Travel: The wild waves of the west

For bracing walks on lonely, breathtakingly beautiful beaches and cliffs, Sue Wheat made for the western tip of Wales
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The Independent Online
Getting away from it all: that was what we wanted. So we hired a cottage for the weekend on the western tip of Wales. Arrangements were one thing, locating the place late on a Friday night was quite another. We found our cottage by a combination of luck and design. Careful map- reading helped us locate the tiny village of Rhodian-y-Brennan, just outside St David's. And while sitting in the car looking at a line drawing of the house we suddenly realised that we were mysteriously parked outside it. Almost on the stroke of midnight, we'd arrived.

The next day we all slept in till noon. Cottages seem to do that to you, especially those with no TV, radio or stereo. And no central heating. This meant that we nurtured the wood burner in the lounge as you would a small child. We hardly left it alone for a second, scared that if we neglected it, it would slump into a sulk. So we huddled around it transfixed, making encouraging oohs and aahs as it flitted from flicker to fury.

Finally we levered ourselves into the afternoon sunshine. St David's was our first stop, two miles down the road. As it has a cathedral it is technically a city (although it was officially given this title only in 1995), but there are few bright lights here. No doubt in summer tourists swarm around Britain's most miniature city, but at this time of year it felt as though we had stumbled across a precious secret - particularly the 12th-century cathedral, made partly of local purple stone, and complete with an intricately latticed, Irish oak ceiling. St David himself is reputedly buried here, although recently questions have been asked as to whether the bones really are his.

A few steps across the tiny River Arun, which runs behind the cathedral, is the 14th-century Bishop's Palace. Rooks circle above the ruins, and a large, central grass quadrangle fringed by ruined buildings creates an enchanted walled garden. As we scrambled around exploring, my mobile phone squawked sacrilegiously; it shook me rudely back into the world of today.

The sun was shining bravely, but the wind was fighting its corner. We bought hats. If we were going to venture out on a coastal walk we had to be prepared, we were told by the man in the sportswear shop, who advised us to start our exploring at the lifeboat station. We might see seals there, he said, and we could walk along the famous coastal cliff walk.

The lifeboat station, marked as such on every map but signposted as St Justinian's Harbour, is two miles due west of the city. A ruined chapel, a weatherboard lifeboat station and a ticket hut for the boat trips that run in season are all that is there. I felt as if I'd been transported to the scene in The French Lieutenant's Woman where Meryl Streep stands in a cloak looking soulfully out to sea (though the film's location was Lyme Regis in Dorset, rather than Wales). Dressed in fleeces, trainers and strange hats, we hardly had the same grace, but the evocative atmosphere was there.

Across the water we saw the shadow of Ramsey Island, the destination for a host of pleasure trips in the summer. When we had asked about the tours in St David's we had received rather pitiful looks. Looking down on the sea bashing mercilessly at the rocks, we realised why. This was not jolly boating weather.

We managed a walk of a few hundred yards along the coastal path. The view across the bay was magnificent and the sun was warm, but the wind was winning. It pushed us into the cliff-side and swirled around our freshly covered ears. Fearing being brushed off the edge, we turned back, and deciding on a safer place to marvel at the sea view, we headed for Whitesand Bay. As we drove down the steep road towards it, we turned a bend and gasped at the huge white banks of froth beating at the bay. We had the beach to ourselves, so we stood in a line and looked out to sea, as tourists do, and watched the sun set behind the unreachable Ramsey Island.

There were better views to come, however, and over the weekend the "it- takes-your-breath-away" gasp became commonplace. At Solva, on the way to Haverfordwest, we walked from the Harbour House Hotel on the edge of the village and followed an inlet down to the sea. We reached a smooth, sandy beach at the mouth of the bay surrounded by huge, multicoloured rocks, and clambered into vast caves lining the bay. We saw no other tourists, just a few local people walking their dogs.

The most stunning view was on that of Newgale Sands. This hit us between the eyes as we drove towards Haverfordwest. Here was a beach about a mile long with no one on it save a rider on a sleek brown horse, cantering down the whole length. We climbed over the shingle embankment which surrounds the beach and ran down to the sand. Faced with so much unspoilt space, it was hard to know what to do. My friends ran and circled the sandy strip, wheeling around like the rooks we'd seen at the Bishop's Palace. I walked, daunted by the vastness, and made my way up to the water's edge. The sea seemed to beckon us in. My courage simmered on the verge of impetuousness - only mad dogs and tourists would even contemplate this. I pulled my new, too-big hat down over my ears and common sense took over: romanticism stopped just short of suicide by hypothermia.

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