The sheltered little harbour at Porthgain on the North coast between St Davids Head and Strumble Head confirms the beauty of the area, for the visitor has to pinch himself to accept that this is not indeed a small cove in Devon or Cornwall, combining fishing with another industry which has left substantial industrial archaeology behind.
On one side of the harbour are cottages and a popular pub called The Sloop while on the other, towering over the stout stone quay, are the remains of the massive chutes of the crushing plant of a once flourishing granite quarry.
Porthgain must have been a noisy place when the quarry business was at its height and thousands of tons of stone of various sizes thundered down those chutes into the holds of the steamers wharfed below. This is Cerys Matthews country for the Welsh singer, songwriter, broadcaster and author, famed for her background as former lead singer of the rockband Catatonia, although born in Cardiff, spent her childhood hereabouts. She returns at regular intervals to soak in the atmosphere and chill out in her beloved Porthgain and nearby Llanrhian.
Porthgain started life as a little cove to which limestone was imported to burn in the kilns for use on the land as a neutraliser for the acid soil of the area. A certain amount of fishing was also carried on there, particularly for crabs and lobsters, and local legend has it that there were quite a few clandestine cargoes of spirits and tobacco too. The lime trade continued for several centuries as also did the export of cargoes of slate from the nearby quarries at Abereiddy to the north, which developed in the late 18th century. But in the mid 19th century the slate trade fell on bad times and the 17 or so vessels regularly using the port began to find cargoes elsewhere. It was not until the beginning of the 20th century that the harbour was fully developed and the small Penclegyr granite quarry to the west came into its own. Until 1900 this hard, green granite had been used mainly for paving and building stone, but the local brick works was flourishing and so many traction engines were hauling bricks to the construction of the new railway line from Clarbeston Road to Fishguard, that the local District Council demanded compensation from the quarry company for damage to the local roads.
The massive stone crushing works seen at Porthgain today were built, with a tramway linking the plant to the quarry half a mile away, and the harbour was soon packed with steamers taking the various grades of roadstone away to Bristol, Devon, Newhaven, Newport and Haverfordwest. Prosperity reigned until World War One when the conflict caused a slump, while the World War Two period benefited from a demand for stone to build the many airfields which sprang up in the county. It was all downhill after that, and in the 1950s the National Trust acquired the workings, which remain as a monument to an industry with a very chequered history.
It is the sheer scale of the industrial legacy possessed by Porthgain that stops the visitor in his tracks, for this was no ordinary village industry like the many to be seen around this coast, but a manifestation of the industrial revolution to dwarf all others in such a rural setting.
The massive brick-built bins and cliffside chutes which took cascades of crushed stone from the crushing plant at the top to the quayside and the steamers at the bottom, are truly impressive, and this once quiet lilttle fishing village must have been a noisy hive of activity in the first 30 years of the last century.
Some of the hardest igneous stone in the county was hauled by tramway from the quarries at nearby Abereiddi for crushing into five different grades of road stone and aggregate. Until the mid 19th century the harbour was a little tidal creek, rather like Abercastle to the north, where ships beached to pick up cargoes of slate from the quarries at Trwyncastell or to drop limestone for slaking in the limekilns before being carted to the surrounding farms. There were no quays then, and the high water mark lay somewhere opposite the present Sloop Inn.
But by the 1890s a brickworks had been built to produce the materials to build the massive crushing plant and chutes and the 1891 census listed only 40 quarrymen and brickworkers living in Porthgain and Abereiddi. Work began in 1898 on the long-awaited harbour improvements, the public having been invited two years earlier to subscribe to the tune of £30,000.
By 1905 the harbour was more or less complete and there was a further extension to the west pier five years later. The boom years were between 1910 and 1931, and in 1910 there were 330 shipments of granite roadstone from the harbour, going to Bristol and the West country, the West Wales ports and the South of England. The books recorded shipments to Braunton, Bideford, Lynmouth, Newhaven, Margate, Whitstable, Faversham, Deptford, Greenhithe, Newport, Belfast, Haverfordwest, Milford Haven, Swansea, Southampton, Dublin and Rye. Around the time of the First World War Porthgain was producing around 70,000 tons of roadstone a year, but army recruitment caused a fluctuation in trade, and in 1919 the workforce was down to fewer than a dozen men. The construction of a new railway station at Mathry, which was more convenient to Treffgarne Quarry, combined with district council apathy towards Porthgain, saw the operation grind gradually to an economic halt and it finally closed down In 1931.