It was natural to go naked

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The Independent Online
I first saw Pembrokeshire, 'Little England beyond Wales', 12 years ago, when the author Charlie Pye-Smith and I went on a caper round the soggy bits of Britain because I was writing a book about wetlands. We lived in a borrowed motor-home and from the Hebrides to the Welsh island of Skomer, Charlie tried to get some natural history into my head while we odd-coupled the housekeeping and I got cross if he was late for supper.

Last month I went there with the artist Pete Arscott. We settled down to an exclusively meat-and-wine diet on the grounds that vegetables smacked of domesticity.

In the winter of 1982-83 I had fallen so in love with the idea of buying a farm on St David's Head that I soon returned and missed crucial hours in the labour ward. A couple of weeks later, Mrs North and the latest infant made a trip to see what the fuss was about. Luckily, the nursing mother decided the place was too wet and windy and too far from anywhere. Besides, she pointed out a little tearfully, the windows in the proposed farmhouse were so low she would have to kneel to look at whatever bits of scenery periodically emerged when the clouds parted. With a good deal of relief all round, we repaired to Hackney.

From Hackney, the capital's buzz can almost be heard on a very still night. On St David's Head, I fear it would mostly have been the call of gull and chough.

We determined to holiday in Pembrokeshire instead, and over the past 12 years have often been braced to the point of enervation by the maritime climate. However, it is only within the past few early summer weeks that I have seen the chief glory of St David's Head.

About 20 years ago, Ian Jamieson was a newly-arrived farmer at Hendre Eynon, near St David's. His new domain was a classically neglected wet spot, crying out for munificent EEC grants, ICI chemicals and a JCB. It was rich in wild flowers, grasses, sedges and rushes.

As he stalked his fields, considering what to do, Jamieson saw a stubby concrete-and-stone memorial to Thomas Herbert Davies, who was born on the farm in 1909 and in 1943 was shot down over Hanover, one day short of his 34th birthday. Jamieson was told that the memorial had been erected because Pilot Officer Davies had loved this place.

The more Jamieson saw the beauty of the fields, and pondered its meaning for Thomas Davies, the more he was unsettled. He was already working with a digger-driver. 'He was shoving aside the stones of this wall here,' Jamieson recently explained, 'and I was so upset I sent him home.'

It is worth saying how deep-grained (and proper) is the farmer's urge to improve the productivity of his land. The whole idea of farming is to bring ordering skills to the wild. Of course, it is easy to see that not all 'improvement' is genuine, in agricultural let alone in ecological or (and they can be very different) aesthetic terms. But 20 years ago, the idea that a place like Hendre Eynon should be left alone was remarkable.

From that day to this, these fields have been lightly grazed by horses or cows at just the right times of year. Without the animals, the place would become woodland of a sort. With any sort of fertiliser, the wild flowers would die.

Instead, in May, June (perhaps especially) and July, the fields are a blaze of colour. I am a vulgarian, so I was most thrilled last month to see clumps of yellow iris thick in fields whose stone boundaries were laden with foxgloves. In one field it was lovely to find three different orchids (I think). In another, they were so thick it became difficult not to knock them down as one walked. Some of the blooms were the size of a fist: these were orchids that might have come out of The Little Shop of Horrors and taken bites of the unsuspecting.

Jamieson's fields are the civilised part of Dowrog Common, and therefore quite well known to naturalists. He insisted I say how good the National Trust and the Dyfed Wildlife Trust are in their work here (especially in getting the right grazing going), and it would be churlish not to do as he asks in that regard. But there are two other things worth remarking. One is that the Jamiesons run a fine caravan and camping site on some of their land (bookable on 0437 720474). The other is that, though Hendre Eynon must be one of the more exquisite wildlife sites in these islands, and boasts what is now a vanishing sort of flower-strewn grassland, these grazing fields are hardly ever visited.

Many of us in the West care a great deal, and noisily so, about the destruction of our countryside. Yet few of us actually go to the places that have escaped. So, taking advantage of the quiet on my little jaunt last month, I did not use the Jamiesons' washing facilities. Instead, one fine sunny morning, among the ragged robin and goodness knows what other flowers any half-way decent pedant could name as well as wonder at, I popped my plump pale body in among the duckweed of one of Hendre Eynon's brooks, overlooked only by a few insouciant ponies. It would not have done to be smelly when we went out later to St David's Cathedral to hear Liverpool University's chamber choir sing a fabulous evensong among the medieval woodwork and the congregation they heavily outnumbered.