Most B&Bs like to make you wait till 8am or later, but the Heart of Oak serves breakfast between 6:30 and 7:30am. Full of eagerness, and full of bacon and eggs, I’m out walking before 9 o’clock. This early start makes me feel like a proper hiker – but turns out to be a mistake.
(If I’d hung about I would have missed the worst of the rain and cut out miles of unnecessary walking, for reasons I’ll explain later.)
It started raining steadily when I set off and I soon come to the sad realisation that my boots have sprung a leak – the right one, anyway. They’re my oldest and favourite pair. I’m going to have to ditch them when I get home. I’ve not brought another pair with me.
The Pembrokeshire Coast Path constantly surprises me by the way it avoids any indication of an industrial landscape. After following the road out of Milford Haven, I end up on path that winds above the sea, surrounded by vegetation. I was expecting to get a good view of the liquid gas storage facility, whose perimeter I’m following. But as usual the industrial structures above me are completely invisible and I only catch occasional glimpses of pipelines below me.
The rain forces me to keep my camera in my rucksack. The views are lousy – dull and grey – so it doesn’t really matter. I do sneak a photo of one of the many grid-reference markers. They’re a good idea.
Today I’m walking with an umbrella. One of my fellow walker-bloggers suggested this (Conrad, I think). And I’ve just finished Nicholas Crane’s book, Clear Waters Rising where he describes his walking trek across the mountain ranges of Europe, during which he carried an umbrella called Que Chova (meaning ‘what rain?’).
Actually, my new Pakka jacket (from Mountain Warehouse) seems pretty waterproof, so I’m not sure if I need an umbrella. But I was determined to give it a go. Here is a self-portrait of me with it on one of the many little beaches that indent this section of coastline.
I meet a solitary male walker, coming towards me. He is dressed in full waterproofs. We exchange a few words about the wetness of the weather. I don’t know what he thinks of my umbrella!
The views are uninspiring, with everything shrouded in mist and rain, and so I don’t take many photographs of the scenery. But, under the shelter of my umbrella, I take photographs of signs I come across instead.
‘Enjoy our beach. Leave nothing but footprints.’
What a nice sign. It implies, of course, don’t leave litter and dog poo. But this is a much nicer way of putting it. Very positive and NLP-like.
Close by is a starker official sign: ‘CLIFFS KILL’.
What with the early start and the lack of photographic opportunities, I reach Sandy Haven ridiculously early. I’d worked out I should get here about 1pm, in order to use the stepping-stones across the river. But it is only 11 am when I arrive. It’s clear the tide is too high.
I linger for a few minutes. Should I wait? Or walk the 3-4 mile detour around by the nearest bridge? It is still drizzling and I can’t bear the thought of sitting in the rain for two hours. So, reluctantly, I turn away from the water.
The alternative route takes me along a narrow lane, lined by high hedges. When a council worker drives up behind me in his truck, there is no verge to stand on, and I have to march swiftly to the nearest passing place to let him go by. I thought he might be annoyed at being held up by a walker. But he gives me a cheery wave as he passes.
I continue my trudge up the hill towards the village of Herbrandston. The rain stops and, at a zig-zag bend in the road, I take a photograph looking back to the mouth of Sandy Haven. The tall tower on the far headland is a shipping beacon.
In sleepy Herbrandston there is a pub and, when I planned my walk, this was going to be my lunch stop. But I’m too early and the pub isn’t open yet (sigh). I buy some snacks at the village shop – which seems to be a community venture and has nothing much on the shelves except for tins. I buy a pack of peanuts and a can of diet coke, and sit on the bench outside the shop for a rest and refreshment break.
[Later I learn Herbrandston is one of the few doubly-thankful villages in the UK.]
From Herbrandston I follow a road towards Rickeston Bridge. The road has a steady stream of traffic and no pavements, so I’m relieved to find the path runs down the edge of a neighbouring field. It makes a pleasant walk. And stops raining.
The path re-joins the road just before Rickeston Bridge bridge. A woman in a car slows to a stop beside me. At first I think she is offering me a lift. But she has a flat tire. I feel an uncharitable twinge of smugness. As a walker, I don’t have to worry about punctures. Just wet feet. And tiredness. Tarmac walking is hard on the legs.
I put my head down and get on with it. The bridge, when I finally get there, takes me over a swampy area cut through by a pathetic trickle of water. So this is Sandyhaven Pill? It hardly seems worth the detour!
Then I’m marching up yet another hill. From a bend in the road, I take a photograph looking southwards and over the tiny river. In the distance is the oil refinery at Milford Haven, completely invisible from the coast path, but now it dominates the landscape.
A tractor passes me and the stench from its manure-laden trailer nearly makes me vomit. Pigs or chickens? A few hundred yards later, I walk past a chicken farm and I’m surprised to see the birds roaming free. There is not much of a smell here. Perhaps they’ve just cleaned the barns out?
At the top of the hill, my path turns off the main road and heads down a side road. This is very quiet. I don’t meet any traffic. And, after a mile or so, it changes into a narrow track. I’m heading steadily downhill, descending from fields into woodland, where I come across some mysterious ruins.
And, at last, I’m back at Sandy Haven. I go down to the muddy beach, but I still can’t see any stepping-stones, just a vague outline of what might be a submerged causeway. I ignore a ‘Private’ sign and climb onto a slipway to take a photo.
A local man calls to me from his garden. At first I think he intends to tell me off for climbing onto his slipway, but he only wants to say the crossing will be clear of water soon. I explain I’ve just walked around the detour and came to check that the extra miles were worth the effort.
Through my zoom lens I can see a couple of walkers waiting on the other side. Yes, perhaps I could have waited, instead of walking, but if I had I would still be over there.
I take a final photo looking up towards the mouth Sandy Haven. More mud than sand from this viewpoint.
The next couple of miles are hard going. It starts raining again and I feel frustrated by the weather, knowing this section should be scenically beautiful but it’s hard to appreciate a world shrouded in mist and drizzle. The cliffs, for example, are a wonderful red colour and would look dramatic in the sunlight above a blue sea.
Both Castle Heads were the sites of ancient forts, with strategic positions overlooking the mouth of the estuary. Great Castle Head also has a radar station marked on my map, although I’m not sure if it’s still operating. Nearby there is the navigation beacon, which is definitely operating – it has a flashing light when viewed from the seaward side. It’s a modern lighthouse really. Just not as elegant as a traditional one.
I only know all this because I stop for a rest somewhere just beyond Great Castle Head and close to Rook’s Nest Point. The sun is shining weakly through a covering of half-hearted clouds. I find a gap in the hedge which is sheltered from the wind, lay my rain jacket on the grassy bank, sit down, take off my socks and boots, have a snack and a drink, and pull out my map.
As I sit and rest, several pairs of walkers pass by along the path. These are the first hikers I’ve met since the single male walker, and they will have come over the Sandy Haven crossing. Now they’ve caught me up and are overtaking me. I must be the slowest walker in the universe!
After half an hour, I get going again. My footwear is still damp, but not too uncomfortable.
Shortly afterwards, I’m overtaken by a solitary female walker. She fires off a series of staccato questions. Where am I going? Where did I start? It a strange, shouty conversation, as she is walking quickly and I soon fall further behind.
Eventually she slows down and waits for me to catch up. She’s Welsh and older than me. Also slimmer and fitter! She explains she’s in a hurry because she missed the first coastal bus this morning and is worried she won’t get around St Ann’s Head in time to catch the last bus from Marloes. Do I think she will?
I can’t answer this. It’s 3:30 pm now and I’m stopping at Dale which is only 3 miles or so further along and just visible in the misty distance. The last bus back to Milford Haven leaves Dale at 6:25, so I know I have plenty of time. But I can’t advise her because I haven’t checked the distance around St Ann’s Head and I have no idea where Marloes is.
She changes her mind about getting around St Ann’s Head. (Later, when I look at the map, I’m sure this is the right decision.) And, as she slows down, we end up walking together.
We go down to look at the beach at Monk Haven, and then reach Musselwick Point. Here another river (unnamed on my map) opens out into a bay. There is a flat expanse of shingle, marsh and water ahead of us. My companion wants to go inland towards a car park, but I know nothing about a car park.
I explain the tide is low and so we can take the shortcut. What shortcut? I point out the wooden gangplank. The alternative is a 2-3 mile inland detour.
Over The Gann and the path follows a ridge of shingle, called Pickleridge. The sun comes out and, for a glorious few minutes, we have wonderful views across the bay, back to Musselwick Point. I can even see the sands of West Angle Bay in the distance.
A family on the ‘beach’ below us give the impression we could simply walk across the bay, but on careful inspection it is clear they are ankle-deep in mud!
The rain starts again. My companion – whose name is Ann – pulls her bright cagoule on so that it covers both her torso and her rucksack. I take my umbrella out. We join the road and walk together towards Dale. We may look inelegant, but at least we stay dry.
In Dale we find a pub. All the tables are empty – but reserved for diners. My heart sinks at the thought of having to stand but, since it’s not yet 5pm, we are allowed to sit down after all. Ann has a cup of tea. I have a cup of coffee and then a cider. We chat.
Ann is Welsh and tells me she ‘escaped from the valleys’ and now lives in Cardiff. She has been on her own for many years and she is walking sections of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path. Yesterday she went to see the puffins on nearby Skomer Island. She shows me photos on her phone. They look adorable.
Ann must catch the bus to Marloes, which leaves at 6pm. The sun comes out and we both stand and take photographs while we wait.
What a difference the sunshine makes! Dale is beautiful, the sea is blue and full of bobbing boats. The mist has lifted further and I can see the oil refinery across the water. Its tall chimneys seem entirely in harmony with the masts of the boats on the bay.
At Marloes the bus will turn around – Ann says – and come back to take me on to Milford Haven. She seems to know all about the buses, while I find them very confusing. She even carries a spare timetable, which she kindly gives to me.
Ann’s bus finally arrives. It’s late, as usual.
Tomorrow, she will be walking from Marloes back to Dale. I’ll be walking from Dale up to Marloes. Our paths should cross.
Today was a special day. I don’t normally walk with a companion – except occasionally with my long-suffering hubby. But I enjoyed my brief time with Ann. It’s unusual to meet another solitary female walker on my trips.
But the real reason for the day being special has nothing to do with companionship. When I add up my miles later, I realise I’ve passed the 2,000 mile mark!
Miles walked today = 15 miles.
Total along Wales Coast Path = 394 miles
Total distance around the coast: 2,001 miles