8:30am on a dark December Friday, and we’re driving west, three of us. Rain, unforecast, runs into us from the west. The stub of a rainbow over St Clears soon erases itself. At Llanddowror the Tâf has burst its banks and flooded dozens of fields, metres deep. Everywhere the land is bloated with the rains of the last four weeks.
The rain’s stopped by the time we drop down into Amroth and park by the seawall. Opposite, the Smugglers Café has just opened and feeds us coffee to prepare us for a steep climb up the cliff path westwards. Through the leafless branches we can look back on Amroth and its groynes, and ahead towards Monkstone Point. The path follows close to the cliff edge but seldom gives us unimpeded views over the sea. Soon we’re descending into Wiseman’s Bridge. One house has its name painted on a cheerful blue milk churn, next to a clump of season-defying daffodils. ‘Heddwch’, it says, just two days after Parliament, not content with one war, decided to start a second.
At Wiseman’s Bridge Inn we’re down at sea level again. A sign tells us that we’re not allowed to catch more than three sea bass a day, and informatively includes a handsome drawing of the fish. This was once an industrial area in the Pembrokeshire coalfield, where anthracite coal was transported to the harbour at Saundersfoot, and the path follows the track of an old railroad (c1834) winding its way on a raised bank below a steep wooded hill. We splash through three tunnels, water dripping eerily from above our heads in the darkness. The last of them opens into Saundersfoot. The town looks morose. All the shops are open, and a small amusement park, but their customers have gone missing. ‘Crew Barbers’ shares a block with the ‘Reptile Experience’ and a soaked, desolate Draig Goch. We’re briefly tempted by a rock bun in the bakers, but hurry on and up the hill at the west end of town, past the old harbour, now a marina.
From here the going gets harder, with a succession of wooded valleys to cross. They belong to the Hean Castle Estate, owned by a succession of oligarchs including the coal king Sir William Thomas Lewis, Baron Merthyr, who, with others, was fined a total of £24 for the negligence that led to the Senghenydd Colliery explosion in 1913, when 440 men died. No doubt the remote peace of Pembrokeshire allowed his conscience to lie quiet. We pass a single caravan park, each caravan labelled, incongruously, ‘Aspen’. This area is studded with caravan parks, but luckily almost all of them are kept well away from the coast. Oaks line the path, sheltered on the south-east-facing coast. Then tall pines soar above us. We’re on Forestry Commission land now, and periodic signs warn of tree felling and sudden death. To our left Monkstone Point and the long beach to its south come and go. We tread carefully through a soup of mud and fallen oak leaves, and try to avoid slipping and falling on the steep slopes. Coats come off our backs and go back on: it’s warm and quiet in the valleys, but a blustery wind’s whipping across the land on the tops.
Now Tenby comes into view, strung along its sea ridge like a row of pearls, punctuated by the geometrics of St Catherine’s Fort on the west and the spire of the St Mary’s Church to the east. In this winter light the multi-pastel houses above the North Beach look a uniform grey. After Waterwynch, at the foot of the last long climb before the town, a strange corrugated concrete ramp begins, and continues right to the gate at the top. It looks as if we should be able to lock our vibram soles into the concrete rackline, press a button and start the mechanism that will haul us to the top. But it seems we have no option but to trudge up the ramp, resting on the thick wooden block benches considerately provided for distance walkers.
It’s time for a bite in Café Vista in the centre of Tenby before we head for the bus back to Amroth. The rackety ride takes 40 minutes and several diversions inland, to visit Pleasant Valley and the ruined ironworks of Stepaside, and a place with the resonant name of Sardis. The original Sardis, in the valley of the Hermus river in Asia Minor, was the great capital of the ancient kingdom of Lydia, ruled by Gyges, Croesus and Cyrus the Great. The crazed author of the Book of Revelation had it in for the Christians of the city, delivering the chilling warning, ‘If therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come on thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee’. The Pembrokeshire Sardis, though, is a hamlet, modest and unimperial; its citizens are surely blameless people.