Few people are aware of the existence of a castle at Cresswell, which is now a tranquil backwater leading off the Cleddau Estuary, but where Cresswell Quay was once the centre of the Pembrokeshire coal trade.
The castle ruin lies buried in the woods a quarter of a mile north of the bend in the River Cresswell, where two coal quays and an acre-sized coal fold survive as reminders of its industrialised past.
Pevsner describes the former mansion of the Barlow family as “a miniature imitator of the romantic early 17th century sham castles such as Lulworth in Dorset (1608) or Ruperra, Glamorgan (1626),” although the word ‘miniature’ belies the fact that the ruins are quite extensive.
William Barlow of Slebech, High Sheriff in 1612, one of whose descendants married Sir William Hamilton and had strong associations with Lord Nelson, inherited the castle from his father John Barlow, who died in 1600, and he settled there in 1636. With the Allens of nearby Cresselly, he had extensive interests in the local coal trade. Sir William Hamilton, in fact, owned the castle in 1786, with Mrs Elizabeth Barlow as occupier.
The ruins reveal a large rectangular courtyard with four corner towers, giving the impression of a fortified house, but there are no signs of standing medieval remains. The antiquarian Major Francis Jones, in his book “Historical Pembrokeshire Homes and their Families,” found the ruins “engulfed in undergrowth and difficult to examine,’ when he visited it in the 1940s. One of the buildings has a massive inserted 18th century fireplace and it is recorded that the castle was abandoned around 1800, when Sir William was very much involved in the building of the new town and docks at Milford Haven.
Just down river from Cresswell Quay is a network of man-made channels cut into the southern bank of the Cresswell River where it is joined by the Carew River flowing down to the Daucleddau Estuary near Jenkins Point.
These are legacies of the great limestone quarrying activities that took place at West Williamston in the 19th and 20th centuries.
A look at a map gives a vivid picture of the extent of this trade, the corner of the confluence of the two rivers carved with the finger-shaped creeks and locks, which allowed large barges to berth alongside the quarry workings to load the limestone, bound for ports all round the Bristol Channel area, and particularly upriver to Haverfordwest. Right round the peninsula, from New Shipping Point in the south to New Park in the north, the fingers poke into the river bank like holes in a gorgonzola, and people messing about in boats on the river take great delight in exploring these deep inlets, some of them joined up to allow short passages through.
At the turn of the 19th century these extensive quarries, employing up to 150 men, provided the building material for the construction of Pembroke’s Royal Dockyard a mere three miles down the estuary.