Here, the coast is always clear: Celebrating sixty years of Pembrokeshire's National Park
Pembrokeshire Coast National Park celebrates its 60th anniversary this year. Mick Webb reveals a land of puffins, tanks and Hollywood blockbusters.
Saturday 26 May 2012
On a late spring morning I explored one of Britain's most beautiful bays, yet mine was the only set of footprints on its exquisite golden beach; I have the photo to prove it. Not that I was entirely alone: a huge white seabird with black-tipped wings, which I later found out was a gannet, was diving spectacularly into the foaming swell of the sea, searching for a fishy breakfast without much success.
This was Barafundle, poised between two gorse-covered headlands on the south coast of Pembrokeshire. It is just one of the stunning beaches that decorate what is the smallest of Britain's 15 national parks and the one with a truly coastal focus. You are never more than 10 miles from the sea in the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, which celebrates its 60th birthday this year.
And what a present Pembrokeshire is about to collect: its ravishing shoreline is the main maritime location for the next Hollywood blockbuster. Snow White and the Huntsman, due for release on Wednesday, stars Charlize Theron, Kristen Stewart and the vast and remote Marloes Sands, west of Milford Haven. (No doubt many of the film crew visited the Lobster Pot Inn in the village of Marloes, where a chart details all the wrecks off the Pembrokeshire coast.)
The film may be fantasy, but the reality is no disappointment. Like a miniature version of Wales, Pembrokeshire has a south coast, a west coast and a north coast. My own journey around it started at the resort of Tenby, whose quaint walled old town dates back to Norman times. Rows of B&Bs line the streets leading to the port. Tenby itself boasts a splendid South Beach, and it is only the starter. "You should see Freshwater West," said my landlady over breakfast. "It's like another world." She was right; the extraordinary collection of dunes would have graced the Sahara.
As well as Marloes, the west-facing coast has a number of wonderful stretches, with Newgale Sands particularly enjoyed by sand yachters, kite surfers and surfers. Then, further around the coast you reach the popular Whitesands Bay, the "town beach" of St David's, also a fine surfing location. A little further north lies much smaller Abereiddy, my personal favourite, with oddly dark sands and a "blue lagoon" that looked rather green to me.
All these beaches are affected by the huge difference (up to eight metres) between high and low tides, which creates constantly changing conditions. Along the indented coastline, natural erosion has created some extraordinary sculpted forms, the best known of which are Stack Rocks and the Green Bridge of Wales, a couple of kilometres south of the B4319 between Stackpole and Freshwater West. There is a drawback: you have to cross the Castlemartin Firing Range to get there. Although I saw no warning flags or flashing red lights, there was a disquieting moment when a tank crawled across on the horizon. The rocks themselves were suitably spectacular, enhanced by a colony of nesting guillemots and razorbills. The latter, sweet-looking penguin-like birds, are a symbol of the National Park, which is not disturbed by sharing its real estate with the Army; paradoxically, its presence provides a protective shield for rare flora and fauna.
For the most exciting wildlife, though, you have to climb aboard a boat for a lively journey to one of the park's islands. From the tiny harbour known as Martin's Haven, the Dale Princess sails three times a day to an island whose birdlife is celebrated worldwide. The ragged diamond of Skomer, measuring barely three kilometres by two, is home to an astonishing half-million breeding seabirds. Manx shearwaters, guillemots, kittiwakes, razorbills and, famously, puffins, congregate here – along with a respectable population of grey seals.
The 20-minute ride across a steely, seething stretch of water known as Jack Sound is never dull, and ends at what can only loosely be described as a quayside. Everyone clambers off, including a contingent of volunteers who spend a week at a time here, helping to protect a unique location.
Ramsey Island, further north, also boasts seals and seabirds as well as rare choughs and peregrines, while the waters of Ramsey Sound are visited by porpoises, dolphins and whales – you can take a boat trip from St Justinian near St David's. "We even have fin whales here in August," enthused a park ranger, whom I met in St David's. "They're the second biggest whales in the world." He recommended I try the new pursuit of "coasteering" which involves swimming, jumping, climbing and generally using any physical means you can to traverse the shoreline. However, I am more drawn to the less complex art of walking.
The walker's walk is the Pembrokeshire Coast Path, a very scenic part of the Wales Coastal Path, which was formally opened earlier this month. All 299km of the Pembrokeshire section can be walked in about 15 days but it's easy to pick and choose, particularly if you use the coastal bus services, specifically designed for walkers.
Shorter circular walks taking as little as an hour can be found throughout the park. I tried one of the best known, on the western edge of Pembrokeshire, arriving early in the evening at Whitesands Bay and taking the path up to windswept St David's Head. The heather and gorse were filled with the distinctive bird calls of stonechats and the rare red-legged, red-billed choughs. Porpoises had been spotted near the shore a few days earlier but I wasn't lucky enough to see one. On the upside: I could have been blown off the headland by the gale, but wasn't.
The coast doesn't hog all the limelight; the Preseli Hills in the north of the county are a stretch of wild, rolling moorland, with peaks that reach a height of 500m. The incredibly hard bluestone rock quarried from here was found at Stonehenge, although the Preselis have their own prehistoric site, Pentre Ifan. There's no fuss, no razzmatazz and no entry turnstiles. I parked in a country lane a five-minute drive from the A40, the Fishguard to Carmarthen road, and walked down to the arrangement of standing stones topped by a huge horizontal capstone, the remains of a Neolithic burial chamber. Some brilliant rays of sun pierced the dark clouds, adding to the place's atmospheric charge.
A 20-minute drive away, down a lane so narrow that there was hardly room for my car between the flower-covered banks, there was a very different prehistoric experience to be had, at the Castell Henllys Iron Age fort. The collection of round thatched huts has been meticulously rebuilt on the site of an archaeological dig. There were fires burning in the huts, cooking pots, animal skins, tools in racks; it looked as though the inhabitants had just popped out and would be back soon.
On the whole the park boundary avoids towns, although Pembroke, with its castle, Fishguard with the ferry service to Ireland, and Milford Haven, the controversial oil and gas processing port, are close by.
The most notable, though, is St Davids – still Britain's smallest city, despite the civic upgrade of St Asaph for the Diamond Jubilee. (At 3,491, the latter has almost twice as many people.) The cathedral is an elegant, mainly 12th-century building, with a beautifully carved wooden ceiling.
A pair of tiny villages near St Davids were once important ports. Solva has a row of pretty pastel-coloured houses and shops, but my favourite was Porthgain. The remnants of its industrial past – lime kiln, slate quarry and brickworks – are arranged decorously around its tiny harbour and village green. When I arrived there, a couple of fishing boats were drawn up on the shore and the 18th-century Sloop Inn was open and dispensing Welsh ales.
I enjoyed a pint of Felinfoel Double Dragon from Wales's oldest brewery in the company of a walker who was halfway round the coastal path and a local fisherman, which seemed a fitting way to celebrate my visit.
The main line west from Swansea and Carmarthen splits at Whitland, with one branch threading south-west to Tenby and Pembroke Dock. The other goes west to Haverfordwest, then north to Fishguard (Arriva Trains Wales 0870 900 0773; arriva trainswales.co.uk). Through services from London and Cardiff services are operated by First Great Western (0845 700 0125; first greatwestern.co.uk).
For maps and walking times, see www.pembrokeshire.gov.uk/coastalbuses. For hiking in the Preseli Hills, use the Green Dragon bus (greendragonbus.co.uk).
Tenby's Gumfreston Hotel (01834 842871; www.gumfrestonhoteltenby.co.uk) has B&B doubles for £70.
Castell Henllys Iron Age fort (01239 891319; pembrokeshirecoast.org.uk; open daily, £4.75).
TYF Adventure of St Davids (01437 721611; tyf.com) offers outdoor activities. Boat trips to Skomer Island from Martin's Haven are with Dale Sailing (01646 603123; pembrokeshireislands.co.uk).
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