“Years ago,” says Jan, “the fishing industry was so big here, you could walk across from one side of the harbour to the other just by stepping across fishing boats.”
I peer across Milford Haven’s waterfront, here in beautiful Pembrokeshire, and imagine a bustling harbour.
Although, it doesn’t take much imagination, for Milford’s Fish Docks are still Wales’ largest fishing port. Over 3,000 tonnes of fish are landed here every year, many of which are bought by some of the country’s finest restaurants.
From her perfectly named shop, The Fish Plaice, Jan supplies many of the local hotels and restaurants. There’s a steady stream of local customers this morning. I’m not surprised, looking at her bountiful fish counter. The dressed crab looks scrumptious.
“That’ll keep fresh until Sunday,” she says, as I hand over the cash. It’ll make a lovely lunch to round off my trip to Milford Haven.
Milford Haven has been a revelation. I’ve always known about the oil refineries, but Milford Waterfront is so much more than that. The marina is chock full of boats and there’s a buzz in the air as I explore.
“Milford Haven is a Trust Port,” explains Lucy Wonnacott from the Port of Milford Haven Authority. “There are no shareholders, so we invest the profits back into the port for the benefit of the wider community.”
One of the first new buildings to line the waterfront was Martha’s Vineyard. This restaurant and bar has been joined by other tempting eateries and cafes, along with gift shops, boutiques, and confectioners. I won’t have a problem finding presents to take back home with me.
Lucy and I sit at some perfectly positioned picnic tables overlooking the Haven. I spy a small party of paddle boarders at Milford Beach Activity Centre tentatively taking to the water. Some are better at staying upright than others, but they’re clearly having fun!
The view from here is amazing, overlooking The Haven, as the locals call it.
“This is one of the deepest natural harbours in the world,” explains Lucy, “which is why the fishing industry was so big here.”
Back in 1946, fishermen landed a record 60,000 tonnes of fish here, and in its heyday, the town was the UK’s sixth largest fishing port.
The Haven is a drowned valley, flooded during the last ice age. Its depth means some of the largest shipping vessels can negotiate this huge estuary.
Its Welsh name, Aberdaugleddau, means the mouth of the two rivers Cleddau. Further upstream, near the village of Landshipping, the Cleddau splits, with the Western Cleddau meandering towards Haverfordwest, while the Eastern Cleddau snakes deep into Pembrokeshire’s Preseli mountains.
Lucy’s husband, Carl, joins us, having served a large queue at The Scoop ice cream parlour.
“When Lucy and I were children,” he says, “there used to be a local business making ice cream, but sadly it no longer existed. As the waterfront developed, we thought, wouldn’t it be a good idea to bring back ice cream-making to Milford Haven?”
Carl and Lucy set up their ice cream-making business in one of the buildings just behind us and learned how to make ice cream. They source the best ingredients they can find, some of which come from as far as Italy.
Of course, the most important ingredient is milk, and that comes from a local Milford farm about a mile away.
“After milking the cows,” Carl explains, “the farmer pasteurises it first, and then he delivers it to us. We turn it into ice cream, just over there,” he says, thumbing over his shoulder. “You could say it goes from cow to cone in less than twenty-four hours!”
Their most popular flavour is vanilla, followed by salted caramel, but I opt for my favourite—mint choc chip. And it is truly scrumptious!
While exploring the waterfront, and browsing the gift shops, I’m amazed by the different boats berthed in the marina. Some look like floating cabins with balconies. These are ‘floatels’, or hotel rooms managed by the waterfront’s Ty Hotel. They must be like staying on a cruise ship, but with none of the seasickness!
My fourth-floor room at the Ty Hotel gives me a magnificent view of the waterfront. Perched on my balcony, which juts out over the harbour, it feels like I’m standing on a ship’s crow’s nest gazing out across the ocean. If Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet were staying here, I bet they’d pretend they were flying, just like they did in Titanic.
Suddenly, a sailing boat mast passes by. It’s so close, I can almost reach out and touch it. At least it wasn’t an iceberg!
Looking down, I spy the 72-foot Challenge Wales yacht coming into berth. It’s owned by a charitable organisation that assists young people in developing life skills. Sailing helps them develop self-confidence and self-esteem, along with a range of team-building and communication skills.
Lucy was right when she said there’s lots going on here!
Opposite my hotel is Milford Haven’s Museum. Once the old Customs House, this award-winning museum recounts the town’s varied and fascinating history.
“The oil refineries were actually Milford’s second oil industry,” says volunteer John, as he shows me round. “The first was whale oil.”
In 1790, Sir William Hamilton inherited the land here, and he secured an Act of Parliament allowing him and his nephew, Charles Greville, to build a port. Between them, they had a cunning plan. Since 1672, an import tax of nine pounds per ton applied to all imported whale oil, much of which fuelled London’s street lamps.
So Hamilton and Greville planned to build a new town, and then encourage experienced whalers from North America to settle here. By creating a whaling fleet based in Milford Haven, they would avoid having to pay the import taxes.
Milford’s original American-style, grid-like street pattern is a nod to the American whalers who settled here. Hamilton Terrace, named after Sir William, stands above the museum, and has fine views right across The Haven. Behind that is Charles Street, names after Charles Greville, and the third row is Robert Street, named after Charles’ brother.
“They were often known as Front Street, Middle Street, and Back Street,” says John, “and which one you lived in denoted your position in Milford’s society!”
The whalers set off to sea for months at a time, sailing deep into the southern oceans. They’d return to Milford with their catch, ready for processing. Whale oil was once stored in this museum building, and they also utilised the other by-products, such as whale bones, for corsets and soap.
Christine, another volunteer, joins me upstairs as I explore the museum’s newest display, which includes some fine dresses, some shaped with whale bones.
“We have so many items, we can’t display them all,” she explains. “But this new display has given us an opportunity to bring out some items visitors haven’t seen before.”
The museum explains how Milford’s industries have ebbed and flowed like the tide. As the whaling industry dwindled, others arrived with new plans, thanks to the Haven’s natural deep waters.
When Isambard Kingdom Brunel built the docks here in 1888, his original plans were to turn it into a major terminus for transatlantic shipping. But the first ship to dock here was a fishing boat called The Sybil, and that was the birth of Milford’s new fishing industry.
In 1814, thanks to The Haven’s deep waters, the Royal Navy built a dockyard a few miles upstream at Pembroke. Realising it was vulnerable to attack from the sea, the Government built a series of coastal fortifications lining both sides of The Haven.
One of these, Popton Fort, on the southern shore of The Haven, is visible from Milford’s Mackerel Quay. But a short stroll along the Pembrokeshire Coast path soon gives me splendid views of the north shore’s Fort Hubberstone. Looking out across The Haven, I spy Stack Rock Fort and Thorn Island Fort, standing like soldiers on guard.
They may be ruins, but they still inspire people today. As I explore the Waterfront Gallery, I’m captivated by a wonderful oil painting of the Haven and its fortifications. The artist has captured the mood on a grey winter’s day. The gallery, though, is bright and cheerful, packed with beautiful artwork on display, including jewellery, glass, bronze, metalwork, and paintings.
The floor creaks every time I move, but that’s not surprising, really. This is another of the town’s original buildings. Whalers once used it to store some of their catch.
Time has run away with me, and I need to head back to the Ty Hotel for my evening meal at the Dulse restaurant. I’ve checked the menu, and the baked cod takes my fancy. I wonder if Jan at The Fish Plaice supplied it.
I stare across the jam-packed marina. Are there enough boats for me to take a shortcut straight across the harbour? I’d better not risk it!
- Admiral Nelson described Milford Haven as the “finest port in Christendom,” when he visited on 31st July 1802.
- Nelson stayed overnight in The New Inn. When he left the following morning, the owners renamed the hotel The Lord Nelson!
- Milford Haven is mentioned in Shakespeare’s play, Cymberline.
- Milford’s Torch Theatre is one of only three building-based production theatres in Wales.
- In 1171, Henry II set sail from Milford Haven with 400 boats, 500 knights, and 4,000 men-at-arms to invade Ireland.
Milford Haven lies 8 miles south of Haverfordwest, on the A4076, and 54 miles west of junction 49 of the M4. Two-hourly rail services connect Milford Haven with Swansea, Cardiff, Shrewsbury, and Manchester.
Want To Know More?
Milford Haven Tourist Information, Suite 19 Cedar Court, Havens Head Business Park, Milford Haven, Pembrokeshire, SA73 3LS
Tel: 01437 771818
Stay: Ty Milford Waterfront, Nelson Quay, Milford Haven, SA73 3AA
Tel: 01646 400810
Eat: The Harbourmaster, Orion House, Nelson Quay, Milford Haven, SA73 3AZ
Tel: 01646 695493