rushed north to Fishguard to crush the French invasion of 1797. By doing so they earned the only battle honour to be awarded to a regiment for action on British soil. The village was also the home of the Castlemartin Black Cattle, a breed now merged in the thriving Welsh Black herds. A link with this aspect of the village’s past is the medieval cattle pound, one of only two in Britain, on the traffic roundabout in the middle of the hamlet.
These massive pillars of limestone rising sheer from the sea owe their Welsh name to the colonies of guillemots (heligog in Welsh) which nest on them, along with razorbills, kittiwakes and fulmars. The Stacks, officially classified as bird sanctuaries, are only a few yards from the cliffs, and can be seen from a clifftop path which begins at the end of the lane leading southwards through the Army ranges from the main road near Warren. The path provides a superb vantage point for watching the birds crowding the ledges and overhangs.
Just west of the Elegug Stacks is the huge natural arch called the Green Bridge of
Wales. Eastwards the path stretches past spectacular cliff scenery, including the vast gash in the cliffs known as Huntsman’s Leap, so called because it was once jumped by a local huntsman. It is said that when he looked back and saw the awfulness of the chasm over which his horse had leaped, 130 ft deep and 16 to 18 ft wide, he dropped dead from fright.
ST GOVAN’S CHAPEL
The clifftop walk from the Elegug Stacks meets the point where a lane from Bosherston winds down towards the sea. It reaches the cliffs at a spot where the little 13th-century chapel of St Govan stands tucked into a tiny crevice far below. The chapel is reached by a steep flight of steps which, according to tradition, never count the same going up as going down; there are, in fact, 52. The little bell-cote above the entrance is empty, but is said to have once held a silver bell which was stolen by pirates. The story goes that sea-nymphs rescued the bell and placed it on a nearby rock, which rings when struck. Just below the chapel is a well, now dry, also dedicated to St Govan; it was supposed to be beneficial for curing ailments of the eye.
This village, on the road which leads down to St Govan’s Chapel, is best known for its lily ponds – 80 acres of small, interconnecting fishponds, covered with water-lilies, and crossed by a network of footbridges. The ponds are a haunt for many varieties of birds, chiefly waders and waterfowl, during the winter. They also lay claim, along with several other stretches of water, to being the place where the dying King Arthur disposed of his sword Excalibur.
To the south-east of Bosherston is the fine, sandy beach of Broad Haven, edged by rocks and divided from the fishery ponds themselves by a narrow band of dunes. A road leads to a National Trust car park on the headland above Broad Haven beach, and the beach can also be reached by a steep path from the village.
A harbour built to serve a quarry where limestone was dug out of the cliffs is now a secluded spot where fossils are plentiful. To the south a clifftop path leads over the headland to Barafundle Bay, where a wide sweep of sand, backed by dunes, gives good bathing. To the east, the limestone cliffs give way to the red sandstone that lines the coast eastwards to Tenby.
At Stackpole Head the sea has carved arches through the rocks, and on one side of the head caves have collapsed into blowholes. At high tides in rough weather the sea bursts through the holes in spectacular fashion.
A steep road giving fine views across the bay leads to a sandy beach, crossed by a stream and backed by extensive low sand-dunes.
The splendid Norman castle at Manorbier was the birthplace in 1146 of the 12th-century writer Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales), who in 1188 went on a tour of the country with Archbishop Baldwin to try to raise support for the Third Crusade, and left, in his chronicles, a detailed portrait of life in the Middle Ages.
The castle, which Gerald called ‘the most delectable spot in all Wales’, was so far off the beaten track that Manorbier suffered little in later wars. As a result, the ruins still give a vivid picture of the kind of community which was established by the Norman conquerors of this part of south-west Wales. Below the castle is a sandy bay, with scattered stretches of shingle.
To the south of Manorbier Bay is the King’s Quoit, a burial chamber about 5,000 years old with a massive 15 ft capstone resting on the ground at one end and supported by two upright stones at the other.
SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS
Gorse blooms and fragrant herbs grown on Caldey Island are used by Cistercian monks to make perfumed sachets which are sold to visitors. Natural essences are blended to make the well-known Caldey Abbev perfume. The thriving monastery farms most of the island’s 600 acres, with dairy and sheep farming the main enterprises. Dairy produce from the Jersey herd is used and sold on the islands.
The sandy bay of Lydstep Haven is privately owned, but pedestrians may reach it down a toll road from the main Tenby to Pembroke coast road. There is a fine view across to Caldey Island, and the caves of the rocky’ headland of Proud Giltar are worth exploring at low water. The opposite headland of Lydstep Point, at the southern end of the bay, is owned by the National Trust, and a nature trail runs round the top of the cliffs.
Like many of the islands off the Welsh coast, Caldey became the home of a religious community, the Benedictines, in the 12th century. There is still a thriving monastery on Caldey, but today the monks are Cistercians, and they make chocolate, cream, yoghurt and perfume for sale to visitors. The watchtower, now the Chapel of Our Lady of Peace, the old priory and the churches are open to the public, but only male visitors are allowed to enter the monastery. There are splendid views of colonies of seals and sea-birds from the top of the hill which crowns the island. Tenby is the starting point for boats to Caldey Island; they run from Monday to Friday, from the middle of May to the end of September. The island is closed at all other times.
Called in Welsh Dinbych-y-Pysgod (’Denbigh of the Fish’), to distinguish it from the Dinbych, or Denbigh, in North Wales, Tenby harbour must be one of the most beautiful anywhere in Britain. Ranks of Georgian and Regency buildings overlook the harbour, but the origins of Tenby go back much earlier than its days as a prosperous and popular holiday resort. Its position at the end of a rocky headland pointing into Carmarthen Bay made it an ideal site for a castle in the 12th century. By the 14th century a town had grown up on the landward side of the castle, protected by its own massive walls.
The castle and walls were part of a plan to make Tenby impregnable, but any threat that existed seems to have been negligible as the walls took 50 years to complete. In 1644, however, the fire power of Cromwell’s army proved too much for Tenby, which fell to the Parliamentarians after bombardment both by land and by ships lying off shore.
Though the remains of Tenby’s castle are slight, the 14th-century town walls are the most complete in South Wales. The unique Five Arches are in fact the old South Gate of the town wall, miraculously surviving the onslaught of modern traffic. Later prosperity is shown by the splendid parish church of St Mary, dating from the 13th and 15th centuries and claimed to be the largest in Wales, and the beautiful 15th-century Tudor Merchant’s House, owned by the National Trust and open to the public.
In later years, the town fell into decline, but when foreign travel became impossible during the Napoleonic Wars, Tenby was developed as a watering place by Sir William Paxton. Laston House, beside the harbour, was built by Paxton in 1811 to accommodate sea water baths, and the building is inscribed with the message in Greek: ‘The sea washes away the ills of man.’
Tenby was the birthplace of a little-known Tudor scientist who nevertheless made a major contribution to mathematics. His name was Robert Recorde, and he invented the sign of = for ‘equals’ and introduced algebra to Britain.
Tenby has four sandy beaches, South Beach being the largest, at V& miles. The beach south of the castle and headland gives a clear view of Caldey Island, and access at low tide to St Catherine’s Island. The old fortress on the island was one of many which were hastily constructed along the coast by Lord Palmerston in the 1860s, and became known as ‘Palmerston’s Follies’. To the north of the headland, another sweep of sand looks eastwards into Carmarthen Bay.
TOWERS OF BABEL WHERE SEA-BIRDS THRIVE
The Elegug Stacks, carved from the limestone cliffs by the relentless tides, are home for many sea-birds, and a hunting ground for others. Guillemots crowd the stack tops and upper ledges, their raucous cries echoing across the tiny cove. Razorbills and fulmars nest below, while black-backed gulls wheel ceaselessly on the look-out for unguarded chicks or eggs.