As Robbie Burns so aptly put it: ‘The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley’. My scheme was to complete the Wales Coast Path this summer, but once again, life has intervened to halt me in my tracks. Luckily the reasons are positive ones, but it does mean that I won’t complete the trail this summer (although I may complete it before the year is out).
It all started so well. When I returned to Pembroke to start walking again I had my good friend Rachel accompanying me. We stayed the first night in an excellent Bed and Breakfast, Tregenna Guest House Tregenna Guest House. The owners were very helpful, giving lifts into town for our evening meal, and again in the morning so we could set out actually on the trail. This was our only taste of luxury; from now on we would be camping.
Pembroke is lovely, quite a jewel amongst the surrounding oil refineries and power stations. After leaving the town the path traced a route through fields, adroitly dodging the industrial sites, apart from a circuit round the perimeter fence of the power station, and a fascinating descent under one of the jetties that serve the oil tankers. It was hot and sunny and this set the pattern for the following days. The painful knees that had been plaguing me for some time had not enjoyed the train journey but they seemed to be carrying me despite the discomfort. They did eventually succumb to the rough treatment and by the time I left Wales had mostly stopped complaining. After passing an old fort a tarmac lane led us round Angle Bay, to a tiny tatty campsite. Rachel rested whilst I dumped my kit and trotted off around the peaceful North Hill headland, passing another old fort at the western end. This one was on the tiny Thorn Island and had recently been sold for development. I could see the full sweep of Milford Haven’s industrial seascape, and the coast that I had walked back in 2016.
Although we were carrying small stoves we ate out whenever the opportunity arose. This evening we ate at the Old Point House pub. The meal was typical pub grub but the location was lovely. Food varied in quality from the sublime Freshwater West mobile food van Cafe Mor to the totally non-existent ( Ferryside on a Sunday evening), with much variety in between.
If food was a highlight of each day, then showers were a close runner up. These varied in quality too: that first night at Angle I headed off for a much needed clean up, paying 20 pence for four minutes. I put the coin in the slot, and lathered up whilst the water ran cold to be sure I had enough time to wash. I was covered from head to toe in suds as the water began to heat up. It kept on heating up, until it was scalding hot and I was pinned against the door to avoid being burned. And then it stopped. Totally. Not even a dribble of cold liquid seeped from the shower head. Dripping lather I had to dash out, past an open archway, to the sinks praying that no one was watching. I sluiced cold tap water everywhere, wringing out my underwear over my head to clear the soap from my hair, then dashed back to dry off and dress! The following night there was only cold water at the site. This came from an aquifer two hundred metres below. The pressure was such that the shower head drilled freezing water into scalp and exposed skin. It was an ‘invigorating’ and noisy experience, as I danced in and out of reach of the jet. But at least I was clean and soap free at the end.
The second day took us from Angle to Bosherston via the inland route as the military were using the Castlemartin firing ranges. The first half was along a high cliff path lined with wild flowers tended by fluttering butterflies. After Freshwater West, and the superb lunch of black bean burgers with lashings of ‘kelpchup’ (the sauce made from locally sourced kelp) we headed inland on roads to avoid the ranges. As we climbed away from the beach we had the most magical experience of any of my travels. A car pulled up and a couple emerged carrying a harp, which they placed on the clifftops. A light breeze played the strings, with the waves below as accompaniment. The noise of the surfers could have been a million miles away. A perfect moment.
Parts of the Wales Coast Path have too much tarmac for my liking and this was a day where the second half was mostly on roads. The soundscape changed from breaking waves to the sporadic thump of heavy artillery and the chatter of small arms fire. We were very hot and tired by Bosherston but tea and cake at the cafe revived us enough to walk down to see St Govan’s Chapel followed by a cliff top stroll to Trefalen Campsite, and the drilling shower. Later a passing campervan gave us a lift back up the road to the pub, and after a good meal we both felt restored enough to walk back along the banks of the Lily Ponds. These are huge; far more extensive than I had imagined, and beautiful in the pink evening light. A heron stood motionless, then flew away calling harshly. A bright light in the dunes of Broad Haven drew us inexorably towards it, just like the moths it was designed to trap. I’d not seen a lepidopterist’s lamp trap before. This one was powered by a generator and lined with egg boxes. I would have liked to return to see what had been caught but there was no time.
The following day was to be Rachel’s last full day on the trail. It started well with crisp bright sunshine as we crossed the pristine sands of Broad Haven beach and scrambled up the rocks onto the coast path. At Stackpole Quay we found a cafe and watched robins, sparrows, blackbirds and chaffinches foraging for crumbs, but this would be our last rest in the shade. The day grew hotter and hotter and became quite tough to manage given the number of descents to beaches and climbs back to the cliffs. We had originally intended to stop at Manorbier but the train she needed was early the next day so we decided to push on to the Youth Hostel and camp there. We would, however, need an evening meal so I tried to ring the hostel to be sure we had one booked. This was unbelievably difficult with a poor signal and fading battery. I tried their online booking system and that failed, so tried the text message service which just directed me back to the booking site. I managed to book something but it turned out I’d booked breakfast rather than evening meal, which was a cafeteria system anyway and didn’t need booking. It was all very stressful on a hot day when we were both tired: a pity as it meant I didn’t really fully appreciate the lovely limestone cliffs which gave way to sandstone en route.
By Manorbier Hostel we were both hot and exhausted. Luckily the booking was sound and we exchanged the breakfast for an evening meal. But the heat combined with the steep ascents and descents had battered my knees and it felt as if hammers were hitting them. This was their lowest point and I felt quite scared that they would begin take the pleasure out of my favourite activity.
The morning was a mad scramble as Rachel’s train had been cancelled and we suddenly needed to race for a bus at Tenby. A steady gallop across the clifftops with breathtaking views to Caldey Island got us there with five minutes to spare. She had been an excellent companion and I knew I would miss her. I felt a bit bereft as I wandered through the town and along the beach but the sun, and the sights, quickly lifted my spirits. I was meeting my husband later but didn’t have quite enough time to take one of the boat trips out to Caldey Island, a place last visited in my teens. I did, however, visit the Tudor Merchant’s House which has been restored by the National Trust.
I’d arranged to meet Barry at Saundersfoot and after an egg bap (not haute cuisine, but very filling) by the harbour, hurried onwards along tarmac and concrete paths over the wooded cliffs to a cuppa in a cafe close to the harbour.
Because Barry was visiting with the car we had booked Bed and Breakfast accommodation near Laugharne. There was no other choice available and we arrived at our destination to discover it was a farm and stables. The owner, Jackie, was an older woman struggling to hold her business together. She had only advertised the room the previous day and been surprised that it was booked so quickly. Which might explain why it was not very clean. Although having access to her kitchen meant we could see that cleanliness was not her strong point. On the other hand she was delightfully friendly and helpful but I suspect she will have complaints on Trip Advisor if she doesn’t invest in bleach and dusters.
Now I had road support I ditched the heavy sack and walked on from Saundersfoot with just a daysack. The route took me through former rail tunnels, built to carry coal from the local mines, to Wiseman’s Bridge and on to Amroth. After the heat of the previous days it was good to feel light drizzle on the skin. There was a marker denoting the start/finish of the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path and the trail was now unpeopled and quiet. The terrain changed too with softer cliffs and more vegetation. The local coal seam showed itself at Marros Sands where the cliffs swept round above a black beach. The final descent to Pendine Sands was down knee-wrecking concrete steps to a welcome cafe to meet Barry. Until recently cars were allowed to race on the sands, and land speed records have been set there. It was a rather bleak spot.
There were a few miles of main road to walk after Pendine so I hitched a lift to the next off road section. I’m not being purist about this route: if there are miles of tarmac along a main road I will miss them out. I reckon I’ve lost about twenty miles or so this way. It was very hot when I set out again along a flat track beside the coastal marshes below St John’s Hill. St John’s Hill was made famous by Dylan Thomas and I was heading for Laugharne where he had lived. The village is very pretty with massive castle ruins which must once have been an important defensive location. I passed the boathouse where Thomas wrote some of his most famous literature and continued on along the estuary to St Clears. Last night the tide had been out and the light had glistened on the mudbanks and the boats lain at rest on their sides. Today the tide was in and the sun shone on those same boats as they bobbed on the sea. I can see why the view inspired Thomas to write.
Barry dropped me off at St Clears the next day and I walked, mostly on tarmac, to Llansteffan. The last section was off road around the lovely Wharley Point, a headland above the Taf Estuary where cockle pickers were at work. Llansteffan also has a huge castle almost opposite the ruins at Laugharne. The two sleepy villages belie their busy and warlike past. I hope the food was better in Medieval times too. The cafe lunch was a limp white bread, cheese and tomato toastie which arrived with the crusts cut off. I needed those crusts as I was very hungry!
A new ferry has been built to transport people the short distance across the estuary to Ferryside, replacing one which went out of business many years ago. It was supposed to be in operation but was behind schedule so Barry drove me to Ferryside. I had no compunction in doing this – had the ferry been operating I would have taken it to avoid the eighteen miles of mostly road walking. He abandoned me at Ferryside Campsite Ferryside Farm Accommodation to return home, having enjoyed his few days exploring the area by bike. I was now on my own.
To be continued…