Shores where the last invaders of Britain met their match
The rocky promontory of Strumble Head is one of the nearest points in south-west Wales to the coast of Ireland, and the port of Fishguard on its fine natural harbour is a busy ferry terminal with its services to and from Rosslare. The rest of this part of the coast is dominated by long stretches of steep cliffs. The Pembrokeshire Coast Path gives energetic walkers a chance to enjoy the spectacular scenery from a high vantage point.
The lighthouse for which Strumble Head is noted is built on an island linked to the mainland by a bridge. The headland is approached by a network of narrow but well signposted lanes, and there is car parking on the clifftop opposite the lighthouse. From this point there are splendid views of the coastal cliffs, and of the strong currents which swirl around the headland even in calm weather.
Strumble Head is also a landmark on one of the principal air routes across the Atlantic, and frequent vapour trails streak the sky overhead on a clear day.
This headland at the western end of a small, rockbound bay was the site of the last landing by a foreign army on the soil of mainland Britain. It occurred in 1797 during the Napoleonic Wars, and the event is commemorated by a small stone pillar.
The reality failed to live up to the French invaders’ ambitious orders, which were to march north through Wales, living off the country, and finally to take and burn the port of Liverpool. A force of 1,400 men was put ashore, half of them soldiers, half prisoners released from jail on condition they joined the force, all under the command of an elderly Irish-American named Colonel Tate.
The original intention was to land in Ireland, where the force might have fared better. As things were, the men were landed in this exposed part of Pembrokeshire in mid-February without any tents or protection, and before they could set off on their long march they were attacked by an equally mixed force of yeomanry and villagers. In two days their surrender was accepted, and the last invasion of Britain was over.
The countryside around Carregwastad Point can have changed little since the invasion. The headland itself can be reached only on foot, either along the coastal footpath, or else from the little hamlet of Llanwnda or from Tre-Howel.
The handsome old farmhouse, at the end of a short drive off the lane from Strumble Head to Llanwnda,Was seized by the French invaders of 1797 and used by Colonel Tate as his headquarters after the landing. From the farmhouse a footpath leads after about a mile to Carregwastad Point.
Fishguard’s near neighbour, on the western side of Fishguard Bay, was a creation of the Great Western Railway, originally planned as a terminal for transatlantic liners sailing to and from New York. A railway embankment was built along the foot of the cliffs to a purpose-built harbour, and the line was connected to the main rail network leading eventually to Paddington Station in London. But although the liner Mauretania called at Goodwick in 1906, the long-distance sea trade soon shifted to Southampton, and the port settled down to developing a steady if less ambitious trade with Ireland.
Above the railway line is the Fishguard Bay Hotel, built by the GWR to house its America-bound passengers. At the southern end of the harbour, the Fishguard road swings left past the low-lying land called Goodwick Sands, where in 1797 the French invasion force was drawn up to surrender to the British commander, Earl Cawdor, and his troops.
The main part of Fishguard is on top of a hill overlooking Fishguard Bay. It is centred on the Square, in which stands an old inn called the Royal Oak. Inside this inn, the table on which the French surrender of 1797 was signed can still be seen..
The lower part of Fishguard has a totally different character. Still recognisably an old fishing village, set around wharves and quays, it made an ideal location for filming Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood in the 1960s.
The river Gwaun, which gives the town its Welsh name of Abergwaun, ‘Estuary of the Gwaun’, flows to the sea through attractive countryside. This can be sampled at its best by taking the Narberth road to the village of Llanychaer Bridge, with its old watermill, or by following lanes leading to the old bridges at Pontfaen and Cilrhedyn.
This massive lump of rock projects from the coastal cliffs to form a barrier between Fishguard Bay to the west and Newport Bay to the east. It can be reached by a path from the village of Bryn-henllan, itself approached down a lane from Dinas on the main Fishguard to Newport coast road. There are wide sea views from a nature trail around the headland which, despite its other name of Dinas Island, is in fact firmly joined to the mainland by a low-lying saddle of land.
ANCIENT CRAFT ON THE TEIFl Coracles are still used for salmon fishing on the river Teifi, mainly on the stretch between Cenarth and Cilgerran. They are made of intertwined laths of willow and hazel covered with fabric and pitch. The basic design has scarcely changed since the Iron Age, except that ancient Britons used animal hide to cover the craft.
At the eastern end of the neck of land which joins Dinas Head to the mainland is the village of Cwm-yr-eglwys, ‘Valley of the Church’ – once a port, but now a shadow of its old self. The great storm of 1859, which wrecked more than 100 ships off the coast of Wales in a single night, destroyed the church of St Brynach on the foreshore. Now all that survives is one crumbling wall and the old bell tower, a mute reminder of the power and fury of the sea.
The sand-and-shingle beach is studded here and there with rock pools. There is a car park almost on the beach, and boats can be launched from a ramp near by.
The Normans founded Newport in 1195, when William de Turribus was driven out of nearby Nevern by the Welsh. Since then, his castle has been converted into a private house and riding school, and Newport has in turn flourished and then declined as a busy port. An old quay still survives, with several old warehouses, and there are sandy beaches on both sides of the Nyfer estuary, which is well stocked with sea trout and bass. Volunteer lifeguards patrol the beach at weekends in summer.
A mile to the south of the town, on the edge of the Presely Mountains, is Carningli Common, an open plain studded with ancient hut circles. It was from these mountains that 80 blues tone columns were quarried and then transported some 240 miles to Stonehenge in Wiltshire around 2000 BC. On the other side of the range, between Crymych and Maencfochog, is the stone circle of Gors-fawr, a smaller version of Stonehenge.
A tranquil village in the valley of the Nyfer, behind the higher coastal cliffs, Nevern centres on the ancient church of St Brynach. The churchyard is notable for its avenue of mighty yews. One of these, the ‘Bleeding Yew’, drips with sap which is blood-red in colour. Near by is the 11th-century carved Nevern Cross. According to local tradition, the cuckoo first sings on top of the cross on April 7, the feast day of St Brynach.
The castle of Nevern, built by the Normans, is now a grassy mound, but some of the later buildings have lasted longer -among them a 17th-century mansion called Trewern, and Llwyngwair Manor, which is now a hotel.
This pretty, well-kept little village is hidden in the maze of narrow, winding lanes behind the coastal cliffs between Cardigan and
Newport. It is useful as a base for exploring the coastal footpath along this particularly deserted stretch of coastline. The lanes themselves are attractive, and provide sheltered walking country, though they lack the open vistas of the clifflop paths. A lane from the village leads to Ccibwr Bay, a narrow gap in the cliffs where coasters used to land cargo, and where a little shingle beach is exposed at low tide.
Where the Teifi estuary meets the open waters of Cardigan Bay to the east of Cemaes Head, the broad beach of Poppit Sands faces across the estuary to Gwbert. There are rows of dunes behind the beach. There is plenty of car-parking space near by, and with access so easy the sands are often crowded. Bathing is safe at slack water, though the currents run stronger at mid-tide, and the deep-water channel further out should be avoided at all times.
The little town of St Dogmaels, which faces across the Teifi to Cardigan, grew up around an abbey which was established thereby the Welsh, probably in the 7th century. The abbey was sacked by the Vikings and rebuilt by the Normans in the 12th century, before finally falling into ruin in Tudor times.
The village still has a fishing industry, based on salmon and sea trout and now centred mainly on the river. Boat trips also run out to sea and along the coast. In the other direction, inland along the Teifi, lies the Cardigan Wildlife Park, the home of a wide variety of birds and animals typical of this area of south-west Wales. St Dogmaels is the starting point for the Pembrokeshire Coast Path, which runs southward for 168 miles to the old county’s southern border with Carmarthenshire near Amroth.
A market town and holiday resort, Cardigan’s history goes back as far as 1136, when this crossing point near the mouth of the river Teifi was the scene of a Welsh victory over the Norman invaders. In later centuries the town became a major port, until the silting up of the estuary and the coming of the railways forced it to seek a new future as a base for fishing and touring holidays.
At the end of Cardigan’s main street, the ruins of its castle stand on a wooded knoll overlooking the Teifi. Built in the time of Richard I, the castle changed hands many times in later years. It was for a rime the seat of Rhys ap Gruffyd, effectively the ruler of South Wales, who held the first national eisteddfod there. The castle was destroyed by the Parliamentarians during the Civil War. The land on which the ruins stand is private; but tours are available.