Day 77 – Freshwater East to Saundersfoot

a badgers and a dolmen, being the outsider: HIV and holiday camps, seaside holidays and Famous Five adventures

3rd July 2013

miles completed: 863
miles to go: 195

Freshwater East is at one of those bus ‘watersheds’; there are buses west out of Freshwater East that end up in Pembroke, and buses east out of Manorbier that end up in Tenby, but the only way to get from Tenby to Freshwater East is via Pembroke and means not starting until late in the morning.

So, at 7:30am I have ordered a taxi. The driver’s daughter is about to go on a trip to Ghana doing HIV-related work there.

"I’m so proud of her, but also worried," he says.

I know the feeling. Some years ago, Esther went on a three-month trip round Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, with Act4Africa, doing HIV awareness drama. I felt that same mix of pride and concern. It certainly makes walking round Wales seem tame. I recall that we consoled ourselves that these were now very stable African countries, especially Kenya. Of course it was not many years later when Kenya erupted into bloodshed following the contested elections.

He drops me at Freshwater East, at the bottom of the hill!

For the first half mile the footpath takes you along a sandy track at the back of the dunes.  There is at least one point where a track from the beach joins it; again I wish that beach walking options were more clear both on maps and on the ground.

The path then climbs up the cliff and is easy underfoot and the walk to Manorbier unremarkable until a badger dashes across the path directly in front of me. It is only there for an instant; they are no slowcoaches. I trace its path through its run in the long grass by the shuffling of the grass heads and the occasional flash of its long white snout, and then it is gone.

I have seen so many dead badgers by the roadside, but never one alive. This was quite small in comparison with the road kill, so perhaps still a youngster.

Between Freshwater East and Manorbier is the beautifully named ‘Swanlake Bay‘. It is only accessible by foot and yet someone has left water and a bowl for dogs and an unofficial place for leaving rubbish. I did spot someone come down to the path a few moments before I spotted the beach-top cache, and wasn’t sure if he was taking a drink himself, or maybe he is the mysterious saint of the sands, and was checking the water levels.

Coming towards Manorbier Bay I see that that it, like Swanlake Bay has sand on its eastern side and is rockier on the west, I guess reflecting tidal flows. However, whilst Swanlake Bay is more broken rock, Manorbier Bay‘s western side is a flat, grey, striated pavement, as if it had been scratched by a giant rake, the way concrete paths sometimes are to give them better grip.

Coming towards Manorbier itself, two things stand out, the four-square castle, like an enormous block on the north side of the valley overlooking the bay, and opposite it, on the south side, a white-towered church. As you approach, you can see that the white of the tower is stained red-brown in places, I assume from rusting metalwork.

I also know Manorbier has a ‘beach café’ up in the village (not so far up as Freshwater East!), as I’d scouted it out while driving to Tenby the day before. There were signs from the car park near the beach, but nothing from the beach itself if you had arrived by foot. I was hoping to eat at Lydstep so it wasn’t a problem, but if I was hungry and walking I would have missed food 🙁

Coming out of Manorbier the path cuts diagonally up the cliff face and a short way up is a dolmen, right beside the path. Its capstone points out over the bay as if giving whoever was buried there a sea view. A little further again there are metal railings beside the path. They turn out to be to prevent you falling down a deep fissure in the cliff face. It is impressive, dropping right down to sea level, the waters foaming at the base, and cut, as if by a giant knife, right from the path to the sea, but barely three or four feet across.

A little beyond Manorbier there is another radical change in the geology from the rounded contours of Old Red Sandstone on the west side of the bay to a harder, more dramatic grey rock on the east, I think maybe Millstone Grit, although initially overlain by sandstone.  This means the path becomes a little more stone strewn underfoot, and also the large-scale structures are different.

The path skirts Manorbier Camp, an MOD facility connected with the firing ranges. They mean that you cannot go round the headland of ‘Old Castle Head‘, but just before you turn inland to skirt the fence, the high, sheer cliffs of ‘Conigar Pit‘, reflecting the change of rock, can be seen dropping away.

After skirting the small radars and entry posts of Manorbier Camp I thought I could already see Lydstep village ahead, but then realised what I could see was the unnamed family housing and maybe barracks for the camp. A little further and the path swings round the far side of the camp, heading once more towards the sea. On the ground there is a large, flat, almost paved area, presumably the site of some abandoned building. Each slab is several yards apart, presumably cast in place. However, what was unusual was the colour and texture of the surface; although the slabs were clearly concrete they appeared to be coated in a thin sheet of heavily rusted iron. Maybe this was the case, or maybe there was simply a metal structure above them and this was the effect of years of rust leaching down.

I had spotted Caldey Island in the distance earlier, but now it reappears as the dominant feature of the landscape. Its western beach faces land, flanked by cliffy promontories, and beyond the Gower Peninsula spreads mistily across the horizon, Worm’s Head jagged at the end.

I had seen signs for the YHA as I passed Manorbier Camp, but then it becomes visible, less than a quarter of a mile from the sea, a 21st century (I am sure eco) design with sweeping curved roofs. The beach below is chopped neatly in half by a wall of rock with the wider sands of Skrinkle Haven to the west, and a narrower and rockier, but slightly more easily accessible beach to the east.

As Lydstep point appears, its seaward side appears to have a vertical strand of pure white rock. It goes out of sight when you get closer, so I still do not know whether it is some trick of the light, a paint coat of guano, or a vein of pure marble.

Like many of the coastal villages, Lydstep itself is about half a mile inland and Lydstep Haven, a wide sandy beach, is wall-to-wall caravan park. On the bus timetable there is a ‘refreshments’ icon on Lydstep, and I was hoping this was somewhere I could get breakfast.  There are probably places to eat in Lydstep village, but on the coast there is just the bar and restaurant connected to the holiday park.

I went in and saw a notice reminding people to bring their passes when ordering at the bar – this did not look good, but maybe it was just for the alcohol licence and didn’t apply to food.

"Do you do food for non residents?" I asked.

"Not normally, but as it is quiet," she replied.

I wasn’t sure whether to feel favoured or merely tolerated.

While the one other family who were eating did not presage a flood of business, still I found myself not lingering over my big breakfast even with its ‘bottomless tea’.

From there it is a short walk on to Penally, which the locals confusingly appear to pronounce ‘Penaly’, with an English ‘l’ rather then the breathy Welsh ‘ll’. As Penally appears, it has a row of what appears to be Nissan huts, and as there is yet another MOD firing range here they may well be, but given their location they might also simply be glamping barns. Beyond Penally, Tenby appears, first the old fort on the tidal island and then the pastel-palette hotels on the headland.

There was no red flag, and afterwards I realised I could have walked round Giltar Point, but instead followed the Coast Path signs, which lead you along the firing-safe route towards Penally Station and then, across Tenby Golf Course, to the southern end of the long South Beach that runs all the way to Tenby. Confusingly at the north end of South Beach is another small cove on Tenby headland that is called ‘South Beach‘ also.

The tide is not full and the sandy bar connecting the beach to St Catherine’s Island, with the old fort, is still visible. I seem to recall you used to be able to visit the fort, but now it is fenced with ‘do not enter’ signs, so I assume has become dangerous with age. The sandy bar is also a danger, as the tide rips suddenly across it once the waters cover it. However, the low tide does mean I can walk nearly all the way round the headland and only climb the cliff at the steps opposite St Catherine’s Island leading to the bandstand and below the remains of the older Norman Castle.

This was our favourite beach when we stayed for a fortnight in Tenby when I was in my teens. This was many years after Dad had died, so just Mum, Jacqui, my sister, and me.  However, one week Martin, a friend of mine, joined us, and the other week one of Jacqui‘s friends. Martin and I lusted after the giant Gurkha knives in one shop window and Martin bought a small one. I recall too that the freezer compartment in the electric fridge was far better than the one in our gas fridge (it was never the same after they converted from coal gas to North Sea gas). I touched the bottom of the freezer and my hand stuck, just like touching the metal railings in an Arctic ice breaker. If I recall, the exact chain of events was:

  1. me: touch bottom by accident and notice it feels ‘sticky’,
  2. me: put hand down fully to see how sticky
  3. me: try to pull palm off bottom and find I can’t
  4. me: shout for help
  5. Mum: comes with wet dishcloth, which freed me

Happily it did not leave any lasting damage except to my pride.

Things have changed since those days, the tea comes in plastic cups (you used to leave a deposit and take a proper pot of tea and cup and saucer) and … actually struggling to think what else has changed, and you can still hire deckchairs and windbreaks (£2 each plus 50p deposit).

I am going to spend a few days in Tenby, so I do not linger at this point past the new and old lifeboat stations. The new station reminds me of Marloes where they have the new station to be built with viewing galleries, but I think the Tenby station is bigger than the plans I saw. I see that the old lifeboat station has been converted to residential use, a house with its own private slipway!

Georgian town houses and boarding houses line the headland and the bay, with gardens tumbling down the cliffs and tall retaining walls clinging to the rocks. Passing the harbour, the retaining walls for house and road are often undergirded with railway-arch-style sheds, and in one place a perfectly circular Hobbit door. The story of the Tudors, which began at Ty Gwyn in Barmouth, continues as I pass a house with a plaque announcing that it was from here, in 1671, that Henry Tudor escaped in a tunnel (real Famous Five stuff) and fled to France, before returning some years later to take the throne.

As with previous beaches, it was unclear whether I could get up the far side of Tenby beach, so I took the roads through the town, but in fact there is a way up at the west end of the beach, although it does look like a *lot* of steps, so maybe my more gentle ascent past the Tudor house is better and is, I think, the marked route. I say ‘I think’, because markers for the Coast Path through the town are remarkable only in their absence, or maybe (having spotted a sticker high on a lamppost) subtlety.

Sensitised by my MHA visits in Colwyn Bay, I had noticed a building site announcing ‘Later Living Coming Soon’, and with the strapline, ‘Later Life, Greater Life’. Although Tenby is postcard lovely, I do wonder about all those steep streets and endless steps, but then recall hearing about a Greek island where it’s common to live to a hundred and where the octogenarians still have active sex lives. As well as diet, the landscape is full of steep hills, and it is common to walk several miles a day up and over these to buy food, or visit the bar to gossip. Maybe Tenby could become such a place; who needs zimmer frames when you can have Ann Summers?

At the point where the steps join the road there is a very small ‘admire the view’ park, and you are already very high above the sea … but not high enough. The rise out of Tenby, first by road (past the mobile-mast topped Park Hotel, could they make it more ugly?) and later by well-made forest walk, is unremitting. It is not incredibly steep, just never-ending, and while the highest point is just 88 metres (300 feet) according to the map, it feels a lot more.

I had originally intended to walk just to Tenby and then do TenbySaundersfoot as a short walk with Fiona when she arrived. However, I had been warned by the lady at the Tenby campsite reception the day before that the Tenby to Saundersfoot section was very hilly, but the stretch beyond that much flatter. So I decided to do the hard bit.

In fact the path underfoot is unusually well made as this is a popular route, including a substantial woodland section where the path is paved with some sort of pre-cast concrete blocks with gaps for the grass, rather like in some car parks. Both this and some of the gravelly paths are not perfect for the thin-soled sandals I am wearing, so I’d definitely suggest heavier soles, but otherwise easy on the feet. But not so easy on the legs. Having risen to three hundred feet, the path then plunges, rises again, plunges, rises again. Nothing hard and certainly nothing like some of the sections of Offa’s Dyke, but you should plan to take your time and have some ‘breather’ stops.

I pass a couple and the lady notices my backpack banner.

“Oh, are you walking for MHA?” she asks.

Bill and Pam are on holiday from Winchester/Southampton area, and are Methodists, hence instantly recognise the MHA. They tell me that Saundersfoot is less than an hour away, and while we talk another couple, whom I had steamed past not long out of Tenby as they were taking a more leisurely (read sensible) pace, pass by.

Approaching Saundersfoot, there are steps down to the beach past a tiny waterfall. It is not clear whether you can get round the small headland and indeed whether you would then be simply faced by rock and harbour wall, so I appeal to local knowledge from a man walking his dog and just coming off the beach.

He looks at the water, "Oh, yes," he says, "it will be OK, just scramble over the rock and you come to the harbour. See where that couple are with the dog."

I thank him and find the couple, Kevin and Sally, chatting to a old couple in deckchairs, and, I think, putting off tackling the small rock, which is accessible, but only at the low point of each wave. As I approach Kevin takes the plunge, or to be precise avoids taking a plunge, and as the water pulls back down the sand, and the next wave prepares itself, takes up Charlie the dog under his arm and makes a wild leap to the rock.

"You go first," says Sally, politely, and I suspect to see if Kevin‘s successful traverse was a fluke.

I wait for the moment and with the help of a useful iron bar protruding from the rock (I assume to tie boats to in the past) I too make my way up and then go over the top as Kevin waits to take Sally‘s hand as she makes her attempt. As she too avoids the waves (we are talking about serious ankle-wetting potential), I look to the far side and say, "that was the easy part".

On the far side the water is higher, but the rock does drop step-like so that you are close to the tide line. Another young couple sit, Canute-like, side-by-side on the sand, with a mini trench dug in front of them in defence against the rising tide. I fear that their patch of Wales will soon go the way of the Lost Cantrefs.

I have my sandals on and am happy to step into the sea, but Sally‘s perfect white deck shoes will not take a soaking as easily, so she removes them while I take the scouting role, and remarkably, waiting for the lowest point of the waves of the ever-rising tide, I manage to leap ashore completely dry footed. Kevin, Sally and Charlie follow shortly after and we congratulate one another on a mini-adventure almost as if it were the first traverse of the Andes.

And I am in Saundersfoot. The beach I am on leads to the harbour below a sign that says ‘Teas – Ices – Snacks’, on an old corrugated hut that looks as if it may have been there on my last visit probably nearly fifty years earlier.

I was very small at the time, maybe just three or four, and we stayed on a farm outside Saundersfoot. In those days we had an old black London-Taxi-cab-style Ford Popular, the sort you see in films of the War and the Forties, but still going strong into the Sixties. There was no starter motor, but a crank handle, and no indicator lights, but instead little lighted arms that popped out to right or left, in emulation of the driver’s arm, which Dad often used in addition.

I half recall, but maybe just from photos, sitting on the tractor in the farm, but do recall the sand sculptures Dad made each day. One day it was an ocean liner, shell windows beneath tunnels and sheer damp sand bows cutting through the ocean waves of golden dry sand.  Another day it was a motor-car, big enough for Jacqui and I to sit in and then a queue of other children wanting their turn at the wheel. I do not recall if we shared willingly, but if so Dad‘s heart was big enough to overcome any reluctance of our own.

However, before the sand sculptures and sand castles, which continued through every summer holiday, Dad‘s first task at any seaside, after setting out the chairs and towels, and before he sat himself with knotted handkerchief in Blackpool postcard fashion, on his head, was to make a rectangular ‘table’, on which to put the tray of tea brought down from the beach café.

I am trying to recall that holiday in Tenby many years later after Dad had died, and think I did continue the tradition and make the daily table.

I have not seen Saundersfoot since that childhood holiday when I was almost too young to recall anything. Certainly, I have no recollection of the town and harbour, and for some reason we never visited when we stayed in Tenby. Thinking back, none of the places we went in the years after Dad died were ones where we had holidayed together. Maybe this was just opportunity: without the car we were limited to the destinations of Golden Rail and Methodist Holiday Homes, but maybe it was just too hard for Mum to revisit these places of happy holidays together.

A hundred years earlier than my visit, Saundersfoot would have been a bustling, and probably very dirty, port with coal from the measures around, the same as those found in the South Wales valleys. But it has none of the signs of a centre of trade that Tenby has; the harbour breakwater and quay are plain, workmanlike, without a scattering of trading offices.

And now, fifty years after my last visit, and probably little different then, a seaside town of slot machines, fish and chip shops and guest houses, but somehow one that makes me feel comfortable, rather than overwhelmed, maybe because the gaudy trappings somehow sit lightly. It has always been the second cousin to Tenby, less prosperous, less successful, less historic, less instantly pretty, looking on, just a few miles from the belle of the ball, but with some of the charm of innocence of the neglected.

I scout around a little at Saundersfoot, but also know I will be here again with Fiona to do the section of the walk from Saundersfoot, under the tunnels and along the (less hilly) clifftop to Amroth. However, I am taken by the ‘Sensory Garden‘ (lavender and mini-fountains for touch, smell and sound), and also, predictably, by the kiosk selling ‘fried sausage hot dogs’.

There are frequent buses from Saundersfoot to Tenby and I start to write on the iPad as I wait, resting the polystyrene cup of tea that I got from the sausage kiosk on a ‘Bob the Builder‘ children’s ride (don’t worry about the hot drink, no children in it!).

At Tenby I go down to the station to meet Fiona, who has spent the afternoon in Carmarthen (and is very taken by it), and on the platform, none other than Bill and Pam waiting for the train to take them back to their holiday accommodation at Penally.

When the train arrives Fiona and I take a (rather grubby) taxi back to the campsite, where it turns out the taxi driver is also the lady who, with her son, provides carriage tours of Tenby. The next day we saw the carriage waiting in the town square, looking somewhat more spick and span than the taxi.