Pembrokeshire’s banks are rolling in it

Catherine on Pembrokeshire Coast Path between Whitesands and St Justinian's Bay
Catherine on Pembrokeshire Coast Path between Whitesands and St Justinian’s Bay

It strikes me as somewhat ironic that the hedgerows which envelop me along this shady lane are called Pembrokeshire Banks. Because while the rest of the world’s banks fall into crisis and collapse, these ones are proffering a wealth of natural wonders. These traditional stone field boundaries, known locally as Cloddiau or Clawdd, unlike drystone walls, are bedecked with grass and wildflowers, thanks to the turf and soil stuffed in between the stones, providing not only a windbreaker and boundary, but also a haven of natural and indeed, rich,  habitats.

At the moment the bees are in full swing, drunk on the banks’ abundant foxgloves, poppies and ox-eye daisies which lead me down to my nearest beach of Aber Mawr. I am on a three day break from London living, with the aim of avoiding congestion, carbon and cooking, the first two through a growing commitment to being a greener traveller, the third through sheer laziness and a desire to fill every spare minute walking, leaving my work-obsessed mind free to wander too. By using Pembrokeshire’s Coastal Bus service to get me to and from different spots along the Path, I am able to leave the car at home, as I am certainly not going to be able to take on all 299 kms of it.  Even better, this bus scheme runs all year round, seven days a week, allowing you to wallow in Welsh wanderlust whenever you fancy (walkingpembrokeshire.co.uk).

I am basing myself at Preseli Venture Eco Lodge, a vibrant, family-run activity centre where I first stayed a couple of years ago. I was on a family kayaking and coasteering holiday that time, and as they welcome everyone here like long lost friends  I thought this would be the perfect base for a bit of solitary walking this time. They also serve vats of wonderful home cooked food all day, so I hit the roads with a belly full of breakfast, a packed lunch, in the knowledge that a big curry or casserole was waiting for me each night.

Preseli Eco Lodge - ideal base for hiking the Pembrokeshire Coast Path
Preseli Eco Lodge – ideal base for hiking the Pembrokeshire Coast Path

So, having just arrived in on the lunchtime train to Fishguard and Goodwick, where Preseli met me at the station, I am able to fit in a three hour walk from Aber Mawr beach, just ten minutes’ walk from the lodge, heading south on the Coast Path to Trefin. I’m a little confused over the signage for a while – the Coast Path is a National Trail, the sign for which is an acorn. However, it is co-managed along long stretches by National Trust,  the sign for which is, bizarrely, an acorn. And when I digress from the sea and walk inland, I am spoilt for choice on this Wales wide web of inland pathways with signs using a walking person, yellow and white arrows, depending on their walking category (pembrokeshirecoast.org.uk). However, all all in all, there is little chance of getting lost.

I stick to the Coast Path, however, which lures me from one bay to another, urging me on to ‘just one more headland’ to see what riches lie beyond it.  The terrain varies from craggy, sandy or grassy, and most of the Path is separated from the sea by well managed bracken, gorse or hedging, with stomach churning ‘don’t look down’ moments few and far between.

At Trefin, a small village with the perfect hikers’ hangouts, a pub called The Ship Inn and a charming café called The Mill (with a well earned cream tea), I catch the  18.27 Strumble Shuttle bus back to Mathry, about twenty minutes’ walk from the Lodge, although when I get my bearings I learn to ask the bus driver to drop me further down the road at the crossroads at the bottom of Mathry Hill, a welcome saving of five minutes to my already tired legs.

I leave my big walk for Day Two, a 19 kms circular around the coves and cliffs which wrap themselves around St. David’s.  Too full from my excellent curry the night before, I decline breakfast, but welcome my packed lunch. I fill a flask of tea and a large water bottle and hit the roads, with nothing but the cacophony of Spring birdsong to accompany me as I hike up the hill to catch the 8am Strumble Shuttle again. Stand at the crossroads on the main road into St. David’s and stick out your hand when you see it coming. They do stop, really, although there is no official bus stop at this point, and they are more than helpful to vague looking, still half asleep, OS Map waving hikers like me.

Caerfai Bay
Caerfai Bay

I don’t dally in St. David’s where, as the cathedral clock strikes nine, the temperatures are rising into their mid-twenties already. So, I head straight out along a narrow back road, tucked behind the ruins of the Bishop’s Palace, which turns out to be a heavenly route indeed to the impressive expanses of Whitesands Bay. Heading south again, the Coast Path overlooks Ramsay Island , a bird reserve and favourite hangout for seals,  dolphins and porpoises (ramseyisland.co.uk) although,  as I dip in and out of tiny uninhabited bays,  I only spot a few cliff climbers, kayakers and a couple of fishing boats.

Hiking it and bus-ing it along Pembrokeshire Coast path
Hiking it and bus-ing it along Pembrokeshire Coast path

In fact, the Path is never busy, except around  St Justinian’s Bay, with its ancient chapel and a stunning red and cream lifeboat station with funicular system designed to transport people and good up and down the cliff, or the turquoise inlet of Porth Clais with its ancient lime kilns built into the harbour walls (and a much needed coffee and ice cream kiosk). The only other company en route are a few smiling hikers and the choughs, cormorants and stonechats all in nesting frenzies at this time of year. I keep an eye out for dolphins and seals, but they aren’t playing today, despite this being one of their favourite hang outs. However, the solitude and solace to be found on this Path soothes my soul, dolphins or no dolphins.

I time my exit from the Path at Caerfai Bay perfectly, fitting in a quick snack at the delightful Caerfai Organic Farm shop just before it closes. Owned by Christine and Wyn Evans, Wyn talks to me about his renewable energy schemes created long before green became the new black. He is totally fired up about how we all have a responsibility to do our bit if we are going to reverse the impacts of climate change. I listen and learn from this knowledgeable man, and when I look back along the Coast Path which swivels in and out of his land, I realise that these farmers who work so generously with National Trust and National Parks to preserve this natural wealth so that we and future generations can all enjoy it, are all doing more ‘bits’ than most of us put together, and I vow to return with my family and take a longer stay at his campsite or cottages.

I make my 17.45 bus from St David’s back to Mathry , with half an hour to spare looking round the Cathedral where, to my delight, the choir is rehearsing for Sunday service, the sopranos’ Amen bringing this already uplifting day to the perfect close.

My last day of walking takes me around Strumble Head, the most barren spot of the Coast Path so far, where wild ponies are let out to pasture in order to keep these remote rocky slopes and paths clear of bracken. An imposing white lighthouse issues warnings through the mist which, in turn, emits nourishing droplets on the yellow blankets of Kidney Vetch and Wild Primrose, peppered with purple wild Thyme, all around me. Suddenly, I spot a seal staring up at me, basking on the steps of this now unmanned lighthouse. It feels as if we are both staring at this marine magnificence all around us in unison and, as the hairs rise on the back of my neck in this quiet moment with nature, I realise that not only are Pembrokeshire’s banks rolling in it, but this highly protected Coastline is just one big bubbling vat of natural assets which is there for everyone to profit from.

pembs2
The Strumble Shuttle bus, one of several excellent coastal services to help you around this stunning coastline

Catherine travelled to Pembrokeshire from London by train, travelling from London Paddington to Cardiff Central with First Great Western trains, and from Cardiff Central to Fishguard and Goodwick with Arriva Trains Wales. Return ticket from £74.50 if booked a month in advance. For more information on the Coastal Bus Service, with prices and timetables, see Pembrokeshire County Council

For accommodation at Preseli Venture Ecolodge and Adventure Centre, see  preseliventure.co.uk, Tel: +44 1348 837709. From £39 per night for lodge accommodation and breakfast including use of all lodge facilities, plus a range of breakfast choices including a cooked Welsh breakfast or  £59 for lodge accommodation and all meals. They also do a 5 days/6 nights walking package for £395 which includes all meals, info pack, free train station transfers if you are travelling by train, emergency back up support whilst out walking and a waterproof OS map

An edited version of this article by Catherine Mack was first published in Visit Pembrokeshire magazine.

Ireland needs a conversion when it comes to Wales

Catherine on Pembrokeshire Coast Path between Whitesands and St Justinian's Bay
Catherine on Pembrokeshire Coast Path between Whitesands and St Justinian’s Bay

Driving through my native Ireland, I remember spotting a road sign in The Burren region of County Clare, with the words “Ah, will ye ever” painted above the word ‘Stop’.  I often wondered if it was for the benefit of tourists who dash through en route to Connemara or Kerry, missing the National Park’s limestone wonders which gleam like the biggest emeralds of all. The Welsh ferry ports should have a similar sign for all those Irish people who dash off the ferry en route to England and beyond.  Because, believe me, you really need to stop.

As I walked straight out of Fishguard onto the Pembrokeshire Coast Path,  a spectacular 299 kms walking trail which snakes its way along this three for the price of one coastline, with craggy, sandy and rocky all on offer depending on which headland I traversed,  it’s hard not to lament the lack of such a facility back home. This area is also the UK’s only coastal National Park which also incorporates a whole web of inland pathways, bridleways and estuaries

With just a few days to spare, I took on a few different sections of the Path. Staying at Preseli Venture Eco Lodge, a vibrant, family-run activity centre where I had first stayed a couple of years ago when I first explored the coast from the water that time, sea kayaking and coasteering. They welcome everyone here like long lost friends and celebrate Pembrokeshire’s wealth of natural heritage with such infectious enthusiasm that I thought this would be the perfect base for a bit of solitary walking this time. And as part of their Self Guided Walking Break, they also serve vats of wonderful home cooked food all day, so I hit the roads with a belly full of breakfast, a packed lunch, in the knowledge that a big curry or casserole was waiting for me each night.

Walk and bus the coast path in Pembrokeshire and all around the Welsh Coast
Walk and bus the coast path in Pembrokeshire and all around the Welsh Coast

Preseli is located 11 kms from Fishguard, where the owners will pick you up if they can although it is a quick cab or bus ride if you are coming by foot. And I really recommend leaving the car behind. It’s much cheaper, you really slow down and there is a brilliant all year round tourist bus service to get you to and from the favourite spots and which you can hail at any spot along its route. For more details and timetables see walkingpembrokeshire.co.uk.

On the first afternoon, I shook off my journey jaundice by fitting in a three hour walk along the coast Path from nearby Aber Mawr beach heading south to Trefin, where I caught the bus back to the campsite. The weather was drizzly enough to get my walking boots suitably muddy and my new waterproof trousers tried and tested. However, in spring this whole coastline erupts into colour with pink Foxgloves, white Ox-eye Daisies, blankets of yellow Kidney Vetch and Wild Primrose dotted with the purples of wild thyme, uplifting the spirit no matter what the weather is doing.

The sky was cloudless on day two, however, when  I started out on my 19 kms circular, and nearly all coastal, route around St. David’s which,  although it is the smallest city in the UK, has one of the largest collection of coves and cliffs on its doorstep, most of which are only accessible by foot. I took the bus again to St. David’s, where the cathedral clock struck nine as I headed up a long, narrow road where the grass still grows in the middle, to the expanses of Whitesands Bay. Heading south again, the Coast Path overlooks Ramsay Island , a bird reserve and favourite hangout for seals,  dolphins and porpoises (ramseyisland.co.uk) although,  as I dipped in and out of tiny uninhabited bays,  I only spotted a few cliff climbers, kayakers and a couple of fishing boats. It never gets busy here really, except around the historical honeypots of St Justinian’s Bay, with its ancient chapel and a stunning red and cream lifeboat station with funicular system designed to transport people and good up and down the cliff, or the turquoise inlet of Porth Clais with its ancient lime kilns built into the harbour walls (and a much needed coffee and ice cream kiosk).

Catherine overlooking the lifeboat station and funicular at St Justinian's Bay, on the Pembrokeshire Coast Path
Catherine overlooking the lifeboat station and funicular at St Justinian’s Bay, on the Pembrokeshire Coast Path

The only other company en route was the odd smiling hiker pursued by some of the choughs, cormorants and stonechats which favour this stretch of coast. Not surprising, therefore, that the retreat at St Non’s  is still used as such, with yoga, meditation and religious retreats all part of the mix (stnonsretreat.org.uk).  This was the birthplace of St. David, Non being his mother, and I must admit that even though I popped into the chapel in search of shade rather than spirituality, I found this a moving place indeed.

My last day of walking took me around Strumble Head, just 5 kms from Fishguard, where wild ponies are let out to pasture in order to keep these remote rocky slopes and paths clear of bracken and gorse, and where an imposing white lighthouse issues warnings to the incoming ferries. This is where I realised that I really didn’t want to leave this Path at all now.  I had become a headland addict, wanting ‘just one more’ before giving up. However, there are plenty more fixes to be had now as, following on from Pembrokeshire’s success, all 1400 kms of the country’s coast were  officially opened to walkers in May of this year, known as the Wales Coast Path. So now walkers don’t have to stop at all, they can just keep going and going.

Go there:

Ferry Rosslare to Fishguard with Stena Line,  Tel: 01 204 7777, Foot passenger between

Preseli Venture Eco Lodge - eco friendly and super friendly all round
Preseli Venture Eco Lodge – eco friendly and super friendly all round

Rosslare to Fishguard €32 one way, or bring your bike for €10 one way. For more information on their excellent rural bus schemes linking the Pembrokeshire Coast, see walkingpembrokeshire.co.uk or visitpembrokeshire.com.

Catherine stayed at Preseli Venture Ecolodge and Activity Centre (preseliventure.co.uk, Tel: +44 1348 837709) open to individuals mid-week for Sterling £39 pn b&b, or £59 pn fully catered. Or check out their self guided walking holiday which is aimed at hikers doing their own thing. Take a break from hiking and explore the Coast from the water on one of their activities, from £55. Coasteering is a must.

 This article was first published in The Irish Times