Bleak, moody, wet, windy. They’re not adjectives you readily find in a holiday brochure, yet the Pembrokeshire Coast is a beautiful place precisely because of these qualities. While in late spring, its paths are speckled with wildflowers, and in summer, its beaches are full of children flying kites, this remote stretch of shore is at its savage and mysterious best in late winter and early spring. We’re standing on the clifftop above Skrinkle Haven, a cove on Pembrokeshire’s south coast. Looking down onto the deserted beach, I think about how far we are from anywhere remotely built up and urban – and how rare this is in modern Britain. There is no phone signal here, let alone 3G or wi-fi. We are the only visitors, save from a local lady in a bright red and yellow raincoat walking her two black Labradors. I also think about what a tiny speck Skrinkle is on my map of the coast path, and how it would feel to walk the whole thing. I’m not sure my wellies could take it.
The Pembrokeshire Coast National Park covers 240 square miles of Wales’s south-western headland. That’s the bit near the bottom of the map that sticks out, pointing towards Ireland. The Pembrokeshire Coast Path is a designated National Trail within the park which wends its way around the shore for 186 miles. You could walk it in a week at a Usain Bolt lick, but most people take ten or eleven days. It runs from Amroth, on the south coast not far from Skrinkle, to St Dogmael’s on the headland’s northern shore. Along the way you’ll see rocky coves, golden beaches, and dodge artillery ranges, you’ll pass through traditional fishing villages with medieval churches, and, if you’re lucky, you’ll spot puffins and dolphins. In 2010, National Geographic voted the Pembrokeshire Coast the second best coastline in the world, beaten only by Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula. Despite such a glowing accolade (it beat coastlines in the Cook Islands, Hawaii and Australia), during the colder months of the year, the trail is practically devoid of walkers, leaving us all but alone to enjoy its award-winning charms.
Separated from Skrinkle Haven by a jutting limestone rampart is Church Doors Cove. We wander over the grassy banks, past a deserted youth hostel set back from the path, which looks like an East German holiday camp circa 1986, all grey and yellow concrete. In a few months, it will be full of ramblers and backpackers. At the edge of the cliffs is a steep metal stairway. We climb down its 140 steps carefully and onto a large boulder at the bottom. The tide is in, flooding the sand at the front of the cove. The part nearest the cliffs is covered in shale and large, oval stones like a collection of grey dinosaur eggs. We clamber over the boulders, avoiding the slippery, seaweed coated ones, towards the ‘Church Doors’ – an arch carved into the limestone cliff. The opening is almost perfectly rectangular, as though hewn from the rock by an unseen giant hand with a spirit level. The limestone on either side of the arch looks like burnt firewood; all pointing upwards in neat but jagged rows. Through the ‘door’, I can see waves hitting the cliffs and sea spray firing upwards. On the other side of the cove, we spot a similar arch, but about a tenth of the size. It offers a peek of the sand in the neighbouring cove.
We climb back up the steps and press on over the grassy cliff tops, past sandy Skrinkle Haven once more. This time, our route soon turns away from the shoreline, diverting past Manorbier Army Camp and its warning signs. There are several such camps and firing ranges along the Pembrokeshire coast, meaning that the planners had to navigate around them and away from the seafront. The National Park was created in 1952, but it took until 1970 before the Pembrokeshire Coast Path was officially opened. In his guide book Pembrokeshire Coast Path (an essential in my rucksack, along with cereal bars, water and plasters) Brian John explains, “There were immense complications in designating the path”. The planners had to negotiate with private land owners for public access, and work out suitable detours around army ranges and power stations. We press on to Freshwater East – Fresh East to locals – where, for the first time since Skrinkle, we are not alone. Despite the afternoon drizzle, there are several families walking along the brown sugar sands, children wrapped up in colourful bobble hats and scarves, spaniels and terriers cantering down the beach. A father and son are fishing at the water’s edge. We pick up milky white stones and skim them over the waves. The rain is coming down hard now, so we cheat a bit and drive on to Fresh East’s rather predictably named counterpart down the road, Fresh West. I’m excited to see this beach for two reasons, firstly, it boasts a traditional seaweed drying hut, and secondly, scenes from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows were shot there.
We drive past fields of sheep and cows, huddled together against the rain. The roadside already has a smattering of daffodils, a lone shot of bright colour on this grey and indigo day. As we get nearer the beach, the track cuts through Freshwater West’s tall sand dunes. The Bladerunner spires of Milford Haven oil refinery are briefly visible in the distance, before the road leads us further down between the dunes. The shell cottage belonging to Dobby the elf in Harry Potter was sadly disassembled after filming, but you can see why the crew chose to build it at Freshwater West. The beach is long, stunning and deserted with ten foot high waves crashing into the sand. Even in season, it’s not suitable for swimming, but is popular with surfers. The grasses on the dunes bristle in the wind and Freshwater West feels like the remotest spot in Britain. The one made-made addition to the view is that last remaining seaweed hut. In this little wooden shack with a thatched roof, local women laid out seaweed to dry on the sandy floor before it was sent on to Swansea to be turned into traditional Welsh laverbread. Today, we shelter inside it against the horizontal rain and watch the waves. As we dash for the car, I spot a small plaque dedicated to a man called John William Parker, apparently known to his family as ‘the Whistler’. Part of the inscription reads;
Treasured memories of a favourite place – “Paradise”.
It may not have palm trees and tropical heat, but the wind-buffered Pembrokeshire coast is definitely a kind of paradise. ■