What’s it like to trek the history-filled, stunningly-wild, white-capped, bucolic and lush green coastal cliffs of Wales? Absolutely spectacular!
Story by Bill Roberts, Photos by Ted Boyle
Nature’s peace will flow into you as the sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. -John Muir, 1838-1914
John Muir was often referred to as a Wilderness Prophet or Citizen of the Universe. A Scottish-American, he was probably best known for his pioneering advocacy in the preservation of wild and open spaces. Had Muir been so fortunate as to have trekked this extreme western point of Wales—the Pembrokeshire coast, with its wicked clifftops and wind-battered beaches—the world would certainly not have waited until 1970 to experience its breathtaking coastal beauty.
From Amroth in the south to St. Dogmaels in the north, the 300-kilometre Pembrokeshire Coast Path hugs steep limestone cliffs with monikers like The Vomit, undulating blood-red sandstone bays, volcanic headlands and flooded glacial valleys, all the while giving evidence of hardy human activity from Neolithic times to the present.
Don’t let the word “path” fool you. Although not a technical or extreme walk, completing the trail in one go of 10 to 15 days is a meaningful undertaking not to be underestimated. Upon completion, you will have ascended more than the height of Everest—some 35,000 vertical feet.
Here in Pembrokeshire, along these cliff edges, you are among the legends. Or as Cerys Matthews, a local Welsh radio DJ and singer proclaimed on her BBC television program The One Show on our first evening there:
“When I need to clear my head or make sense of something…it’s where I’m compelled to go…to walk in the wind and rain…The relentless winds and the stalwart rocks feel like the edge of the world…it broods under sea mists; it has a dignity and wildness that humans can’t temper or tame…It’s easy to imagine King Arthur and his knights wandering its length…to imagine the underworld mentioned in the Mabinogion [a collection of ancient Welsh folk tales].”
Our itinerary begins in Cardiff, where culture seems to be bursting at the seams. The National Museum Cardiff is home to the largest impressionist art collection outside of Paris; and Cardiff Castle is at once a Roman fort, an impressive Norman castle and an extraordinary Victorian Gothic fantasy palace, created for the world’s wealthiest coal baron of the time—John Crichton-Stuart, the third Marquess of Bute.
My own delight with the medieval Cardiff fortress is that it was successfully stormed in 1404, booting out the occupying Anglo-Normans during the great Welsh rebellion led by Owain Glyndwr—did I mention that my paternal lineage begins in Flintshire County, in north Wales?
The importance of Owain Glyndwr (or Owen Glendower) is everywhere in Wales, and even more so as one moves north along the trail. He was the indigenous prince and leader of the infamous Welsh Revolt, circa 1401-1416, against King Henry IV of England’s rule of Wales. And despite his eventual defeat by the English forces, this real-life prince is as renowned in Wales as the fabled King Arthur—even making an appearance in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1: “Three times hath Henry Bolingbroke made head against my power; thrice from the banks of Wye, and from sandy-bottom’d Severn, have I sent him, bootless home, and weather-beaten back!”
As an aside, that Roberts side of the family that originates in Flint is responsible for everything from the world’s first commodity exchange in nearby Manchester to Black Bart Roberts, one of the most infamous pirates of the so-called Golden Age of Piracy, from 1700-1725. Arguably both these Welsh family tree boughs were in the ready-money business, just different branches.
To come full circle in the it’s-a-small-world department, singer/broadcaster Cerys Matthews, who I mentioned earlier, co-founded a magnificent festival of music, culture and the great outdoors in Flintshire in 2014—The Good Life Experience—which runs every September.
Built on a reclaimed marshland, the walking and biking trails of Cardiff Bay provide the perfect jetlag tonic, and an opportunity to visit the Welsh Y Senedd, home to the National Assembly for Wales, where you can witness this nation’s democracy in action—housed in a modern edifice built, in large part, with British Columbia redwood cedar. Wales, to be clear, is constitutionally a country within the United Kingdom. This autonomy was strengthened by referendums held in Wales and Scotland in 1997, which chose to establish self-government in both jurisdictions. In Wales, this devolution accelerated with the Government of Wales Act 1998 that created the Y Senedd, the National Assembly of Wales.
Travel from Cardiff, the capital of Wales, to Pembrokeshire County by rail via Arriva Trains Wales is direct and effortless. And there began our feet-on-the-path trek, starting just north of Amroth and heading to St. Dogmaels Abbey ruins. For clarity’s sake, the county itself is home to Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, the only coastal national park of its kind in the UK, and one of three national parks in Wales. In a nutshell, the Pembrokeshire Coast Path runs the length of the park.
The path to the south of Milford Haven can be largely forgettable due to large urban centres, refineries, an LNG plant, and other industrial scenery that looms large up to this point. Indeed, you may opt to start here and not at Amroth.
Nearing Sandy Haven from Milford Haven, the harbour opens out to Angle Peninsula on the left and Dale Peninsula on the right. The sea cliffs are quite low here compared to what lies ahead, so there is nothing too strenuous—and if you time it correctly, you can cross on what remains of the “stepping stones” at Sandy Haven Pill at low tide. Watch for the children fishing for crabs off the bridge.
Our night in Sandy Haven is at Skerryback Farm, operated by Margaret and Anthony Williams. As is customary at the farms, hostels and harbour inns along our Welsh trek, we’re greeted with tea and some form of scrummy pastry—in this case an amazing array of cupcakes. The family has a military and equestrian background, and top-tier racehorses come here to rehabilitate under the Williamses’ watchful eye. (Interestingly, Anthony was involved in the Suez Canal Crisis of 1956 that took the world to the brink of war and led to the creation of UN peacekeepers—the brainchild of Lester Pearson, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957 for the idea and later became Prime Minister of Canada.)
Although it was not our experience, if you miss the low-tide crossing (which would normally require a deflating seven-kilometre detour) fellow hikers report that it’s not uncommon to find a Williams standing by to offer shuttle relief after a long day.
Most of our days involved five to seven hours of northbound hiking, and 16 to 25 kilometres of progress. Of course, there are remarkable exceptions, as when Ted gets lost in his photography and takes unannounced and unidentified “shortcuts” on the advice of “some local guy I met.” Plus, as per my earlier mention, tides can play a significant detour factor, and it’s highly advisable to include a local tide table in your gear. Generally speaking, it’s safe to cross three hours either side of a low tide.
From Sandy Haven to Marloes Sands the vistas impress, with lovely beaches framed by steep cliffs and the welcome charm of pretty seaside villages such as St. Ishmael’s. It’s worth noting that the Puffin Shuttle Bus, and at least three other local coastal bus services, provide excellent “out” and “back” schedules to avoid having to retrace steps, or in the event of truly horrid and inclement conditions. Fortunately, we required neither.
In fact, all Pembrokeshire coastal buses operate on a “Hail & Ride” basis in these remote areas—just signal to the driver and you can be picked up or set down at any point along the route.
In St. Ishmael’s, the Brook Inn has a nice offering of casked real ales—for purely hydration purposes. (And in the event of over-hydration, the Puffin Shuttle Bus stops by the Brook Inn on a regular basis!) The place has been around since the 1880s, and comes with two resident phantoms who are rumoured to pull the odd pint for guests—ask for apparitions Gladys or Tom around 10 p.m., but don’t do it alone.
This is clearly the lyric land of the great Welsh and roistering poet Dylan Thomas, famous for his volumes of ghostly and inspiring stanzas: “Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Continuing on the path, there are opportunities to wander old military bunkers and lookout buildings, which can also offer good protection in foul weather; an odd Victorian watchtower; good striding through gorse, hawthorn and bracken; and another tide-sensitive plank crossing at The Gann. By Welsh standards The Gann is considered a river—but in reality it’s a quaint creek with a makeshift bridge and stepping stones, once again, usable three hours either side of low tide.
Your next breather will most likely find you in the village of Dale, another enclave sitting on the neck of the Dale Peninsula. It overlooks a sheltered bay popular with water-sports enthusiasts, and if you have time it might be worth a go. Two commercial outfits, active the day we attended, were launching boat trips to see the outer island wildlife—primarily puffins, razorbills and gannets around Skomer Island, as well as seals, porpoises, dolphins and whales in the surrounding waters.
In fact, if a rest day is required at this point, Skomer—with its caves and blowholes—is home to the largest puffin colony in southern Britain. And dining in Dale did offer one of our trek’s highlight—the traditional Griffin Inn, with its Welsh real ale, locally caught fish (mackerel, turbot, razor clams and scallops were on the menu) and a sea-view terrace. Pull off the boots, air out the feet, and dig into literally buckets of fresh-cooked prawns sold by the pint. (Indeed, I learned afterward that WalesOnline claims the Griffin gastro-pub as the best seafood joint in the country!)
Unfortunately, Ted ordered off the “special gastronomic tasting menu” aimed at the Bentley crowd perhaps, but which proffered tiny perfect portions just unfit for his Irish famine at the time. My suggestion is to join in with the Dale residents, stick to what the informed locals are enjoying and you’ll be much more than fine—stunning seafood to be had here!
The trekking from here is beautiful. The Dale Peninsula protects Milford Haven harbour from the very worst the Irish Sea and North Atlantic Ocean can throw at it.
The eastern side forwards a mix of wooded valleys, gentle cliffs, postcard bays; while the wind-battled western side asserts high, rugged and daunting cliffs. Farmlands along the entire path are incredibly picturesque, and this stretch is no exception. Ted, drawing from his prairie agricultural roots, repeatedly mumbles that these are the “most contented cows” he’s ever seen.
And history is abundant here, too. Just a few kilometres on we come to Mill Bay, where there is a stone on the field’s edge commemorating the landing of Henry Tudor, a born Welshman (born in Pembroke Castle, in fact), who was accompanied by 55 ships and 4,000 men of arms. It was here, in August 1485, that Henry sailed after 14 years of exile in France—in fact, landed at the bay just below our own footing. Getting military support along the way, Henry stomped eastward and beat the daylights out of Richard III (England’s king at the time) in the Battle of Bosworth.
He then crowned himself King Henry VII of England and begat the famed ruling House of Tudor, widely credited with laying the foundation for modern Britain. (His son was Henry VIII, his granddaughter, Queen Elizabeth I—two of the greatest British monarchs). The landing in Pembrokeshire, Henry’s home turf, cemented under force of Welsh arms the fact that Welsh blood sits on today’s British throne—Queen Elizabeth II being a descendant of Henry VII.
To the north of St. Anne’s Head lighthouse, the high cliffs become precipitous and in places are literally crumbling into the sea—take care on this section of the path. It’s worth noting that beach after beach presents an enticing opportunity for a refreshing dip, but be extremely cautious. At this point on the path we drop steeply into pretty Westdale Bay, known famously by locals for its murderous undercurrents; better to grind it out to the remote sandy stretch of Marloes Sands or Broad Haven, with its large west-facing option.
We soon skirt a derelict Second World War aerodrome, before arriving high above Marloes Sands, and its expanse of sand, rocks and cliffs. (Again, attention to tides and timing is crucial!) There are no “facilities” here (as per our experience on the path—a wee bit of a problem), but the Sands is a Green Coast Award winner (2016) and Snow White and The Huntsman was filmed here, so you might imagine its beauty.
Pay special attention to a section of the beach named Raggle Rocks, and the almost lunar feel of huge limestone layers heaving upwards. Everywhere now we see sheer cliffs with sheltered little bays below.
Our next port of call is St. Brides Haven, where real toilets appear, along with a church, a phone booth and a cluster of tiny houses—but little else. There’s a castle-like edifice across a mammoth field that’s actually a ritzy timeshare, according to locals. But if you take the time to poke around the place it has lots of fine quirks—like an occupied cement cottage along the path that looks in imminent danger of being swept away, some sixth to 10th-century stone coffins nudging through the high cliff faces, a noble pile of rubble that was once another Kensington Castle and the seat of Barons Kensington, and not far afield at Nab’s Head is an Iron Age promontory fort dating from Mesolithic times.
There is some relief now with easy clifftop walking. But in the vicinity of Brandy Bay, the cliffs push higher and the roller-coaster trail gets tougher, especially with spots like the eye-popping Borough Head with its nearly 80-metre plummet steep into the sea!
Regardless of your particular itinerary or allotted days for the path, the nifty paired villages of Little Haven and Broad Haven definitely warrant a stopover. And though Broad Haven with its great beach may be larger, Little Haven is the lovelier place, with a number of appealing pubs to encourage the exhausted hiker. A careful, almost professional review by Ted of Little Haven’s pubs—The Castle, The Swan and St. Brides Inn—weighted the winning nod by a mere feather to The Swan.
Surprisingly, it’s also the first pub in view as you come in from the coastal path. Helen Parry and Ian Beach run the Anchor Guesthouse smack-dab on the seafront in Broad Haven, and do a dandy breakfast. We picked this spot for its magnificent sea view across St. Brides Bay—and for the sunsets—but were further rewarded by our very hospitable hosts. Evening pizza is sometimes available, as are competently-packed lunches for the next day’s departure to Solva.
If you take the Bermuda Triangle seriously, Broad Haven is your cup of celestial tea. Like that loosely defined patch of the Atlantic Ocean off Florida, Puerto Rico and (well, yes) Bermuda, there is a Broad Haven Triangle. Indeed, in the 1970s this area was famous for its UFO sightings. According to British newspaper reports, on February 4, 1977 a yellow-coloured spacecraft landed in a field next to Broad Haven Primary School, according to 14 children; later, on February 17, the same cigar-shaped vessel was seen by teachers at the primary school.
The dual events featured witnesses claiming to have observed “silver creatures.” Then two months later (on April 19, 1977) in Little Haven, a local business owner claimed to have seen an “upside-down saucer.” (That 1977 also saw the release of both Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind probably had nothing to do with it…)
Broad Haven to Solva is about 19 kilometres of trekking, and brings you to perhaps the most charming seaside village along the coastal path. Solva (or Solfach in Welsh) is tucked below a steep hillside and sits on an ancient glacier meltwater channel formed more than 10,000 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age. There’s a range of accommodation and eateries in and near Solva, from (inexpensive) camping at Nine Wells Campsite (about two kilometers along the path) to The Cambrian Inn with its killer Welsh lamb-burgers. Jeremy Barton runs the inn with his wife Marzena and is a font of local knowledge.
Heading out of Solva on the Pembrokeshire Coast Path is straightforward—just follow along the cliff edge. But know there’s nothing by way of purchase or shelter for another 19 kilometres save for tiny Porthclais, a trading and fishing hamlet, and fun place to chat with local fisherman. (Ask them about the deep cleft from the sea where residents swim.)
From here the trail takes you past serious cliffs, barren terrain and numerous rocky knolls that decorate a necklace of tiny coves. And along this stretch is our first exposure to “coasteering”—a literal hands-on approach to exploring the Pembrokeshire coastline.
Coasteering involves traversing sheer sea cliffs by scrambling, climbing and leaping off ledges into the churning waters—and getting very familiar with altitude and the chilling Irish Sea.
You’ll find several helpful guide shops for this adrenaline rush in St. David’s—the smallest city in Great Britain, which is home to the magnificent St. David’s Cathedral that honours the patron saint of Wales. For history buffs, the frugal St. David was one of many Celtic saints from the sixth century (St. Patrick of Ireland was also Welsh!), and a devout missionary. And while the cathedral that bears his name has been plundered by everyone from Vikings to Cromwell’s army, the Bishop’s Palace, with its arcaded parapets, state rooms and Great Hall, still speaks of the wealth amassed by higher clergy in the centuries that followed—a far cry from the original St. David himself.
Your camping, hostels or B&B lodging (all available here) is either in St. David’s or nearby St. Justinians—both serviced by the Celtic Coaster shuttle bus—to save a two-hour pavement walk into either town.
The rugged coastline of St. David’s Peninsula is stunning but merciless. All begins well on the pastoral slopes of heather rising to the rough St. David’s Head; it’s important here—given the worn path—to focus on keeping the sea roughly on your left. As you tramp through Abereiddi towards Aber Bach, look for the old quarrymen’s houses, destroyed by floods in the 1920s and 30s, and as you hike upward keep an eye for the Blue Lagoon, a flooded slate quarry on your left.
The remaining length of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path is pocketed with the unexpected. From Second World War overgrown runways once used by anti-submarine aircraft to protect vital Allied shipping, to relic castles, ancient abbeys and sites of Neolithic burial chambers (“cromlech” in Welsh) dating back 5,000 years.
Plus, there’s trekking through the Preseli Hills, famous for being the place of origin of the two-ton bluestones of Stonehenge—which some miracle of Druid engineering transported 225 kilometres from the hills to the Salisbury Plain. All accessed after lung-busting ascents along cliff edges; or after braving the exposed, weather-beaten lower hills remarkable for their inhospitable nature in bad weather.
One of my favourite rest stops was near Fishguard, where on February 22, 1797 Great Britain was invaded for the last time. The Battle of Fishguard was a bungled (and even comical) military invasion led by an overly optimistic French general and a disgruntled American Colonel—both inspired by their domestic revolutionary ways, and both misinformed as to the willingness of the Welsh to welcome invading people!
In a crucial twist of fate, many of the invading French militia were actually ex-convicts pressed into Napoleonic service—and unfortunately for the would-be invaders, when they discovered that the locals possessed an inordinate supply of Portuguese wine (from a recently salvaged shipwreck), the former inmates mutinied, turned on their officers and were given a good drubbing by the British Grenadiers. Look for the memorial stone to this (oft-described farcical) event at Carreg Wastad Point, a rather forlorn summit in its own right.
Happily, and by contrast, one of the prettiest overall spots on the path is also in the Fishguard neighbourhood—Lower Fishguard is a lovely fishing village of colourful houses. It also starred as the fictional town Llareggub in the 1972 film adaption of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, which was written as a radio play. And starred again in the 1956 movie Moby Dick, with Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab.
Our last stretch of the trail, bringing us near St. Dogmaels, is regarded as the toughest along the overall 35,000 feet of experienced vertical. Here it announces steep slopes near terrifying barren cliffs, collapsed sea caves, massive wedges and folds of rock to make a geologist salivate. It also claims begrudged spasms of excruciating descents and ascents of up to 175 metres each.
The parish of St. Dogmaels marks the official end of the Welsh coastal trek. (Look for the unassuming slipway and slate marker at the northern end of the village and the slate marker.)
By now the majority of Welsh-speaking part of Pembrokeshire is clearly evident. And you will certainly find this at the traditional Webley Hotel, perhaps a kilometre further into town—and undoubtedly the ideal venue for our last ecstatic-taking-off-of-the-boots.
The fresh, local fare and real ale pints served up by Simon Regan (the owner) were brilliant. Indeed, our new pal asked about our hiking odyssey and offered up “whatever you want as a victory meal.”
Ted, still a tad wary of his earlier seafood picks, chose fresh scallops—along with several plates of Welsh salmon and beef, and desserts well-acquainted with local Welsh whiskey. Simon’s kitchen did not disappoint—and soon, once his wife Sandra joined in, the four of us were jolly official greeters to a fun celebratory night of Welsh hospitality, with many of St. Dogmaels’ finest—and friendliest—of residents.
Somehow this Pembrokeshire trek, this time spent in Wales, has ignited the philosophical in my old friend and prairie poet.
“The warmth of the people on the trail, in the pubs, at the inns, which led to ruminations on the contrasts between Anglo-Saxon and Celtic people,” he tells me, when I ask him what impressions he’s left with at our trek’s conclusion. “The mosaic of wildflowers and gorse. Dogs that were clearly regulars in the pubs, with their spots under their human’s stools. The feeling of a wild and uncaring nature barely contained on land and unfettered at sea. And of course, the subtle pleasures of the whiskey, the real ales, and Simon’s scallops!”
I just could not top that in any way. And so I didn’t. ♦
HOW TO DO the Pembrokeshire Coast Path National Trail
Where: Pembrokeshire County, Wales, United Kingdom
Geography: In southwestern Wales, within Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, for 300 kilometres (186 miles) along the coast of St. Bride’s Bay and the Bristol Channel to the south, and St. George’s Channel to the north. The trail’s start/end points are St. Dogmaels in the north and Amroth in the south, and it’s known for its undulating elevations—from clifftops that overlook wild coastal seas to stretches of beach land that invite you in, to bay and cove corner pockets to be explored. For a complete list of the trail’s points/sections, and all info on how and when to do it go to www.nt.pcnpa.org.uk.
Getting There: Likely the easiest and cheapest way from Canada is to fly to London, England and either drive, take a bus or catch a train to Pembrokeshire, with the city of Cardiff being a central transportation hub. (Cardiff does have an airport, but internationally mostly serves connecting flights from Europe or internal UK flights).
From London, you can rent a car and drive via the M4 highway to Pembrokeshire County (about 241 miles/388 kilometres). You can also take a bus via National Express Coach lines right from the airport (www.nationalexpress.com), which has daily runs to the county from London. You can also look into Megabus UK, a low-cost alternative that runs between major UK cities (www.uk.megabus.com), especially if you’re not coming from the airport directly or have been in the UK travelling.
By train, look for options to Cardiff via www.nationalrail.co.uk, and as our author noted, Arriva Trains Wales services Wales very efficiently, with runs to Pembrokeshire daily (www.arrivatrainswales.co.uk).
If perchance you’re launching from Ireland or Continental Europe, there are also ferry options to Pembrokeshire available.
Keep in mind: The United Kingdom uses some measurements from the imperial system (though all of Europe and Canada use metric). Thus, distances and vehicle speeds are measured in miles not kilometres—so don’t be surprised at the road signs!
For more information on accommodations, eateries, sports and adventure activities as well as wildlife spotting in Pembrokeshire County, check out pembrokeshirecoast.org.uk, www.nationaltrail.co.uk/pembrokeshire-coast-path, www.visitwales.com and www.pembrokeshire-wales.com, as starting points. In the summer, the dolphin- and whale-watching opportunities are especially fantastic!
Bill Roberts, a longtime trekker, mountaineer and former broadcaster in Canada, plans on putting one steady foot in the front of the other till the cows come home.