Wreckers and coalminers have all shaped the history of this wind- and wave-bashed stretch of coastline, running from Newgale to Druidston on the eastern shores of St Bride’s Bay in Pembrokeshire.
Heading on to Newgale Sands, it’s easy to mistake the shingle bank at the back of the beach for a man-made flood defence, but this is a great example of a natural barrier beach, formed when sea levels rose at the end of the last ice age.
Hard-packed sand, flecked with shells and stones, mirrors the sky, giving a deeply relaxing feel to walks along this beach, which stretches for more than two miles. Oil tankers seem to loom out of the seascape as they seek shelter in the bay.
Abundant graptolites can be found at Druidston Haven. The site, like much of the Pembrokeshire Coast is an SSSI which means that although loose pebbles and smaller rocks may be investigated and collected, large boulders and the cliffs must not be defaced
Pirates have been roving around the coast of Pembrokeshire as far back as the Vikings, and Scottish and Irish pirates even helped Prince Rhys ap Tewdwr reclaim his throne.
The first concerted attempts to control local piracy were undertaken during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, because of fears of Spanish invasion and raids by North African “Barbary Corsairs”.
Yet Pembrokeshire’s seas remained as untamed as ever. Fishguard’s Lower Town was even attacked broadside on, cannons blazing, by an American privateer in 1779, and Caldey Island was used by the legendary Morgan and the privateer John Paul Jones.
It was not until the Napoleonic Wars, when Royal Navy ships began regular patrols along the local coastline, that piracy came to an end.
Yo Ho Ho and a Barrel of Brandy…
Pembrokeshire coastal names such as Brandy Brook, Ogof Tobacco and Ogof Whisky (“ogof” means cave) testify to the presence of smugglers along the coastline. Offshore islands such as Skomer and Skokholm were major smuggling depots for everything from brandy to tallow.
Many places were strongly associated with smuggling, including Manorbier Castle, St Bride’s Bay and Solva, whilst the coastline north of Fishguard became a particularly well known haunt of salt smugglers. In 1770, local smugglers even had the audacity to attack and scuttle a Customs and Excise vessel called the Pelham Cutter off St David’s, plundering everything on board.
Many coastal properties are still reputed to have secret tunnels, used for moving and storing contraband. Solva was once especially well known for its concealed stores and shafts but is now more famous for its restaurants, craft shops and wonderful walks.
Wrecking means using onshore beacons to direct ships to their doom.
Over the centuries, countless ships have run aground or sunk along the county’s treacherous coastline, only to have their cargoes plundered by the locals, with the local militia often being deployed to fend them off.
Even inland communities relied on the bounty of the coast – in medieval times – the men of the village of Wolf’s Castle were instructed to head to the seashore on summons of a horn when news of a shipwreck reached the village.
Sometimes things went badly wrong for the looters though, such as in 1791 when the Increase of Scarborough ran aground at Druidston Haven, St Bride’s Bay. The day after helping the crew ashore, wreckers drunk on rum started throwing stores of gunpowder over the side of the ship, triggering massive explosions which killed and injured many.
Birthplace of legends
One of the most famous pirates ever to sail the seven seas was Bartholomew Roberts, later known as Black Bart, or Barti Ddu. He hailed from Little Newcastle in the shadow of the Preseli mountains.
A monument honouring his memory stands on the village green. Black Bart is known to have captured well over 400 ships, far more than the better known Blackbeard and Captain Kidd, before being killed in battle with the navy.
Seafaring Fishguard’s scenic Lower Town was attacked by an American privateer with cannons blazing in 1779. A fort was built on the local headland to fend off future assault.
Tradition has it that many Pembrokeshire homes were built with the spoils gained from shipwrecks. A certain George Llewellyn of St David’s is said to have been heavily involved in wrecking along the local coastline. He built a local windmill, the tower of which now forms part of a larger building known as Twr-y-Felin, and it was said “he got his money on the water and invested it in the wind”. Even today the sea can throw up unexpected treasures – back in the 1990s a vessel passing the Pembrokeshire coast in heavy seas lost thousands of bottles of sun cream, which eventually washed ashore all along the coast. Just a shame it was winter…
Now famous for its beautiful Cistercian monastery, Caldey Island was once a pirate haven.
Paul Jones Bay on the northeast coast of Caldey is where it is believed the pirate and American naval hero, John Paul Jones, landed during the American War of Independence.
Jones, a ruthless marauding pirate, is feted by some as the founder of the US Navy. He was born in Scotland, but he would have known about Caldey from one of his officers, Leekie Porridge.
It is said that when Jones died in 1792 his body was pushed into a crevice in the rocks near Ord Point on Caldey. Legend has it that the sound of digging can sometimes be heard on Paul Jones beach as if a ghost is searching for treasure.
Historian of Pembrokeshire, George Owen, also noted that people living on the island used horses for their ploughs “for oxen the inhabitants dare not keep, fearing the purveyors of the pirates, who often make their provisions there”.
Welsh buccaneer Henry Morgan, later an admiral and Governor of Jamaica, is said to have used the island as a hideout. And smugglers hid their booty in Cathedral Caves.