By chance we’ve hit upon the only week of the year with sustained high pressure and settled dry weather. But today they’re due to come to an end, and we’ve planned the final day of our south Pembrokeshire week as a half-day walk, from Neyland to Pembroke, in case of rain in the late afternoon. It’s unusual in being a mainly urban stroll.
Again we can leave our cars in Manorbier and take the familiar 349 bus from outside our cottage direct to Neyland. As we saw when we were here in the spring Neyland town doesn’t look a flourishing place. It’s different down by the marina, where hundreds of pleasure boats are kept, from the Brunel Quay up towards the Cleddau Bridge. Some are stored in multi-story racks, like bicycles in Amsterdam. There’s a lot of money moored here – but I’d guess the residents of Neyland don’t see much of it.
We seek out the Brunel Chandlery & Café for a coffee each. We’re in an unfamiliar world here, one of nautical maps, big wellies, yachting shoes and caps, paints, varnish and oils, metal spikes and hooks and tools of unguessable use. As we leave a middle aged Englishwoman with a plummy voice asks us whether we know the security code. We deny all knowledge – surely we look too scruffy to be yachting types? – and she rushes away to harangue her husband.
We retrace our steps and climb up to a terrace street and then a wooded walk that leads us to the main road and the approach to the Cleddau Bridge. Walking next to the busy road, against a strong wind, is not a pleasure, and as the weather deteriorates we don’t even have the consolation of the fine views Dr John promises us, down into the Haven and up the wooded Cleddau. The box girder bridge is strictly functional and makes no concessions to style or beauty. A stone-fixed plaque commemorates its opening by John Morris in 1975, but not the names of the construction workers killed during its troubled construction. From the start the costs and level of tolls were a controversial topic, and they still are.
We pause half way across the bridge. C. picks up a Pembrokeshire potato that’s fallen into the gutter from one of the open trailers passing by. Boyishly he drops it over the edge. After a long delay it hits the mud below, shattering into pieces and alarming the feeding gulls.
Now we’re on the outskirts of Pembroke Dock. We wind our way down through the suburbs to the centre and the docks. The town had its origins as a naval centre in the eighteenth century, but it’s the mid-Victorian defence mania, ubiquitous around Milford Haven, that’s to be seen everywhere here. We pass a Martello tower, one of two, and then the massive walls of the huge dockyard, which in its heyday employed over 5,000 workers. Scenes from the town’s history are illustrated by Perryn Butler on metal plaques inlaid in the walls. All around are signs of dereliction and decay, but thankfully the bulldozers have been kept away, and it’s easy to reconstruct how busy the town must have been, with its many pubs and shops around the docks entrance. We look into the market, a shrunken version of its former glory. There are just three or four stalls left, and we overhear the butcher saying that after he goes the business will close.
Climbing Barracks Hill we reach the massive Defensible Barracks, completed in 1845. It acted as a home for the Royal Marines and a fort to protect the docks below. The building’s now a forlorn and abandoned hulk, probably beyond the kind of restoration it would receive were it situated in south-east England. Then we drop again, this time through an older part of the town – brightly coloured one-storey houses that wouldn’t be out of place in a Scottish burgh.
The town ends abruptly and we’re back in fields and woods, with occasional glimpses of the muddy Pembroke River. More than once we hear a strange, wounded cry high in the trees ahead of us. Suddenly a large buzzard bursts from the leaves over our heads and makes off across the fields. Later we have to cross a field of bullocks. As we pass through they start to pay curious attention to us, and we increase our pace, with inconspicuous anxiety, to reach the gate and the safety of the wood.
Suddenly Pembroke Castle shows itself in front of us, high on its rocky outcrop. From this angle it’s not hard to understand what terror its alien and brute power must have struck in the hearts of the natives.
Back in Manorbier we visit another Norman castle. This one’s also a formidable fort from the outside, but inside it’s a child’s dream playground, complete with deep well, dark dungeon, Great Hall, numerous towers, gloomy passages and steep staircases, and everything arranged around a smooth sloping lawn. Some rooms feature ‘living tableaux’, including the study of the (absent) Giraldus Cambrensis, and the bedroom of Branwen, daughter of Llŷr, her head enveloped in the blonde ringlets of a Hollywood starlet.
A path leads down from near the entrance gate to the castle into a wood below the Pembroke road. At its lowest point we come across a small field with three pigs of different breeds, including a Gloucester Old Spot. When they catch sight of us they come bounding up the hill towards us, in a sudden outburst of porcine joy.
Sunday is Iron Man day, and many of the roads in the peninsula will be closed for the 1,800 athletes taking part in the triathlon. We feel fit enough after a week’s solid walking, but agree we might give it a miss this year.