Gone with the Wind: The Poles of Stumble Head

Article published in Planet, Winter 2014, Issue 216

First published in Ysgrifau in 1928, Sir T.H. Parry Williams’ essay ‘Telegraph Poles’ gave a rich and textured celebration of the former trees that for him had ‘reached the perfect state, which is death, and have commenced a new, static life, which is some kind of death enlivened’. He acknowledged them as being ‘modern in the extreme’, yet holding ‘the memory of a monastic Middle Age melancholy in their brutal stance’.

For many years I have admired the elegance of utility poles, particularly those at Strumble Head (Pen-caer) standing stoically against the elements in their ancient landscape. The best time to be there is of course the winter. Anticipation grows driving towards Strumble from Goodwick as the road narrows and turns until eventually appearing to fall over the edge into the sea – a breathtaking view that is different every time – the sharp left turn provides the reassuring sight of the car park. Starting and finishing at the car park, the choice is whether to walk north for Llanwnda or south for Pwll Deri.

Of course the walking adventure only begins as you lace up your boots, feeling the wind in your face as it whips up off the sea below. Taking the three hundred and sixty degree view you can see all that makes this place so spectacular: the sea swell set against a brooding Pembrokeshire sky, the rocky outcrop of Garn Fawr looking remarkably like the backdrop to a scene from the Hound of the Baskervilles, and in the distance St David’s Head pushing itself out into a cold uninviting sea. On the swell a distant fleck of white - can’t make out the ‘StennaLine’ yet. The Strumble Head lighthouse stands on the skyline no doubt reassuring those on the ferry that they will make it safely to Fishguard harbour. All the while there’s the wailing wind – the walk will be a difficult one – a battle against the elements. Like most walks once started it seems less difficult and the atmospheric soundscape soon recedes. It took me a few visits to work out that the lines strung between the utility poles at Strumble were abetting the wind in the creation of this atmospheric sonic experience. But catastrophe would befall these glorious orchestrations.

In 2010 members of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority backed the bid for Strumble Head to have its overhead electricity cables buried underground. The Authority stated that ‘The negative visual impact of the existing overhead utility supplies leading to the lighthouse, and the special qualities of the landscape, have identified this section of overhead line as an outstanding candidate’. It was pointed out that apart from being a significant place for spotting sea birds, dolphins, porpoise and grey seals immediately off the coast, Strumble was also one of eight registered landscapes of historic importance within the park and an area rich in archaeology, with some sites having Scheduled Ancient Monument status. The lighthouse built in 1908 is one of a number of Listed buildings in the area. In adding to the argument Western Power reassured everyone that there was a ‘careful balance’ between improving ‘iconic sites’ and ensuring costs did not rise for its customers – Western Power put £230,000 aside to undertake the task.

Now don’t get me wrong. I understand that there are many different reasons why places are visited. As a photographer I also understand that words such as ‘beauty’ and ‘landscape’ are deeply contested ones – but the Park’s emphasis on certain aspects of Strumble’s visuality does seem a little peculiar. Putting the glorious poles and wires aside for a moment it is worth noting that there are many man-made components to Strumble. Most people visiting will drive there, some cycle and many take the Strumble Shuttle bus that links all the key coastal points between St David’s and Fishguard. This necessitates places for vehicles to park and for the Shuttle to do its about turn – the road ends here. The rows of cars that use the car park will no doubt have a visual impact on the ‘special qualities of the landscape’. Let’s not forget that apart from the narrowest of coastal strips upon which the path sits, the landscape is largely agrarian having developed to its current state through centuries of farming – this is not deemed as having a ‘negative impact’ on the landscape.

Other ‘benign’ man-made elements in the landscape are buildings, many of which are deemed so important as to be protected. Some are discreet, such as the bird observatory below the car park. This one-time military observatory is a companion to the building used for carrying out tests on low-level air-to-surface vessel (ASV) radar on Garn Fawr, which also boasts the remains of a first world war Coastwatcher's hut at its peak. The most visible building at Strumble (and for twenty five miles) is, of course, the lighthouse - but then that’s what lighthouses do. You can’t say a lighthouse doesn’t have a significant visual impact on a landscape, whether iconic or otherwise. This is all a question of definition and balance. But whose definition and what balance? If the concern is visual impact then should the lighthouse be disguised so that from its landward side it looks like a big rock – a bit like the way mobile phone masts are made to look like trees? Should a replacement underground car park be built? Perhaps a Goodwick to Strumble subterranean metro line should be considered, one that allows visitors to emerge in the bird observatory for that breathtaking first glimpse?

I would speculate that Parry Williams would have been concerned at the demise of the Strumble poles – after all he celebrated poles for their ‘glory of austere simplicity’. Poles have also had a significant place in Wales’s visual culture, with artists such as Josef Herman, Ernest Zobole and George Chapman often including them in their artworks. The history of photography is marked by poles. Perhaps the most expressive photographs undertaken anywhere were those by Walker Evans, Robert Frank and Robert Adams: each featured poles in their American landscapes often signifying modernity and the isolation of the individual in society. Arguably the greatest photographer to incorporate poles in their imagery was the British photographer Raymond Moore. During the 1960s Moore would spend several months each year making photographs in Pembrokeshire at coastal locations such as Porthgain. One of Wales’s great cultural achievements was to have the first Arts Council to acknowledge a living photographer - funding a travelling exhibition of Moore’s in 1968. Moore’s work conjures up both a sense of loneliness and the poetics of place so evocative of Strumble during the winter.

The removal of the poles at Strumble is a tragedy. Perhaps we should think more about the significance of these elegant objects before discarding them in the future. An electric foghorn was installed at Strumble Head lighthouse in 1969 – wouldn’t it be wonderful if on windy days it could broadcast the sounds of the wind howling through those greatly missed wires and their poles.

© Paul Cabuts