On their way home C and H drop me in Neyland, for a solo walk to Herbranston. Neyland’s a modest and workaday town, considering that its effective founder was a megalomaniac. Isambard Kingdom Brunel chose it as the coastal terminal for his South Wales Railway, but it failed to grow into the great port and military base that was hoped for, losing out to Pembroke Dock across the Haven. Later on, in the 1970s, the building of the Cleddau Bridge, that sweeps across the water nearby, probably did it no economic favours.
Down by the marina Brunel is well remembered, through a perky bronze statue by Robert Thomas, several information panels, and the naming of a local business park. So is Anthony Trollope. Not for his novels but for his Post Office innovations: across the road an original Victorian ‘Penfold’ pillar box (after 1865) still stands, beside Station House.
Along the coast Neyland merges into Llanstadwell, a long string of attractive houses and a church. After Hazelbeach and the expensive sea view houses beyond it two large wind turbines loom, and then the path alternates pastoral tranquility and intensive industry – the industry of gas importation and storage.
More windmills, this time so close you can hear their humming, and the sinister swish of the giant arms as they dip down to within a few metres of you. The path turns inland, but still around the perimeter of the installation. Mysterious blue painted constructions, round gas-holders and white mini-towers poke up over the horizon. At last the path says goodbye and moves over fields – yet more windmills appear inland – and makes for Castle Creek and the outskirts of Milford Haven, via a surprisingly rural approach to the town.
Milford is a rare example in Wales of a planned town. Its grid street plan was set out in 1790 and still exists, though disappointingly few of the original buildings survive without alteration. With the exception of Hamilton Terrace – Sir William Hamilton was the Brunel of Milton – the upper town has lost much of its economic and social energy, as supermarkets and public buildings have migrated elsewhere and as the marina area below has attracted almost all of the new investment, shops and restaurants.
Over the Victoria Bridge and the path climbs, through a solid working class area and then suburbia before regaining the coast at the Pembrokeshire Yacht Club. Then we’re back in gas country. Soon I come to a complex of long jetties, circular storage tanks and the pipework needed to connect them. Bright orange steel bridges, closed steel cages and a tunnel shepherd and isolate the poor walker, and constant camera surveillance increases the feeling of alienation. I meet a local man walking his dog on sand immediately underneath one of the pipe jetties. I say that security here must be tight, and he tells me that 20% of the UK’s energy supplies are imported here; an anti-terrorism unit is on constant call. It was a different industry in the past, when crude oil, not gas, was imported, and not just imported but also refined. He remembers the Esso refinery, long gone, and points to an old railway line that puzzlingly runs down the shore straight into the sea. There’s virtually no one to be seen behind the high electric fences, and it’s likely that automation has reduced the number of workers to a minimum.
Offshore the Stack Rock Fort comes into view: in the mid-nineteenth century a formidable island of guns and soldiers guarding the entrance to the Haven, now a gaunt and forlorn monument, too solid to be called a ruin. Onshore another stout fort, South Hook, echoes it. To the left of the path runs a long fence and a high artificial bank, built to disguise the now defunct oil refinery, and I’m almost at Sandy Haven and Herbranston before it comes to an end. This has been a walk through a military past and an industrial present, but none the worse for that.
So ends our week in Pembrokeshire, and our stay in Dale. Dale turns out to have been the perfect choice. The Griffin Inn and the yacht club have served our nutritional needs, and in the cottage our eyes have feasted on the Gann estuary, filling and emptying twice a day, and the gentle slope of the St Ishmaels coast on the opposite shore. In the village volunteer historians from the coastal villages maintain the enterprising Old Stables Heritage Centre; its displays deepen your understanding of the human history that lies behind this remarkable part of the Path.