The Pembrokeshire Coast Talking Landscapes


The Pembrokeshire Coast

Professor Aubrey Manning explores the history of Britain's ever-changing landscape. He explores the Pembrokeshire coastline and its connections with the sea.


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Transcript


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I set out to understand some of the great landscapes of Britain,

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to piece together the history that shaped them. This seems one of the most remote -

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the coast of Pembrokeshire.

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It's magical - a peninsula nowhere further than 20 miles from water.

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But where you'd expect to find seaside towns and fishing villages,

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there are castles, standing stones and, right up to the cliff edge,

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farms that could be in the heart of England.

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I wondered whether the landscape had simply turned its back on its coast,

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or, in some hidden way, the two belong together.

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I've come to Pembrokeshire, the extreme south-west of Wales.

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It's a county of beautiful green farmland...

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but the sea is never far away.

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Spectacular cliffs, little ports, beaches, run all the way round the coast.

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My question is how far farmland and coast are separate worlds with separate histories.

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How far do they belong together as one landscape?

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I took a boat down at Milford Haven, in the south of the county.

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Here, the sea cuts 20 miles inland.

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The Daugleddau - 90ft deep, enough for some of the world's largest ships.

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It's lined with oil pipelines and refineries,

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and with forts dating back to Nelson's time, when an entire enemy fleet could have anchored here.

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But why isn't it lined with great ports and towns?

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It's amazing that one of the world's greatest natural harbours isn't home to one of the world's great cities.

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I asked historian Roger Thomas.

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This is Milford Dock.

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It's a tiny place - I can see gorse just behind the houses!

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It was built as a speculative venture in the late 18th century, and...it grew.

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You've got a designed town - parallel lines on a grid - but it progressed to a point and then petered out.

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To begin with, the main thing was whaling.

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They tried to attract the Irish packets, they tried to attract mail ships, shipbuilding...

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I suppose people hoped it would be a port like Southampton or Liverpool?

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-Presumably. The original designs were much larger, and the docks would have gone further out into the haven.

-Yes.

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As we advance, we're coming into the lock, which was large enough to take the largest ships in the world.

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-It's bigger than many of the ones at Liverpool.

-It's a splendid site for a harbour.

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-The problem was location. From here, it's a long journey to get anywhere.

-It's too remote.

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The isolation that sabotaged Milford's ambitions sank every plan to make this waterway rich.

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All its little ports tell the same story.

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In the 19th century, the Great Western Railway built Neyland to entice great transatlantic liners,

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but nowadays, it doesn't even have a railway station.

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-It's the oil industry that has taken off here recently.

-Since the late 1950s,

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and, as with all these things, there's a degree of boom and bust.

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There's only two sites still working, and isolation is the problem. It's a long way from the main point of sale.

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Instead of cities, there is farmland along the banks of the Daugleddau.

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It's been too remote for modern ports to grow.

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Even its oil lines are now falling derelict,

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floating like ghosts in the haze.

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Next morning, I felt I was starting all over again.

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If Pembrokeshire's coast ever shaped this landscape,

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it must have been in ways I would never have predicted.

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I drove north to investigate its smaller harbours.

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It's clear that Pembrokeshire has always been too remote to develop in a big way industrially,

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but around the coast are many little ports - Fishguard, Newport, Solva - and they've got a life of their own,

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and the next question is - has THAT life affected the landscape?

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What were the little harbours doing?

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I couldn't see much evidence of fishing or seaside holiday-making.

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Historian Peter Claughton took me to the cliffs above Porthgain.

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Here, he said, you can see what they were up to, and how it changed this landscape.

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-What were they doing in this part of North Pembrokeshire?

-Down there is the spoil from a slate quarry.

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-That's not a natural...?

-No, that's waste from a slate quarry that was tipped out there from a tramway.

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-And these bits of buildings?

-Towards the sea, you'll see a long incline.

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-These were the mountings for the winding engine that wound the incline.

-They pulled rock up here?

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Yes, there's a large granite quarry by the coast and stone was hauled up here onto tramways on the cliff top.

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Granite was trammed to steam-powered crushers on the cliff top there,

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and allowed to fall, through gravity, into hoppers below, for it to be moved into ships.

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That's rather magnificent, isn't it? Was it a natural inlet, originally?

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Yes, but it's been transformed as an industrial harbour.

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-It looks almost like a ruined temple climbing up the cliff here.

-Yes.

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What sort of date was this built?

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These were built in the early part of the 20th century.

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-Massive volumes of stone ran out of these chutes into wagons and were moved onto ships.

-Just below?

-Yeah.

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Quarries like this survived, in a period prior to massive railway use, because of proximity to the sea.

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It comes straight down to the boats here?

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That's right, and you'd have large numbers of sailing barges and steam coasters in the harbour here.

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It wasn't, after all, the great waterway at Milford Haven that had shaped this landscape,

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but these little inlets. They were not fishing, but quarrying ports,

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growing up over the last two centuries.

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And all along the coast, you can see the impact they've had.

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There was quarrying in the cliffs - these are the last phase of working.

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And what about the Welsh slate - was that ever mined around here?

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Economically viable slate quarries had access to the sea.

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-You can see the slate now.

-That's packed slate, is it?

-Yes.

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Providing you with a sea wall, effectively.

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-Where are we going now?

-We're going into what was the slate quarry.

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Slate wasn't shipped out via the beach - it was trammed to Porthgain and shipped out of Porthgain.

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-On a little railway?

-Yes, there was a tramway running round.

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-After the quarry closed, they blasted an entrance into the open sea.

-A totally artificial harbour?

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-Yes.

-Extraordinary!

-The colour from the slate gives it its name - the Blue Lagoon.

-What an amazing place!

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'But was there quarrying further inland - and further back in time?

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'One industry stretched right across the county and back into history.

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'Peter took me to its very tip, at Newgale.'

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-This was an anthracite colliery.

-A colliery here?

-Yes.

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We're at the north western extremity of the coal seams which run across South Pembrokeshire.

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This colliery was working from about 1888 to 1905.

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But no colliery in Pembrokeshire was more than a couple of miles from the sea, or navigable water.

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So that made it possible that they had easy transport out?

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It's why it was one of the earliest British coalfields to be exploited.

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-Beaches like Newgale were used as shipping points for coal from the early 15th century.

-15th century?!

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-Yes.

-Hah!

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Under the gorse and the bracken,

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this landscape is still etched with pits that once owed their existence to the sea.

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Boats came into its beaches,

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loading from quarries and collieries that shaped the landscape,

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and, miles up the rivers, there are quays built to ship coal, right back into the 15th century.

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Before the railways, a boat was the best way to trade.

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Then, Pembrokeshire was ideally placed between the Bristol Channel and the Irish Sea.

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I had discovered my first connection between the landscape and its coast.

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The sea HAS been the key to the Pembrokeshire landscape.

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This used to be an industrial coast that used the sea.

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The sea was the main means of transport, so Pembrokeshire didn't seem as remote as it does today.

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I suspect that if you go far enough back, it didn't seem remote at all,

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and the clue is this great castle at Manorbier.

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There are others. What do these castles mean, and what effect did THEY have on the landscape?

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Manorbier is one of a string of castles in southern Pembrokeshire.

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Many sit like this, right on the coast. Why?

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'They look medieval. Who put them here? I was hoping historian Bill Zajac would know.'

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Manorbier is a product of the Norman Conquest of Pembrokeshire, which begins in the early 1090s.

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-There is a settlement of castles in this region.

-It's a Norman castle?

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Yes, and they began to hold down the country by establishing fortifications like this.

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Pembrokeshire Norman castles have a pattern,

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and the sea, which once almost reached Manorbier's walls,

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was the key to the plan.

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The logic of this pattern is all connected with the waterways.

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The Daugleddau estuary here,

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the Bristol Channel, the Irish Sea.

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There is an original centre here at Pembroke,

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another very important castle at Haverfordwest, at the highest navigable point on this arm.

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They're all in direct access to waterways -

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Manorbier, Tenby, Carew.

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One presumes that relieving forces' provisions could be brought in here.

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At Manorbier is a harbour, where boats could draw up to the castle.

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Pembroke was the headquarters, and the great threat, I suppose, was from the hostile north and east?

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The wild Welsh in the north, yes! This is where the castle's defensive and offensive role manifests itself.

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Manorbier fitted in to a whole Norman landscape, a colony based along the shoreline,

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perhaps to secure those seaways to Ireland and the west.

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But what about the Welsh raids?

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Archer Gordon Summers came to figure out

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how the castle's defences worked.

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Surely a serious fortification would be on top of the highest hill?

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You imagine attackers could fire down from the hill tops.

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You may think you could stand on the hill top and pop arrows over the top. That's impossible. It's out of range.

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-What were the capabilities of a bow and arrow? How much ground could you cover here?

-200, 250 yards.

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-200 yards?!

-That range, that sweep is a killing ground.

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Anybody who comes within that area is in range of archers.

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-By the time the attackers are down to the level of the tower, they're within your range?

-Shall we see?

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-When they're higher up, with a view over us, they're out of range?

-Yes.

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Maximum range, I might be shooting up at this sort of angle here,

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but the killing ground from here is down there, a flatter trajectory.

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So I would be thinking about shooting...

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..down into there.

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Good heavens! Wow.

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So you're suggesting that the positioning of this castle

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-is subtle within the landscape?

-Yes. This looks accessible, but it's not.

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We're trying to channel people through a path of our choosing

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that is very easily defensible - it's that direction.

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Straight towards the front gate?

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Yes. There is water, bog, sea in three sides of this castle.

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That's where they'll come, and that's where we've made preparations.

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Manorbier has its own defensive landscape

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within the grand network of Norman occupation.

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But that's not all. These castles were established deliberately to manage the countryside in between.

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This castle is in the middle of a lordship. They are defensive AND offensive.

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The Norman cavalrymen would be able to issue forth

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and really dominate a radius of 10, perhaps 20 miles around the castle.

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So each lord would have a sphere of influence that would influence the landscape around his castle?

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Many people feel that the landscape of Pembrokeshire

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has been very much shaped by the influence of the Norman Conquest.

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It has a much more English feeling than some other parts of Wales.

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Nobody knows how the Norman lords changed the Pembrokeshire landscape,

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but they brought in settlers from the English West Country to farm it,

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and it is a very English-looking landscape, of castles and villages,

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and churches with high towers, like miniature fortifications.

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But if you drive north, beyond the lands once occupied by the Normans,

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the castles, villages, broad fields and church towers disappear.

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By the time you've reached Fishguard on the northern coast, the landscape is subtly different.

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More scattered settlements and fewer villages,

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little churches and fewer towers,

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and then the field pattern is different.

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There are many more of these little irregular-shaped fields.

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But how far does this northern landscape relate to the sea?

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These little fields intrigue me most. Who laid them out, and when?

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There are two ancient types of field boundaries running into each other - one curly, the other dead straight.

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To date them, said archaeologist David Austen, we must separate them.

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It's possible at their edge, on St David's Head. We began with the straight fields.

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We're coming down to this bank, which is the grassy remains of an earthen bank.

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Can you see it, as an earthwork?

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This is the bank I'm talking about.

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Walking along the top of it, like this...

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-It's disappearing over the cliff.

-Yes. ..It's absolutely straight.

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This is as far as I'm going to go, as it's chopped away by the cliff.

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Erosion has cut away the bank, and it's a little fragment of a much bigger field system beyond here.

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The rest of that straight field had fallen into the sea,

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but the curved ones were built at a safe distance from the present edge.

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-Even

-I

-could work out the curved fields must be more recent.

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It suggests this landscape was once organised

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into straight, rectilinear fields,

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and then this pattern must have been overlain with a new one -

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irregular, curvilinear. But when?

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I'd no idea whether it was pre-war or prehistoric!

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'Further along the cliffs, we picked up the straight field boundaries again.'

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-And this then runs on, across down here - we lose it under this gorse.

-Yes, across the hillside over there.

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-It hit, originally, a huge head dyke - can you see that?

-That great line of stones down there?

-Yes.

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It's got a hillfort, ritual monuments. The rectilinear system is related to Iron Age monuments...

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They MAY be Bronze Age but, really, they are the first and second millennia BC, in the depths of time.

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The curvilinear systems are pushed out over the top of those -

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that seems to be quite clear - but there's clearly a gap.

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While the cliff edge is eroding, time has passed.

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The possibilities are - you run a checklist through your mind - that it's 16th- or 17th-century enclosure.

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It appears not to be. It could be medieval, but it's not standard medieval farming.

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The curvilinear system is from the Dark Ages, the age of Welsh kings,

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which lies between the end of the Roman period in 400 AD, up to the 11th century AD - in that period.

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Who could have changed the landscape in the Dark Ages?

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I decided to leave the straight Iron Age fields behind and investigate.

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We went to Nevern.

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Built into the church is a gravestone from the Dark Ages,

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the period when the fields were transformed.

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This script, which is etched into the side of the stone, is ogham script,

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created in south eastern Ireland, around Waterfoot, in the 4th, 5th centuries.

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This relates to an episode we have in the annals, which is people coming over in the 4th and 5th century,

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fighting their way into this area,

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then moving on into Brecon, then down south across the Bristol Channel into Devon and Cornwall as well.

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Everywhere we have this trace, these stones are left behind as an indicator.

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Might there be a link between the Irish who came across and the landscape of little fields?

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Absolutely, but we're making a leap here, and we've got to be cautious,

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but if we're looking for a world in which this field system gets created,

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this is a very obvious candidate indeed.

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North Pembrokeshire's little fields were perhaps created by the Irish,

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who arrived by sea and settled around these western waters.

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Their landscape was the mirror image of the Norman one in the south -

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both peoples drawn here because it was a crossroads of the sea.

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Next day, I picked up the trail of that earlier Iron Age or Bronze Age pattern

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of straight fields and hillforts. Was it also connected with the sea?

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At Castell Henllys, they've not just excavated a piece of this landscape - they've re-created it.

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-I met archaeologist Phil Bennett.

-We're going through the outer defences of an Iron Age hillfort.

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The Iron Age, in this area, dates from 600 BC, through to the Roman invasion in the 1st century AD.

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So, we're going through the gateway now, into the fort,

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-where we've reconstructed Iron Age houses.

-Wonderful houses!

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So these forts were strung out along the coast?

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Some of them were, but not all of them. There were forts all across the landscape, miles from the coast.

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This is a farmed landscape - settled, divided into fields.

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There was open pasture, and there was grazing out on the moor as well.

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-These were agricultural people?

-Yes.

-How do you know what they did?

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All we have is the archaeological record. We reconstructed buildings on their original foundations.

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-It's a wonderful space!

-Each material here has its own story.

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-The posts are from coppiced woodlands...

-They were actually foresters?

-Well, woodland managers!

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And you found grains of this type during the digging?

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Yes, charred grain has survived,

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so we've got a bread oven, we bake bread, we grind the grain.

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And there's woven materials of various sorts?

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They were actually weaving cloth -

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raising livestock for the production of wool, and then weaving cloth.

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Wood, corn, wool... It seemed to me that, in Iron Age Pembrokeshire,

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they had everything for a settled life, without going anywhere near the sea.

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All your evidence is, then, that these communities were...

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This was their landscape, they were living here and they weren't really relating to the sea much.

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No, the people who lived here... What you see was their landscape.

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Apparently, Iron Age people, and Bronze Age before them,

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who laid out the straight fields I'd seen,

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hadn't developed the connections across the sea that were later to be the key to this landscape.

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So was this the end of the story?

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Perhaps, then, these Iron Age, Bronze Age people, 3 or 4,000 years ago,

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WERE living here as agriculturalists and turned their back on the sea.

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In most parts of Britain, that's as far back as you can take the landscape, but in Pembrokeshire,

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you find these amazing stones dotted around, often near the coast.

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And the great question is - what ARE they?

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Do they perhaps represent relics of an even earlier community?

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An even earlier landscape?

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And did THAT relate to the sea?

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I asked archaeologist George Nash.

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He took me up the Nevern Valley and explained how the great stones were placed all around its rim,

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by people who had yet to hear about agriculture.

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So, a lot of these monuments date from the middle Neolithic, around 3,500 BC.

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There is an arc of monuments, through the whole of the Nevern Valley.

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That means an arc of communities living here?

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Yes, but also, more importantly, they seem to be defining a sort of territorial line of landscape.

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-All the Neolithic activity seems to be going on within this area.

-They were all close to the coast?

-Yes.

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All with the coast in view.

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But the one essential to this landscape is Pentre Ifan.

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And here's this astonishing thing! I mean, this is Stonehenge in scale!

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It's Pentre Ifan, a Neolithic chambered tomb.

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Three orthostats, or uprights, supporting a very large capstone, maybe 25 tons in weight.

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-Extraordinary thing!

-Yes.

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The capstone lines up with Carningli, this large mountain behind.

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It reflects the lower bit of rocky outcrop.

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It's astonishingly parallel.

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-Did they do that deliberately?

-It's the idea of belonging to a landscape.

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To belong, you need to replicate things within it with your monuments.

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Who were these people? Where had they come from?

0:26:230:26:27

You have to go back a long time. We're dealing with, first of all, hunter-gatherers, 5 or 6,000 BC,

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then there's Neolithic architecture coming from Europe around 4,000 BC.

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This Neolithic package includes agriculture and chamber monuments.

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They seem to ignore the agriculture, because they're actually fishing - it's too good to resist.

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So there's a whole range of these communities, down the coast, all relating seawards in this way?

0:26:530:27:00

Yes, from about 4,000 to 2,000 BC, you've got communities along Strumble Head,

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around Fishguard, St David's Head, Solva, Tenby, doing the same thing.

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They're farming the sea.

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These valleys were occupied by Neolithic communities whose life was bounded by mounds and stones,

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marking and mirroring the landscape. At its centre was the sea.

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Pembrokeshire had, after all,

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been a landscape of little fishing communities, 6,000 years ago.

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Before leaving, I went back to Manorbier. What I now saw was no ordinary seaside.

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Instead, I imagined a seaway once busy with boats,

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and a shoreline that, for centuries, was once of the richest cultural crossroads in our islands -

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a coast, not on the edge, but at the centre of things.

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Pembrokeshire's landscape has been profoundly influenced by its coastal position

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on the crossroad of the seaways that's brought cultures from Europe.

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They've built great castles and forts, patterns of little fields,

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and great stone tombs like this one, which may be 4 or 5,000 years old.

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The delicious irony is that now, people come to Pembrokeshire from all over the world,

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to enjoy its coasts and the seas, because it seems so remote.

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Subtitles by Annelie Beaton BBC Scotland 2000

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E-mail us at [email protected]

0:28:520:28:56

Professor Aubrey Manning explores the Pembrokeshire coastline and its connections with the sea. He discovers castles and standing stones, as well as evidence of successive invaders who arrived by sea when the coastline was far from remote.


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