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Pembrokeshire: Call of the coast

The craggy coast of Pembrokeshire — Britain's only coastal national park — is the place for wild walks along wind-lashed cliffs

Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:21 BST, Updated 12 Jul 2021, 16:37 BST
Whitesands Beach, Pembrokeshire, Wales

Whitesands Beach, Pembrokeshire, Wales

Photograph by Alamy

The Sirens' roar rushes across St Bride's Bay. Their deafening call is hard to ignore. From the Treginnis Peninsula — the westernmost point of mainland Wales — I squint in their direction, but a heavy mist means they're playing hard to get. These Sirens — more formally known as The Bitches — are a series of rocks between Ramsey Island and West Wales that form a tidal race of treacherous waves and whirlpools. The thunderous tide rushing through them has wrecked many a ship and is providing an ominous soundtrack to my hike.

I'm walking a portion of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path, which is almost entirely contained within Britain's only coastal national park, and curves its way across 186 miles of coves and harbours, tiny towns, steep slopes and sandy beaches. It also forms a portion of the staggering 870-mile Wales Coast Path, which opened in 2012 and traces the country's entire shoreline. Having been to Pembrokeshire many times with my partner, who grew up here, I've walked over half its length. And today I'm adding a 9.5-mile section from Whitesands to Caerfai to my hiking repertoire.

I begin the day in St David's, at the Twr y Felin Hotel — originally built in 1806 as a windmill — flinging open the shutters of my Windmill Tower Suite to find a thick fog has descended like smoke across the peninsula. Sea and sky merge, blotting out the horizon. Conditions aren't ideal, but it's the winter solstice, and I want to see this landscape on the verge of transition.

When I reach Whitesands, two surfers are just visible plying the waves as I join a path mantled by dark heather, gorse and fern. Gone is the summer's sweep of gold and purple wildflowers; gone the puffins and Manx shearwaters; and gone the crowds who came to see them. Instead, there are cobwebs, defiant against a whipping wind; pockets of gorse sprouting delicate yellow flowers; and cormorants skimming the moody surface of the sea.

It doesn't take long to reach Porthselau, a small beach littered with kayaks, seaweed and colourful limpet shells, some knocked from their rocky foundations by Storms Ophelia and Brian. There's another sign of the storms' devastation in Pembrokeshire — I haven't yet seen a seal in an area where they're often spotted, lending credence to reports that two-thirds of the Atlantic grey seal pups on the outlying islands perished in the rough waters.

The path takes me over a waterfall, which cascades onto a small beach and slices through the sand. I follow steps down and head towards a series of rocky outcrops, covered in places by a seaweed forest; exposed stones provide shelter for tiny snails, who are huddled together in deep crevasses. Pebbles of purple and red quartzite, jasper and ash pepper the beach, while the surrounding flora mirrors it in glorious shades of rust, charcoal and green.

Climbing again, to 200ft, I reach a unique vantage point over the brooding landscape: cliffs crafted over millennia by water, some so smooth and sheer it seems unbelievable they were sculpted by nature's hand; others bent into dramatic folds. A blue-grey sea pulsates below, erupting with fury on the cliffs. Further along, in a secluded cove, the relationship is more genteel: a constant ebb and flow, a reaching and retreating that creates a slow whittling away.

Just past the ruins of St Justinian's chapel is small harbour, home to the St David's Lifeboat Station. Its three boathouses are assembled on the cliffs — the oldest dating back to 1869. I head into the newest incarnation, which opened in October 2016, to find a wall covered with notice boards detailing the services rendered by the lifeboat, including assisting surfers, yachts, kayakers and fishing vessels, as well as injured people on cliffs and even stranded dogs. A humble sign below tots up the number of lives saved by the St David's lifeboats during their lifespan: 328; some weren't so lucky. It's a reminder of the precarious nature of these unpredictable waters and wind-lashed cliffs. I head back outside to walk through the gloom as the Sirens beckon me — the howl of a wild place. 

Read more of the Wild weekends cover story here.

Published in the March 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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