So, like two ageing hippies we set out in the VW Camper, hair still in lockdown style, Fleetwood Mac good and loud from the speakers. (No beads and bangles though). Two beautiful sea kayaks loaded onto the roof with much less hassle, back-ache and strap flapping now that we have a Kari-Tek Easy Load Roof Rack. Yep, having heavy boats to transport makes you into roof-rack anoraks. Sad but true.
Although Milford Haven doesn’t sound like an idyllic location, especially for those of us who remember the Sea Empress disaster in 1996, it is now a great spot for wildlife enthusiasts, water sports and even beaches (as long as you don’t want crowds or lots of space….)
We had a wonderful three days, made all the more poignant after months of limited travel. Read on for notes on our kayaking, wildlife and where to find chips.
Where did we go?
We started (and finished) each trip at the beach north of Dale village (Pickleridge), which has the Pembrokeshire Coast Path running along its shore. The grid reference is SM 810068. It was much quieter than Dale itself which is a centre for watersports: paddle-boards, windsurfers, dive boats, yachts and kayaks. The beach at Pickleridge is a shingle beach with quite a carry over rocks and seaweed at low tide, so it’s worth planning to launch or return in the top couple of hours of the tide.
There is a great view across the harbour and at low tide you can see a wide variety of birds (and quite a few people with binoculars). Apart from them the beach was always quiet, even on these really warm August days. Just what we love.
Tuesday 11th August – Watch House Point
About 3 miles
Itching to get the boats out, we set out for a little paddle and reached Watch Point before we knew it. I am often surprised at how far we go in the kayaks in quite a short time; when we looked back to Watch Point from Pickleridge, it looked much further than it felt. (It’s 1.6 miles each way). Hugging the coast, we felt quite a swell and I wasn’t keen to stay still too long. Anyone else ever felt sea-sick in a kayak? A little way along we reached Monk Haven with its startlingly red sandstone walls and castellated wall at its back that marks the boundary of the Trewarren estate. The cove is so small and so neatly carved from the cliffs that the whole beach looks as if it were designed by the hand of man. One of the things that we love about being in the kayaks is that not only can you get to places that are otherwise hard to reach, but the perspective from a small boat is wholly different. It wasn’t a hard paddle even in the breeze and returning against the ebbing tide, so it was a neat limber up for our next trip.
A note on geology
The rock formations along this stretch show dramatic folding and although there are superb red cliffs, some look more like limestone. Looking at the geological map of Pembroke, Milford Haven is clearly hewn from Devonian Old Red Sandstone which is 345 million years old. The fjord-like inlets and deep water channels of the port were formed in the ice age when rivers flowed under the ice sheet to form deep channels leaving a Ria or drowned river valley. (Here is a link that explains it much better! https://www.pembrokeshirecoast.wales/about-the-national-park/geology/geological-landscape/)
Wildlife in Dale
On our return went into the shallows of the river that flows down from Mullock. Curlews (and possibly whimbrels), Oyster catchers were in abundance, their haunting, ululating calls, filling the air like a film soundtrack. There were, of course, lots of gulls. Now, telling them apart isn’t easy, much simpler just to lump them together as seagulls. However, as my book says, the herring gulls is a ‘robust’ bird with a ‘familiar laughing display call’. Yep, lots of those. We also saw Common gulls, (Larus canus and rather smaller than the Herring Gull according to my book) but I don’t think they are as common as the Herring Gulls! There were also black-headed gulls and more interestingly (perhaps) I saw a few gannets – huge, elegant birds with notably pointed and slim wings. RSPB reports that they spend their lives at sea, but we are lucky to have breeding colonies in Pembrokeshire. I’m not sure of the official term for a group of gannets but the RSPB book was happy to describe them as ‘squadrons’, which fits rather nicely. I mustn’t forget the cormorants and Shags: we saw both, often in their classic wing-drying stance, but also perched on rocks. The Shag is about 20cm smaller than the cormorant which also has pale cheeks and the young birds have ‘dirty white underparts’.
In the shallows of the beach there were shoals of very fast-swimming fish. Although we were on an ebbing tide with a following wind (8-9mph Northerly) we had a pleasant paddle. The wind changed in places across the bay – noticeable in the fluorescent green race flags of the yacht club.
Later we had a gentle wander round the bay into Dale. As a teenager I spent many happy evenings scrambling over rocks on the beach at Portishead, so scrambling around the waterline and peering into rockpools is a happy pastime. Covid restrictions mean that an unplanned meal out isn’t possible, but we managed to get some excellent takeaway chips and a good pint of ‘Tenby Harbour’ to enjoy on the beach. A balmy evening, a quiet beach, food and drink and the prospect of more lovely paddles. What more could we want?
Wednesday 12th August – Round Milford Haven
Loving our ‘Welsh Sea Kayaking: Fifty Great Sea Kayak Voyages’ book we picked number 40 which plots a journey around Milford Haven, starting at Dale. We were later than the suggested 2 hours after low water, nonetheless we had a superb trip and no long carries (always good news with Two Tonne Tess, the Scorpio).
Don’t Rock the Boat
The trip was 11.5 miles and my first real adventure in the boat. We tootled round in just over 4 hours with a 15 minute stop at East Angle Bay, a few moments of rafting up to wait for tankers and a little interlude to look at two ocean rowing boats. Never having seen one close to I was curious. These two were moored to the pontoon at Dale harbour – one in blue, the other red – and both emblazoned ‘Don’t Rock the Boat’. Equipped with multiple Marshall cameras it was clear that the three rowers were going to be under constant and full surveillance. The craft looked pristine, so we guessed that they were early in their journeys. We later discovered that we had just missed Freddie Flintoff and the crew shooting for an ITV show in which celebrities take on a 500 mile rowing trip and some challenges at various points between Lands End and John O’Groats.
Crossing over to Angle
As we left the shelter of the bay we felt the swell in the channel and once again I was grateful for the stability of the Scorpio. Looking out across towards Angle and Thorn Island I suddenly felt nervous – for the first time I felt I was heading out into open waters, away from hugging the coast. We had great visibility from here and could see the cardinal buoys and our destination coast clearly. Watching to our left (looking East) we spotted a pilot boat and tanker. Milford Haven, although a less busy port these days, still has a lot of shipping. According to the Gleeds website,( https://gb.gleeds.com/projects/milford-haven-gas-plant/) the UK is increasing its need for imported LNG as North Sea gas decreases. Milford Haven is one of the busiest LNG terminals in the world and in our day trip we saw 3 tankers coming or going. It is also the route into Pembroke Dock for ferries crossing over to Rosslare. Don’t think we’ll tangle with those unmanoueverable, water juggernauts. All this means that it is crucial to keep an eye on what is happening and to cross the shipping lane at 90 degrees and without hanging around. Whilst we are used to crossing the road and judging speed of vehicles, it was a different matter for ships, so although the tanker looked a way off, we decided to raft up and wait. We didn’t wait for very long…..
From Dale it is hard to see the definition of Thorn Island as the coast merges in the distance with Angle. Once close we could see it wasn’t huge and paddled around the back, passing a few paddle boarders and a kayak who had come out from the nearby West Angle Bay.
East Angle Bay
From there we headed East around the Angle coast towards Chapel Bay and the lifeboat station. Although we had the refinery ahead of us and the LNG jetties to the left, this was a lovely paddle on clear aquamarine waters. Still near the top of the tide we were able to paddle south into East Angle Bay (lots of exposed mud and sand at low tide!), where we took a breather and a much needed leg stretch. It would have been lovely to have an ice cream but no luck and we weren’t in pub mode (though the Point House Inn is on the list for another trip).
Stack Rock Fort
From there we headed back out towards the jetties and headed NW towards the fort on Stack rock. Apparently there are sometimes seals there, but they were hiding from us. It looked like an interesting place to land and explore, but there are notices forbidding it… The fort is privately owned and was first built to defend the Royal Dock (Pembroke Dock) in 1850-1852. The first floor was used as a gun deck, the second housed 30 men. It was decommissioned in 1929.
From the fort we headed over to Great Castle Head (missing out the trip to Sandy Haven Pill) and then followed the coast back and across to Pickleridge. This last stretch only had very light north-easterly winds but on an ebbing tide in 28 degrees at the end of our trip it felt like hard work.
The storms forecast for the week started building in the evening and as we sat in the dimming light we were treated to an amazing spectacle of electricity building within a classically anvil-shaped cumulo nimbus cloud. It was like something from a sci-fi film. Gradually increasing sheets of light would burst into the cloud and then crack into forks of lightning.
Thursday 13th August – Watwick
After a hot and sunny day doing the Milford Haven tour, we decided on a shorter paddle for our last day. (Note to self, I need to find a cushion of some sort for longer paddles in the Scorpio!) The weather forecast was for possible thunder storms later so we decided to do a short trip which allowed for a quick return. As it turned out, the weather was lovely and we set out from the bay in millpond conditions.
We hugged the coast and paddled into Dale, round the many moored yachts. Still, the beach was almost empty in the morning with little watersports activity either. Heading out to Dale point, under the fort we felt some swell again, maybe from large shipping’s wake through the channel. The fort, built in around 1858, was part of a set of forts with West Blockhouse and Thorn Island which provided interlocking fire to protect the anchorage in Milford Haven. It is now an active field studies centre.
Milford Haven’s hidden gem?
We continued in calm but slightly swelly waters, hugging the coast of Castlebeach bay and then on round to the amazing sight of the sands at Watwick.
Another lesson learned here – don’t take the spray deck off until you are out of the waves. I got rather wet……. Still, the beach was empty, so at least I could put some things to dry on the rocks. We could have been on some ridiculously expensive holiday, perfect sand, clear water, no people and sea that was warm enough for a swim without a wetsuit.
After such a lovely interlude, we didn’t go too far, just on out to West Blockhouse point from where we got a good view of St Ann’s head. Seven miles south-east of St Ann’s head are the reefs of Crow Rock and Toes which have claimed many ships. In 1714 there were two leading lights to guide shipping with the lighthouse replacing those in 1844. It was ‘demanned’ and automated in 1998 with the buildings around it now set up as holiday lets. (https://www.trinityhouse.co.uk/lighthouses-and-lightvessels/st-anns-head-lighthouse)
A great place to paddle
We found Milford Haven much more aesthetic than we’d expected and were also very happy to find a quiet place. 2020 has seen hoards of ‘staycationers’ flocking to beaches and pictures of crowds on the south coast have been shocking. We’ve been looking for places to paddle where we can find space, shelter for less clement weather and somewhere to unwind. This ticked all the boxes.
Broad Haven and Little Haven were very busy and we couldn’t even get chips in the former. A trip to St Martin’s have to look at a launch site showed us a small bay, which was catching all the weather when we were there, but there are some good looking trips around the western side of the point – all for another day.