It’s impossible to do anything other than gasp and grin when you see a dozen or so bottlenose dolphins soar from the sea and playfully flip their tummies skyward before diving smoothly back again beneath the surface. It’s never guaranteed, that’s the thing, and I’d been unlucky before on two or three occasions. But three years ago on a four-hour boat-trip in baking sunshine from the little seaside town of New Quay, I was treated to 20 minutes of sheer delight as one of Cardigan Bay’s resident pods decided to show off the incredible power and control of its members’ sleekly muscled, silvery bodies.
The Ceredigion coast is one of the best places in the UK to see bottlenose dolphins – it’s probably only bettered by the Moray Firth on Scotland’s east coast. You don’t even have get on a boat to see them if you’ve got poor sea legs. Pack some sandwiches, a bottle of pop and anything else required to sustain a couple of hours gazing out to sea – patience and a warm coat tend to help – then wander down to the old stone jetty that forms New Quay’s lovely harbour and settle yourself down with a pair of binoculars.
Scan the waves slowly and carefully – you’ll see lots of waves you’ll think are dolphins before that unmistakeable dark fin breaks the surface, but there’s a very reasonable chance of catching a glimpse. One of my all-time favourite wildlife moments was seeing a baby dolphin playing in the harbour here – it was very fleeting however, because after a few little leaps it was gone.
Take the coast path
But you can’t stay in New Quay forever. If you’re feeling energetic, why not take the coast path southwards – if you don’t fancy doing the longer circular walk, the local taxi-lady will meet you wherever you decide to finish if you ring her from a cliff-top.
On one occasion, after hauling up the steep hill out of the town, I saw the fish factory spewing whelk guts and discarded shells into a perfect turquoise bay and wondered what the smelly concentration of nutrients was doing to the sea floor. Once round New Quay Head though, the whiff disappeared and the coast stretched away from me in dark folds of blue-grey rock sweeping gracefully down to the sea.
Half a mile south and I’d reached Craig y Deryn or Bird Rock, the best seabird cliff in Ceredigion. I did this walk in early March, and the guillemots and razorbills had arrived early to nest on its narrow ledges. By June and July, the noise of the colony will be tremendous, as birds in their thousands fly out to hunt and return with food for their young; already I could hear their raucous chatter from far above. It’s probably safer to crane up at them from a boat, mind, than to risk vertigo, as I did, by peering down from a crumbly cliff.
Ceredigion’s coastline benefits from its isolation. On the roadmap, it can look like a much longer slog to reach this part of Wales than the more popular county of Pembrokeshire further south.
In truth, getting to Ceredigion is no big deal. Cut diagonally across country where the M4 ends at Carmarthen and I reckon you’ll arrive in Cardigan at the end of the Teifi Estuary – whose north shore defines the county’s southern boundary – in about the same time as it takes to reach Fishguard or St David’s in Pembrokeshire.
But that’s only for those in the know, and barely anyone passed by as I sauntered the couple of miles to the tiny hamlet of Cwmtudu. Here, seal pups can be seen from late summer onwards, waiting for their mothers to return from fishing trips at sea. However, it’s vital not to disturb them as locals who guard the beach in pupping season will make abundantly clear to anyone who tries – leave your scent and the mothers may abandon their pups to starve.
A beach to yourself
The perception that Ceredigion is far away has another benefit: even in high season, it’s easy to get a beach to yourself if you’re prepared to glance at an Ordnance Survey map, spot a likely-looking inlet and walk for 10 minutes after parking near one of the many footpaths.
If you’re after a beach with some ancient history thrown in, the bay just north of Cwmtudu has the remnants of an ancient promontory and fort called Castell Bach. God knows a community must have been desperate to make this small rocky outcrop its final stronghold, but I suppose it makes sense: the slender land bridge, now collapsed, that once joined the fort to the mainland would have lent itself perfectly to throwing any rampaging marauders into a watery grave.
These days, however, the coastal marauders are of the piscine variety. On a weekend’s guided fishing, I discovered that one of our most voracious fish species, the sea bass, patrols this edge of Wales in good numbers. It is usually in search of mackerel, and one way of experiencing the coast from a different perspective is to learn its habits and how to catch it.
I’d never caught a fish before, so Tim Harrison – who runs Sea Bass Safaris – started me off learning to cast from the shallow rocks at the isolated Traeth Bach beach, which lies between Carreg y Nodwydd and Carreg-y-ty.
Swooshing the rod back and forth was hard work as I tried to get my iridescent plastic lure as far out as possible. Once satisfied that I wouldn’t hook myself or anyone else, Tim showed me a technique called “the dying fish”, which involves wiggling the rod while winding in the line to make the lure zigzag like a baby mackerel in its dying throes – hugely tempting to a hungry sea bass.
Clearly my technique wasn’t tempting enough, so I was up at 5am the next morning for a dawn expedition to the end of slim finger of land called Ynys Lochtyn, just north of the village
A scramble down a narrow cleft in the cliff, and I was standing on a big boulder, casting my lure with the sea splashing my legs. A bull seal slid his head out of the water, so close I could see his whiskers twitch and drops of seawater shiver off them. Two hours passed in no time. I reckoned I’d got the hang of the dying fish thing, but nothing was biting.
As I climbed back out into golden morning light, I chanced upon 10 or more glossy black choughs pecking in the soil, their scarlet legs and beaks picked out in the sunshine.
These coastal crows are rare, especially in these numbers, but cliff-top heath is prime habitat, so it’s worth keeping an eye out anywhere along the coast path. For a minute it was an idyllic scene. But the choughs suddenly scattered, wings whirling through the air and calling loudly in alarm. I looked up to see a pair of peregrines silhouetted against the sky. I don’t know whether a peregrine would take such a large bird, but the choughs weren’t chancing it.
I’d missed breakfast, so had some elevenses instead at the café in the National Trust car park that leads down to Penbryn beach. It’s nothing fancy, but it does turn out a generous ham-salad sandwich that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg, and if you’re partial to cake, it sells a range of homemade buns that are, I reckon, the perfect accompaniment to beach exploration.
The wide sweep of Penbryn beach itself is the glory of the Ceredigion coast, and has more interest than most big beaches. There are caves at the northern end, rocky nooks and crannies all along, and a fine pub, the Ship Inn, with stunning views over the sea in Tresaith, the small village at the beach’s southernmost point.
Cosily ensconced in the Ship and gazing over a gin and tonic into a mauve sunset, I wondered at how little I’d explored this area during my time at Aberystwyth University, a few miles further up the coast.
Centre of learning
Revisiting this bustling university town, however, I also realised I’d forgotten just how perfectly situated it is, bang in the middle of Cardigan Bay and with views on a clear day that stretch right around the curving arc of the coast up to the Lleyn Peninsula in the north and to Strumble Head in the south.
It’s not all lovely views, mind you. The violent storms that hit the west Wales coast in winter cause crashing waves to hurl stones off the pebble beach, breaking the odd bay window of
the Victorian terraced houses that line the promenade. Go 10 miles north and the sand-dunes of Ynyslas, which line the Dyfi Estuary, are testament to 800 years of north-westerly winds whipping up sand that is first trapped by pebble banks, then stabilised by plants that bind the grains together.
Back in Aber (as it’s known by locals), you’ll find the embarkation point for the splendidly restored Vale of Rheidol narrow gauge steam trains that wend their way inland to the waterfalls at Devil’s Bridge. The deliciously scary experience of being pulled up vertiginous inclines and along barely there hillside ledges by a huffing puffing steam engine balanced on tracks not quite two feet apart makes this trip definitely worth the fare.
This is red kite country too, so if looking down makes you queasy, look up instead: the birds’ forked tails are unmistakeable. Driving back home down the coast road, first I saw one, then another, and at one point three kites together, wafting lazily on thermals, their tawny bodies glowing in the sunshine. Luckily for them, they’re already home, and don’t have to leave.
Five minutes walk up a wooded valley from Penbryn beach, this cosy, characterful little cottage could hardly be better situated.
This is true luxury accompanied by thoughtful, friendly service. Going to bed was like sleeping on a cloud and the vast limestone-tiled bathroom had a superb power shower. Food is local and wonderful.
THIS ARTICLE ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN ISSUE 36 OF COUNTRYFILE MAGAZINE. TO NEVER MISS AN ISSUE SUBSCRIBE TODAY!
Related Links on the Countryfile Magazine website:
- Discover the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path
- Discover Northern Ireland’s hidden treasure
- Discover Swaledale in Summer
- Discover Robin Hood Country