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History of the Solva Coast

A row of stone lime kilns stand close to the coastline along Solva in Pembrokeshire
The lime kilns on the Solva Coast, Pembrokeshire, Wales | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

Discover the hidden history of the Solva Coast and see evidence of the past that helps tell the stories of the people who once lived and worked in this area of Pembrokeshire.

Historic remains at Solva

The harbour at Solva became the main connection for this remote village before the road was built.

The lime kilns

You can find multiple lime kilns along the edge of the harbour. These are best viewed from the path or get a closer look at low tide. They’re thought to be at least 200 years old.

Limestone was heated here to create quicklime. During the 1800s lime was widely used as a building material and as a soil improver on local farms. Limestone and coal were both transported to the harbour in flat-bottomed boats. These were then unloaded onto carts at low tide and moved the short distance to the kilns.

A coastal view looking south-west towards St Bride's Bay over the ridge-backed peninsula of Dinas Fawr. Skomer Island is visible in the sea in the distance.
St Bride's Bay from Dinas Fawr, Pembrokeshire | © NTPL/Joe Cornish

Iron Age forts

The Pembrokeshire county has around 50 Iron Age forts scattered across the coast. We care for half of them, including the three promontory forts of note that you’ll find near Solva at the Gribin, Porth y Rhaw and Dinas Fawr.

Built with their backs to the sea to defend them from attacks from the land, they were occupied over two thousand years ago. Coastal erosion has worn away most of the land the ramparts used to guard, except at the Gribin, which is sheltered by the headlands on either side.

Old mills

Just beyond Porth y Rhaw is the Nine Wells Valley. This is a steep-sided valley that runs all the way down to the sea. There were originally two mills here that were used for corn and cloth. Both of these mills closed during the First World War in 1915. Take a look around as the foundations for both these buildings can still be seen today.

Shipwrecks on the Solva Coast

There have been many shipwrecks along this treacherous coast. The ships named Phoebe and Peggy were bound from Philadelphia to Liverpool in 1776. During storms they were wrecked very close to the entrance of Solva Harbour.

All the crew from these ships drowned along with several local boatmen from Solva who were trying to rescue them.

The history of Smalls Lighthouse

Smalls lighthouse stands on a dangerous reef known as The Smalls approximately 20 miles west of Marloes Peninsula and eight miles west of Grassholm island. The original lighthouse was created in Solva harbour during 1776 and towed into position by a barge. It stood on nine oak pillars, allowing the sea to pass through beneath.

Although the force of the sea rocked it in bad weather it stood for 80 years before it needed replacing. The lighthouse is known for having brought about a change in lighthouse policy in 1801 following a gruesome episode involving lighthouse keepers Thomas Howell and Thomas Griffith.

A quarrelsome pair

The two-person team were known to quarrel. When Griffith died in an accident, Howell feared he might be accused of murder if he discarded the body at sea. So Howell built a basic coffin and attached it to the outside of the lighthouse until the next relief boat arrived.

However, bad weather made the rudimentary box break apart and the body was thrown against the window with force. Incredibly, Howell still managed to keep the lighthouse lamp lit until help eventually arrived.

Deeply affected

When Howell was finally relieved of duty, it was apparent that the impact of the situation had affected him deeply, and as a result lighthouse policy was changed so that lighthouse teams were never less than three people. This continued until the automation of British lighthouses in the 1980s.

Sumner lines

The story has been the inspiration for many films and documentaries and the reef was the location where Captain TH Sumner discovered the concept of celestial position lines, or circles of equal altitude, which formed the basis of nearly all modern celestial navigation and were sometimes called Sumner lines.

A coastal view looking south-west towards St Bride's Bay over the ridge-backed peninsula of Dinas Fawr. Skomer Island is visible in the sea in the distance.

Discover more on the Solva Coast

Find out how to get to the Solva Coast, where to park, the things to see and do and more.

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