Manorbier, according to Giraldus Cambrensis, is the pleasantest place in the whole of Wales. He was not impartial, since he was born there in the Castle, but on a warm sunny morning in September it’s hard to disagree. A cottage in the village is our base for a walking week in south Pembrokeshire, and four of us set out by car on Sunday morning for Bosherston.
Almost immediately we leave the car park we’re skirting the great lily ponds. These were excavated, dammed and flooded by the Earls of Cawdor, from the 1780s onwards, in an orgy of artistocratic waterscaping. Their mansion, Stackpole Court, is long gone, but the ponds survive under the care of the National Trust. It’s not the season for lily flowers, but this is a green and peaceful place. The path leads to the sea at Broad Haven, a triangular sandy beach dominated by Church Rock, a euphemism considering its frank penis-and-scrotum shape.
Across the dunes to the west you’re soon through a military gate and on to Ministry of Defence land. At this time of year it’s only at weekends that you can continue beyond the gate. At other times red flags indicate ‘strictly no admittance’ (translated into baffling pseudo-medieval Welsh as ‘llym dym mynedfa’). The gravelly track keeps its distance from the coastline, and it takes us a while to realise that only by deviating from it to the left have we any hope of seeing the cliffs and the sea. To our right, yellow notices every few yards predict sudden extinction from exploding ordnance hiding in the undergrowth for anyone straying from the track. Little is to be seen on this landward side, except what look at first sight like Bronze Age burial mounds until you notice their concrete lintels, and the occasional old tank. Sheep are conspicuously absent. Perhaps they too have decided that the place is too dangerous.
Invisible at the foot of a steep flight of stone steps is St Govan’s Chapel, wedged between two cliffs and overlooking the sea. Churches in these parts normally avoid the coast, and even, like St David’s Cathedral, make themselves unseen from the sea, but this one seems to hide from the land, as if the hinterland had always been as dangerous as it is today. We stop for a break beneath the chapel, aware of the skull-cracking rocks at our feet that have fallen directly from above our heads. From here we’ve a close view of an arch and a stack, geological features common all along this coast, as the sea never ceases to pound and dissolve the limestone.
At two points the sea has pummelled its way through narrow faults in the rockface, leaving a tall but thin chasm (a ‘geo’ or ‘zawn’). One of them, Huntsman’s Leap, looks particularly hair-raising. The hunter in question, it was said, died of shock having turning back and realised what he’d just jumped across. Its rockfaces attract climbers and we can see a small blue figure with a helmet clinging precariously to a vertical slab far below. ‘If you’re not solid at E1’, says a climbing guide of this face, ‘you will have an epic.’ The white cliffs march off westwards in the bright sun, above the clear turquoise sea so characteristic of Pembrokeshire.
Beyond Bullslaughter Bay we reach the acme of the art of the stack, Elegug Stacks – two massive bird-covered piles detached like lost orphans from their parent cliffs and stranded in the sea. Then, as the great climax of this stretch of coast, we’re allowed by the military to walk to a wooden viewing platform and look back on one of the wonders of Wales, the Green Bridge – an arch that leaps 80 feet across the blue water, with a lower rock isolated further out.
A signs now announces ‘NO UNAUTHORISED ENTRY AT ANY TIME’ (they don’t bother with a Welsh version this time). It’s impossible to go further, and the next five miles of coast are out of bounds. A vast area of land here is reserved for army use. In Cold War times large numbers of tanks would roam the country like wild bears, their parallel tracks marked like fingernail scratches on the OS map. So we have to leave the coast and follow a narrow road north, past the abandoned village of Flimston, with its church – still maintained, since all military forces need God on their side – and its ruined brick buildings.
Just short of the village of Warren we turn east, past the gateway to the Merrion army camp, curiously quiet and almost as abandoned as Flimston. It looks ill-kept, as if the financial cuts are having an effect. We’re now on the Army-maintained Castlemartin Range Trail. A man in a Pembrokeshire Park Authority van, parked at the camp gate, hands us a leaflet which tells us we’re also on a bumblebee trail. This is the home, it seems, of the shrill carder bee, a rare bumblebee we last encountered on the Gwent Levels. But try as we might we fail to spot any bees on the long path through fields back to Bosherston and tea, attended by plenty of late summer wasps, at the Old World Café.