‘Let’s be honest…’
– Jeff, Haverfordwest.
I awake in my tent next to a five thousand year old memorial to a forgotten life and a forgotten way of living. Yet the large stone still stands improbably upright despite its hulking size over the smaller stones propping it up. Though the stones are in a residential area on the edge of Newport, a tall privet hedge ensures I’m secluded. A middle-aged man calls to a woman, perhaps his wife, in the distance, as he loads up an estate car with household bric a brac. Up and awake early, I pack up furtively and sneak out.
Newport is nearby, a small village with a few faded pastel houses. I’m starving and looking for somewhere that’ll do a reasonably priced breakfast. In one organic café they sell beans on toast for £4.50, whilst another doesn’t have anything for vegetarians at all. Spar supplies orange juice and pastries. Retired women sit outside and gossip about their neighbours. I notice people nodding and saying hullo to each other here, sign of a small community. Though only a village, Newport contains enough of curiosity, like the nearby hill of Mynydd Carningli, where the remains of an Iron Age fort still stand, and where St. Brynach once communicated with angels, so he told gullible locals. I find the earthen remains of another Iron Age fort by a school playing field. Though now simply a hill (and, to be fair, I could’ve found the wrong place, so little of it remains), remains have been found of human settlement from seven thousand years ago. Newport still doesn’t feel that much faster than those ancient times. Few local people seem to leave the place much, and one must wait hours for the local bus service.
I head out towards Fishguard, my original destination. The skies are grey and a fierce headwind knocks me back, as it does for much of today. I can’t complain, it’s probably the same northerly wind that first blew me to Scotland, the most common wind direction in this country, but the ride is hard and I’m struggling. I’d had a restless night’s sleep and have started to mentally fatigue from the continuous movement and social stimulation. Days and towns are beginning to blur. I carry on, thinking of home, and thinking of the times when the weather’s been much worse, and struggle on.
This ride south through Pembrokeshire demonstrates a changing landscape. The relative flatness of Ceridigion is now making way for undulating hills that are increasingly sharp in gradient. It’s rare for the road to stay still: it wants to shoot up and down all the time. And all around me, for much of the day, are hedgerows and fields of either sheep or cattle, many of which have old bathtubs in, filled with rainwater. And that’s largely it!
Eventually I reach Fishguard, but the wind, hills and sporadic rain have made the morning ride far more exhausting and lengthy than it ought’ve been. Its harbour was once used for trading, travel and fishing, separated into a lower town with a picturesque harbour and small terraced houses and, up a very steep hill, the old town itself. It’s a small but interesting place, most well-known for something most don’t know about. The last invasion of the British mainland took place here in 1797 by a force of 1 400 French soldiers and prisoners led by Irish-American Captain Tate. It was at the time of the Napoleonic wars, and the French planned to attack Bristol in order to divert British forces from another planned attack on Ireland. Bad weather brought Captain Tate to south-west Wales instead, and on the 22nd February his four ships landed on the rocky coastline of Carreg Wasted, three miles west of Fishguard.
The invasion was pretty disastrous. Soon after landing and commandeering a farm, Tate’s soldiers quickly began looting the local area, harassing locals and getting very drunk on stolen wine. Whilst the small number of British forces guarding the town retreated and waited for reinforcements, it was local farmers, many of them women, who led the fight back. Jemima Nicholas managed to round up twelve Frenchmen armed only with a pitchfork.
Whilst reinforcements eventually came from Haverfordwest, it’s thought that the site of a large group of local women dressed in black bonnets and red capes – similar to the British army uniform – terrified the hungover French into surrendering to a small force they might’ve easily overwhelmed. The entire country was overstrained by the burdens of war and on the verge of bankruptcy. Had Tate been a little more strategic, and the French more audacious with the number of ships sent, the course of European history might’ve been quite different. Instead, this band of unfortunate invaders surrendered at Goodwick Sands and signed a peace treaty in Fishguard’s Royal Oak pub. Some were too drunk to be marched to Haverfordwest and were left behind at Pencaer peninsula. The remainder were taken to that town and imprisoned at Portsmouth and Pembroke. But in a final twist, two local women fell for two imprisoned Frenchmen. In a daring scheme, they helped around thirty prisoners to escape from Pembroke. They stole the local Lord’s yacht and made it back to St. Malo.
I find all this out in the Information Centre, and in the small gallery above, with a tapestry of events made by local women. Downstairs, I hear a child prodigy singer covering Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ to a large meeting of the Friendship Circle, a local social group for people over 50, the disabled, and carers. Rain is pouring and the scene is grey and grim. Still hungry, I get a slice of bread and butter pudding from another bakery, the service gruff, then head down to Goodwick, once site of a herring port. I pass an Irish bar and some unremarkable buildings, and a ferry terminal to Ireland. The route is unremarkable, though I take some imaginary delight in picturing the ghosts of drunk Frenchmen wandering around these country parts, chased by gangs of local women armed with pitchforks. Tate’s botched invasion would make for a fantastic movie.
From Goodwick I’m on the road south to St. David’s, less undulating before but still of the same characteristically agricultural and modest vistas. I pass through small villages with names like Panteg and the fantastically-titled Square and Compass. The back wheel comes loose again and I’m beginning to fear how far I’ll get.
Luckily, I do reach St David’s at the end of the road, with some spectacular views of the rocky headland in the distance. It is Britain’s smallest city, and this is truly the case, the place being not much larger than a village (or at least, a very small town), consisting of a few streets that feed into a triangle overlooking the vast cathedral and the ruins of the Bishop’s Palace. I get a portion of chips and sit out, watching families bicker, tell each other off, and appeal for ice cream.
The cathedral itself is large though not particularly impressive. There’s a curious timber roof with artistic knots crafted in. Most of the stained glass is from the last century, the church being refurbished by the Victorians after falling into a degree of ruin following the Reformation. Some statues of deceased knights have graffiti scratched in, and hands and feet smashed off. I notice the outline of a man on one pillar and ask a volunteer about it. He tells me that Puritans whitewashed away the illustrations on these pillars in an attack on all form of idolatry. ‘It was a mistake’, he tells me, as the local people couldn’t understand Latin, nor could they understand English: they needed these illustrations.
There’s a certain dark history of deception to St. David’s. One thing is in the name: the city of St. David’s: it’s actually the smallest ‘city’ in Britain, with around 2000 people, far less than the average population of a small town or city suburb. Something more sinister is captured in The Journey Through Wales of Gerald of Wales, a late twelfth century archdeacon and chronicler who travelled through Ireland and Wales and wrote about his experiences. During 1188 he travelling along the coast and border of the country in a recruitment campaign to enlist local men into the volunteers’ armies of the Crusades. At Haverfordwest, Gerald was very effective at rousing support through the tongues of Latin and French, which few would’ve understood. Unfortunately at St. David’s, a well-meaning assistant then translated his appeal into Welsh. The men who had planned to join suddenly realised what was in store for them, and refused.
The cathedral otherwise is interesting enough, and other aspects of its history are either unfortunate or beguiling – the unpopular Archbishop Laud established himself here. I have a peak into the ruins of the Bishop’s Palace then push back up the steep hill and head out of St. David’s. Had I more time, I’d explore Ramsey Island, a small holy place just off St. David’s. But setbacks on the previous day have delayed me, and I push on, hoping to make up time. As if time were something ever we have, and not something ever slipping out of our grasp. Foolish human…
I take a road heading south, back into that harsh wind, towards St David’s. It’s rough going but I focus hard, passing through the villages of Solva where a tiny shop brands itself the ‘Solva megastore’ and threatens any Tesco from moving in, then Newgale, and afterwards Roch, settlements with the occasional pub or post office but little else aside terraces of housing. Eventually I reach Haverfordwest, a medium market town surrounded by some ugly and complicated roundabouts that then give way to a settlement that seems to have been built recently. Get round the roundabouts and one enters a small centre filled with poundshops and high street stores. The painter Augustus John once lived in what is now a Lloyds bank.
I head along the old narrow shopping street towards its end, and take a pause by a small stone bridge. There’s a good bakery here called simply ‘The Welsh bakery’, slightly stating the obvious, where I get a flapjack and some bara brith for my couchsurfing hosts for this evening. I pop into the Fishguard arms to refill my water bottle and for conversation. Typically though for Wales, it’s hard to get much started at all, and initiating conversations has been quite difficult. I’m served by a lady with a tattoo on her hand stating simply ‘mum’, and have around me a daft conversation about Princess Diana.
Jeff insists on the importance of honesty, but the topic of conversation isn’t that profound. ‘Everybody was brainwashed into it. She couldn’t’ve been a top model, she was clumsy.’
‘I think she was pushed into that.’
‘They always do don’t they. … More interbreeding.’
‘Our princes of Wales have always had flings.’ He says it with a note of pride.
I drift over the stone bridge and back towards the madness of the Friday evening traffic. I get lost, and a man from his door shouts directions at me. ‘Neyland? That way!’ Thank you, that man. The road out is so busy that I take the pavement instead, passing a busy McDonald’s drive-thru at Merlins Bridge before heading out along to Pembroke Dock.
The road is busy and a little featureless, but at least it’s out of the wind. I pass signs for Milford Haven, which despite the pretty suggestions of its name is actually a huge gas terminal where much of the country’s gas is imported through. It’s the third largest port in the UK and brands itself as the ‘energy capital’ of the country. It’s preceded by car showrooms, places to buy yachts or swimming pools if that’s your thing, but nothing about the landscape suggests affluence. By the time I cross over the Toll Bridge I can see great chimneys in the background, haunting dystopias of Milford Haven, a place that looks slightly terrifying from a distance and which I’m later told is a ‘dump’ by one woman who works there.
The road cuts along to Pembroke Dock, a small settlement which is just that. Then Pembroke follows a couple of miles later, a surprisingly small town for the name it lends the surrounding county. There’s a looming old castle and St. Mary’s Church in the distance, and cycle up into the town splayed across its hills and one will discover a series of shops and curious buildings, some of which possess an aged charm. It’s a little lively in the Royal George, and outside a group of girls in towering hills and glittery outfits clamber into a corny van where a man serves them champagne, bad europop blaring out. Content that this is enough right now to know of Pembroke, I head out.
Pembrokeshire often returns Conservative MPs, and the area’s known as a ‘little England’ in Wales after its incomers and their characteristic attachment to their own identity. Yet this is south Wales. I won’t hear any Welsh here (and indeed, very little across the south in all), and it feels quite different to the north. I’m beginning to understand why there could be different words for milk, moon, or cup of tea in North Walean and South Walean. They are two different parts, with distinctive identities.
Had I the time too, I’d’ve detoured to somewhere quite special. St. Govan’s Head is just off the southern coastline, where there’s a small holy chapel in a peaceful place. Alas, delays and troubles with the bicycle have made this another place to return to. I take a road after towards Manorbier, through farmland with sleepy and sitting cattle and sheep, where Gerald of Wales grew up. His love was of nearby Dyfed, further inland, with its abundance of fish, wine and tranquillity.
There are no cyclists around here, nor have there been for a few days. As the ladies in the café back in Newport noted, it’s a Friday, the day when holiday home stays usually end. Or perhaps it’s the route, exploring everywhere may be just too much for some. There’s little distinctive about this road or landscape. A small MOD base wakes me up, a desolate fish and chip kiosk nearby. After a day of small hills, the road starts to descend down. It’s getting dark, now 8pm, but the cycling’s easy, and there are some majestic views of the rocky outcrops around the area. Eventually I reach Tenby, a small Victorian seaside resort. There are terraces of hotels and countless competing fish and chip shops as well as bright and brassy stores selling sticks of rock. Drawing closer to the seafront, the town is surrounding in an old brick wall that circles a tightly-webbed series of streets inside. I cycle around and then through them, and manage to locate the place of my host, Declan.
He buzzes me in and greets me warmly, stowing my bike away. We get on well, and I come up and meet his girlfriend Dorie and two friends, Morgan and Matt, who have been staying here with them whilst moving flats. They’ve made a smoothie for me! Over tea we talk about the Burning Man festival and the possibility of an ideal democratic community, something they raise when I begin to tell them about Spinoza and my interest in democracy. Declan and Dorie went last year and just loved it. Declan shares warmly his experiences of quitting work and travelling, culminating in time in the United States. There was something wonderful about its openness, a kind of temporary utopia where everything improbable was for a moment possible. You could talk to God on a payphone, join a dancefloor on a moving truck, or just explore the temporary city camped out in the desert, made up not merely of tents, but entire artistic studios and experimental spaces.
This guides conversation onto political idealism. ‘What do you think about Communism?’, Matt asks, the question open and curious. It’s a difficult question for any socialist: how can one explain how some of the most totalitarian, repressive and homicidal states have shared the very ideas of popular government and equality amongst all? A common rejoinder is that in China, Russia, Cuba, delete as appropriate, the idea of Communism was corrupted by nefarious opportunists or misguided idealists acting expediently for their own survival. Perhaps, but it doesn’t explain why it wouldn’t happen again. Political violence is repugnant in all cultures, and there’s little popular sympathy for what Communism suggests. Many in the Left haven’t really gotten around this, I think, and the hotch-potch enterprise of critical theory seems like a failed attempt to use other disciplinary methods like modern European philosophy or psychoanalysis to criticise a magnified chimera of capitalism instead of thinking again about alternatives. It is like a lost hiker trying to drill their way out of cave using a tent peg and mallet instead of turning round.
I raise instead that something more modest ought to be tried, like a more meaningful and extensive democracy. One where it’s probable, never mind possible, that one’s next-door neighbour or colleague might be called up as a political representative, where every part of a government is elected and publicly accountable, and where individuals participate in a regular basis in local and national decisions through local assemblies and votes. Democracy without a monarchy, or sectarian political parties, or a House of Lords, or domination by a privately-educated, Oxbridge network that allows the wealthiest to thrive and leaves the vulnerable to barely survive. I don’t think what I’m beginning to suggest is that idealistic.
Declan and Dorie are both free spirits of a kind and have travelled wherever possible, but they work as engineers in the gas and oil industries at Milford Haven. Declan orders some Thai food from the pub next door, the Coach and Horses, where Dylan Thomas once got very drunk in 1953 and left his manuscript of Under Milk Wood on a stool. The food and conversation is lively and much-needed, though I am too tired to quite recall all its details. After many sleep-deprived days, cold and dirty, I have a delightful warm shower and get some proper sleep. A shower, a hot meal, a bed: how I’ve come to love even more those rare, delightful pleasures!