1797: The Pembrokeshire Voyage of HMS Meadowsweet

Throughout the stormy month of March in the Year of Our Lord 1797, the crew of HMS Meadowsweet had been having secret conversations by lamplight, with every word a hoarse whisper. We all held vile gobbets of hate in our hearts for the captain, but this was mostly because of his fondness for the lash, and in most ways he was a clean-living man. We could rely on the rasp of his snoring to start emanating from his cabin around Four Bells – that’s 10 o’clock at night to any landlubbers who may come across this salty tale – giving plenty of opportunity for the rest of us to arrange any plot we cared to.

Our HMS designation was only temporary of course, as we’d been drafted into the Royal Navy, and given a new captain, following the French invasion the previous month. Now that the feisty women of Fishguard had done their job of protecting their menfolk, our job was to patrol the Pembrokeshire coast, up and down, up and down, up and bleedin’ down, in fair weather and mostly foul, to make sure those Frenchies didn’t have another go. We were told we were one of three ships on patrol, but we never once saw the other two.

The scenery along the coast was so majestic that it lifted a sailor’s heart, but there were many storms to contend with, and anyone who dared spew his guts on deck was promptly flogged for the captain’s Royal Naval amusement.

One day towards the end of March, we were all thoroughly tired of this mission and were desperate to get on with our usual smuggling operation (one of many pleasant things that our new captain was unaware of), when it came to the first mate’s notice that we were running low on drinking water. The first mate informed the captain, and the captain informed the first mate that he should inform the bo’sun, who happened to be standing nearby.

“No problem, sir,” said the bo’sun to the first mate. “There’s the two Freshwaters.”

The captain, being accustomed to following Good King George’s regal orders in the Indies or along the Barbary Coast rather than trolling up and down in domestic waters, was of course ignorant of the lie of the land in said waters. He was unaware that the coast of Pembrokeshire hides two excellent watering spots, the bays of Freshwater West and Freshwater East. Each has a sandy beach with a large and profuse stream running down its centre, and these two streams would be particularly strong at the moment because of all the storms. Most of the other local places have Welsh names of course, generally with double-Ls and completely unpronounceable to seafaring English-speakers, but the Freshwaters have no Welsh names because they’re wild places where no one lives, frequented only by thirsty mariners. So these twin watering spots have been given their names by us sailors.

The bo’sun explained all this to the captain, and the captain asked which of the Freshwaters we should plot a course for. The bo’sun knew that we were about to pass right by Freshwater West whether we wanted to or not, but he suggested we round the coast towards Tenby and stop at Freshwater East. His reason, unknown to the captain, was the abundance of plant life that grows untended and generally unseen by man, in the marshes and dunes to the landward side of the beach. For our plan, agreed upon during our nightly whispered meetings, was for two of us to slip away from the water-duty crew, and to seek poisonous plants among the dunes and marshes.

Foxglove

Now, most of the rest of the crew are cockneys or other foreigners, but folks say you can hear the Welsh countryside every time Gethin and I open our mouths, so the bo’sun probably just assumed we knew about plants, and perhaps each of us assumed that the other did, but however it happened, the next day, straight after our beloved captain’s morning prayer meeting, Gethin and I found ourselves behind the dunes at Freshwater East, our water-duty comrades a few hundred yards away at the stream.

“Right,” said Gethin, surrounded by shoulder-high vegetation of profuse and varied sorts, “what do we pick?”

My look must have said all that was necessary to be said, because his next words were: “Ah, so you don’t know either, eh?”

“No idea,” I admitted. “I’ve heard of deadly nightshade, but I wouldn’t know it if I tripped over it. And I know toadstools can kill a man, but I haven’t seen any of those around here. Too salty, I expect.”

After a lot of aimless wandering around, eventually one of us remembered once hearing that the foxglove is poisonous, and there were plenty of those around, so each of us filled a sack with foxgloves.

Half an hour later, we were with the cook in the galley, just as the rigging crew were pulling up the anchor. “Right lads,” he said, “what have you got for me, or rather what have you got for the captain?”

We showed him the foxgloves.

“Excellent,” he said. “What do I do with them? Which bit’s poisonous?”

Again our faces must have told all, for the cook went straight to bawling us out. “Lads, if only you’d asked!”

The cook pulled down a huge leather-bound volume, and showed us a beautiful picture of a plant with splays of white flowers. I’d seen this plant everywhere at Freshwater East. Cookie read out the name for us, his need for reading and writing recipes having necessitated a command of letters and numbers. It was the hemlock water dropwort, and it’s like a hogweed but with solid leaves instead of indented ones.

“The sap of this dropwort will kill a man. You’re country boys, aren’t you? How did you get so old without knowing that?”

Gethin looked downcast. “A shame no one’s ever tried to poison either of us, eh?” he said. This earned a clout from Cookie.

Later on, at our next whispered meeting, the whole crew admitted they didn’t have the first idea how to take a handsome flower like the foxglove and make it kill for us. So the captain lived to lord it over us for another week, until he ordered one flogging too many and someone or other took matters into their own hands and heaved him over the side just out of sight of Dinas Head.

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