South Wales: Sheltering from gales in Fishguard

Wales is a country of myth and magic. It is the Narnia of nations, outwardly tiny but viewed from inside it is huge, expansive, a wilderness where you could lose yourself for many years. 

If dragons exist, they do so in Wales, the last stronghold of the Druids, still peppered with medieval castles and forts marked by many a bloody battle of past centuries.

Its mountains march among the clouds, its rivers cut deep valleys through slate, sandstone and forest to pour their minerals seaward in wide shallow estuaries. Its coastline is rugged and wild.

We were up at dawn after our walk on Skomer to ensure we crossed St Brides Bay in time to catch the slack tide through Ramsay Sound. Once in flow, the tide sluices like a river through this narrow channel between the mainland and Ramsay island and passing vessels must maintain steerage to avoid the aptly named Bitches – trust me, look at a map – a line of rocks jutting out from the island half way across the channel.

Safely through the sound, we turned out to sea to avoid horrible choppy waters off St David’s Head where a boat less fortunate than us was beating into the wind, being thrown around like a pin ball. We were working to a deadline. We needed to reach Fishguard on the north coast of Pembrokeshire with its wide sandy bay sheltered from east, south and west, before the storm forecast that night reached us.

Most people know Fishguard, if they know it at all, as a plain ferry port from where one can jump aboard a boat to Ireland. I had briefly driven through Fishguard remembered only the ferry terminal and large commercial harbour protected by an enormous man-made breakwater of vast rocks.

But Fishguard is a misleading town. The large concrete harbour is not technically even in Fishguard but part of the neighbouring town, Goodwick.

The town of Fishguard itself occupies the hill on the other side of the bay and is a haven of pretty painted houses, local shops and friendly pubs, overlooking a precipitous leafy inlet where the Crinei Brook runs out into the Old Harbour.

It is split between the sleepy Lower Town, whose fishermen’s cottages cluster around the Old Harbour with the same appeal as many tourist honeypots in Devon and Cornwall – thankfully minus the hordes of people – and the Main Town at the top of the steep hill, with the usual bustle of shops, cafes and restaurants.

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An interesting and little-known fact about Fishguard is that it was the site of the last foreign invasion of Britain by a hostile force. In 1797 troops from Revolutionary France landed on the Pembrokeshire coast with the aim of marching on Bristol. But they were halted in their tracks and forced into surrender by local volunteer troops supported by the exceptionally unimpressed inhabitants of Fishguard.

Legend tells of a local heroine, Jemima Nicholas, or Jemima Fawr, who armed with a pitchfork went out into the fields after dark and rounded up a dozen French soldiers before escorting them to the town to be locked up. She also instructed the local women to don their traditional red and black dress before lining the cliffs above the bay, tricking the French soldiers in thinking they were a line of infantry and encouraging their unconditional surrender.

Fishguard’s Old Harbour dries out, leaving its scattering of small craft lying on the mud. Three sailing yachts with deeper draughts had beaten us there and tied up leaning against the old harbour wall, our original plan. Sensibly, knowing what was forecast, none of them were going anywhere anytime soon.

So, with the gale due to start howling in a few hours’ time, we took the only option available to us. We motored back out into the bay, anchored as far from any obstructions as possible and crossed our fingers.

The harbour master had reassured us it was a good holding and seemed confident we’d be fine so, as the wind steadily built, we held onto his words like those of a prophet.

We were woken in the night by the gale. From our cabin, it sounded like the boat had been swallowed whole by a dragon with a bad throat. She was being bashed by walls of wind and rain which sent judders through her hull. We squinted through the portholes trying to check our transits to make sure she wasn’t dragging, but the boat had swung around and visibility was appalling.

Pete hauled on his wet gear and braved the onslaught on deck to check. I remained among the warm blankets praying to the sea gods that we weren’t moving.

Five minutes later Pete returned, marginally reassured. We dozed off only to be woken again by further violent blasts of wind and Pete repeated the routine. This carried on throughout the night until Pete gave up on our bed and slept, in his full oilskins ready to leap outside again, in the saloon.

Morning came bringing with it some hints of sunshine, and we appeared, miraculously, to be in the same place. If you need a reliable anchorage, Fishguard Bay it seems is the place. It had been gusting 45 to 50 knots during the night but N’Tiana had held tight.

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This meant we felt remarkably confident about leaving her to go ashore the next day and meet our friend Jake, despite ongoing high winds and squalls.

Jake himself is a human tornado with more energy wrapped up in his Welsh limbs than the most dramatic of Atlantic storms. Born and raised on a plot just outside Fishguard, surrounded by the majestic Pembrokeshire hills, he predictably decided London was a hell hole and has returned to his native land.

“Can you imagine me in London? I mean me!” He asked me. Answer: “No.”

Able once again to roam free along that wild stretch of coast, Jake is happy.

That morning the whole of Fishguard had turned out for a soap box derby, coincidentally organised by Jake’s brother. For those of you who do not know what this is, of which I was one until this event, it essentially involves madmen – or women – building absurd and usually fairly unstable wheeled engine-less vehicles, which they then race on downhill courses with a number of obstacles such as jumps and chicanes. Most of these flimsy machines sustain terminal damage within a couple of rounds. The watching crowds laugh uproariously as the fruits of the competitors’ labours are rapidly destroyed.

It is robot wars meets go karts and is an almost perfect spectator sport. I firmly believe every town in the UK, with enough of a gradient, should introduce an annual soap box derby. I can’t think of anything that fosters greater community cohesion than laughing at people wilfully making fools of themselves.

The rest of the day was spent in the Royal Oak with Jake and assorted friends. The Royal Oak happened to be the very place where the unconditional surrender of the French troops was agreed more than two centuries earlier after the leader of the volunteer troops chose the pub as his temporary headquarters. There was a large comical depiction of busty Jemima scaring off the French cavalry with her pitchfork on the wall.

It was a very nice pub and they were nice drinks but since most of you know what pubs are like and how an afternoon of drinking goes, I need not enlighten you further.

After two days holed up in Fishguard dashing between intermittent downpours – “Welcome to Wales”, grinned Jake – the South Westerlies relented enough to allow us to head north.

We sailed with Jake to Aberporth, a pretty village with a sheltered sandy beach, where his girlfriend Mia lives. Still feeling a little jaded from our weekend excesses, it was a quiescent sail along that stunning stretch of coast where the sloping green fields end abruptly in serrated pre-Cambrian rocks. Even Jake’s usual hyperactivity was calmed.

In Aberporth, we nosed right into the bay and dropped anchor a few hundred yards from the sheltered sandy beach where children ran about, squealed and giggled. We lay back on deck and sipped beers as the sun sank behind the headland.

After returning Jake to the safety of land and Mia, we both fell into a deep heavy sleep ahead of our 5am alarm call to get going northwards once again, towards the mountains.

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