BLOG Dan Anthony

NWR Issue 101

PD @ C2

Pembroke Dock will be two hundred years old in 2014

This is not a ramble through a well-researched landscape. It is not a story about how much I know about the place I live in. Nor is it a history of what actually happened here. I know nothing about that, other than what I have picked up, wandering about. On the other hand, what you’re about to read is not sufficiently bogus to be genuinely fanciful. Nor is it inaccurate enough to represent a true drift from the here and now to the not here and never. Every now and then, information that may have some direct connection with what actually happened in Pembroke Dock, either today or at some time during its two-hundred year history, may creep into play. And just when those facts seem to be revealing a plausible, perhaps even consistent tale, something happens to them. A crisp packet blows in front of them and they don’t look quite so convincing.

No Docks

I have relied on conjecture, happenstance and mood to present a picture of Pembroke Dock. I cannot describe the town on its journey through time because I wasn’t there for the long haul. That story would inevitably take some organisation and it might assume that, at any point in the journey, which we now understand took two hundred years, Pembroke Dock knew where it was going. It didn’t. I feel sure it’s as surprised to be here as I am.

 Canon at Pembroke Dock library/health centre

Unpainted Docks

Pembroke Dock’s reputation is intriguing. To outsiders, The Dock is a rough town with a distinctly chavvy persona. The place, as Phil Carradice, the town’s most prolific historian says, was built to build ships, and having completed that task, is basically looking for something to do. Less well-informed passing customers, attracted to Pembrokeshire by its scintillating coastline, express dissatisfaction about The Dock, brought on by aesthetic disappointment. On a grey, wet, windswept day, the grey, wet, windswept pebbledash of the grid of grey, wet, windswept terraced houses put grey, wet lumps in lost, windswept, grey holidaymakers’ throats.

The Pembrokeshire Coast National Park stops either side of the town. The Dock’s neat terraced houses, brutal hair cuts, redundant shop windows, teetering drunks, intimidating chapels and meow meow are outside the Park’s sphere of influence. The Park does not skirt around the edge of Pembroke Dock, it just stops, resuming a mile or so up river in order to incorporate the upper reaches of the Cleddau rivers which were so beautifully recorded by the artist, Graham Sutherland. If some other luminary with a brush had taken the trouble to paint the grey, wet, windswept pebbledash houses of the Dock, no doubt the National Park would have embraced The Dock too. Perhaps it would have tried to preserve it, insisting that all residents install grey pebbledash, UPVC windows and disused satellite dishes in keeping with the images created by a great painter who successfully brought these things to book.

Fortunately for The Dock, there was no painter and there has been no definition. The place remains largely untouched by planners and preservers with their predilection for beauty, whatever that may mean, and order. It preserved itself. By contrast, the almost unlived-in heart of the neighbouring beauty spot, Tenby, ‘the jewel in Pembrokeshire’s crown’, is so under a thumb it brings existential uncertainty. A stroll around Tenby in the midwinter drizzle can feel like a walk across the set of a horror movie. Is the whole place made up? Do the facades contain anything other than empty rooms? Is there anybody there?

Tenby’s Playhouse Cinema

Interestingly, the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park relocated its headquarters to Pembroke Dock. The National Park now occupies barracks originally constructed for Queen Victoria’s Infantry.

Two Docks

Pembroke Dock is divided. Over the hill lies Pembroke, a Norman settlement with a thousand years of clobbering Welsh people under its belt. To the east of The Dock’s original Victorian grid lies a twentieth-century housing estate known as the Bush Camp, because it is built on the site of an old military camp situated on the Bush estate, with around fifty years less ethnically focused clobbering under its belt. The nineteenth- and the twentieth-century estates of Pembroke Dock are enemies, shackled together by a bad idea. The nineteenth-century Dock was built with progress in mind. It still sees the outside world as full of possibilities because it remembers them; the twentieth-century Dock cannot see beyond its boundaries because it can’t remember why it exists. Gypsy horses munch the wet grass in the vacant spaces between. They’ve been here for more than two hundred years. They can’t see what the fuss is about.

Horse Docks

Horses can be problematic here. It was two boys from the town who went viral on You Tube at the height of horseburgergate scandal. Dressed in horse costume, they wandered through the local Tesco’s asking, ‘Where’s my Mum?’ as they gambled amongst the meat products. This is one of the few places I’ve lived where the Rubberbandits number ‘I’ve Horse Outside’ refers to a perfectly plausible conversational gambit.

’I’ve a horse outside’

The house I’m writing in is built of Baltic pine and stone, probably borrowed from the dockyard when they were building wooden ships of the line. Pembroke Dock’s houses still possess coffin-heavy doors constructed from hardwood also removed from the dockyard. The town, established the year before Napoleon was dumped on St Helena, was built with a purpose: to build warships so powerful that such characters never bothered Britain again. It was a top secret defence establishment producing deadly deterrents. As my ears pick up the distant clop of horses hooves, the Victorian dock, full of extraordinary inventions and inventive people, hidden behind its alluring mile long Willy Wonka style wall, comes to life.

Dolphin Docks

Gordon of Khartoum lived two blocks away; I occasionally see him outside Williams’ Newsagent, histrionically folding his copy of The Times under his arm, before sauntering off in the direction of Bet Fred. Admiral Tōgō of Japan had a place a few yards from this house. He enjoyed his stay here, free from the strictures of life on mainland Japan. MaybeTōgō Heihachirō, ‘the Nelson of the East’, was a regular drinker in one of the local seafarer’s taverns. The Dolphin would have been a likely choice. Possibly, he and the landlady, a striking woman, perhaps called Staphania, after a ship, with sparkling eyes, long sandy coloured hair and a big scarf, fell for one another. Maybe Togo’s recall from The Dock made him resentful and angry, so that by the time he had sailed across the world and discovered the Imperial Russian Fleet, he blew it out of the water. Meanwhile, at the exact moment that Togo launched his first torpedoes at the battle of Tsushima in 1905, Buffalo Bill and his native American braves rolled their Wild West show into Pembroke Dock. Doubtless they too went to the Dolphin. Stephania, behind her bar, flanked by gleaming glasses and twinkling mirrors, would not have liked these guys. She could tell the difference between a uniform and a costume.

Possible Docks

When I tell people I live in Pembroke Dock, they twitch. Perhaps the information suggests I might behave in a certain way: like steal their Baltic pine. In fact, Pembroke Dock, locked in its private bubble of history, with its penchant for military parades, its population of migrants from this and the Victorian world, closer to Ireland than Cardiff, is a locus for ghosts and dreams. Undisturbed by opinion formers’ ideas of what dreams are fashionable, interesting or beautiful, they blow around the flagstones, the ironwork and the scattering of canons like colourful crisp packets.

Sometimes as I walk around, I notice the houses form up into ranks, and then, after another step, they fall back into a higgledy piggledy mass of vaguely similar dwellings constructed for vaguely similar purposes. In the naval dockyard, which was half destroyed not by the French navy or the German air force, but by the RAF when they took over in the 1930s, the remnants of boulevards transposed from nineteenth-century central London solidify as vanishing points reconnect to the old architects’ drawings. When the alignment passes, the picture decays into a mass of cranes, cables, cracked walls, ivy, lampposts, unfettered trees and the tops of Nolan Transport pantechnicons, waiting for the ferry.

I am looking at a football pitch, built on the site of a small reservoir. A black crow is pecking at something hidden in a depression in the centre of the field. Behind it, a leafless tree springs in the wind; it reminds me of a huge toilet brush, although I have never seen one. Between my vantage point and the bright green grass are a low wall and a pavement. This path is the conduit that leads walkers determined to tread the entire length of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path through The Dock and through to the other side. Once, a man wearing long khaki shorts, walking boots, thick red socks, a padded gilet and an Akubra hat marched past, never to return. Occasionally, a tall handsome woman with a scarf obscuring her face, but not her eyes, passes. Sometimes she returns carrying a heavy bag. Perhaps she whistles the Japanese national anthem, I can’t quite hear her.

Dan Anthony is an author based in Pembroke Dock. He was written plays, documentaries and short stories for Radio Wales, Radio 3 and Radio 4. He is a director of Firefly Press, Wales’ newest young person’s publisher. His children’s series The Rugby Zombies is set in Aberscary, Wales’ scariest village.

Dan is leading a workshop at Newport’s Space Time Machine and Monster festival next Saturday, 19 October From Aberscary to the Oliphant Circle, scariness in South Wales


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