The boomerang-shaped tidal creek at Solva, with its south-facing entrance guarded by high headlands, is arguably the safest harbour around the Pembrokeshire coast.
It is steeped in maritime history and during its boom years, in the 18th and 19th centuries, was one of the busiest trading ports in Pembrokeshire.
During the 16th century Solva was described by Leland in his Itinerary of Wales as “a smaul creke for ballingers and fischar botes,” ballingers being small sea-going sloops, suitable for coastwise trading. Even further back there is a reference in the St Davids Cathedral records that lime that would have been a building material to make the special mortar used to build the Cathedral, was shipped from Solva. It is believed that it was later used on the land after the masons noticed its effect on the vegetation, and Solva became an important limestone port. At the peak of its lime-burning operatons Solva had as many as 10 lime kilns, the largest number of any port in the county except Tenby and Haverfordwest. In 1777 the port had six trading ships, and a measure of its importance between 1828 and 1834 was that no fewer than 18 ships, whose tonnage ranged between 15 and 159 tons, were plying between Solva and ports all round the Bristol Channel area. Eight of these were actually built in Solva, all of them with Solva masters, many of them entrepreneurs capitalising on the port’s growing success. One such entrepreneur was John Williams who moved to Solva from Hendre Eynon in about 1834 aged 23 as ‘a merchant’ with an eighth share in the 28-ton sloop Pilgrim. By 1861 he was described as ‘a Corn and Seed Merchant and a farmer of 505 acres employing 40 men, 4 boys and 12 women.’ Before he died in 1881 he had shares in 11 ships.
Eleven ships of between 25 and 122 tons were built in Solva between 1784 and 1813 and Fenton the antiquarian recorded in 1811 that 30 vessels of 20 to 250 tons were based there at that time. Lewis, in his Topographical Dictionary of Wales in 1844 recorded that from being ”one of the poorest hamlets in Pembrokeshire,” Solva had “risen within the last 50 years into a flourishing little town.” It was not only ships that were built there. Solva had the distinction to have built a wooden lighthouse in 1775, the first to be erected on The Smalls, 24 miles to the west-south-west. William Henry Whiteside designed it but the wooden cabin on stilts 50 feet above the rock swayed alarmingly in rough weather, and one keeper went mad there when his companion died and it was nearly four months before rescue came. After that it was decreed that three keepers had to man a lighthouse. In 1840, Trinity House designed a new masonry lighthouse which was erected in 1856 and, now unmanned, it continues to flash its warning light on The Smalls.