Thursday, May 24, 2018
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Visit to Wales recalls an earlier time there

The images are black, white, and grainy. They're also starting to turn yellow and blotchy brown. Something to do with improper fixing in the bathroom sink, perhaps. Or simply old age.

There are two photos. One 8-by-10 is a kind of family portrait, a sandy cove backed by low, crinkly cliffs. Two young teens playing catch with a beach ball while a middle-aged Mum and Dad in modest swimwear look on. A dachshund puppy sleeps on a big bath towel.

The other picture, much smaller, depicts a farm cottage definitely the worse for wear, surrounded by a low slate wall. Weeds are poking from its many crevices.

The cove in question is Nolton Haven in western Wales - and about as far from England as you can get without treading water. The cottage was a place the family rented for a two-week summer vacation. The year was 1953. And the dog's name was Nicky.

We know all this, half a century after the fact, because some clever clogs had thoughtfully scribbled the basics on the back of the photos (something we should probably all do to family photos before it's too late).

One other memory that still remains clear from that trip is the drive up to the port of Fishguard in our little Austin A35 for the filming of Moby Dick - we watched a young Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab parading on the quay next to his sailing ship, the Pequod.

Well, about a month ago, we were back in Pembrokeshire, this time staying a few miles north of Nolton Haven in tiny St. David's. We holed up for a couple of days at the Old Cross Hotel, a comfortable hostelry in the middle of town, and used it as base from which to rediscover this most dramatic corner of a rugged and remote part of Wales.

The Rough Guide to Wales, our bible on this particular expedition, calls St. David's “one of the most enchanting and evocative spots in Britain” and the peninsula on which it stands, “an absolute must if you want to explore Wales at its wildest.”

We can certainly attest to the “enchanted” aspect of St. David's, with its eye-stoppingly splendid 12th-century cathedral and Tower gate, its gracefully aging collection of small shops and galleries gathered around a central Celtic Cross, and its general atmospherics.

But the day we went off to investigate the “wildness” of Pembrokeshire, we ran into nothing but a blanket of fog and pouring rain. We did get some idea of what to expect in more hospitable times as we pottered along country lanes lined by tall, centuries-old hedgerows with occasional glimpses of rugged cliffs and pounding seas.

There was also a short stop in Porthgain, a fishing port that grew up in the 1800s around a brick and slate works and is now an artist's haven. Little wonder, really, with a village green of its very own and an old-fashioned pub, The Sloop Inn, whose walls are jammed with sepia-toned photos of an earlier era.

As the weather was steadily deteriorating, however, our coastal exploration was abandoned in favor of a secondary objective: a promised visit to an old house in the area being renovated for some friends from London.

The house in question was several miles away in the hamlet of Lawrenny, a mere blip on the Cleddau Estuary and accessible only via miles of driving a veritable maze of single-track roads.

Multiple inquiries and false turns later, we finally pulled up at the place and found it abuzz with contracting action. Obviously imminent deadlines and the promise of much lucre from a couple of successful doctors had had the desired effect.

We took some pictures to document our visit, agreed that it would be ready for an April move-in, and admired the dramatic sea views across the estuary. We then toured the rest of the extra-rural community, which consisted mainly of a small marina, youth hostel, and post office - but no pub - before setting out again for St. David's and home.

Then, just as we were climbing the steep hill out of Nolton Haven, the sun finally broke free of the clouds and we were witness to a total coastal transformation.

Tall cliffs tumbled onto a spectacular shoreline, a two-mile-long swath of yellow beach and pounding surf. Sandpipers darted to and fro as gulls swung overhead. And out in the bay a lone sailboat spread its colorful wings.

Suddenly, it was 1953 all over again.

The Queen had just acceded to the throne. Winston Churchill was Prime Minister. Wartime rationing was still in force. The family was together on a Welsh beach. And this scribbler's favorite soccer team, Blackpool, beat Bolton Wanderers to win the FA Cup for the very first time.

Oh, how sweet it was.

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