PEMBROKESHIRE, WALES: Picturesque Carew Castle is one of many historical sites that add to the region's appeal
Rugged and telegenic, Pembrokeshire proved the perfect backdrop for key scenes in the Robin Hood blockbuster released this week. A merry CHRIS McCOOEY heads to the county
I WALKED over rolling sand dunes to the mile-long beach at Freshwater West in Pembrokeshire
. A few surfers bobbed in the water just offshore, various species of gulls and guillemots whirled overhead but otherwise it was deserted.
Rewind 12 months and this idyllic spot would have been alive w ith camera crews, hundreds of extras and some of Hollywood's biggest stars for the filming of key battle scenes in Sir Ridley Scott's new blockbuster, Robin Hood, starring Russell Crowe. Click here now for amazing offers to Pembrokeshire!
Sequences in another major film, Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, which is released in the autumn, were also shot here last year. It seems that this picturesque corner of Wales has no shortage of star appeal.
A few miles inland lies The Grove, a small, attractive country hotel just outside the quiet town of Narberth, where a third of residents are Welsh-speaking.
The smart white Georgian building, nestled among manicured lawns and flower beds and surrounded by mature trees, has just nine rooms and three suites.
I was in the top-floor Daniel And Elizabeth suite (named, intriguingly, after a former owner of the house and his illicit servant mistress).
It was the very room in which Sir Ridley stayed while on location and has wonderful panoramic views of the south-facing gardens stretching away to the distant Preseli Mountains. Crowe's co-stars Cate Blanchett and William Hurt also stayed here. Want incredible deals to Pembrokeshire? Click here now...
A highlight of my stay was a splendid day watching seabirds from a rigid inflatable boat.
The region's dramatic coastline of sandy bays and jagged cliffs, plus islands and rock stacks, provide excellent nesting sites for seabirds.
From Martin's Haven, a peninsula west of the village of Marloes, we went across the waters to check out the islands of Skomer and Skokholm, where half-a-million seabirds nest each year. Derek, the "driver", took us close to the cliffs and cut the engine. Above us, thousands of birds gaggled and gurgled in their breeding groups, while many more wheeled in the air, while on the rocks grey seals snuffled and wheezed, soaking up the sun.
Along with Pembrokeshire's county bird, the razorbill, there were kittiwakes and fulmars but it was the puffins that provided the most entertainment. In flight, their rapid stubby wings whirr as if they are wind-up toys and, when they land on water, their orange webbed feet splay upwards just before they hit the water with an ungainly splash.
These birds, along with an estimated 300,000 Manx shearwater (more than half the world population), breed on the grassland above the islands' cliffs.
Both species have William the Conqueror to thank for their nesting accommodation. The Normans introduced the practice of breeding rabbits for food in warrens. From the Middle Ages to the end of commercial farming in 1950, when it became a nature reserve, Skomer exported rabbits as meat and skins for clothing.
Later, I was chuffed to see not one, not two, not three, but four choughs close up, seemingly unconcerned by our presence. They were using their long, slender and curved blood-red beaks to probe the turf for worms.
They walked rather gawkily, as if their red feet were painful, but when the glossy blue-black birds took to the air they treated us to some splendid aerobatics.
From birdlife to battlements; this part of Britain is blessed with some splendid castles. Like the rabbits, we have the Normans to thank for them. After subjugating the English, they turned their attention to the fiery Welsh and to keep them in order built a series of fortifications, penning them in their Celtic mountain heartland.
I visited two, Carew, just east of Pembroke, and Manorbier on the south coast. The former is an imposing ruin, home to bats and jackdaws. It reigns majestically on a promontory overlooking a body of crystal-clear water (not a moat but a mill pond) and it has its own tidal mill in the grounds, one of only five left in Britain. It's little wonder that painters like JMW Turner have been drawn to Carew.
Manorbier Castle is also a ruin for the most part and equally as attractive on the eye, easel and lens. We drove to it down some narrow lanes with banks of wild garlic, primrose, violets, wood sorrel and celandine on either side all adding to the visual impact of this stunning corner of Britain.
Gerald Cambrensis, son of an Anglo-Norman baron and a witty and well-travelled man of the church, was born here in 1146.
Maybe a tad biased, he wrote: "In all the broad lands of Wales, Manorbier is the most pleasant place by far."
With the sun shining, the shadows lengthening and the castle to ourselves we looked from the battlements towards the sparkling sea, less than an arrow shot away. Gerald had a point. The wonderful thing about this place, however, is that you can have it to yourself. In the grounds of the castle, the antiquarian and castle lover JR Cobb, who rescued the castle in 1880, built a cottage which can be rented. When the castle closes you can metaphorically lower the portcullis (actually turn the key in the great gate) and the place is yours until morning. GETTING THERE: The Grove (01834 860 915/ www.thegrove-narberth.co.uk) offers doubles from £130 per night (two sharing), B&B. Dale Sailing (01646 603 123/ www.pembrokeshire-islands.co.uk) offers a Sea Safari from £30 per adult, £15 per child; Skomer Cruise from £10 per adult, £7 per child. Manorbier Castle (01834 871 394/www.manorbiercastle.co.uk). Admission £3.50 per adult, £1.50 per child. Carew Castle (01646 651 782/www.carewcastle.com). Admission £4.50 per adult, £3 per child. Visit Pembrokeshire: 01437 763 110/www.visitpembrokeshire.com