Saturday, 1 February 2003

Pembrokeshire Coast Path : Part 5

I am now travelling west along the southern coast of the estuary and can see places I passed through yesterday over on the other side.    By getting into the right frame of mind I find that I can enjoy the rain.  It’s still torrential but my gear is good enough to keep the worst of it out.  The last mile-and-a-half is along the beach with no defined route.  I strike out across the mud where it’s less rocky but risk going in up to the eyeballs.  Arriving in Angle I lunch in a welcoming pub and consider pitching my tent but, as it’s still pouring, I opt for a second night in B&B.  The house is lovely and clean so I feel a bit awful when I trudge in, soaking wet and plastered (with mud).  I have a delicious bath and watch ‘For the love of Ada’ and a bit of ‘Oprah’.  Feet are sore but nothing like yesterday.
I wake early having agreed to breakfast at 8 am.  It doesn’t look bad out and I’m itching to get going, feeling really guilty that I didn’t camp.  I sort my kit out and make a work of art out of patching my feet again.  When I go down it’s still only 7.30 but the breakfast is all laid out so I eat and set off at ten past eight.  The weather is dry but the undergrowth is sopping, so I wear plastic bags between sandals and socks to keep my foot-art intact.  I pass the little fisherman’s chapel, which I visited last night.  The stained glass sets bible stories in the context of the village and its life – Jesus asleep in the boat in the storm, Jesus calling Peter out of the boat to tread the waves, being two of them. 
I continue on along the headland, feeling good.  Rounding the point, I leave the Milford Haven estuary behind, at last, and coming over the top, I am back to what I love best about this walk.  The sea looks somehow colder and clearer with a savage beauty which makes it seem utterly detached from all other existence.  The wind is freer and carrying in its saltiness a memory of its long journey across the ocean.  Here, I could contemplate for hours, but without reaching any conclusions.
Then all of a sudden it is snowing, except this snow is a dirty grey.  In fact it is foam, collecting in a gully, whipped up by the wind and then falling over the cliff top.  I seem to walk on through an elemental drama  and when I reach a ruined watchtower, I climb in to eat my lunch, except that I have to keep stopping to watch mid-munch as wave explodes itself on rock.  Before continuing, I remove the bags (which are now just tattered shreds) from my feet.  It was comfy at first but eventually became sweaty until thorns and brambles did their worst.
Later on, I reach the vast expanse of beach at Freshwater West.  I stop to snack again, this time in a hut used for drying seaweed.  Beyond this point the cliffs continue, as spectacular as ever.  Unfortunately, thanks to the MOD, the route has to detour inland and I am back to the pains of road marching.  A dream is keeping me going now.  If the army aren’t on exercise there is a road that will take me back to the cliffs sooner rather than later and I will be able to get to Stack Rocks and Govan’s Chapel.  My dream is that if I get there late enough and no one else is about I might be able to spend the night in the chapel itself, which nestles remotely in the wild cliffs.  I get to the crossroads and approach the security point.  The barrier is down and a sullen and uncommunicative official eventually tells me the whole area is shut for the foreseeable future.  Oh well!  More road slog all the way to Bosherton.  Here I have beans on toast and a cream tea in a little cafĂ© next to the Church.  The Church is locked – much to the chagrin of a coach load that turns up to visit it.  The route continues, through a system of delightful freshwater lakes (part of the Stackpole estate) back to the coast at Broad Haven.  Now the drama begins again making this morning seem tame by comparison.  My feet and legs had been griping along the long road stretch but now they go quiet, or at least I cease to notice them.  This is pure exhilaration.  The sea a boiling cauldron, throwing waves like mountains onto the cliffs then erupting into the air.  Choughs soar above me and Razorbills and Guillemots, here in their hundreds, labour into the gale before turning suddenly to be hurled back towards land.  In that moment they seem completely out of control and I’m amazed that not one of them gets splattered onto the sheer face of the cliff.  Church rock stands out some way from the cliff.  It is the size of a small Church with a roof and steeple but the waves, with all the fury of the forces of hell, crash right over the top of it.  They don’t prevail and the little ‘building’ always emerges ready to take another battering.  Further on, there is a collapsed cave into which the sea surges only to be forced out again at high pressure.  And later a finger of cliff points out into the swell.  I take my pack off and crawl out along it, peering over the edge to see down onto the seabirds and through tide worn arches of rock.  Everything is awesome – built of sheer power and illuminated now by glorious sunshine. 
Finally, with the approach of evening, I make my way down into the intimate calm of Barafundle bay.  It’s National Trust land so really there’s no camping allowed.  However, I can’t resist it and settle down to wait till everyone else has gone home.
There are not many people around but having said that those that are provide plenty of amusement for a quiet onlooker.  First there is the little family building a sandcastle against the tide.  It’s an interesting and challenging spot for them next to a small rock face on the shelving sand.  Before long a wave comes round the rock and rises up quickly to soak their clothes.  Mum decides to stop but Dad and boy continue.  Dad keeps shouting “14 years!” repeating it every time he pauses.  (What can it mean?  He’s shouting it defiantly, almost angrily now, at his wife.  As though he means they’ve shared 14 years of misery or it’s 14 years till the son grows up and leaves home and he can finally divorce her!)   They are on the brink now – but perhaps the tide is at its full flow already and their castle will just survive … No!  Another wave comes over.  They leap back … but then return, frantically rebuilding and repairing and prevailing again for precious minutes … Surely they are safe now … Then a huge wave comes in, twice as big as even that last one.  In an instant, man and boy are soaked and the sand obliterated beyond recognition.  They jump out and run back to mum.  Dad’s emotion seems released now and he explains all, “14 years we’ve been building that castle!”  He is obviously completely cuckoo, but it was a great castle and they’ll sleep well tonight.
As that family leaves another one makes a late arrival.  A couple in their seventies and a woman I presume to be their daughter.  When they reach the middle of the beach, Father ‘plants’ his two walking sticks, takes off shoes and socks and (obviously a well used system) plugs one set onto the top of each stick.  Mother and daughter leave their footwear on the sand nearby.  The waves are still rolling in so I’m surprised when the three of them saunter down into the water.  I’m thinking, “Another of those unusually big ones and they’ve had it – how could I possibly rescue all three of them?”  But age breeds experience and the old man, who has casually gone in furthest, performs dainty ballet steps that keep his neatly rolled trousers just clear of the water.  They haven’t reckoned on the tides continued stealth though and only a last minute sprint by the daughter saves the non-elevated shoes from a soaking.  The next bit is incredible.  The old man crouches forward and shakes his fist over the oncoming waves.  He then shouts something I can’t quite make out, but which I’m sure is the 1930’s version of “Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough!” I think I’ve seen it all.
At last they depart and so do the people who were fishing and the two women who sat in matching deck chairs with matching dogs on matching leads. Now I have my own private beach and I pitch my tent secretly among the sand dunes.

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