with tips for cycling & hiking
The primary motivation to visit South Pembrokeshire was twofold; firstly I had promised Julia a visit to Skomer to see the Puffins in May, but the weather was so awful that we decided to postpone. Ok the Puffins had long since gone but there would be plenty of other things to see. The second reason is that the Pembrokeshire coastal walk is considered to be one of the classic world walks and comparison has been made with walks, such as the Inca Trail and as we are doing the Inca Trail in October it seemed an ideal time to visit and get some training in, albeit at a lower altitude.
We had no intention of completing the walk as some rite of passage and in fact we did not have any real intentions at all, other than to end up at St Davids and to precede our visit with a trip to Brecon to climb Pen Y Fan.
Additionally we did not want to do the 'industrial' part of the walk via Milford Haven, though coincidentally we met two older guys, on two separate occasions who were doing the whole walk and they found this section interesting, as they were able to watch all the sea traffic, though they admitted there was a lot of 'hard' walking and they would not do it again.
Our first stop, as we could not get into MillHouse Caravan Park at Stepaside. I was warned that the toilet facilities at the campsite were not the best and that warning proved to be true, which is a shame as it is a great location, being only 100 metres from the sea, though you can not see the sea from the site. I really can not understand why they can not make some effort and keep the facilities clean. If this is beyond them then they do not deserve the trade. If you have got a car there are better sites in the area . If you are in a motorhome, I suggest you ring Millhouse (01834812069). Millhouse is only a 15 minute walk to the coast following, I believe the old railway link from Saundersfoot to the old ironworks at Stepaside.(the path can be accessed from the beach, it runs next to the public conveniences) The latter together with the old Grove colliery above it, are a reminder of this area's proud and vibrant industrial past, even though working conditions were not at their best, so we perhaps should not lament the past.
A short walk following the coastal path eastwards takes you to Amroth, which does not have a lot to commend it for,though there is a beach and a number of cafes, but it is the official start of the Pembrokeshire coastal walk, I know this as there is a plaque.
A walk westwards along the coastal path takes you to the two seaside gems of Saundersfoot and Tenby. The total walk is about 5.5 miles so lunch in Tenby is a good option. The former is only about a 20 minute walk and has the added variety of a cliff tunnel, the route of the old railway to the ironworks, before you open up to a glorious beach and you see the town nestling in the bay with its harbour in the distance. It is a lively town and you can see why it is popular, a scenic location and a great beach and I think a certain old world charm. This is not Southend.
Onward to Tenby: You have to go into town and take the main road out, up the hill and take the first turning left and go to Rhode Wood, which immediately faces you at the end of the road, do not follow the road round the right bend. You will see the walk marker tucked in the woods- remember you have to follow the acorn. Miss it and you could end up exploring the woods, which would not be unpleasant.
The coastal route to Tenby does involve a number of descents and climbs and steps,which we were quite pleased about, as it provided good training to what we might expect on the Inca Trail.
As you enter Tenby you will see the town circled around the bay, take the steep steps down and walk along the beach into the town.
Tenby is a delightful old fortified town with its narrow streets,town walls virtual absence of traffic, its quaint harbour, old lifeboat house and sheltered beaches and absence of the normal paraphernalia of a seaside town. It has an old fashioned feel to it, yet it is nevertheless very alive and is always busy. It has a wide selection of places to eat and a wide variety of shops catering for both tourists and locals.
As with many of these seaside towns it proved popular in Victorian times with a special pier being built to accomodate the steamers which is now the site of the new lifeboat station.
The 15th century merchant's house, a National Trust property, is worth a visit.
After exploring the town, the best option is to get the bus back to Wisemans Bridge, which is an experience in itself, as the bus literaly goes around the houses, to get you to your final destination. The alternative is to get a bus to Saundersfoot and walk back from their. Both buses leave from next to Sainsbury's , outside the towns walls.
For this section we based ourselves at Park Farm Holiday Park Manorbier ( tel 01834 871273), a greenfield site with excellent rural views and easy access to the coastal path by a 10 minute walk via Manorbier Castle.
It was good fun exploring Manorbier Castle, which is privately owned, but open to the public and is remarkably well preserved, primarily because this castle was never attacked. I get the impression that the Welsh of Pembrokeshire came more easily to a relationship with the Norman invaders than their North or mid Wales countryman. Perhaps this was a more pragamtic approach, given that the region is surrounded by the sea and easily accessible and no mountains to escape to, but I am no expert on Welsh history. After exploration and stepping back in time you can come up to date with tea and cakes in the cafe in the castle.
This is a 9 mile return walk along the coast to Freshwater Bay and is similiar in terrain to the walk to Lydstep, with a mixture of ups and downs and oustanding coastal cliff views. There is a pub in Freshwater East if you need refreshment . We also used the opportunity to check out the campsite at Freshwater East and found out it was a Caravan Club site, from a couple who we met on the beach, who said that it was of normal high quality Caravan Club standards. The downside for us was that they wanted a £10 non member fee and we baulked at that, as we thought £28 a night was over the top. So we needed to find another site in the area for our next stage.
The plan of action was to walk from Freshwater East to St Govan's and catch the Puffin Bus back . This an excellent service along various parts of the coast which runs 3 times a day and allows you to either get the bus and walk back or vice versa. The advantage of the former is that it prevents the waiting for the bus at the end of your walk.
It is a hail and ride service, i.e you can catch it anywhere on its route, as long as you make it obvious that you want to catch it, but be warned, even in a car park make it obvious that you want to catch it. Also it will drop you off whereever you want it to. It is like having your own taxi service.
Also be aware that for older English & Scottish buspass holders these are not valid on these buses.
Our campsite issue was resolved by finding a certificated site at Upper Portclew Farm, a site with great views towards Freshwater Bay and though the facilities were dated they were clean and it was only a 10 minute walk to the beach and the bus saved us the trek uphill on the return journey.
The total walk is about 7-8 miles, the first section to Stackpole Quay (on the bus route) is up and down and therafter you are walking fairly level,following the cliff tops until you descend to Broadhaven. This walk not only combines the key sites of Stackpole, Barafundle Bay and Broadhaven but has magnificent geological formations, stacks, arches and geological faults abound.
Stackpole Quay is an ideal lunch stop and we were lucky enough to grab the only picnic table overlooking the quay. An alternative is to stop at the Boathouse, a National Trust teashop just above the Quay, where we took a takeout coffee and I surpassed myself by being able to resist the cakes.
After lunch climb upto Stackpole Head and do not get tempted to take the short cut, go around the head and you will be rewarded with outstanding scenery. We had the additional reward of seeing a pair of choughs which are a pretty rare site. The walking is basically level until you descend to Barafundle Bay.
You walk down into Barafundle Bay, cross the sands then climb up to continue the walk on the level until you reach Broadhaven and enjoy the scenery of stacks and arches on the way.
If you thought Barafundle Bay was good, wait until you come to Broadhaven, it is stunning, with the sea in front of you and the lily ponds behind you. You have a choice here,continue along to the chapel at St Govans, where you can catch the bus at the car park or alternativley continue to the back of the bay and take the route around the Lily Ponds to Bosherston; the upper route around the right of the ponds in my view is the more picturesque.
If you are lucky,as we were, you can catch sight of otters playing in the ponds, yes, even in daylight.
You continue up to the car park and then up to the road where you can catch the bus. Here there is also a pub and cafe.
The path goes inland, after St Govans, to avoid an artillery range, before it joins the coast again at Freshwater West and the Angle peninsula, there is a Puffin bus that goes around this way but that will have to wait for another day.
Our original plan was to stay at the site at Hasguard Cross, which has had good reviews but we discovered the site at Howelston, which had the advantage that the coastal path was literally at the bottom of the site and it had fantastic views over St Brides Bay. We received a great welcome and we had the benefit that we were the only tourer on site, which primarily is a static site, but has space for a limited number of tourers.
It also was on the route of the Puffin Bus from St Davids to Marloes. It also connects with a service to Dale and beyond to Milford Haven.
There appear to be constant reminders of the fact that you are on a cliff edge and in some cases very close to the edge, and that is one of the primary attractions of the coastal walk.I found this sign amusing but there is a serious point, they have to be treated with respect. In these days of health and safety I suppose there is no alternative . This one is near Druidston Haven which is a popular site for horse riding on the beach from the nearby stables.
The total walk is about 7 to 8 miles, so either walk their and get the Puffin bus back or better still get the first bus their and walk back to Little Haven.
Little Haven has that quaint feel to it, though historically it was a busy coal mining area and the port was used to transport this bulky commodity. The coal was anthracite, which is the best quality coal, but it had the disadavantage that in this area it was in narrow seams and heavily faulted. You have only got to look at the coast to see what mother nature has done to the geography of this area.
The coal has long since gone and you are left with a picturesque little port heavily dependent on tourism. It does also feel like it is a little gastronomic outpost with a number of places available for dining. The Swan and the Nest Bistro are two examples,towards the higher end of the market, specialising in seafood, not necessarily cheap but they have a reputation for quality.
Its bigger neighbour, Broadhaven with its larger sandy bay has a wider choice and also there is a Londis supermarket available . When the tide is out, you can walk along the sands, otherwise you have to take the road.
Newgale Beach - I have to make a confession here, I took this picture on a sunny day when we were driving to St Davids. On our walk it was raining and though you can wax lyrical about the atmospheric view on a rainy day; you can not beat a beach on a sunny day. This is a popular beach,with surfers,kitesurfers and families, as access is so easy from the main road.
There is a campsite right next to the Duke of Edinburgh pub, which appeared closed and seems to be non electric as well, but a great location.
You can get a coffee at the Pebbles cafe whilst waiting for the Puffin Bus, which stops right outside.
There is a campsite at Newgale Beach
This is an 8 mile return walk, the first mile is in woodland or a hollow lane with tantalising glimpses of the sea and then it opens up with the full splendour of the coastal scenery.
Is this a natural phenomenon or not and I am not referring to Julia?
St Brides Haven picture below. Above the haven,on the hill, is the 'big house' for the estate owners, St Brides Castle. The estate at one time covered the islands of Skomer, Grassholm and Skokholm before it was sold off in the 1920's. the house at one time was a hospital and is now holiday apartments.
Grassholm is home of a gannett colony and you are sure to be rewarded with sight of these magnificent birds, flying along the coast and even better when you see them dive.
In the car park is a restored pumphouse, which used to provide water for the manor and there is also a history display relating to the surrounding area. There are also remains of the Abbey and cottages used by the estate workers but no teahouse; but the scouts were in residence at the Abbey when we arrived and offered us a cuppa.
St Brides Haven is used by divers and also by sea kayaks.
This was a 10 mile linear walk and by this stage we were really getting geared up to the advantages of the Puffin Bus .
We took the first bus in the morning, flagging it down outside the campsite, to St Brides, with the aim of walking to Marloes Sands
and then pick up the last bus from Marloes. I can not sing the praises of this service high enough and the drivers are so friendly but having said that, every one we came across, whether in campsites, shops. pubs or restaurants, gave us a very warm welcome; and of course you always meet so many people on the trail, that you stop and talk to and exchange stories. Why rush?
It would have been possible to have walked from Little Haven but we wanted to ensure that we had plenty of time to explore Deer Park,
a National Trust reserve on the Marloes Peninsula and particularly to see the seal pups. There is not a great deal of climbing on this route,
much of it follows the cliff tops.
For the less adventurous, the Puffin Bus does call into the carpark at Martin's Haven so there is no excuse not to explore Deer Park with its spectacular views of Skomer, (distant views of Grassholm) and Skokholm. The exploration of the Marloes Peninsula does appear to be a popular past time and a well rewarding one.
We were lucky as it was autumn and the right time to see the seal pups and we easily counted 30. but please be careful when you look over the cliff tops. We were also rewarded with sightings of half a dozen choughs, which are indeed a rare sight in the UK.
Martin's Haven is the embarkation point for boats to Skomer.
Just below the carpark and next to the toilets there is a Marine Park exhibition of the Skomer Marine Nature Reserve. Also do not miss the Celtic Cross displayed.
Skomer Island with the treacherous Jack Sound in the foreground
Then you come across Marloes Sands, every time you think you have seen the best beach???
This picture was taken from the old disused airfield end.
Picnic lunch overlooking the beach, sheer heaven, before descending to go and play on the beach, irrestible, with all its rock pools and awe inspiring rock formations to remind us of the turbulent geological past of this area.
We were tempted to walk onto Dale and get the bus from there but we had spent too long enjoying ourselves on the beach as Julia, being a biologist, could not resist the rockpools.
So a short walk along the road to Marloes and a welcome pint at the Lobster Pot, before catching the last bus back to Howelston and though we did not eat there, the dining room looked very inviting, with plenty of local fresh fish on the menu.
There is also a cafe in the village and a post office stores which unfortunately were closed when we arrived.
This was a cracking walk, with spectacular coastal scenery, combined with a beautiful unspoilt beach and wildlife as an added bonus, all made possible by our friend, the Puffin Bus.
Our final port of call, where we stayed at the excellent Caerfai campsite, this is only 20 minutes by road or 30 minutes, by the coastal path route to the city centre.
The beauty of visiting a campsite in the off season is that you can choose your pitch and we had an absolute cracker, offering uninterupted views overlooking Caerfai bay.
Every time we went into St Davids, we took the coast path, which took us past St Nons chapel, St Non being the mother of St David. At the alleged birthplace of St David, there are the remains of a ruined chapel, a Celtic Cross, a holy well and a modern chapel, built in the 1930's.
At St Nons you turn inland to walk to the city, the smallest city in the UK, with a population of less than 2,000. The locals always had no doubt of its city status buit to make sure, the Queen agreed its application for city status in 1994.
You are left in no doubt, of the eccliasastical importance of this town, when you visit the impressive Norman cathedral and the equally imposing ruins of the Bishop's Palace next door.
It is not diificult to imagine the past grandeur of this imposing building, your imagination aided by excellent descriptions of the various buildings, you are transported back to the heyday of the palace under the occupancy of Bishop Gower. Equally impressive, you are allowed to wander unhindered over the site and you can explore narrow stairways, to get panoramic views from the higher levels.
In the undercroft, an informative exhibition, displaying the palace in the past and the importance of the Bishops, as landowners and rulers.These were very powerful people.
Though St Davids was an important pilgramage site, by the 16th century the palace began to become ruined, surely not helped by the incumbent bishop's decision to remove the roof. By the 19th century the whole city was in a bit of a sorry state. In recent times, tourism has helped revitalise it and there is no shortage of places to eat and drink.
I must confess we absolutely adored the city, particularly the Bishops Palace.
The Great Hall, with its imposing circular window and in a blink of an eye, aided by the information panels, you are at a medieval banquet.
St Davids' Cathedral, the final resting place of St David, patron saint of Wales
Though the City relies heavily on tourism, this sign below may suggest that it is not always of the desired sort.
The final plan was to walk to Solva for lunch and then walk back but we got to Solva a little bit early, so we changed plan and continued to Newgale beach, not that we needed much excuse to continue to there.
Once we arrived at Newgale we had lunch at the Duke of Edinburgh pub and then planned to get a bus back to St Davids for a final look around. There is a reasonably regular bus service here, as it is on the main road but surprise, surprise the first bus that turned up was a 'Puffin Bus' which in many ways seemed very apt, as they had been the backbone of our adventures.
The total walk was about 9 - 10 miles and Solva is about halfway. The cliff walk is spectacular, particularly the view and descent into Solva harbour, it is stunning. You can see that it has a very sheltered harbourage, which was important for trade in the past, particularly the lime industry but now the village owes its living to tourism.
Solva Woolen Mill is worth a visit, it claims to be the oldest working woolen mill in Wales. There are plenty of places to eat and drink in Solva to suit all budgets. The Yacht Club deserves a mention, as it is the first place you come to, as you descend from the cliffs and is in a great location to have tea and snacks.
The walk was a fitting end to our visit to South Pembrokeshire and left us wanting to do more, so North Pembrokeshire beckons, not that you would need much excuse to return.
One of the greatest walks, on par with the Inca Trail? Comparisons are probably pointless but what is the case is that this coast is nothing short of spectacular and thoroughly deserves its accolades.