We’re in Dale for another week on the Pembrokeshire path, almost exactly two years after our first coastal campaign further north. Our cottage overlooks the Gann inlet, with a distant view of the Rhoscrowther oil refinery on the other side of Milford Haven. Its semiglobes, pipes and towers shine like the Emerald City at night; during the day they’re pooled in a bright spotlight even if the rest of the land is in shadow, as if the sun’s attracted by some petrochemical aura that they radiate. The weather’s cold but dry, and we’re here pre-season, so that navigating the narrow roads is comparatively easy and there’s sparse competition in the pubs and cafés.
As a taster we do an afternoon circuit of the Dale peninsula, starting, as good walks do, with coffee. In the Dale Yacht Club the coffee is good and the cakes are generous enough to keep hunger away for hours. We walk up past houses originally built for military staff – Dale had its own Dale airfield in the Second World War, and Polish airmen are commemorated here – to St James’s Church, with its tall tower that seems to lean both sideways and backwards. A worn inscription on the gateway offers us an assurance from a more certain age, ‘mors ianua vitae’. Opposite is a battlemented Edwardian pile, Dale Castle, with outbuildings sprawling to the west. A straight green way, cupped between opposing low hills, leads across the isthmus, opening suddenly after a stile on to a row of tall cliffs stretching north, and white surf far below.
A sharp climb gives us command of the heights, and then an easy, exposed path leads south. At points its original course has vanished into air as the sandstone cliff has been washed away or undermined, and we’re diverted. Forced deviations of this kind, we soon learn, are frequent in St Bride’s Bay, which is in its entirety a gigantic act of erosion. Offshore, jagged rocks break the surface of the sea at 45 degree angles, and later big synclines are wrenched out of the sandstone strata. We pass a multivallate ‘Iron Age promontory fort’. These structures too are common features in the Bay, usually reduced by sea erosion. The path follows on its landward side a long continuous hedgebank – a turf mound topped with a hedge – protecting the arable fields behind. It’s studded with spring flowers, mainly celandines and thrift.
At the peninsula’s southern point St Ann’s Head brings a scattering of buildings. First, a disused lighthouse and coastguard station – we think we could convert it into a spectacular café and shop – and then a squat working lighthouse. Its light sits like an overlarge head on a withered body. Between them a short path leads to a view of Cobbler’s Hole, another rich collection of rock folds. A row of Trinity House cottages lies abandoned, and a large east-facing walled garden, created in 1800 and once tended by their occupants, has long since been colonised by weeds and brambles.
The sheltered south side of the peninsula lets different flora thrive, especially bluebells. Watwick Bay is full of trees and flowers, and hides a small sandy beach. Mill Bay is where Henry Tudor landed on 7 August 1485, with just 2,000 troops. We stop to admire the speed of his journey to Bosworth Field, just fifteen days. Did he harbour any fear, we wonder, that it might be his head, rather than Richard III’s, that would become detached from his body during the coup? And why are the modern day followers of Richard III so numerous and fanatical (even more so after the Leicester car park find), when Henry VII was far more successful and efficient?
As you turn the corner into the haven you appreciate immediately how militarised this area has always been, and how sensitive governments have felt about its vulnerability to attack. Forts were built on the Haven from Napoleonic times to the Second World War. We pass Dale Fort (1852-56), almost invisible from here but a large complex of buildings when viewed from the sea. It’s now used as a field studies centre.
After the Fort we join a small road that follows the coast and falls gently towards Dale. Through the trees of Blue Anchor Wood we can see yachts moored in neat rows offshore. It’s a quiet spot. Our first night in the cottage, though, is noisy for C and H, until they succeed in wedging a cheese grater in the toilet cistern and fixing orange plastic bags on the outside of a window (don’t ask!).