19 May Walking the Pembrokeshire Coast Path in Wales
This guest article is authored by hiker, hike leader and outdoor writer Danny Bernstein. We are thrilled that Danny is willing to share her account of hiking the Pembrokeshire Coast Path in Wales with our readers.
She’s been a committed hiker since her early twenties, having completed the Appalachian Trail, all the trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the South Beyond 6000 peaks, the Mountains-to-Sea Trail across North Carolina and three Caminos de Santiago. She currently leads hikes for Carolina Mountain Club, Friends of the Smokies and the Asheville Camino group.
Danny has written two Southern Appalachian hiking guides, The Mountains-to-Sea Trail across North Carolina, and Forests, Alligators, Battlefields: My Journey through the National Parks of the South to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. Her latest book, DuPont Forest: A History, is coming out September 2020.
In her previous life, Danny worked in computer science, way before computers were cool, first as a software developer, then as a professor of computer science. Her motto is “No place is too far to walk if you have the time.” Check out her website for more.
Exploring history and nature along the 186-mile coastal trail
The Pembrokeshire Coast Path twists and turns for 186 miles in Pembrokeshire National Park on the coast of Wales. The trail goes through unspoiled coastline, evidence of a long human history and displays of new and familiar flowers. The Pembrokeshire Coast Path is part of the Wales Coast Path which stretches 870 miles around Wales. The trail doesn’t go through untouched wilderness; a welcoming café might be around the corner, just when I need it most.
Having learned of the “Celtic Camino” from a talk at my local REI store, I fell in love with the idea and convinced Sharon, my Mountains-to-Sea Trail hiking partner, that it would make a great summer trip. Sharon and I dub the trail the P’shire.
After a long day of trains from London and a taxi ride on narrow roads, we arrive at our bed and breakfast in St. Dogmaels, the northern starting point on the trail. Sharon and I share a huge bedroom in a large private house. Our host takes our breakfast orders for the next morning and sends us out to see the sights.
In the village, we visit the Norman Abbey built after the Norman conquest of 1066. The abbey was named after Dogmael, a 6th century saint. The village has two restaurants and a World War I memorial in the middle of town. It’s August, the height of the tourist season, and we make a booking for dinner.
On the P’shire, you need reservations at Bed and Breakfasts, especially in the summer. We could have booked every room ourselves via email. Instead we contracted with Contour Holidays, to arrange lodging and baggage shuttling. So we will be day walking.
Contour Holidays offers walking trips in Great Britain and Ireland. Once you pick a trail, you choose the number of walking days; more days means walking fewer miles each day. We chose 13 walking days, an average of 14.3 miles a day. But the average is meaningless since the length of each day is determined by where we can stay. Our itinerary shows that we will have a 17-mile day and a 10 mile-day. We’re in a remote area of Wales, walking north to south.
The trail has a cumulative altitude that tops Mt. Everest, though no climb is too long or sustained. We start on country lanes but quickly get up to cliffs overlooking the Coast. Up and down, up and down for almost 15 miles today. The views are so expansive that we can see cliffs jutting out from the beginning of our walk.
The path is also the International Appalachian Trail (IAT). The A.T. continues from Katahdin, Maine through Eastern Canada across the Atlantic Ocean to Wales and then Scotland. Flowers, flowers everywhere – some I recognized like yarrow, Queen Ann lace, and my favorite, the Himalayan balsam.
We arrive at a holiday park outside of Newport. The pub food is good and hardy but it’s the clientele that makes the evening. Three local men are amazed to find two American women walking by themselves. We talk politics and the guys take a jab at everyone from the U.S. President to their Prime Minister. They want to make sure that we tell everybody in the United States how great Wales is. I assure them that we will!
The next day, the trail is more intimate, with wooded sections and even a coffee shop. We are in tiny villages each night where the only place to get lunch supplies is in a gas station store. Every public sign is in both English and Welsh, though I have yet to hear anyone speaking Welsh.
Day three of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path is not easy. Up and down, up and down the coast. Sharon and I only walked 13.5 miles, but it feels more difficult than the first two days. It’s windy and I can’t keep my hat on.
We reach a plain monument to the last invasion of Great Britain. The French and Brits were constantly fighting. In 1797, French forces, with some American renegades, landed on the Northern coast of Wales – to do what, I’m not sure. They didn’t make it too far. This invasion was supposed to be a diversion from the main attack to liberate Ireland from the Brits.
Three trail maintainers are weed-whacking the trail. They use large mowers and leave the cuttings on the trail, which makes it difficult to walk. Unlike our American maintainers, these men are National Park employees, not volunteers. Sharon and I stand out as female, Americans, over 60 and walking the whole trail. Most hikers walk a few miles here and there. The coastal busses are reliable and it’s easy to just pick out the best bits of trail. We’re usually the only ones on the trail, until about a mile from a beach or parking area when holiday makers pop up.
As we go South, the trail becomes easier and more social. The area also gets more English and is known as “little England”, though two-language signs persist. The path lies between the coast on our right and fenced-in fields with cows, sheep and amber waves of grain on the left. Stiles separate the various fields and we now know how to open, climb over or scramble under a stile.
By the seventh day, the golden weather has ended. Everyone warned us that a storm was coming in. But we start out on the trail first thing in the morning because we’re not going to sit around or take a bus to our evening destination. We’re headed to the village of Marloes, the halfway point on the trail. Our plan is to stay two nights, so we can see puffins on Skomar Island.
No one is on the trail today in the rain, except Martin, the senior trail maintainer, and his helper that we met several days ago. We greet each other like old friends. By now, not only do we know people, but they know us. Martin confirms that the weather today and tomorrow will be rough. We keep walking in the blowing rain. At Martin’s Haven, I search for the ticket office for Skomar Island. Tomorrow our plans were to take the ferry to Skomar, the Puffin Island. Not too many puffins at this time of the year but we were going anyway. Then I see a sign:
Sorry there are no boats running to Skomar Island today with the understanding no boat tomorrow either.
At the next café, I drown my sorrows in a lemon polenta cake and a flat white, coffee with a little steamed milk. Then onto dinner where Sharon introduces me to cider, her favorite pub drink, a new experience for me.
On our rest day, we walk a few miles to the beginning of the estuary crossing where we’ll cross at low tide and walk back to Marloes. After all the research I did on tides and tide tables, I am ready to hit the tides at the right time tomorrow.
The next morning, we reach the start of the Gann, the first estuary, before 8 a.m. Low tide is at 10:15 a.m. and we can cross within three hours of low tide. We have now moved to a more populated area, though “populated” is relative. For much of the walk today, we see the Valero Energy refinery in the distance, the last of the oil refineries in the Milford Haven area. Until recently, several international oil companies had refineries here.
After crossing the second estuary, we land on an almost empty beach at Sandy Haven. We ask a woman playing with her grandson if there is a cafe nearby.
“No”, she says “but come to my house.” And we do. She is the granny of a large family who are renting a great house, steps from the beach. Helen lays on the hot drinks, cakes, and even points us to the loo (restroom). The family asks about our walk and Sharon and I realize that we’re a diversion for the family as well. This walk is more than coastal scenery; it’s about connecting with people and their history.
As we move closer to the southern coast of Wales, we find more people on casual walks who are eager to talk to us. We pass Stack Rock Fort, an offshore Victorian defenses, along with World War I structures. Until recently, protecting your country’s borders meant protecting your coastline.
When we reach the P’shire Yacht Club, we need to find our lodging off the path. Sharon goes into the clubhouse asking for directions and comes out with a ride from Allan who lives in the village we’re aiming for. Good work, Sharon!
Milford Haven is the big town here on the Southern coast of Wales. The path goes around the outskirts of the city and into an LNG (liquid natural gas) plant area. Instead of “No Trespassing” signs and a long walk around the plant, the company built a series of bridges, cages, and boardwalks for walkers. For two miles, I feel like I’m in an amusement park. This will be one of my best and long-lasting memories. Then back to fields and stiles.
We reach Pembroke, home of Pembroke Castle, a Norman castle. After 15 miles of walking, we are quite tired. Still we have to see the castle, which is right in town. We take a tour with a knowledgeable and lively guide. Pembroke Castle was built in the 12th century and attacked by Oliver Cromwell during the English Civil War in the 17th Century. Now only stone ruins remain.
On our hike to Bosherton, the path goes through a Ministry of Defence Firing Range. If the firing range is closed to the public today, we will have a long, confusing road walk. When we arrive at the decision point – through or around the firing range – we find the Castlemartin Range Trail, a combination of road and fields, that seems to be always open. It’s a permissive trail, i.e. they’re giving you permission.
But I’m confused. If the trail is supposed to keep me out of the firing range, why am I looking at this sign? We don’t hear gunfire or see anyone who could chase us off, so we keep walking. Fields on military bases protect land as it rebounds to its natural state. Here the land hasn’t been farmed for over fifty years so plants and animals have been left to their own devices to flourish.
The Coast Path, like most hiking trails in Great Britain, is a right of way through private land. When a new national park is created, the government doesn’t move residents out. Instead they institute rules to protect the land and allow public access. I assume that the landowners get tax benefits.
Our last walking day is wet. We’re in drizzle, hard rain and wind the whole way. The trail is no longer on cliffs but through fields, lanes and roads. We go through two large towns with defined town centers, Tenby and Saundersfoot, but don’t take the time to explore. We arrive in Amroth, our last village, soaked but feeling victorious.
The trail was well-maintained and the signage was good, though we had to pay attention in places. Meals were great, from lavish breakfast buffets to lovely evening meals; the salmon was superb. The historical artifacts on the trail sent me to Google for details almost every evening. The highlight was the Welsh people – friendly, easy to talk to, helpful and just plain fun.