Walking the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path

Basking sharks, whales, sunfish and porpoise. In theory, at least according to the sign on the wall, all could potentially be seen from the old World War 2 coastal lookout turned wildlife observation point in which we were then standing. Unfortunately, if there were any such creatures within the immediate vicinity they were staying stubbornly hidden beneath the surface of the waves below. Granted, our observational endeavours were undertaken without any binoculars, involved only about 10 minutes of our time and were conducted without the accoutrements of the more serious wildlife observers in the building, such as camouflage clothing and the all important hot tea flask – but still.

Leaving the basking shark and sunfish disappointment behind us we headed back out for our sixth day on the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path, a 186 mile designated national trail which snakes its way around the Welsh Pembrokeshire Coast. We followed the narrow single track path around sea cliffs and past boulders, listening to the sound of seals bellowing below, occasionally heading down to beaches (or havens as they are called in these parts) and then back up on to the cliffs, our fingers stained from the blackberries we picked along the way.

Seals off the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path
Seals off the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path

A bit further along and looking down at the beach below I wondered how anyone could have thought that it was a good spot to begin an invasion of Britain. We were  standing on Carregwastad Head, just off the path next to a plaque which commemorated the ‘last invasion of Britain’ in 1792. The small bay below was surrounded by steep cliffs and there was nothing much around except farmland. The nearest town, Fishguard, was several miles away and was not obviously a town which would have ever been of great strategic value. The invasion, however, had been part of a plan by Revolutionary France for a three-pronged attack of Britain with a major force to land in Ireland in support of the Society of United Irishmen and two other diversionary forces to land in each of Newcastle and Wales. In a triumph of ineptitude, only the ‘diversionary’ force landing in Wales proceeded. The hoped for reinforcement of Welsh locals joining in an uprising against the English never eventuated and the French unconditionally surrendered within a few days. Apparently the Welsh who in the past had been perfectly happy to support an uprising by their own against the English, were less enamoured of assisting the French. Jemima Nicholas typified the Welsh attitude single handedly rounding up 12 French soldiers armed only with a pitchfork (or at least that is how the Welsh tell it, only too happy to present a picture of a Welsh farm woman triumphing over 12 French soldiers).

From the monument we dropped down into a wooded valley before regaining the height we had lost, leaving the coast to cross the common above Fishguard Bay and then hitting civilisation again in the form of the outskirts of Goodwick. A quick descent along the road into Goodwick and circuit around the harbour brought us to our exit point to head back up to where our car was parked in Fishguard. A short day but typical of the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path – rugged cliffs, wildlife, history and plenty of ups and downs.

Where: The Pembrokeshire Coastal Path follows a peninsula on the south-western tip of Wales stretching from Amroth in the south to St Dogmaels in the north.

Length: The official length of the path is 186 miles (299 km) but alternative routes for high tides, storms and firing ranges together with paths on and off the trail to access towns and transport can increase the length of the trail to well over 200 miles (322km). The path passes 58 beaches and 14 harbours and has more than 35,000 feet of ascent and descent. Those who are fit and in a hurry can walk the path in 10 days (at a rate of about 30kms a day). We took a much more leisurely approach walking 104 miles from Dale to St Dogmaels over 10 days.

Pembrokeshire Coastal Path
Pembrokeshire Coastal Path

How: There are various ways that a walk along the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path can be organised. For those who have a strict budget, the path can be walked with a pack and advantage taken of the various camping grounds along the way. Those who want to lighten their load, leave all organisation to others and without budgetary constraints can simply book the walk through one of the numerous tour companies who will happily book all accommodation and arrange for your luggage to be transported each day (expect to pay more than $4000 per couple for 14 nights). We, however, took a mid-course – booking a couple of cottages in different locations for a week each (there are numerous services available), driving to where we intended to finish each day’s walk and then using the excellent bus services for walkers to get to the start of each walk (go to Pembrokeshire Greenways for the timetable and other details). This seemed to be the approach favoured by most walkers that we met on the path. Using this approach we walked the following sections (and used the indicated bus services):

  1. Dale to Martins Haven, 10.4 miles (bus service 315 from Dale to Marloes Village and then Puffin Shuttle to Martin’s Haven);
  2. Martin’s Haven to Nolton Haven, 16 miles (Puffin Shuttle to Nolton Haven);
  3. Nolton Haven to Solva, 7.6 miles (Puffin Shuttle);
  4. Solva to Whitesands, 13 miles (Puffin Shuttle to St Davids and then Celtic Coaster to Whitesands);
  5. Whitesands to Porthgain, 9.6 miles (we parked in St Davids and took the Strumble Shuttle to Porthgain and then returned to St Davids from Whitesands on the Celtic Coaster);
  6. Porthgain to Strumble Head, 14 miles (Strumble Shuttle);
  7. Strumble Head to Fishguard, 8 miles (Strumble Shuttle);
  8. Fishguard to Newport 12 miles, (Strumble Shuttle);
  9. Newport to Cebwr/Molygrove 9 miles, (Poppit Rocket);
  10. Cebwr/Molygrove to St Dogmaels 8 miles (Poppit Rocket).

We made a decision to skip the sections of the path between Amroth and Dale due to time constraints and because these sections were by far the most urban. They do, however, have the best castles  (Pembroke and Manorbier) which we visited by car.

Why do this walk? Putting to one side that Lonely Planet declared Pembrokeshire to be the no.1 region to visit in 2012 and the path’s place on various ‘top walk’ lists here are my top 10 reasons for walking the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path:

  1. Cliff top scenery. Periods of intense volcanic activity have helped to form the cliffs which in places seem to stretch as far as the eye can see.
  2. Wildlife. We watched seals and dolphins in the sea below; kestrels, falcons and sea birds in the skies above; and ponies on Saint Davids Head.

    Ponies on the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path
    Ponies on the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path
  3. Flora. A surprise to us, at times the cliff tops were blanketed in colour from the various flowers.

    Flora on the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path
    Flora on the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path
  4. Castles. Always high on the must see list for those of us visitors for whom castles are a novelty. Wales is the best place in the UK for castles and Pembrokeshire Coast has its fair share, the two best examples being Manorbier and Pembroke.
  5. Villages. Small fishing villages dot the coast and, with every village seemingly having at least three pubs, they provide a great spot for refreshment. The more adventurous can even try traditional foods such as laverbread (seaweed and oatmeal) and faggots (meatballs made from offal).
  6. The UK’s smallest city. With a population which is now just over 1800 (the size of a village), St Davids was recognised as a city in the 16th century because of its diocesan cathedral. It lost its city status in 1888 when the link between cities and cathedrals was abolished only to regain the status in 1994 following a petition to the Queen.

    St Davids' Cathedral, Pembrokeshire
    St Davids’ Cathedral, Pembrokeshire
  7. History. The natural advantages of the region (fishing grounds, fertile soil for agriculture, access to Ireland for trade and suitable stone for burial mounds and standing stones) has meant that it has a long history of civilisation – Bronze and Iron Age communities, Christian settlements raided by Vikings, Norman invaders and, more recently, busy harbours formed during the industrialisation of Britain. Walking along the path allows you to glimpse back through different periods as you pass the remnants of Iron Age forts, Norman castles, the ruins of St Dogmaels abbey, St David’ cathedral, abandoned quarries and old World War II defence installations.
  8. Forts and Henges.  So numerous are the Iron Age fort indications on the map for the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path that we ended up playing the game “guess which odd looking geological feature indicates the remnants of a fort and which odd geological feature is just an odd geological feature” (OK, we are a bit nerdy).

    Pembrokeshire Henge
    Pembrokeshire Henge
  9. Path Design. The vast majority of the path is single track, with very little on tarmac. Surprisingly, for a coastal path you don’t spend that much time on the beach and when you do the sand is quite firm – not the hard slog through soft sand that you can experience on other coastal tracks around the world. Walking on some sections in the north can feel quite wild and remote (even when you are only a few hours walk from the next pub).
  10. Length.  In contrast to Britain’s other coastal walks, the Wales Coast Path (870 miles) (of which it forms part) and the South West Coast Path (630 miles) is a short stroll and achievable in a couple of weeks.

The careful observer will have noted that I didn’t list the beaches in my top ten list. This is despite the Pembrokeshire coast regularly being described as having some of the best beaches in the UK which are frequently used as a backdrop by film-makers. Be warned, however, that they are not great beaches as an Australian would understand the use of that phrase. The sand is more grey than white (even the curiously named White Sands beach) and the few people that we saw swimming were wearing wetsuits. It’s still fun, however, to watch the holidaymakers at play on the seaside – nets for chasing crabs and plastic shovels for building sand castles seemed to be required items.

Pembrokeshire Coastal Path beach
Pembrokeshire Coastal Path beach

Who can do this walk. Whilst some sections of the walk are gentle (these are set out on the Pembrokeshire National Trail gentle walks page), much of it involves travelling down narrow paths to beaches and back up again to the cliffs with numerous gates and stiles. A reasonable amount of fitness and agility is required to tackle the whole trail.

Safety. The trail follows cliff tops with sheer drops and no barriers or warning signs, so stick to the path and be careful in high winds and with pets and small children. The area is tidal so beware of incoming tides if crossing any beach. Read the Coast Path Safety Code put out by the National Parks Service.

Signage/maps. The path is marked with the acorn sign of the National Trails and it is difficult to get lost – just stick to the trail and keep the ocean on one side. A map is not required for the trail itself but is useful if driving to get access to start/end points for each day. The coastal bus service timetable booklet provides walk distances and suggestions for day walks and can be obtained on any of the buses or downloaded from Pembrokeshire Greenways.

Best time of the year. The coastal bus services run daily from early May to late September (check the timetable for exact dates). From mid March to late July puffins can be seen on Skomer Island (a mile off the coast from Martin’s Haven – various tour services are available). Autumn (late August/September) is the time of the year to see seal pups. 

Best direction. The path can be walked in any direction. The easiest and flattest bits are in the south. The path gets progressively more difficult as you head north, with the most difficult sections being between Newport and St Dogmaels.

Getting there and away by public transport. To get to Amroth take a train to Kilgetty and then catch the 351 bus to Amroth (5km).To get St Dogmaels get a train to Haverfordwest then the 412 bus to Cardigan. Then take the 405 walker bus (Poppit Rocket) or walk to St Dogmaels (2.5km).

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