Beaches below the steep cliffs facing St Brides Bay
The broad promontory of St Ann’s Head divides this part of the coast into two portions, the west-facing St Brides Bay, and the more sheltered waters of Milford Haven. This vast natural harbour was the centre of naval activity during the days of sail, and is now a port for supertankers; but industry has not destroyed the charm of this part of West Wales, where sea and land meet in a variety of creeks and headlands, inlets and harbours.
This pretty little village, spilling down a narrow cleft in the cliffs to a narrow cove with a small sandy beach overlooked by grassy slopes, is hard to reconcile with an industrial past. In fact it once had a quay where coasters loaded anthracite from a colliery further up the little valley – but only from April to October, as Lloyds refused to insure boats on such a wild stretch of coast in the winter months.
The lane heading inland up the valley on the northern side of the village follows the line of the old tramway, which carried loaded tubs of coal from the mine down to the ships. The house at the bend in the road, where the tramway line continues as a path past a caravan site, is called the Counting House; there the loaded trucks were counted and entered in the company’s books.
Half a mile north of the village, the chimney and waste heaps of the cliffside coal mine of Trefran, closed in 1905, still stand in a sheltered gully between the cliffs. They can be clearly seen from the footpath.
The village, which takes its name from a 12th-century Norman called Drue, is a few hundred yards away from a mile-long beach of sand backed with shingle which is popular with surfers and swimmers alike. Parking is limited to the clifftop lanes. There are traces of coal seams and even old workings in the cliffs to the south of the beach.
As its name implies, Broad Haven has a wide beach of sand and rock pools. A shingle bank separates them from the road. Bathing is safe, except in the currents near the headland at the northern end of the beach, and boats can be launched from the foreshore.
This small but attractive little harbour came into being in the 1850s as a port from which coal from local collieries was shipped to markets in other parts of Britain. The beach is sandy at low water, backed by a stretch of pebbles; there are rock pools at the southern end, near The Point. Boats can be launched from the beach, and there are good views along St Brides Bay. Where the road to Broad Haven to the north climbs over the intervening cliff, a path leads to The Settlands, a sandy cove among the cliffs.
ST BRIDES HAVEN
This remote cove, like the bay of which it is a part, is named after the 6th-century Irish saint, Brigid of Kildare. Facing the small cove of red-speckled sand is the ancient church of St Bride, whose churchyard includes early Christian tombs set into the cliffs. This was a good safe anchorage in the days of sail, and the ruined lime-kilns and the rusty iron mooring rings recall the coasters which once called there regularly.
Bathing is safe inshore, and there are many rock pools to explore. The large Georgian mansion to the west is Kensington House. Built in 1800 by Lord Kensington, who owned St Brides, it was used as a hospital for many years.
The village of Marloes is close to two beaches facing in almost opposite directions on either side of a headland. To the north is the cliff-backed cove of Musselwick Sands, approached by a path across the fields from the village. This secluded beach faces north and west. The cliffs are too steep and dangerous to climb, so visitors must be careful not to let the incoming tide cut them off from the only path in and out of the cove. To the south of Marloes village is the south-west-facing surfing beach of Marloes Sands, accessible by footpath from the roadside car park. Above the western end of the beach is the swampy area of Marloes Mere, where the villagers collected leeches in the 18th century. These were sent to Harley Street, where doctors prized them for their blood-letting capabilities.
ST ANN’S HEAD
The high cliffs of St Ann’s Head mark the approach to Milford Haven from the open sea. They make a splendid viewpoint from which shipping of all sizes, from small yachts to vast supertankers, can be seen slipping into and out of the haven. A lighthouse and coastguard station stand on the cliffs, and behind them is a row of early 19th-century cottages built for the keepers and their relief crews. Below the cliffs east of the headland is the little cove called Mill Bay in which Henry Tudor landed on August 7, 1485, on his way to defeat Richard III at Bosworth Field and start his own reign as Henry VII.
On the western side of the headland are Welshman’s Bay and Frenchman’s Bay, with spectacular cliffs which can be seen from the coastal footpath. Access is difficult, except at Mill Bay and Westdale Bay, and at the west-facing beach of Westdale swimmers must be careful of the strong undertow. At Great Castle Head, overlooking Westdale Bay, is a huge Iron Age hill-fort, with a double set of ramparts, on the crown of the headland. Walkers should take care, for the cliffs are of soft red sandstone, and the path is crumbling in places.
This village is ideal for boating holidays. It is protected from the prevailing south-westerly winds by the bulk of St Ann’s Head, and its sheltered anchorage faces east into the waters of Milford Haven. Pastel-washed cottages make a soft contrast to the brightly coloured sails which dot the inlet. Dale is said to have the most hours of sunshine of any village in Wales, and the shingle-and-sand beach is far enough up the Dale Roads inlet to be remote from the currents of the tides funnelling in and out of the haven.
The narrow streets in the village have been organised into an effective one-way scheme which helps to reduce congestion, but parking is very limited. At the end of the headland at the southern side of the inlet is a 19th-century coastal defence fort, built in the days when Milford Haven was an important naval centre. This is now the Dale Fort Field Centre, where courses are run in subjects ranging from diving to ornithology.
This whole coast was once a paradise for smugglers, with so many quiet inlets and secluded houses where contraband could be stored. In Tudor times Dale was well known for the produce brought in by its resourceful seamen without payment of duty.
SKOMER AND SKOKHOLM ISLANDS
Skomer Island, some 720 acres in extent, was made a National Nature Reserve in 1959. From April to September, except on Mondays, when Skomer is closed, there is a boat service from Martin’s Haven to the island. Manx shearwaters breed there in summer, nesting in clifftop burrows. There are fulmars and puffins, and the island is also the home of the unique Skomer vole.
The reserve is owned by the Nature Conservancy Council and run by the West Wales Trust for Nature Conservation, as is the neighbouring island of Skokholm, where weekly accommodation is available. Details are available from the trust’s office at 7 Market Street, Haverfordwest.
GOLDEN BLAZE OF SUMMER
On the west coast of Wales, in high summer and late autumn, the clifftops are ablaze with the yellow flowers of western gorse. Though gorse is common throughout Britain in spring, western gorse is a different species, with smaller flowers and shorter spines.
The little village of St Ishmael’s lies among the narrow lanes to the south of the road from Dale to Haverfordwest? It was once the site of a Norman castle, now marked by a circular mound at the side of the road leading into the village. From the centre of the village a footpath leads down to the little cove of Monk Haven, where low tide exposes a strip of sand below the pebble beach.
To the east are the headlands of Great Castle Head and Little Castle Head, so-called because both are crowned by ancient fortifications. The footpath to Great Castle Head, leading off the road out of St Ishmael’s towards Sandy Haven, gives a good view of the two automatic lighthouses, built to guide tankers towards the refinery jetties in Milford Haven, and of the tankers themselves as they ease their vast bulk carefully in and out of the haven.
Cliff paths from Great Castle Head lead down to beaches on either side.
The village lies at the end of a narrow lane, west of the creek called Sandy Haven Pill. This beautiful anchorage, the setting for many paintings by Graham Sutherland, dries out at low water leaving a wide expanse of red sand; but the sands are more easily reached from the other side, following the lanes from Herbrandston, on the Milford Haven side of the inlet.