Wednesday, 1 January 2003

Pembrokeshire Coast Path : Part 4

I wake at 1 am because of the throbbing pain in my feet.  Turning round in the tent I stick them out into the cool air to soothe them.  Later I move back to ‘position A’ as it starts raining hard with a thunder storm close overhead.  I snuggle into my bag and edge away from the tent-pole: I had chosen a high and exposed pitch to make the most of the view.  When I wake again the sound of incessant rain has been joined by that of a foghorn.  I pack carefully and set off in the rain at 8.15 am
I have decided to go for it and aim to walk around the Dale peninsular in time to reach and cross The Gann while it is still possible with the tide.  This is a real test of motivation: cutting across the neck of the peninsular would have saved 5 miles from the walk, and they were to be miles without views because of the fog; and they crossed boggy pastures covered in sheep manure, which didn’t make for pleasurable walking in sandals! There were redeeming moments, however: the sands at Marloes, the harbour at Martin Haven, the Old Lighthouse at the point (where a friendly chap signed my card for me), and the sudden revelation through the fog of a yacht resting serenely at anchor.  I meet some Americans in pristine boots looking for a “well marked path”.  I explain the discrete ‘acorn’ marker posts to them and wish them well on their first walk in Wales
I press on into Dale itself.  It seems pleasant but I now find it takes more effort to walk slowly and anyway I’m worried about the tide, so I pass through in a hurry.  As it happens I cross The Gann quite easily.  Now the sun suddenly appears and full waterproofs and thermal shirt are immediately stripped down to shorts only.  I continue to Monk’s Haven – a lovely valley and a church with real character – a bit like St Non’s, “I can pray here.”  It is dedicated to St Ishmael, a contemporary of St David, St Patrick, et al, but not one I had heard of before.  It’s only early afternoon but I’m feeling the pain again now, so it’s a slog up the hill, down to the village and up again to the cricket ground where I can camp.  It pours with rain for two hours during which time I put my tent up, have a drink in the clubhouse (“You can have a good session – no need to drive” – but I have enough problems just walking already!) then take a delicious shower in the changing rooms.  They invite me to play cricket tomorrow – a cup match – I laugh.  I sleep for two hours then go back down to the village pub for fresh mackerel and chips followed by a sickly pudding and pots of tea.  This is a very close-knit village, but very friendly too.  Romantic hits from the 80’s are playing as I eat – reminding me of my school days!  Two new blisters on my left little toe.  They’ll need bursting later tonight.
There are showers during the night.  When I get up at 6 am on Trinity Sunday the skies are blue but it soon clouds over again with just the occasional glimpses of sun during the day.  I feel surprisingly good – legs slightly fatigued but feet okay.  The half-day rest has done me good.  I set off at 7 am and get to Sandy Haven at 8 am.  At this point there is another tidal river crossing to make and I have to wait half-an-hour until the causeway and stepping-stones become visible.  Patience isn’t always my best virtue so I take my sandals off and cross while there’s still 6 inches of water – well, it’s more fun like that anyway.  I push on alongside the Milford Haven waterway, with its recently redundant oil refinery workings, not wanting to stop in case I seize up.  Milford Haven is the first really built up section of the path.  Not much of note to rave about, just lots of road walking to punish feet and legs.  At Neyland it’s up onto the A477 for a high level and very windy crossing over the estuary.  For now it’s simply a slog and the lack of interest adds to the demoralising effect.  However, my sights are set on Old Pembroke and after limping through the dock I finally arrive at the Tourist Information office at 2 pm – a hard and punishing 20 miles completed. 
I enquire about campsites but the nearest is 1 mile out of town in the wrong direction.  Immediately I am aware that my legs and feet are totally crippled and there is a swelling on one of my thighs.  I opt for a nearby B&B with no feelings of guilt whatsoever.  Just getting there is a struggle and despite the relief of being without my pack, the short distance back into town to find food is even worse.  All the caf├ęs are shut. **##!!X#X#** - pardon my French.
I park myself on a bench on the corner of the main road and take my feet out to let them breathe (a few funny looks).  Then I go into a miserable pub and consume one and a half pints of Guinness and a packet of pork scratchings.  “I really am going to give up now.  It’s not as though I’ve even got any choice any more.  Have I? Yes.  No.  Well?  I can wait and decide in the morning, can’t I?”
The Anglican Church is nearby and I decide to go to Evening Prayer.  There are seven of us in the congregation plus organist, lay reader and vicar.  The service is depressingly depressing but the people are friendly.  One of them gives me a lift to a recommended Chinese restaurant where I treat myself.  I also ponder the conversations I had in Church after the service.  Most of the folk had encouraged me to continue walking – easy for them.  But one woman had advised the contrary.  “It’s dangerous on the Coast Path, you know”.  I think she means the cliffs – where the path is crumbling it can be a bit hairy, especially if the wind is up – that doesn’t bother me.  “Yes,” she went on, “They never did solve that murder.”  My eyebrows say “!!??”
“A couple were walking near St David’s.  No one was about at the time.  But later they were found, having been tied together and shot.  That was four years ago and the mystery has never been solved, the murderer never caught.”  She then went on to discuss the organist and choir but my thoughts had become somewhat distrait.
After the meal I walk back to the guesthouse and pamper, pamper, pamper my feet.  The newest blister has 3 heads and breathes a combination of fire and ice or am I hallucinating?
I wake up on Monday morning, after a good sleep, to the firm and level-headed decision to have a day off.  There are still some 55 miles remaining and I have 2 days left after today so I’ll just have to make the best of what I can do.  Having decided, I go down to breakfast and discover there are no rooms available for tonight – so I’ll probably set off after all.  Angle is only 12 miles away, so that won’t be so bad.  I had been looking forward to exploring Pembroke Castle but then again, knowing me, I would only have got restless.  There are a group of 4 at the next breakfast table to mine – an old couple and two younger men.  They can be best described as Van Gogh’s ‘Potato Eaters’ gone senile and impersonating The Goons – quite incredible.  Now I can place the strained querulous voice from the corridor last night: “You’re always getting at me.”
I eventually leave the B&B at 10 am in pouring rain.  It soon gets harder and becomes torrential in the strong wind.  The ground is very muddy in places and there are no other walkers about!  Physically, I feel reasonable at first, with my toes vaselined and taped up or taped together as appropriate.  However, sandals-and-socks is no great weather protection and before long all the careful taping simply disintegrates.  I think about my motivation for doing all this: whenever I’ve been for a day’s walking I’ve always wished it didn’t have to end – that I could just walk on into the sunset, but was this the reality I had in mind? I can’t believe I am still walking after my thoughts last evening.  No matter what I think though, the will to continue is simply there pushing me on.  Despite everything, it would in some strange sense be harder to stop than to carry on … I think about those back home who love me and for a moment salt mingles with the rain on my cheeks. I think about my Grandfather, another Geoff Holmes, who died before I was born.  He was lost for three months crossing the Congo on his own – I don’t think he’d even told anyone that he was setting off.  At least I have got some sense.  I pass a derelict church and am surprised to see one fresh grave in the graveyard.  Two men watch me from a white van.   I remember the story of the coast path murder but I am not anxious –  “No murderer in his right mind would be out in this weather.”