Walking the Pembrokeshire Coast Path leaves you exhausted, exhilarated and addicted. I’ve hiked its full 186-mile length three times now but I keep returning for more. And yet, despite the distance I’ve covered, I find the notes I’ve kept on these walks are sparse. The landscape is so bewitching that any attempts to describe it seem futile – words alone barely do it justice, but nevertheless…
The view to Whitesand Bay and Ramsey Island from Carn Llidi summit. Image Drew Buckley
The wildflowers are an Impressionist sizzle. Waves take turns pummelling and caressing the riot of colourful rocks – red, blue-black and butterscotch. Sculpted into blow-holes, arches and cliff-cathedrals, the rocks underpin the soils and plants. They account for the acid-heath dazzle of heather and gorse, and the calcareous grassland gilded with scabious and squinancywort.
Like a squashed-together ball of plasticine, the Pembrokeshire coast is a glorious, colourful muddle. To protect the diverse geology and the wildlife it supports, the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park was founded in 1952. Threading its way around the park is the Pembrokeshire Coast Path, which has been thrilling hikers and strollers alike since 1970.
Be warned, though: the ups and downs on this coastline are numerous. Its cumulative ascent equals the height of Mount Everest. Some sections are tough and remote, but others are easier, allowing for relaxed rambles among coastal flowers and beaches. With the help of an excellent coastal bus service, much of the route is accessible, even without the use of a car. And, generally speaking, you’re never far from a bed or a cappuccino.
In these few pages it’s impossible to chronicle the whole path, so I’ve chosen the stretch that stirs my soul the most. It also happens to be the most ancient part – the northern promontories of St David’s Peninsula and Strumble Head, between Solva and Fishguard.
Leaving the boats and pubs of Solva for St David’s peninsula, you join a path that dips in and out of tiny creeks and coves. Between these inlets the swell slaps at the cliffs. Sea thrift dances, reedy pools catch the sky and salty-maned ponies graze.
The small coastal hamlet of Porthgain, once a commercial harbour exporting stone. Image Mike Alexander
Porthclais Harbour, around six miles from Solva, is a pretty, sheltered inlet. In the Middle Ages, pilgrims landed here, bound for the cathedral at St David’s. To follow in their footsteps, you set off a short distance inland, down dusty white roads between tall hedges and medieval fields, to the smallest city in Britain.
St David’s is attractively equipped with tea-shops, pubs and an art gallery, but the cathedral, sunk in a lush valley, is its beating heart. Stuffed with tombs and chapels, it seems to emanate peace and light from its stones. Perhaps it’s the ancientness of the rocks that creates the sense of tranquillity suffusing this peninsula. Or perhaps it’s still saturated with the prayers, hopes and goodwill of all those pilgrims.
A couple of miles’ walk from Porthclais brings me to the fissured cliffs of the Treginnis headland, where an emerald sea booms and seals sing haunting songs in the caves. This peninsula was formed 600 million years ago; the rocks beneath my feet are the oldest in Wales.
The views across perilous Ramsey Sound are dramatic, as Ramsey Island rises like a wall, with its outlying islets and their gulls and auks. Just as striking is the approach to the tiny settlement of St Justinian’s with its purple rock formations shot through with white stripes and orange crystal.
Green and gold fields undulate around the big scoop of beach at Whitesands Bay, from where St Patrick set sail to convert Ireland to Christianity in the 6th century.
The severity of the sea here can be startling – the heavy storms in the winter of 2014 were enough to exhume the ancient remains of those buried long ago at St Patrick’s Chapel. At very low tides, the sands sometimes recede to reveal the bones of auroch, red deer and brown bear among the blackened, fossilised stumps of a submerged, prehistoric forest.
Regardless of the sea’s mood, Whitesands is a good place to stop and refuel (it has a lovely café). But it’s also home to a surf school, which means its waters can get busy, so if you fancy a swim, Porth Lleuog – just over the headland – is quieter.
North of St David’s Head, the cliffs are wild and high, and the few tiny coves are inaccessible. But the rocks beg to be explored – they’re shot through with quartz that sparkles against black earth.
The coastline here is rugged, dominated by the carns – small rocky knolls that poke up through the earth as if straining to reach the sky. The tallest of them stretches almost 180m above sea level. There’s Carn Hen, Carn Llidi, Carn Penberry and others. Each is crusted with hard volcanic rhyolite and dolerite; thousands of years of erosion have washed away the softer stone around them. Labyrinthine paths take you among these deserted hills, alongside Iron Age field enclosures and burial chambers that imbue the place with a powerful sense of antiquity.
After roaming these empty hills, the hamlet of Abereiddi seems busy, with visitors relaxing on the beach or swimming in its blue pool. Once a slate mine stood here; the ruins of quarrymen’s cottages still remain and overlook the beach. After the quarry was abandoned, fishermen blasted a passage through the cliff to allow the sea to pour in and provide a sheltered harbour. The resulting ‘lagoon’ is now used for high-diving contests and a local company operates a safer but no-less adventurous coasteering experience around its rocks
St David’s Cathedral, built on the site of a 6th-century monastery
Cut to the core
After Abereiddi the path edges over a grassland plateau. Below it is the beach Traeth Llyfn, like a bite taken out of the cliffs. It’s a wide strand of clean, brown sand, draped at low tide in glistening green seaweed. Further on, sweeping around the south wall of Porthgain’s narrow harbour is a ruined brick structure, full of arches and windows like battlements. But it was never a castle. There’s a clue to what it once was in the area’s name; Porthgain means ‘chisel port’, and it’s a reference to the slate that was quarried nearby and shipped from here during the 19th century. In later years, when slate production gave way to crushed granite, the channels and hoppers that make up the castellated complex were used to pour the aggregate directly into ships waiting in the harbour below.
The quarrymen’s cottages that line the edge of the village are now art galleries festooned in fishing floats and the old machine shop is The Shed Bistro, selling fish and chips. All this makes Porthgain the perfect place for a short break. (Accommodation is in short supply here, but there’s more in nearby Trefin.)
The path winds north from Trefin, where foxgloves and sea campion shake in an ocean of grass. Less than a couple of miles away lies Abercastle, an old trading harbour and the last settlement before Goodwick and Fishguard.
Author Julie looks across to Strumble lighthouse Image: Mike Alexander
Ahead lies the Strumble Head coast: wild and remote, and pocked with precarious cliffs, wicked black rocks and beaches such as Pwllstrodur and Aber Mochyn, where even the sand is black.
Just inland from Abermawr is Tregwynt Woollen Mill. This humble stone mill has been in the same family since 1912 and you can watch rolls of beautiful woollen cloth being woven in the working factory today (www.melintregwynt.co.uk).
The always-vibrant Strumble Head peninsula excels in shimmering summer showers and muted light, when the warm earth’s scents are enhanced and heather glows like amethyst. The small sandy bay at Pwllcrochan is awesome in any weather. Here the coast path slumps down to deliver you to its rocky shore and caves booming with swell. High above, like those at St David’s, are the ancient hills: Carn Ogof, Garn Fawr, Garn Folch. They combine to form a phenomenal, deep-purple landscape edged with mighty cliffs that, when wet, appear steeped in theatrical light.
A short way inland, Tim Brew, a member of the Warm Showers community that extends across the globe (www.warmshowers.org), welcomes hikers and cyclists to his home on the headland. It sits in a spot where buildings are scattered and scarce. “There are no pubs here because this used to be a dry parish,” he explains. “In fact, some of the smallholders were viewed with great suspicion when they started making their own beer.”
I ask him what he likes best about living on Strumble. “Well, obviously it’s the wind and the constant onslaught of weather,” he replies, with a wink.
At the lighthouse, waves from the west clash with tides from the north. It’s an easy romp from here to Fishguard, along the cliff-top heath tangled in lady’s bedstraw and kidney-vetch. Below the cliffs, the pebbled coves wobble with fat grey seals.
At Carreg Wastad Point, you pass the site of the last – failed – invasion of Britain in 1797, before arriving in Goodwick and then Fishguard. Fishguard is an excellent place to finish your walk through the ancient Pembrokeshire landscape. Craggy, quaint and accessible, it’s a glorious colourful muddle of pubs and shops, with a steep ascent to the town centre and an easy stroll to the old and utterly charming harbour.
Places to eat
Fish and Chips: The Shed, Porthgain
Specialising in local seafood, fish and Pembrokeshire potatoes, the service is great and the premises (right) creatively snug. Warning: they also do cream teas. 01348 831518, www.theshedporthgain.co.uk
Tea and Ice cream: The Bench, St Davids
The delicious artisan Italian ice creams, sorbets and yoghurts served here are made from local Caerfai Farm organic milk. 01437 721778, www.bench-bar.co.uk
Pub food:The Farmers Arms, Mathry
Just half a mile inland from Abercastell, The Farmers Arms serves classics and local specialities, such as Abercastell crab cakes. Pembrokeshire SA62 5HB, 01348 831284
The perfect pint: The Sloop Inn, Porthgain
An 18th-century pub with a view over the former industrial port, ideal for watching sunsets.
Places to stay
Camping: Caerfai Farm, Caerfai
Right on the coast, the campsite on this farm has superb views and a shop that sells croissants and cheese made on-site with milk from the Caerfai cows. 01437 720548, www.caerfaifarm.co.uk
Bed and Breakfast: Old Cartlett House, Trefin
Retreat from bad weather with Welsh cakes and an open fire, or enjoy pretty gardens when it’s fine. Serving hearty locally sourced breakfasts for hungry walkers. 01348 837476, oldcartletthouse.com
A friendly inn: The Hope and Anchor, Goodwick
A great pub with good beer, excellent food and rooms that overlook the bay, a hop from ferries to Ireland and the lively town of Fishguard. Fishguard SA64 0BP, 01348 872314
Now go there
1. Coast path facts
2. Explore puffin island
3. Three shorter walks
Julie Brominicks left a career in sustainability education to become a nature writer who lives off the grid in a
tiny yellow caravan.