As the home of Britain’s one and only national coastal park, Pembrokeshire is rightly famed for its marine wildlife, unspoilt beaches, towering cliffs and charming harbours. Pembrokeshire’s coastline has a well-deserved reputation. It is undeniably beautiful and – thanks to its long-distance path – very accessible. The county’s beaches regularly top popularity polls and its headlands and islands make coastal walking a joy. For the most part it’s unspoilt, partly thanks to the care and attention of the dedicated folk at Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, Britain’s one and only seaside national park. People often assume that Pembrokeshire is a national park, whereas it’s actually a county that contains a national park – a little less than half of the county is within the park. The coastline is so good that sometimes the rest of the county gets overlooked, and the national park’s focus is, understandably, on the area within its boundaries. But Pembrokeshire’s green, peaceful heartland is very special and should not be missed.
That’s why this guide includes many excellent inland routes. Just about everywhere you go there are castles – lots and lots of castles. They are a very visible reminder that sleepy Pembrokeshire wasn’t always so peaceful. If you are hoping to understand what makes this region tick it’s worth knowing just a bit about its history. People have been coming to, and through, what is now Pembrokeshire for as long as there has been recorded history – and well before that too, if we read archaeological finds correctly.
It’s difficult to know whether the people who moved Preseli bluestones to Stonehenge were locals or not. That will probably remain a mystery, but there are lots of clues to other comings and goings. For example, Norse place-names like Skokholm suggest that Vikings were regular visitors while Dark Age saints hopped happily between Brittany, Cornwall and Pembrokeshire. People have come and gone, some have stayed. The settlers who made the biggest impact on the landscape are definitely the Normans. Wherever you go, you are never far from one of their castles, or a castle built by a Welsh ruler to defend his land from the new arrivals. Until a century or two ago it was easier to get to Pembrokeshire by sea than by road; Dublin was less of a journey than London. And the mariners from this part of Wales travelled the world. A notorious few did so for less than lawful purposes. These included Bartholomew Roberts, known posthumously as Black Bart, who has been described as the last ‘great’ pirate of the Golden Age of Piracy. Born in Little Newcastle, near the Preseli Hills, Bart raided more than 400 ships in the Caribbean before being cornered and killed by the Royal Navy in 1722.
Closer to home, in the 18th and early 19th centuries, smuggling gangs are said to have landed their contraband on every south-facing beach between Tenby and Dale. Further west, lonely inlets were used too; close to Little Haven one inlet is called Dutch Gin and, not far away, another is Brandy Bay.
The Pembrokeshire Coast Path is one of the UK’s best-known and best- loved long-distance trails. Opened in 1970, the trail is 299km (186 miles) long, and keeps as close to the coast as its creators could get it. That makes it a thrilling walk and quite a challenging one; with all its ups and downs it is said that a walker who completes the whole 299km achieves the equivalent of an ascent of Everest. In 2012 the Pembrokeshire Coast Path become part of the Wales Coast Path.
Waymarking uses either the Pembrokeshire trail’s acorn logo or the Wales Coast Path’s logo, a shell. Of course, not everyone has the time – or inclination – to spend a couple of weeks hiking, so this guide comprises many short routes that offer a taste of the Pembrokeshire experience. The collection of routes selected are intended to be easier, family-friendly routes. Where possible, some have been included that can be walked with a pushchair. Pembrokeshire walking is mostly pretty gentle, but be prepared for some challenging weather, especially on the coast. The county’s weather is very changeable, but that does cut both ways. Wherever you’re heading, it makes sense to take waterproof gear and to wear walking boots. Around the coast, it’s also worth checking tide times before you set out.
You will hear Cymraeg, the Welsh language, spoken far more often in shops and pubs in neighbouring Ceredigion and Carmarthen than in Pembrokeshire. That said, Welsh is close to the heart of the county and just under 20 percent of Pembrokeshire’s population can speak the language. It is well worth knowing, and using, the sounds of Welsh.
It’s especially useful when pronouncing place names.
C is always hard, like the c in cat
Ch is like the ch in a Scottish loch
Dd is like the th in the
F is like v in violin
Ff is like the ff in off
Ll is easy; just place your tongue as though you’re going to say lord and then blow R is like the r in red, but rolled Rh place your tongue to say the r in red and then blow W is like the oo in zoo
Try . . .
Bore da (Boh-reh dah): Good morning
Prynhawn da (Prin-houn dah): Good afternoon Iechyd da (Yeh-kid dah): Cheers Diolch (Dee-olk): Thanks Nos da (Nohs dah): Good night
The scattering of islands around the county add a fascinating extra dimension to the coastal landscape. Even a short visit to Pembrokeshire really should include a visit to, or a voyage around, at least one. This guide does not include any island routes because none of the accessible islands are really big enough to get lost on.
The largest, Skomer, is only a little more than 3km long. Skomer is the place to see puffins. It is one of Wales’ most important National Nature Reserves and is of international importance as a seabird breeding island. In spring and early summer thousands of birds raise their young on the island, including around 6000 puffin pairs. They like to use burrows near to the clifftops. On the cliffs themselves it’s wall-to-wall birds in places. You can see fulmars, razorbills, guillemots (about 20,000 of them) and kittiwakes. You can visit Skomer for the day between April and October and the boat trip from Martin’s Haven is a short one. Just 3km south of Skomer is its neighbour, Skokholm. The island’s name means ‘Wooded Isle’ and is derived from Old Norse, presumably because it served as a landmark for Viking mariners. Like Skomer, Skokholm is an important seabird breeding colony and a nature reserve. You cannot land on Skokholm for just a day, but it is possible to stay in the island’s bird observatory. Find out more about Skomer and Skokholm from The Wildlife Trust of South & West Wales (welshwildlife.org). Just a 1km stretch of open water, the Caldey Sound, separates Caldey from the mainland, but its fast-moving currents make for a risky crossing. So the island’s ferry takes a longer but safer line from Tenby to Caldey’s Priory Bay – a crossing that takes about 20 minutes. Caldey has been inhabited since prehistory and is one of Britain’s holy islands – it has been home to various orders of monks since the 5th century. Its current abbey was built in 1910 and was taken over by Belgian Cistercians in the 1920s. The island is popular with day visitors. Boats operate on weekdays between Easter and October and on Saturdays between May and September (caldey-island.co.uk). At the western end of St Davids Peninsula is Ramsey. Whereas Skomer and Skokholm are relatively flat, Ramsey has two hills. Carn Llundain, the highest of the two, climbs to 136m. You can visit for the day between April and the end of October. The best month to go is, arguably, September. Ramsey is home to Wales’ biggest grey seal colony and in early autumn around 600 seal pups are born on the island. Also look out for red deer. The small herd are descendants of those raised on Ramsey when it was a deer farm in the 1970s. You can often see the outline of Grassholm from the mainland, but it is 13km west of Skomer. In early summer the island becomes a gannet colony and every inch of its barren surface is taken to provide nesting space. Around 39,000 pairs of gannets raise chicks on Grassholm – that’s about 10 percent of the world population. Landing on the island is not permitted, but you can join gannet-watching cruises between June and August. Find out more about Ramsey and Grassholm from the RSPB (rspb.org.uk).