Wednesday, 3 June 2015

27th May - St Ann's Head & Dale, Pembrokeshire

The previous night the weather forecast had not been to promising for today, but the day started bright and sunny with the threat of rain during the afternoon.  Rather than wander too far we decided to walk around the coastal path towards Dale, and then decide where to go from there.

As I waited outside the cottage before we set off the House martins were busy repairing or maybe even building their nest under the gable above one of the windows of the house.

We headed into the village and then down the shaded footpath that leads to the the parallel road that runs to the mere.

It was sunny and as a result in the shelter there were Speckled Wood butterflies about.  Due to their colour they are always one of the earliest active butterflies in the morning, and the footpath was the perfect spot.

Once on the road the Wall Browns were warming up on the tarmac.

Our route would take us across the road, and then down a track towards the coast.  Looking away to the west there was a bank of cloud that could possibly be the cold front approaching, how far and how soon it would be with us was difficult to determine.

The track would head south with grazing fields on our right and the remains of Dale airfield on our left.  Looking across the grazing field, as well as the sheep we could see Gateholm Island, and well away in the distance Skomer.

Dale was one of eight airfields that were built in Pembrokeshire during the Second World War.  Construction of the airfield began between the villages of Dale and Marloes in 1941. Initially it was to be named RAF Marloes, planned as a satellite to nearby RAF Talbenny but the name was changed to RAF Dale instead.  

It became operational in June 1942 and for a year operated Wellington bombers of No 304 (Polish) squadron. They flew on convoy protection missions as well as bombing raids on ports in occupied France. As well as the dangers experienced on these missions, crews suffered fatalities caused by the difficulties involved in landing the bombers from the sea. At least one plane crashed into the cliffs as it attempted to land in poor visibility. In Marloes Church there is a roll of honour to the Polish aircrew that served at Dale.

A number of other types of aircraft operated from Dale, including Beauforts, Beaufighters and Mosquitoes.

In September 1943 Dale was passed to the Royal Navy, and became RNAS Dale (HMS Goldcrest 1) supporting the flight training carried out at Kete (HMS Goldcrest 2). It remained in this role until it closed in 1947.

Dale was an excellent example of a ‘dispersed site’ airfield. As well as dispersal areas all around the airfield for the aircraft, buildings such as accommodation blocks were sited on farms and other areas well away from the airfield. This offered better protection from enemy action. You can come across derelict wartime RAF buildings all over this part of Pembrokeshire.

Most of the airfield buildings have been demolished, but a skeleton of one hangar still stands, along with several workshops and accommodation buildings on private land to the north-west of the site. One of the huts contains paintings of aircraft and other ‘barrack room art’, and is a Grade II listed building.

The sheep were dominant now, but also above us were Skylarks and on the ridges and banks that run down the side of the concrete runways Wheatear would fly low over the ground their white rumps distinctive., but every so often they would appear on the gorse bushes.

We reached the coastal path and headed toward Dale.  Looking back the cliffs here were of the red sandstone, a rock layer that further west was replaced by darker igneous rocks.

We also had some splendid views of Skokholm, the island is completely different to that of its neighbour Skomer, which was formed by volcanic activity.  Skokholm consists of the sandstone seen in the cliffs and as a result has a different vegetation.  In the 1930's Skokholm became Great Britain's first Bird Observatory dedicated to the study and ring of migrant birds. it remains that today.  Day visits are not possible, but you can stay for periods of 4 - 7 days.

Looking south the panorama was quite striking, a small yacht passing the point.

The path took us down hill towards West Dale Bay a lovely untouched beach this morning.

At the bottom of the path we had a decision to make do we head into Dale, past the castle and then return to Marloes, or do we carry on around the peninsula.  The deciding factor here was to be the weather. looking out towards the west there was still cloud but it had not advanced as fast as was predicted.  Deciding that a little drop of rain would not hurt us we were off around the peninsula in what was a fresh breeze but also plenty of sunshine, leaving the path to Dale behind us.

From West Dale bay we climbed the cliff up to Great Castle Head which is an old Iron Age fort, and was also the site of anti-aircraft guns in the second world war.  Today all we could see were Herring Gulls drifting past below the cliff, and every so often a loud "gronk" would announce the arrival of a Raven above our heads, or just above the cliff top.

The sunshine was weakening, and as we headed south towards St Ann's Point the wind picked up too.  But this did not seem to put off a very determined Painted Lady.  It flew past us settled on several occasions for a very short while as it headed north.  This is confirmed by the only record I could get of it.

We walked on in a stiff breeze past Welshman's and Frenchman's Bay.  The fields to our left apparently once contained over a hundred huts and other buildings, with many hundreds of working Service personnel. Today the only evidence of all this activity are lumps of brick and concrete beside the path, and inland some concrete roadways and a single remaining hut in Kete village, now used as a farm building.  The whole area being military land it was first used as a RAF radar station, but then became a Royal navy school.

The path turns a corner towards the east and you go past Vomit Point, I have no idea why its called that maybe something to do with the height of the cliffs.  The side of the footpath though was lined with beautiful pink Sea Thrift.

As we came around the corner we could see the lighthouses, the first we passed was the old lighthouse now used for holiday lets, while the new lighthouse is positioned at the head.  During the second world war this area also doubled as a look out to watch for ships and submarines attempting to get close to strategically important Milford Haven.

The path takes a very regimented route around the house, and then back, it would have been easier and quicker to cross the grass, but that was private.  The only wildlife present was a Pied Wagtail and a few Swallows

Having rounded the head we entered Mill Bay.  This was the site of an important event in English history.  On the 7th August 1485, Henry Tudor (Henry VII), landed in the bay from his exile in Brittany. He marched inland to England, on the way collecting an army of 5000 men. On 22nd August he defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field, bringing the ‘Wars of the Roses’ to an end, and starting the Tudor dynasty.  St Ann's Head was once the location of a chapel built by Henry Tudor to mark his landing place.

Surprisingly the sun came out once again and it was necessary to take a break and a removal of clothes as it had become quite warm.  We walked around the bay, and then towards Blockhouse point.  As we did so a Gannet cruised past extremely close for once using the lift from the cliffs.

Coming so close you get to appreciate the lovely markings on the head and bill.

The wing span is up to two metres making this a large bird and unmistakeable against dark blue grey sea.

At Blockhouse Point we passed a set of navigation towers.  They are equipped with marker boards, lights, radar beacons and a foghorn. They are known as ‘leading light’ beacons, used for position fixing and indicating a safe passage into Milford Haven.

Continuing to follow the path the vegetation began to change.  The area was a lot more sheltered and the sides of the cliffs were covered with trees.  At the top by the path were cereal fields and these attracted the butterflies.  This a Small White.

We past another high tower that is in place to aid navigation.  The deep-water channel into Milford Haven is very narrow, so tankers, ferries and other large vessels have to be sure of their approach to the Haven. From the open sea, they follow a north-easterly route at first, followed by a dog-leg change of direction to the east.  Ships out at sea can line up this tower with the central one at West Blockhouse, in order to judge the correct angle of approach to the Haven.

From the tower we entered an area that looked extremely green and a big change from what we had just come from.  The birds were singing in the trees below us as we walked around the path the sun was also still out which made it even more pleasant.

The dominant bird song came from that of the Chiffchaff, and one broke cover to perch up high to deliver the familiar sound.

The path then dropped into the trees and went past a small pond.  This was made by the damming of a small stream. The water is pumped up to the farmland above and used for irrigating crops.

As we left the pond a Dunnock made a very good case for a close up photograph as it sang from the top of a bush.

A little further on Helen stopped us as she had almost stepped on a pair of what I think are Azure Damselflies mating on the path (but I have been known to be wrong!).

The path then takes you through the trees to a small bay known as Castlebeach.  From the path it is hidden by trees and an old building that used to be a lime kiln.

The kiln was used to produce quicklime to help reduce the acidity of the soil on the top of the cliffs.  Limestone and coal were brought into Castlebeach burnt in the kiln and allowed to cool and then taken up to the fields.

The path then climbs up hill once again and out into the open.  From here we cross ed to a road and walked down the lane into Dale where we stopped at the Griffin Inn for a drink while looking out at the boats in the calm waters of Dale Roads.

leaving the Griffin it was clear the weather was closing in.  The sun was now gone, and the wind was picking up a sure sign rain was on the way.  we took the path past the castle and out into the fields heading for West Dale Bay.  Around us Swallows and House Martins hawked for insects over the grass, yet another sign weather was on the way.

Coming down the path into West Bay had been quite easy, going back up after a rest was not so easy.  Looking back though we could seethe cottages of Dale and the Roads beyond with the sailing boats, as you can see it was becoming quite murky.

In the gorse and bramble a family of Stonechats called at us, and these were the only birds we saw until we came across a male Wheatear on the coast path sign.

Once again there was a decision to take, do we continue on the coastal path, or do we head back through the old airfield.  Spots of rain took the decision for us and we crossed the field to the path through the sheep and cows.  The rain did though hold off long enough for us to get back to the cottage.

It was a long walk, just over 12 miles in all, and we were aware of them.  But it was also a very interesting walk in different scenery.

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