A long weekend
Jonty Pearce cruises his home waters of Milford Haven, discovering some of Wales’ best wildlife sanctuaries and a rich industrial heritage
Milford Haven: discover the harbour’s hidden gems. Jonty Pearce cruises his home waters to discover wildlife sanctuaries and a rich industrial heritage
AHEAD, THE ISLAND NATURE RESERVE OF SKOMER GLIMMERS LIKE A MIRAGE
The distinct chainsaw buzzing sound of a puffin call greets our ears as my wife Carol and I drink in the atmosphere of Skomer’s South Haven. This classic anchorage is just one of the delights of Milford Haven. Nestled into the island’s south-east corner, we are surrounded by high cliffs teeming with avian wildlife: Manx shearwaters, kittiwakes, razorbills, guillemots, choughs, and buzzards busily crisscross the bay as they bring home food from the nearby maritime larder. The song of seals echoes in the cliff caves and their music can be heard through the evening, whilst during the day their inquisitive heads pop up between the boats. For me, there is no better place to witness nature at her best.
It was the second night of our long weekend away on board our Southerly 105 ketch Aurial, and again we were counting ourselves lucky to have all of this on our doorstep.
Two days earlier we had left the shelter of Neyland Yacht Haven and nosed Aurial past the boatyard of Dale Sailing, giving the statue of that great industrialist Isambard Kingdom Brunel a nod as we pass the remains of the ferry quay he constructed for the Pembrokeshire terminus of the Great Western Railway.
Lord Nelson described Milford Haven as ‘the finest port in Christendom’ and even today, the 19 miles of Welsh estuary, which has been used by seagoing folk since time immemorial, still delivers, with its mix of green fields running down to the water’s edge, historic forts and wildlife.
Our first overnight stop was to be the picturesque village of Dale on the northern side of the entrance to Milford Haven estuary. We leave the soaring Cleddau Bridge that guards the peaceful upper waters of the River Cleddau behind us and add the ebbing tidal thrust to Aurial’s sails. In Pembrokeshire, the tide is king and passages must be planned in concordance with its flows. We take care not to be swept on to the many navigational marks outside Pembroke Dock; while tankers don’t come up this far, the Irish Ferry does, and we know to watch out for its transits at 1230 and 1500. We approach Carr and Wear Spits which require large craft to dogleg round them, but as its halftide, we can cut straight across their shallows to enter ‘refineryland’, the series of petroleum pontoons that extend out from the shore on either side of Milford Haven town.
The channel leading to Milford Dock and Marina heads away to port but we are heading for the shelter of Dale Roads, so sail past the immense LNG carrier’s berths opposite picturesque East Angle and the allure of the Old Point House pub.
Ahead are the imposing Napoleonic forts of Stack Rock and Thorn Island rising up out of Milford Haven, a reminder of the significant role the port played in Britain’s seafaring past. Here, we pick up a slight swell from the open sea as we cross close to the estuary’s mouth. All becomes calm as we continue past Dale Fort into the shelter of Dale Roads and its many moorings. Eschewing the deep-water floating pontoon for a shallow spot close to the village, we lift our keel and rudder and drop the hook. Once all is shipshape, we take to the dinghy for the short trip to the award winning Griffin Inn, and its promise of some of the best fresh seafood in Milford Haven and Welsh real ales.
In the morning, we head out to sea past the sandy beach of Watwick Bay, already filling up with leisure craft offloading families keen to enjoy its seclusion and lack of road access. St Ann’s Head Lighthouse sits prominently at the Haven’s entrance and we turn to starboard once clear to catch a fair stream down Broad Sound towards the wildlife paradise that is Skomer Island.
In front of the cliffs, the low sun glints through the haze of spray made by the breaking swell on the rocks, while to port, the RSPB reserve of Skokholm Island snoozes peacefully. Ahead, the island nature reserve of Skomer glimmers like a mirage, and a pod of dolphins bow-wave us before heading off to gambol and feed. Beyond them, gannets plummet vertically into the sea, keen to partake of a rich shoal of fish. We pass the rocky portal of Jack Sound leading to St Bride’s Bay and enter Skomer’s South Haven. This is arguably one of the best spots to anchor in Wales, with its sheltered bays and dramatic cliffs, and world-famous colony of manx shearwaters and puffins.
Equally tranquil is the gloriously colourful Upper Cleddau River, where the only sounds come from cows lowing in the fields – our next destination.
From Skomer’s South Haven, we pick up a south-westerly breeze that wafts us back past St Ann’s Head, the Forts, Milford Haven, and Pembroke Dock until the Cleddau Bridge soars above us. The flood tide gives us a push as we pass first the
Jolly Sailor and then the steep bank opposite what was HMS Warrior’s home while she was used as a fuel hulk prior to her rescue and renovation. The river turns northwards and passes wooded cliffs for the approach to Lawrenny. Benton Castle overlooks the tree-lined passage of Castle Reach before we turn the corner into Beggars Reach where woods continue on the left and green pastures line the water on the right. Ahead shimmer Llangwm’s moorings – the clear patch in the middle indicates shallows. Black Tar is marked by a slipway on the left at the end of the houses; after the moorings peter out, the mudflats of Sprinkle Pill stretch out opposite the old mining quay of Landshipping. Picton Point marks the confluence of the Western and Eastern Cleddau – the latter is shallower and can only be recommended to explorers in dinghies. It leads up past the great historic house of Slebech Park and, if a spring tide permits, to the limit of navigable waters at the disused Blackpool Mill. The Western branch passes the old quays of Hook and New Milford before reaching the bridges at Haverfordwest, though mastless boats can continue to the town’s quay. Anchoring in these top reaches requires caution – while the central stream is deep, the margins slope to form a muddy V shape. My favourite resting place lies south of Picton Point just upstream of Black Tar; the boat may swing with the tide but with such good holding, this sheltered place of refuge is snug when the wind and waves of the open sea make us long for peace. In ages past, the area thrived with coal mining and fishing but nowadays, few signs of its past mar the scenery – only the quays of Lawrenny, Landshipping, Cresswell and Hook remain. We settle down to the sound of nothing but nature and reflect on our glorious day.
THIS IS ARGUABLY ONE OF THE BEST SPOTS TO ANCHOR IN WALES
Neyland Marina provides a snug mooring, with the Cleddau bridge behind
Skomer is the perfect spot to watch the wildlife
Neyland Yacht Haven has 420 fully serviced berths
Aurial on a glorious day in Pembrokeshire