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Everywhere in Britain, we walk in the footsteps of the past; it’s just not always that obvious. However, a relatively short, lung-bursting, stagger up to St David’s Head (Penmaen Dewi) in Pembrokeshire will take you to a reminder of a 5th century saint, the remains of an Iron Age settlement and field systems, a feature known as “Warriors’ Dyke” and one of Britain’s many “Arthur’s Quoits”. When we did it, we had some unexpected company along the way – as you might have noticed.
St David’s Head is a small, rugged, peninsula at the southern end of the Irish Sea on the Welsh side, rich in flora and fauna and topping off geology that dates back almost 500 million years. The Greek-Egyptian, Ptolemy, writing in the 2nd century AD called it ‘the Promontory of the Eight Perils’, in reference to the treacherous rocks, the Bishops and Clerks, which lie offshore waiting to ensnare unsuspecting shipping. It is an outrageously beautiful area, frequented by dolphins, seals, choughs, peregrine falcons and, occasionally, the Dartford warbler. Lest anyone thinks, as they might, that Mick Jagger visits these parts for his holidays, the Dartford warbler in this context is a small bird. It usually prefers warmer places like south-east England and Spain – though I expect the Spanish have another name for it, like the Barcelona belter or something (Sylvia undata, to save you looking).
The only way to explore St David’s Head is on foot and the easiest place to start is from the car park at Whitesands Bay. Head north from there up the coast path. You will shortly pass a shapeless lumpy green mound in the dunes that your keenly trained eye will instantly recognise as the spot where St Patrick’s chapel once stood. Allegedly, this was where travellers would say prayers for safe passage, or thanks for safe arrival, through these dangerous waters. Patrick, they say, came from these parts; perhaps he tended sheep nearby before being hauled off into slavery by raiders. Or did he sail from here on his return across the sea to convert the pagan Irish?
The path takes you past the small Porthmelgan Bay. If you’ve no head for heights, it’s wise to avoid looking down on occasions.
After about a mile, you will stumble upon Warriors’ Dyke (Clawdd-y-Milwyr), a structure of dry stone banks and a ditch, utilising natural features that once provided a defensive boundary across the headland. It was built by Iron Age farmers two or three thousand years ago and once stood 15 feet (4.5 metres) high. Now, it lies fallen and tumbled, no higher than a man, softened and made ill-defined by vegetation. Beyond the wall are 8 (some say 9) hut circles marking the location of the Iron Age village.
Why would our ancestors choose to live in such an exposed spot? However stunning the scenery, there must have been easier places to farm, hunt – and indeed find fresh water. Also, it’s a defensive position with no place to run – apart from meeting certain death on the rocks far below. Building such a formidable barrier as Warriors’ Dyke would have taken some effort, too. So one, albeit inexpert, conclusion is that these people were frightened of someone and were also, possibly, running away. Perhaps the clue’s in the name: Warriors’ Dyke; who were the warriors?
The shapes of the round huts of the village are quite clear. They were occupied in the early Roman period – so perhaps the residents were retreating from the Romans. Maybe they were used in the sub-Roman period. In any event, it gave me a strange feeling to be standing where people slept and cooked 2 thousand or so years’ ago, and to think of children playing nearby with the waves crashing 100’ below. I wonder what became of them all.
About a ¼ mile further on is Arthur’s Quoit, which according to legend was thrown from nearby Carn Llidi by King Arthur. This is one of many ‘Arthur’s Quoits’ in Britain – one source identifies more than 30. It is the remains of a Neolithic burial chamber, between 4 and 6,000 years’ old; the capstone (the bit that reminded folk of a quoit) is about 20’ (6 metres) long by about 8’ (2.5 metres) wide and now only supported, seemingly precariously, by one upright stone. Some believe its outline matches the shape of Carn Llidi to the east – there are similarities here with Pentre Ifan further up the coast.
We didn’t spot the field systems, though I’m sure they are there.
The thing about coastal paths is that you never know exactly what’s over the next hump. And there we were, innocently hunting Iron Age remains on the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path, when, suddenly, we were no longer alone.
These semi-wild ponies are mostly owned by farmers and a fairly common sight in Pembrokeshire. Their grazing of the habitat helps keep it in good condition for other wildlife. Seeing them roaming free against the backdrop of this spectacular scenery is a real privilege.
The encounter with the ponies reminded me of a car trip, long ago, across Dartmoor. It was dark, and foggy; I crawled along in second gear, eyes peering myopically through the windscreen into the murk. Large shadows emerged out of the gloom and we found ourselves surrounded by a small herd of stocky Dartmoor ponies. My then five-year old daughter’s voice piped up from the back seat, “Are those ponies wild, Daddy?” My reply was predictable: “Oh, they look pretty cross to me, Possum.”