Dam-buster hero, Wing Commander Guy Gibson VC, spent much of his childhood romping on the sands and exploring the harbour at Saundersfoot.
But as a carefree child enjoying seaside adventures he was unaware that he would be demolishing massive dam walls in World War Two, or that the destruction would be an echo of what the sea did to the stout walls of Saundersfoot harbour in October 1836.
A south-easterly hurricane blew in with such violence that the huge seas it generated smashed through the stout wall of the harbour over a length of about 30 yards. The harbour was barely two years old at this time and the storm also damaged two ships out of six sheltering in the harbour at the time. One, the Sunderland sloop “Wheatsheaf” was torn from her moorings and was wrecked on the north pier, while the other, the Echo, was pounded against the Ballast berth, but was salvaged.
What the Dambusters hero would have seen during his childhood in the twenties was the dying years of the coal industry, for Saundersfoot was an important centre of coal exportation. Before the building of the harbour, coal was brought down to the shore from the collieries at Bonvilles Court and Moreton by horse-drawn trams and loaded onto beached sailing vessels for transportation around Pembrokeshire and across Carmarthen Bay to Gower and the West Country. It was mainly top quality anthracite; shiny, clean black diamonds of coal which was virtually smokeless. Coal dust was mixed with locally dug clay to make culm, which was rolled into cricket-ball sized lumps and put onto a ‘ball fire’ where it burned slowly to ash, producing great heat, and in most households, was kept in all day and mostly overnight. “Stummed” down with coal dust, it could be revived quickly by poking a couple of holes in the top to let the air in and the heat out.
It was not only coal Saundersfoot was noted for. There were iron ore patches on the foreshore which were exploited commercially and where people also scrabbled for this useful mineral which was processed in the nearby ironworks at Pleasant Valley, Stepaside. In 1864, 4,683 tons of iron ore were also exported. To fuel the ironworks a new colliery at nearby Grove was sunk and coal was delivered by gravity down the steep slope of Sardis Mountain. And there was also fire clay, which was used to make the distinctive dark bricks produced and used for building locally and to line the ironworks furnace. By 1864 the ironworks was exporting nearly 3,000 tons of pig iron from Saundersfoot Harbour.
The collieries declined and closed altogether just after the war, and the harbour, which still accommodated fishing vessels, particularly the boats landing Carmarthen Bay clams, gradually shifted its emphasis towards tourism and the marina which thrives there today.