As well as spending leisure time with my dear friends at the holiday home in Newport on the north coast of Pembrokeshire I am well used to driving through the sparsely populated rural hinterland to its southern side to see my eldest son Tom (42) who is fortunate enough to lead a good life here as an autistic adult in a specialist home near Pembroke Dock. I’ve also got to know his various carers down the years and today I was in the welcome company of Lewis who knows the south Pembrokeshire coast intimately as a native son and keen all year round surfer. He drove us in the minibus to Skrinkle Haven. Here carboniferous limestone meets old red sandstone and the steep high cliffs on these dramatic headlands yield an arc of magnificent views from Caldey Island further southwards over the Bristol Channel. All was blue, very still, virtually cloudless and exceptionally hot. We walked the official coastal path westwards, past the flight of steep concrete steps leading down to ‘church doors’ beach and only properly accessible at low tide. The old coast path abruptly ends a little later, blocked by a high metal fence submerged in encroaching gorse & bracken. Closed permanently due to landslides. There were obvious signs though where the brave, or foolhardy, had clambered around and then down through vegetation to access the beautiful sheltered sandy beach that is Skrinkle Haven. It’s a favourite spot for those in boats to access, for the reasons given. We retrace our steps and walk the chain link perimeter fence around what remains of Manorbier Camp. It’s a Ministry of Defence base where, Lewis tells me, missiles are tested, providing the locals with an irregular year long fireworks display. It all looks deserted, save for the lone car parked inside the wire at the camp gates. What fascinates me though are the swathes of scrub and meadow created after the abandonment of what was a much larger former Royal Artillery site. Where once hangers, stores and gun emplacements protected the country in wartime a wide variety of meadow plants and grasses now thrive. I recognised hawkweed, sorrel, meadow buttercup, ribwort plantain, birdsfoot trefoil, vetch, scabious, yarrow and common spotted orchids among various other plants & grasses, all vying for space and place. Fit to bust its browning seed pods were clumps of yellow rattle, that most vital of pioneering meadow plants. Being semi-parasitic it weakens the growth of vigorous grasses thus enabling the more delicate plants to break through into the diverse mix of sward. Given that an estimated 98% of UK farmed meadows have been lost in the UK since the 1930’s such a delightful and unexpected sight is a rare treat for the eyes. Now I’m not sure it was a NAFFI or not in the past but today we really appreciated the friendly and enterprising cafe at the YHA building. Lovely home cooked food & a refreshing drink, enjoyed under a shade outside, talking & watching the gentle traffic of visitors, coming and going. Families in Glam pods or tents, couples in motor homes or hikers on the long distance trail; all enjoying this peaceful, non-commercialised remote spot. Swords into plough shares right enough.
The Pembrokeshire Coast is the UK’s only coastal National Park and, at some 179 miles, is rated by many as one of the best long distance walks in the world. For our part my friends and I rate the stretch between the Parrog and Dinas Head and have walked it many times down the years. The strains of the Newport Silver Band in our ears, playing at the Newport Carnival at the boathouse, we set out west for the cove we call ‘cow beach’. Climbing and curving along the well beaten path ‘twixt fields being cut for silage and precipitous slate headlands packed with gorse, bracken, bladder & pink campion, thrift, all coming on or going over in flower. We eventually zig-zag down reinforced steps to the little cove where a small stream debouches into the stilled waters to find two weather beaten middle aged men fishing. “Everything is running late this year,” one of them tells me. “Bass, mackerel…they’d normally be here by now…We’re just picking up dogfish and they’re a nuisance to have on the line to unhook. There’s probably better fishing to be had out there in the bay…” he adds wistfully. We leave them to it, commit to some non competitive ducks & drakes stone skimming before changing into swimming gear on the rocky beach. Am glad of having a wet suit and admire my two friends, Rick & Anne, for wading tenuously in without. Lovely once the cold barrier overcome but we don’t linger beyond 10 minutes or so, when, honour satisfied we let the late sun dry us before getting dressed again. We take the inland route home, following the glistening waters of the stream in the coombe uphill through cooling tree shade shot through with bright sunlight. Speckled brown butterflies very much at home here. It’s an entrancing gentle amble that eventually brings us to a high banked hedge topped lane and then the quiet main coastal A road. Neat litter free grass sward verges to walk along before another similar turn off downhill returns us to the Nevern estuary, Parrog and home. Another of our party has been out with one of the local fisherman, an old friend, that afternoon, helping lay lines and pull pots at the bay’s northern cliff edges. They’ve returned with herring and a lobster, which Alex has prepared for supper. Not normally a willing fish eater I nevertheless delight in learning to comb the creamy flesh off the fine boned fish, while the lobster is deliciously meaty and uncomplicated. So, yes, the fishing really was good out at sea and all the better in being appreciated for its freshness and sustainability.
Since 1985 I’ve been on vacation most years with old friends at a big house on the coastal path on the Parrog at Newport Pembrokeshire. Our children have grown up holidaying here and now their children come too. A very special place we have got to know well in all sorts of circumstances over the decades. For the first time, after all those years, our stay coincides with ‘Open Gardens Weekend’. Civic minded locals need to raise £6,000 a year to keep their town’s library open. The County Council, in the face of swinging Government cuts, closed the library and the area’s visitor information centre. The people of the town fought to keep both open and now they are going to move the library into the former visitor centre premises. Our £5 a head ticket will go towards making that happen and in return gives us excitement and joy to discover what lies beyond and behind peoples habitations! Cottages, Georgian detached villa and medieval castle converted to a Gothic cottage proved rich and rewarding viewing. Tea and cakes helped lubricate our happy wanderings and a blazing June Saturday helped create the perfect ambience to appreciate the luxuriant and lush planting that is possible in this sheltered coastal location. A narrow gorged rapid stream runs through three of the neighbouring cottage gardens and the owners have in their own dedicated way maximised every inch of space and turned deep slopes into dense and varied planting for different light and moisture levels. In all cases they have terraced cleverly and framed the running water wonderfully. Next door, and towering above them on the hillside, is an intensely romantic incorporated ruin of a Marcher Lord’s castle. Abandoned by the 1400’s as a fortification it is still in the ownership of the same extended family and enjoys a fabulous view over the old town and Newport’s beautiful graceful sweep of bay. Today the habitation presents a Gothic cottage front to the old enclosed bailey and its ruined walls & towers. These deep bottomed structures are respectively sheltering & warming plots for fruit trees, drying laundry, arbours and stores. Roses ramble over stone, Philadelphius scrambles through trees, a greenhouse is hidden by masonry and lawns extend their welcome green carpet to every decayed yet fecund corner. A romantic sun drenched revelation for us first time visitors, appreciating the owners lovingly conceived and managed horticultural achievements. The whole experience of these privileged visits to private places, on this magical midsummer weekend of the year, has weaved its happy spell on us all.
Weeks of good weather end temporarily with wind and rain. Enough to part refill the water butts, refresh plant life and raise the water table. That’s important for us as our water supply is a spring we share with the two households at Southridge. (Our house originally being that farm’s shepherd’s cottage & auxillary barns). In past years a drought has meant doling out the bathwater to meet thirsty plant needs and going easy generally on the aqua for all household uses. Situation at this time of year made acute by our friends at the farm turning their herd of Stabilizer cows with calves unto the big field between us and them which also has the aforesaid spring in it. They are far thirstier beasts than sheep. Still, anything that makes one value and respect water and its sources has in the end got to be a good thing. In other fields the grass gives promise of good hay – rich with clover, sorrel & yellow rattle amongst the waving grasses – while having Southridge’s hogs (last year’s lambs) on the crags keeps our rough grazing agriculturally viable. They’ve been drenched so are resistant to the ticks that are present there. Nevertheless one succumbed to something this week & ended up a goner. I keep my eye on the pond, which thankfully loses little water in the heat. It’s also unusually clear this year, although water lily, water crowfoot, brooklime and hornwort provide essential cover and shade. Is this due to the water snails consuming blanket weed and leaf debris? As my earlier notes record I forced capture & exile on many of them; to East Farm’s roadside bullrush choked pond. Another expulsion to the same place has been that of the dragonfly nymph I tracked and netted last week. This voracious top predator has the appearance of a kind of aquatic scorpion. The mandible under its head reaches out to grab unsuspecting prey. I strongly suspect the tadpoles our neighbour’s children donated us were disposed of this way. Am relieved then to net a few very small new born newts and note the presence of adults too so they at least are safe. Whether we see adult frogs and toads this Summer, as I did last, remains to be seen.
We have a new road, or rather the much abused old one has been re-surfaced. Clad in all their mandatory day-glo safety gear, slowly baking in the heat, a gang of workmen from the county council have been traversing our switchback of a country loop lane making it fit for purpose again. A government grant has made all their extensive work possible. So why the largesse? To make it easier for log lorries to get their increased volume of felled pine out of the great forest and into the ravenous maw of the new biomass power station near the city. (See ‘Wood’, pub: 27/04/18). We will share its welcome benefit. So do others, perhaps surprisingly. Spot both swallows and pied wagtails apparently feeding on the cooling bitumen on what I guess to be insects either stuck to the surface or present in the cracks. Yesterday I spy a swallow fluttering around our cars in the yard, looking for food where window meets door and on the windscreen. The swallows are endlessly delightful to watch as they dive and duck at high speed over house, meadow & crags yet we miss our more reclusive avian neighbours, the wrens and robins. Both species are here in winter but have no discernible presence this breeding season, which seems odd. All we have are the remains of yesteryear’s nests. Last week one of the workmen called by at the house. ‘Do we have an outdoor tap?’ The lads were parched and in need of water. ‘No problem’ say I, and fill a bottle full indoors. On walking out with the guy to the yard gate he asks. ‘How do you manage way out here with nothing to do, nothing going on like’?…We’re still chuckling about that now.
Returning from holiday we disturbed the avian life that has been squatting the garden for the past week; a flock of starlings here, a scatter of pied wagtails there. Thrilled to see that blue tits have taken up residence in the box above the garage doors. Hanging out the washing I observe their cautious comings and goings. Likewise the swallows swooping in and out of of the ancient railway freight wagon that is our garden shed. The latter pair have a ready made nest of mud and straw which they return to yearly while the tits start from scratch, gathering moss, twigs, hair, leaves etc to make their nest. Fascinated to read in our county magazine that blue tits time their breeding to the hatching of caterpillars in the canopy of oak trees. The bigger the population the larger the clutch of eggs laid. Certainly the oaks seem late coming into leaf this year with the late roar of Winter slowing all growth down. The ash trees, young and old, are finally all in leaf by June 1st though neighbours at Oldstead report signs of ash die back in trees on their property. We are delighted to have skylarks nesting somewhere either on or about the crags. They are a particular joy both to see and hear every day and the final parachute descent from their fixed position on high always raises a smile. In the evening we love the liquid cry of curlews hidden in a neighbouring meadow growing ripe with rippling repeated patterns of buttercup, tall grasses, daisy, red clover and rusted sorrel. On our crags Southridge’s small flock of barren ewes do the grass cutting honours while I wield our diesel driven tank of a machine over the garden’s grasslands; front, back & sides. The sheep I’m not concerned about but hope that If curlew, skylark or lapwing are indeed nesting somewhere in our four acre stretch of rough grazing & crags I hope they survive the attentions of keen eyed resident scavengers like crows & magpies.
An abiding happy memory from last week’s holiday near Mallaig was a combined swim and fish dip with net in Loch Morar. Extra fun doing all this in the delightful company of the small children who are the grandchildren of my extended family. The objects of our close attention here on the little pier were shoals of salmon fry whose habitat is the shallow shore of this truly beautiful loch – famous as the deepest in Scotland. (The river Morar drains it, and at less than a mile in length, it’s the shortest river in the UK). A chance conversation with a local adventure company practitioner, waiting nearby for clients booked for a canoeing session, threw up some disturbing information. Our man had worked when younger at one of the commercial fish farms in the region’s lochs and saw at first hand the creature cruelty and environmental damage caused by this variation of intensive farming. He was particularly exorcised by the severe knock on effects, contributing to the sharp reduction in wild fish numbers through pollution and lice infection. A timely reminder of the adage that there is no such thing as cheap food.