Dale Fort Blog Number 37

26 09 2014

Dale Fort’s connection with the Pembrokeshire Island of Skokholm

On the 9th of September 2014, my colleague Amy and I were privileged to visit Skokholm in the company of Mark Burton, Kate Locke and Jen Jones of The Skomer Marine Reserve. It has been many years since much attention has been given to the shores of the island and we helped them do some preliminary inspections.

Above the landingcrab coveApproaching the quarry with lighthouseThe Quarry


I thought I’d use this as an opportunity to tell you some of the history of the island and a couple of lesser known stories.

The island of Skokholm is about 2 miles offshore and 7 miles from Dale Fort. The name is Old Norse (like its neighbour Skomer) and its meaning is uncertain. Island of Stocks (where ships were built) or Island of Logs are two dodgy-sounding suggestions.

The island has a similar history to neighbouring Skomer having its first historical mentions as a rabbit warren in the 17th Century (rabbits were probably introduced in the 13th Century). In 1940, the government used Skokholm as a site for myxomatosis trials (that’s a story that might appear in another blog).

Skokholm was the UK’s first full-time bird observatory. It is owned by The Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales, having been purchased from Dale Castle Estates in 2006. It has been managed by the trust since 1937. The island was declared a National Nature Reserve in 2008 mainly because of its seabird colonies (Skokholm and Skomer provide nesting sites for at least half of the world’s population of manx shearwaters)

manx shearwater

Our story today starts with a young man called John Fursdon.

John first visited Skokholm in 1938 when he stayed with the Lockley family who had leased the island and were trying to lead a self-sufficient island existence as well as run the observatory. He liked it so much that he returned in 1939 and again in 1940 when he helped the Lockleys move from the island just after the beginning of the War.

After the conflict ended because of his previous experience John was asked to be the first post-war Warden of Skokholm. He took up the post for the 1946 season.

The West Wales Field Society (WWFS) had decided that they needed a mainland base from which to service their Bird Observatory on Skokholm and to promulgate “education and conservation of the unspoiled countryside of West Wales”.

The Honorary Chairman of the WWFS was one of its founder members, ex-Skokholm resident, Ronald Lockley. He persuaded the recently formed Council for the Promotion of Field Studies (CPFS later to become the FSC) that Dale Fort would be an ideal location for a maritime field centre, with the added bonus of an intimate association with the island of Skokholm.

The WWFS agreed to buy and set up the fort as a field centre if the CPFS agreed to guarantee the financial liability for staffing and maintenance of the fort as a Field Centre. The WWFS then set up an appeal for £10,000 to enable them to purchase the fort and 20 acres of surrounding land.

Appeal leaflet 1946

After protracted negotiations complicated by the fact that the owner was resident in Switzerland; Mrs. Lee-Roberts finally accepted £6000 from The West Wales Field Society for the purchase of Dale Fort. On 15th February 1947 the WWFS signed their half of the contract for the transaction.

Even before Mrs Lee Roberts had signed her half of the contract, her solicitors gave permission for the WWFS to occupy the site and begin the conversion of the buildings. The first man there was John Fursdon, who effectively was the first person in charge at the new field centre. He spent many hours cleaning up the mess left by the military who had occupied the site during the war.

John F with caption   I met John when he visited Dale Fort in 2003, (he died in 2011 aged 91). He had a wealth of amusing stories and was a thoroughly sound egg. Remembering his days on Skokholm, he told me about an unusual problem experienced by Trinity House staff when they attempted to supply the Skokholm Lighthouse.

The lighthouse builders had installed a railway track that led from the landing stage right across the island 1500 metres or so, to the site of the lighthouse on the extreme westerly point. The railway was used to transport building materials to the site.

Skokholm with railway route

After the building was completed the railway was still used to transport supplies and equipment. The stuff would be swung ashore using the large derricks near the landing stage and be loaded into a railway wagon.

There was no mechanical engine, the motive force was provided by a donkey who most of the time was free to wander about the island ad lib. It was an intelligent animal and it soon learned to recognize the sound of the supply vessel while it was still way out at sea and undetected by humans. Before the boat neared the island the donkey would take itself off to the Pond and go and stand in the middle, thus rendering herself unavailable for wagon-hauling. The animal then had to be enticed back onto to dry land in the traditional manner using a carrot on a stick.

John kindly sent me copies of some of his films based on the wildlife of the islands. The first part of his 1948 Pembrokeshire Wildlife film concerning Skokholm, with his own commentary (added I think when he transferred the film to videotape) can be seen here:


John’s time in charge at Dale Fort was soon to come to an end. In March 1947 an advertisement appeared in The Times from The Council for the Promotion of Field Studies. Assistant Wardens were required for Dale Fort, Flatford Mill and Malham Tarn. Wing Commander J.H. Barrett and several other candidates were interviewed for the posts on 15th April 1947 and John Barrett became the first Council for the Promotion of Field Studies Warden of Dale Fort Field Centre. On 1st July 1947 John and Ruth Barrett and their two children moved to Dale

From The Western Telegraph and Cymric Times 24th July 1947:


£10,000 purchase by West Wales Field Society

Dale Fort with 20 acres of land has been acquired by the West Wales Field Society as a nature centre. It will accommodate 50 students. For the purpose the society requires £10,000. Provided this sum is secured, financial liability for the staffing and management of the Fort as a Field Centre is guaranteed by the Council for the Promotion of Field Studies, which is receiving a grant for that purpose from the Ministry of Education. The CPFS will develop Dale Fort.

The £10,000 is needed to help develop Dale Fort and to pay the expenses of a secretary in conducting the appeal. Any balance will go towards the creation of further field centres and nature reserves.

Mr. R.M. Lockley, the chairman referred to the matter at the annual meeting of the Field Society last Thursday when he said that Skokholm had been established as a Bird Observatory while at Dale Fort they would have a centre for cultural outdoor research of great importance. He thought with energy, practice and forethought they would secure the £10,000.

Mr. John Fursdon said he would like to see the formation of a group or sub-organization to stimulate by means of rambles, lectures, film shows and instruction by experienced naturalists an interest in the locality in birds and wildlife. They had few records of bird life in the interior. They had a good season at Skokholm which had been filled to capacity, although the number of day visitors was limited through the society not having their own boat. They had ringed 2000 birds last year. Naturalists from Sweden and Switzerland were amongst the foreign visitors.

Mr. John Barrett, a former RAF Wing Commander, who has undertaken the duties of Warden at Dale Fort was introduced to the members. He said that the CPFS and the Field Society, working together, could accomplish something very important, something that would be the envy of the world.

Dale Fort was to be the mainland base for visitors to Skokholm from 1947 to 1965. This was a major part of the field centre’s original raison d’etre. Weather permitting, every Thursday an early morning boat would leave Dale Fort Jetty to take new visitors and remove the old ones from the island. Years later (1998), Ruth Barrett’s abiding memory of Skokholm was the ridiculously early start required on Skokholm days. Recently, (11.09.14), Dale Fort was privileged to be visited by Mr and Mrs Barry Page. (Barry was Deputy Warden and Mrs Page was the Bursar in the early 1960s). One of Mr Page’s abiding memories also concerned Skokholm, because he had to get up even earlier on Thursdays and drive to Milford Station to meet the 0430 train to collect the next set of visitors to the island.

In 1969 the lease on Skokholm Island ran out.  Hugh Lloyd-Philips of Dale Castle who owned the island renewed the lease for the West Wales Naturalist Trust (ex-WWFS) but was not happy about the continued involvement of the Field Studies Council. There had been an almighty row over a bungalow, which had been built on the island early in 1967. The island’s owner had not given permission for this erection. The Field Studies Council didn’t think they needed his permission and put it up anyway. It turned out that Lloyd-Philips was right and he insisted that it be pulled down. This was duly done by (much to their amazement) the same builders who had just, with extreme difficulty, put it up. David Stanbury, a regular visitor to the island since 1964 and former Chairman of the Executive Committee of the FSC once informed me that he was one of the few people to actually spend a night in this ill-fated structure. The unhappy result was the cessation of Dale Fort’s formal connection with Skokholm.

Skok bungalow   It had been more than 20 years since my only visit to Skokholm that actually involved going ashore. We’d like to thank Richard The Warden for having us and for not blaming current Dale Fort Staff for the bungalow debacle. We hope to visit this beautiful, interesting place much more frequently in future.





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