Lower Solva. A bright, cloudless morning, but with a cold, insistent northerly wind. This is where we left off two years ago, and seems the right point to resume our Pembrokeshire journey. The path leads up the Gribin, a long narrow ridge that nudges the river down on its passage from village to sea. On its other side is a near-dry parallel valley ending in the miniature beach of Gwadn.
The path eastwards is craggy and energetic, a continuation of the terrain west of Solva. Falling man signs multiply, and so do the spring flowers: thrift, sea campion, blackthorn and brilliant gorse. At Dinas Fawr the land thrusts a defiant finger into the hard-pressing sea, which for some reason has the same turquoise colour we remember from our earlier walks. It’s followed by its lesser, more skeletal sibling Dinas Fach. Then two coves, Cwm Bach and Cwm Mawr, with its remains of an old brickworks. Inland is the old RAF Brawdy, the site of big anti-nuclear weapons protests in the 1980s; the protesters won the battle in the end – the site is no longer an airfield.
Just a few other walkers are about. Pembrokeshire attracts far more coastwalkers than other parts of the Path and perhaps as a result they’re less communicative. Those few equipped with well-nourished boots, bulging rucksacks, all-weather gear and neck-slung plastic-enveloped maps are the most hermit-like of all. They tend to stride purposefully on with mileage on their minds, exchanging at most a begrudged grunt as they pass. We like to think we inhabit the centre ground between these misanthropic professional types and the cheery casual daywalkers, with their trainers, dogs and showerproof kagouls.
Steep steps take us down to sea level at Newgale, and the path changes abruptly, turning south – we have the strong wind at our backs now – and turning flat, as the shingle bank and beach stretch straight for over two miles. It’s time for sandwiches, and we’re lucky to come across a wind-free dimple in the shingle big enough for three. On the sea a windsurfer speeds up and down in front of us.
In January 2014 the sea burst through the sea defences at Newgale, flooding the empty coastal plain behind. There’s been talk since of bowing to the inevitable, as sea levels rise and violent storms multiply, and letting the sea have its way. That would mean sacrificing a wide triangle of low-lying land, and redirecting the coast road inland. There’s natural local opposition to this proposal, but anyone who walks the coast knows well that the sea, in the end, will not be denied – unless, as in Holland, the country’s very existence depends on resistance to water.
Newgale marks another frontier, the Landsker, that divides Welsh- and English-speaking Pembrokeshire. From now on Welsh place-names are few and far between, and are pronounced by locals in rather odd ways. Marloes, for example, becomes ‘Maalows’, as if it were a town in Buckinghamshire. Henry II and his colonisation policies had a profound influence, on people as well as places. Place-names also betray the earlier influence of earlier Norsemen than the Normans. From the path we can see the island of Skomer; hidden to its south is Skokholm.
We walk along the beach, then follow a road and back on the path. This is an old coal mining area, and soon we reach the site of the Trefayne colliery. The only substantial building that remains is a tall brick chimney, sitting in a small amphitheatre of hills. Coal was mined early in Pembrokeshire, and abandoned early too – Trefayne ceased production in 1905 – and conditions for workers were severe. In the sun the path glints with coal fragments that have gathered in its beaten footholds, a small commemoration of forgotten labour.
Beyond Rickets Head, a cathedral-like sea pinnacle, the path descends to Nolton Haven. On the beach a mother, surrounded by her young children, or maybe other people’s, sunbathes topless in the far from hot sun. Further south and in need of tea, we timidly try the front door of the stoutly built hotel at Druidston Haven. It opens to reveal a long corridor of paintings. The staff seem unsurprised – the hotel seems to cater for a good mix of the bohemian rich and dusty travellers like us – and we take tea outside, overlooking the walled garden and the sea. Another building of note at Druidston Haven is Malator, the (second? third?) home of the former MP Bob Marshall-Andrews. Built deep into the hillside, it displays only its eye-shaped green and glass facade. You half expect to see one of the Teletubbies emerge from it and bounce down the hill (and indeed, it’s known locally as the ‘Teletubby House’).
Further south the cliffs seem in agony as they split and writhe under the sea’s constant assault. Our guide Dr John abandons his normal sober prose and becomes rhapsodic:
… you can see a ranges of quite spectacular cliff-collapse features – clifftop crevasses, rock falls, pinnacles, towers, stepped and faulted cliff faces, scree slopes and detached blocks. South of Haroldston Chins the vegetated cliff slope is littered with great blocks of rock.
At one point a whole section of cliff maybe a hundred yards across has suffered a catastrophic slump, like a failed meringue. Its surface is intact, but it’s settled much lower than the level of the path, creating new mini-cliffs at its edges. Later again we meet the Sleek Stone, according to Dr John, ‘a textbook example of a monocline’.
This is an extreme landscape, one that could inspire dark thoughts. Beside one gate a man’s jumper lies outspread and unclaimed on the fence: could it be the only surviving part of its owner, who ignored the many ‘falling man’ signs displayed nearby?
Geological sublimity is replaced by architectural dross as we reach our destination, Broad Haven. A small village to begin with, it’s ballooned out across its valley, multiplying its white houses up the hillside.