I’ve been in Wales several times, sometimes for pleasure but mostly for work, but Wales, unlike Scotland, has until now featured little in my thoughts or imagination. My walk along the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path from St Justinian’s Head to St Dogmaels with friends old and new has changed that.
Perhaps our first taste of Wales was the bacon soft roll (it has a special Welsh name, but I can’t find it) in Haverford West Station, a sleepy place on a single track railway to Milford Haven. From there we took the bus to St David’s, a small town that has all the paraphernalia needed by the middle classes (restaurants, bookshop, art galleries) together with an exquisite 12th century cathedral almost hidden in a dip—probably to protect it from the wind. It’s a place that feels wealthy, and I learn that this part of Pembrokeshire is called “Little England,” not because it’s now filled with the second homes of rich English people, although it is, but because the Normans occupied this part of Wales, leading to the people speaking what became English in contrast to others in West Wales who spoke Welsh.
The coastal path
We walk down to the coast for an initial taste of the coastal path and see the chapel of Saint Neot, the mother of Saint David, the patron saint of Wales. The coast is striking and beautiful, but, although there are all kinds of variations in geology, flora, fauna, and much more, the different parts of the path have merged together in my mind to almost one thing.
The path is mostly empty, much emptier than the coastal path in Cornwall: on only one of our six days of walking did we pass a place in the middle of the day where we could buy a drink. The cliffs are always dramatic, jagged, broken, dark, sometimes black, with clearly visible strata, and plunging into the sea, which is usually rough but was preternaturally calm during most of our walk. Often there are chunks of cliff broken off forming small islands filled with nesting birds which know that predators cannot reach them. The cliffs are up to 450 feet high but descend every so often to beaches, usually grey, of sand, shingle, and pebble. Sometimes the top of the cliffs were rocky, and we encountered iron age forts strategically positioned on headlands.
There are no trees on the clifftops but much yellow gorse smelling strongly of coconut and dozens of flowers including sea pinks, bluebells, thrift, violets, primroses, foxgloves, dandelions, daisies, star of davids, and the occasional orchid. All the way we heard bird song, and my friends enthusiastically identified guillemots, oyster catchers, razor bills, swifts, swallows, martins, ravens, buzzards, and even once a peregrine falcon.
That first evening we walked only a mile or so along the coast, but immediately we felt the joy, freedom, and exhilaration of the path.
On our way back we looked into the cathedral and discovered that evensong was just about to begin. We stayed. There were some 20 people in the congregation, and about the same number in the choir—almost all male, ranging in age from 5 to 70. A combination of the complex choral music, the call and response, the rich poetry of the Bible and psalters, and the ancient surroundings made for a great aesthetic experience for the two of us who are atheists but somewhat revolted our one Christian, whose taste is low not high church.
The choir sang Psalter 88, and I liked that on this lovely evening in a lovely place we were thinking hard on death and despair. Here’s a yste.
Lord God, my Savior, day and night
before thee cried have I.
2 Before thee let my prayer come;
give ear unto my cry.
3 For troubles great do fill my soul;
my life draws nigh the grave.
4 I’m counted with those that go down
to pit, and no strength have.
5 Ev’n free among the dead, like them
that slain in grave do lie;
Cut off from thy hand, whom no more
thou hast in memory.
The walk begins
The next day, the Saturday, we walked around 10 miles, lunching on a rocky nob high above the coast and sea with beneath us the wild but unthreatening horses that live along the path.
The third day we continued past a somewhat sinister pool created by quarrying slate and walked out to St David’s Head. Here we looked down on the clear remnants of an iron age fort. We ended walking inland through overhanging trees, so different from the high emptiness of the cliffs, to a working woollen mill powered by a water wheel. A shop sold attractive woollen goods, and I was tempted by a £300 dressing gown but decided I didn’t have long enough to live to justify such an expenditure.
And so to Fishguard
The fourth day—and I must declare that for five of our six long days of walking we had blue skies and sun, which is unusual—we walked the 15 miles from the Woollen Mill to Fishguard, passing Strumble Head, which has an unmanned lighthouse. At one point we met two obese, jolly women who are walking all the 890 miles of the Welsh Coastal Path (not all in one go). At other times we met a Canadian couple walking the whole of the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path in one go, two Germans, some Welsh speakers, and many others. Most of the walkers were of our mature vintage.
Fishguard has been used in films of both Under Milkwood and Moby Dick, and it has a pretty harbour; but it is perhaps best known as a port from which to take the ferry to Ireland. Every day from different viewpoints we saw the ferry as it arrived in the middle of the day and left in the afternoon. But the ferry doesn’t actually go from Fishguard it goes from Goodwick, which is over a hill. There were once ambitions to make a Goodwick a major port, but they came to nothing. The tourist board makes much of the fact that Fishguard (or rather a bay close to it) was the last place to see a land invasion of the British mainland–in 1797. It was an invasion by the French led by Irishman and proved more comic than threatening. The town hall has a tapestry commemorating the event; we didn’t see it, but people had the chutzpah to compare it to the Bayeux tapestry.
We stayed two nights in a delightful bed and breakfast owned by Chris and Helen, two young refugees from Crouch End. Their claim to fame is that Bill Bryson stayed there and mentioned them favourably in the book he was writing. One of the best things about Fishguard was meeting Alison, the taxi driver, who seemed to know everybody in Fishguard, and every time we stepped out of the house she whizzed by in her taxi hooting and waving.
But various people told us that Fishguard is “going down,” not that it was ever very high. “It has no purpose,” we heard, and certainly many of the houses look empty and poor.
Round Dinas Head to Newport
The fifth day we walked along more beautiful coast to Newport, rounding Dinas head where in places the path was inches from a 300 foot drop into the sea. Newport and surrounds are filled with upscale holiday homes, and Alison described how her husband, who owned the taxi business, would often be asked to drive to Ealing to pick up the wife who was not quite ready to travel the previous day with her husband and children: the fare would presumably be £300 – £500. Welsh nationalists once burned down second homes, but those days have gone, although Plaid Cymru is more powerful than ever–although not nearly as powerful as the Scottish Nationalist Party.
The next stretch to St Dogmaels is 17 miles and very up and down, so Peter had judged this too much for us. We had to walk only nine miles to Moylgrove, where we stayed in the Old Vicarage which has been beautifully restored by a Dutch carpenter and his upper class English wife. Two days later we were driven to Camarthen by a taxi driver of perhaps 60 who lived in a cottage by the sea in Moylgrove as a child and remembered when the Old Vicarage was a pub. His cottage had neither electricity nor running water, and they lived by subsistence farming and fishing. His family would barter mackerel in the shops in the village, which included three butchers. Now there are no shops at all.
In the Old Vicarage I had to share a room with Peter, which proved to be an interesting psychological experiment for me and a dreadful experience for Peter. Peter thought that we last shared a room (or a tent) in the Brenner Pass some 40 years ago, and this time I felt intensely self-conscious, which stopped me doing my usual thing of falling straight to sleep. But once I did I snored in my usual heroic way and despite kicks from Peter stopped him sleeping.
On our seventh day we woke to cloud and rain not sunshine, and the cloud but not the rain persisted all day. The last part of the walk was along the beach and beside Cardigan Bay. The beach had hundreds of huge, stranded, and dead jellyfish. We’d seen these from the top of the cliffs, and the number of them was unusual enough to justify an item on the local news. Bern, who had joined us on the walk, was born in Cardigan and told us how his grandfather when 14 had sailed from Cardigan, which was then a major port, to Dublin and so on to New York. Now the port is silted up.
The Welsh “brand”
We stayed our last night in a remarkable place, a former Welsh chapel converted into a bed and breakfast and a family home kept conveniently separate from the bed and breakfast. http://bethsaida.wales/ The owner and the architect have done an excellent job of both conserving the feel of the chapel and creating comfortable living spaces. As you stand outside Bethsaida it looks like a chapel–with the stained glass windows and religious plaques, and you wonder how on earth it can be a bed and breakfast. Inside they have preserved the pulpit and the front pews where the chapel elders would sit, and each of the four rooms has a stained glass window with one word in Welsh: gobaith (hope), mawl (praise), gras (grace), and ffydd (faith). I stayed in ffydd, as far away as possible from Peter, still suffering from his sleepless night. I asked the owner if the locals had been put out by the conversion of the chapel, and she said they hadn’t: she had shared the plans as they developed, and the locals preferred to see the chapel converted rather than ruined or demolished.
Although the beauty of the cliffs and sea and the freshness of the air will be what we remember most, the trip changed our perceptions of Wales. With the silted harbour, the converted chapel, the lost shops of Moylgrove, and the decline of Fishguard, there is a sense of Wales being left behind. That last night talked with Bern about the “brand” of Wales. The big contrast is with Scotland, which has a powerful and mostly positive brand–kilts, bagpipes, the Enlightenment, whisky, Robbie Burns, the Edinburgh Festival, Bonnie Prince Charlie, and the Scottish Nationalists. It doesn’t seem to matter that much of the Scottish brand was invented by Walter Scott and that there is poverty; even the clearances have been given a romantic tinge. The brand of Wales seems much more depressing–rain, unemployed coal miners, Aberfan, abandoned chapels, mournful choirs, empty valleys, and sombre, drunken poets. I exaggerate–there is rugby, and the Welsh language is much more present than Gaelic, not least that it’s on every sign and in every official document.
The weakness and drabness of the Welsh brand is wrong, and I’ve returned to London with its powerful brand determined to think more of Wales. I’ve begun, as recommended by Bern, by reading the stories of Caradoc Evans in My People. They are wonderful stories with the unique voice that all great writers must have. Unfortunately they are about the sin, meanness, drunkenness, poverty, hypocrisy, death, and fornication of the peasants of West Wales, meaning that Evans was hated by many of the Welsh and that it needed decades (he died in 1945) for his genius to be acknowledged. He deserves to be much better known, and I end with some lines from him–to give you a flavour and tempt you to read the book.
“Simon and Beca are waiting for Death.
The ten acres of land over Penrhos — their
peat-thatched cottage under the edge of
the moor — grows wilder and weedier. For
Simon and Beca can do nothing now.
Often the mood comes on the broken, help-
less old man to speak to his daughter of
the only thing that troubles him.
” When the time comes, Sara Jane
fach,” he says, ” don’t you hire the old
hearse. Go you down to Dai the son of
Mali, and Isaac the Cobbler, and Dennis
the larger servant of Dan, and Twm
Tybach, and mouth you like this to them :
‘ Jasto, now, my little father Simon has
gone to wear the White Shirt in the Palace.
Come you then and carry him on your
shoulders nice into Sion.’ “