Wales Part II – Pembrokeshire
“Fall in love again”
The tag line on the retro beach poster was one of the first things I saw as I drove into Pembrokeshire on a sunny Saturday morning. Created as a series of six marketing designs around 10 years ago the message clearly stuck and the image too. It was kitsch but colorful with a vintage edge that immediately spoke to me.
“I think I’m going to like it here”
That afternoon I did my first hike on the 186 mile coastal trail, and over the next 4 days it all just kept getting better. From beaches to cozy towns, craggy cliffs to Neolithic burial chambers, Pembrokeshire would become my love story of Wales, the spot that gripped my heart, took me into the wilds and helped me find myself again.
You’ll see….it’s quite the place.
Perhaps The Best Coastline In the World?
For those not in the know Pembrokeshire is a county in the SW corner of Wales.
It’s a 1,590 km² slice of land rated by National Geographic as the second best coastline in the World in 2010 for its particularly unspoiled beauty and preservation. The coastal trail here winds 186 miles through 50 beaches with over 35,000 feet of ascent and descent. It’s spectacular enough to seduce even the most miserly of walkers and has weather that can be as tricky as Tylwyth Teg (Welsh fairy folk), at times alluringly gorgeous only to turn around and betray you moments later.
Oh it’s wild, so very wonderfully wild!
My own trip here would take me on no less than 26 stops along many parts of the coastal trail, through towns and (of course) with a few castles thrown in. I hiked at least 60km, always keen to see what was just around the next corner of craggy coast and stayed with the most lovey of hostesses at a small farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. Plus of course I ate a fully-cooked Welsh breakfast everyday (yum, yum) and took afternoon tea and cake too.
You need fuel for all those steps (that’s my excuse anyway).
Day 1: History and Stones
Perhaps some of the most interesting and unusual historical artefacts in Wales are the Neolithic burial chambers known as cromlechs or dolmens. There are ~150 of these scattered all over the countryside and they’re magnificent to see; huge upright megaliths supported by multi-ton capstones. The structures seem to balance so precariously a mere gust of wind would topple them over, yet they’re still here 5,000-6,000 after they were built. Incredible stuff, really.
My first day I see two of them, Llech y Drybedd a very dramatic 3-stone chamber that takes some hunting down to find, and Careg Samson a 7-stone beauty that’s right down the way from a motorhome parking area (not many are around this time of year though). Both are way more dramatic than I imagine, and I get to enjoy them all to myself. A very cool experience!
Further down I take a crazy twist of a drive out to Stumble Head Lighthouse, a gorgeous white beauty with a dazzling conical Fresnel lens (not open to visit, sadly) perched on heath-covered hills. It’s drizzling when I arrive and the wind is howling like a thousand wolves, an insanity that immediately seems to calm me inside.
I can never really explain why I feel so good in places like this, but I suspect it’s Nature’s trick of taking everything that’s of turmoil inside of me and placing it outside, leaving nothing but calm and peace underneath? Either way I simply bask in happiness and calm as the wind whips my hair here.
Soon after the rain comes down in droves so I wind my way out to the small port town of Porthgain and a superb little pub (The Sloop Inn) where I cozy up to a Guinness and smocked mackerel. The perfect lunch for a grey day.
Finally I head into St Davids aka the smallest city in the UK (it only has ~1600 residents) with one of the largest Cathedrals you’ll see in the country. It’s an interesting spot, a pilgrimage town built on a steep hill that arguably has more fancy outdoor gear shops per square mile than any other place I’ve been, but also has a spectacular Cathedral dating back to the 12th century. The interior is gorgeous and well worth seeing, with an ornately carved timbered ceiling that is the only one of its kind known in Great Britain.
It was the perfect place to end my rainy afternoon.
Day 2: Cliffs And Harbors
My 2nd day in Pembrokeshire dawns in spectacular sunlight, so I decide to spend it all on the coastal trail.
First up is the Blue Lagoon at Abereiddi, once a slate quarry and now just an interesting deep blue lake surrounded by (naturally) miles of hiking trails. I spend hours here walking to a deserted beach cove, reveling in the raw beauty of the place and just attempting to absorb the immensity of it all. My pictures, without the perspective of another person in the frame, really fail to do it justice.
Afterwards I drive down to see Non Chapel, the reputed birthplace of the patron saint of Wales (St David) and the site of a holy well too. There’s more ridiculously gorgeous coastline and of course I spend another couple of hours exploring it.
As an interesting aside, I see several groups of folks in helmets and life vests here which I later understand is “coasteering“, an eco-adventure sport that involves rock-hopping, shore-scrambling, swell-riding, cave-exploring and (even) cliff-jumping. Apparently it’s quite popular in Wales for both locals and tourists alike.
I finish the day in the little village of Solva where the harbor drains completely at low tide. More coastal walking here (I just can’t resist) and a well-earned coffee and cake (also can’t resist). I explore the rock pools and old lime kilns, walk up to the summit and am rewarded by the sight of cliffs that rise like dark shadows against a mirror-like sea. Damn, it’s gorgeous.
That evening I chat to the lady hosting me at Farmhouse Lochmeyler, an elderly woman who’s been running her BnB the exact same way for the past 40 years. It’s simple and cozy, old-fashioned and warm yet also incredibly good value (in fact, I try to persuade her to increase her prices).
“This is perfect” I tell her “you’ve really thought of everything”
“I just do it the way I’ve always done” she answers, most humbly “I don’t know any other”
Good peeps, good peeps….
Day 3: More Coastal Trail
The morning starts nice, then turns grey, then rains, hails, clears and the entire cycle starts all over again. In other words true Welsh weather and it stays like this all day long.
Todays route takes me to the little coastal town of Dale, then to St Anne’s Lighthouse (built 1844, no admission sadly) and a fabulous little café called Runwayskiln where I hide out a squall with the sweetest most lemony lemon cake I’ve had in years (the kind that makes your tongue pucker and drool from sugar at the same time).
I walk to the beach here (Marloes Sands), a miles-long sandy cove with rocks that looks like they were pushed out of the earth in millions of layers to the sky. There’s dogs and peeps out and everyone is enjoying the sunny interlude. Such a gorgeous spot.
Finally I drive out to a remote peninsula near Martins Haven to walk (naturally) another trail and this is where the weather finally gets me proper and good. A storm comes in from the sea like a tidal wave and it begins blowing so hard the rain lashes me from the side. I wimp and hunker under my poncho, but the locals all take it in stride and as I pass by a young girl without a jacket, I hear her mom set her straight:
“Oh stop moaning, it’s only a bit ‘o rain”
They’re made of tough stuff, these Welsh folk.
Day 4: Welsh Cake And Castles
“Red sauce or brown?”
The question surprises me at breakfast, but apparently it’s just one of the many delights (together with fried bread) that a fully cooked Welsh breakfast can deliver. It’s a solid start to what is about to be my most spectacular day on the coast so far; my Welsh cake, jam and all the rest.
I start with a stunning hike at St Govans Chapel, a teeny 13th century stone building built in the fissure of a cliff where a hermit lived in the 6th century. It’s incredible and the area around it is equally dramatic, a cliff-climbers paradise that apparently also hides unexploded military ammo (curiously enough).
From here I head over to the Green Bridge, a natural arch formed from Carboniferous Limestone with cliffs that are so formidable and enormous I struggle to capture them on photo (if you look closely you can see a little ant human on the cliff top by the Sea Stacks). The whole area is simply stunning and I spend hours walking the coastal trail to soak it in. What a place!
For my final outings of the day I decide to throw a few castles into the mix.
First up Pembroke castle, where Henry the seventh was born, a massive medieval structure with a painted map in the courtyard of all the castles of Wales as well as several comprehensive exhibits inside the walls. I add another few km to my walk tally exploring the history and all the corners of this place. IMO this is a “must see”.
I end the day in the lovely harbor town of Tenby known for its 13th-century town walls and long stretches of sandy shoreline. Rows of pretty pastel houses and no end of good places to eat here, but I’m too beat to go out. Instead I enjoy a well-earned G&T at the hotel bar and call it a day.
So many impressions, such an incredible day!
What A Place
It’s been a while since I did this trip (I’m still writing about Sept on the blog even though we’re already Nov in “real time”), but the memories are all as fresh as morning dew. When I look back at these pictures I feel the wind in my hair, the sun on my face and (at times) the rain blasting me from the side. With a bit of luck you felt it too.
Post-Post Note/ Thank you so much for all the love for the kitties on my last post. You’ll be happy to hear they’re doing great, are already leash-trained (managed to complete that this week) and touch noses with Polly almost everyday now. Also, I’ve got one more Wales post to do and then I think I can (finally) catch up to Oct and our water-trip.