Back in the spring, Harri was commissioned by a well-known outdoor publisher to research and write a book of day walks based within the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park. It goes without saying that we were extremely pleased with the news; the combination of coast and mountain walking is hard to beat and we couldn’t wait to get ourselves down to west Wales to start exploring and photographing potential routes.
On our first trip, in late June, we stayed at the Travelodge at Pembroke Dock for a week and focused on the more densely-populated (and Anglicised) south Pembrokeshire. We weren’t lucky with the weather, but the long hours of daylight enabled us to triumph over the vagaries of the British weather by adjusting our start times to coincide with dry spells. It meant occasionally cutting things tight, like on the Bosherton and Stackpole walk when we ended up marching through the wonderful lily ponds in semi-darkness – needless to say, the flowers didn’t look their best at nightfall.
Despite the frequent downpours – and a certain amount of distraction caused by the political fallout of Brexit (for days it seemed every time we returned to our room, a newsreader was announcing the resignation of yet another politician) – we managed to complete ten walks over eight days. One walk around the Cleddau Estuary was abandoned by mutual agreement because it failed to live up to its original promise, the footpaths were not maintained and the views were non-existent. Other than that, we had a wonderful time and returned home convinced that Harri’s next book will be a great introduction to the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park for walkers who wish to explore this beautiful part of Wales for the first time.
Having decided to avoid the summer holidays, it wasn’t until last week that we returned to Pembrokeshire to complete the final ten walks for the book. This time, we booked a traditional stone cottage at Bryn-henllan near Dinas, which made an ideal base for most of the planned walking along the north coast and the Preseli Mountains, though involved a 45-minute drive to St David’s.
Driving to Dinas along the A40, we were saddened by the amount of carnage on the roads. These were the sights no-one wants to see: the lifeless gaze of a badger, the dirt-covered, bloodied fox and two rabbits, hit, killed and left on the road. It’s all too easy to blame the drivers, but, as we were about to find out ourselves, animals often react in unpredictable ways when confronted with traffic. Soon after passing our second dead rabbit, we were involved in an incident with a large gull that was scavenging on the straight stretch of road. When it saw our car approaching, the gull instinctively took flight, but as we got closer, it suddenly changed direction and dived straight at us, hitting our car windscreen with a thud. Incredibly, the force didn’t kill it because it then flew off, but there was blood on the windscreen and we were quite shaken over the incident, not least because we didn’t want to add to the carnage we’d already seen that morning.
The glorious west Wales coastline evokes many happy memories for us. In fact, the 186-mile Pembrokeshire Coast Path (now part of the Wales Coast Path) was the first long-distance trail we walked together, albeit over several weekends. It was 2007 and, though it now seems incredible, we didn’t own a digital camera. My old camera was on the blink and when our precious roll of film was developed every single photograph was out-of-focus and the subject (mostly Harri) ringed by a fuzzy, dark circle. With no photographs to browse, my only memories of north Pembrokeshire were of Strumble Head (which for some reason I remembered as being right alongside Fishguard), high cliffs and some pretty tough coastal walking.
Harri had again chosen well with Pencraig. The cottage had thick stone walls and exposed beams, with a small but well-equipped kitchen just off the lounge, two bedrooms and a modern bathroom. With the nights already drawing in, we had little time to spare so we offloaded our luggage, had something to eat and were soon setting off again on the first walk of the week.
It’s always difficult to re-establish one’s hiking legs after a period of rest (otherwise known as laziness). And contrary to popular belief, our regular running does nothing to prepare our stamina for the much-longer time-on-feet needed for walking. Not that I’d done much running recently – a nasty fall in local woods had resulted in right knee stiffness which refused to go away.
We set off downhill and were almost immediately passed by the Poppit Rocket, one of the wonderful little buses that operate between Cardigan in the east and Fishguard in the west and enable coast path walkers to edge along the north Pembrokeshire shoreline without having to retrace their steps. This one, like us, was heading to the tiny beach at Pwllgwaelod. There, the Poppit Rocket would turn around and we would start following the coast westwards.
My general – and terrifyingly rapid – decline in fitness and stamina meant I was puffing and panting almost immediately we started climbing. It didn’t help that Harri’s increased trail running distances have dramatically improved his fitness. We were like the tortoise and the hare. This afternoon’s walk was relatively short at 10.6 miles, plus the steep climb from Pwllgwaelod back to the cottage. On three of our eight days, we would be ‘doubling up’ and completely two routes. As Harri galloped along the footpath, I suddenly feared I might not be up to the task ahead.
Fortunately, once the initial climbing was done, the landscape opened out and my ‘muscle memory’ (is there really such a thing?) kicked in to tell certain extremities that they weren’t just any old 55-year-old legs but were special in that they belonged to The Walker’s Wife. Gradually, I forgot about my aches and pains and started to appreciate the gorgeous coastal landscape.
At Aber beach, we left the shoreline, headed inland and started climbing again. For once, I was relieved Harri was ahead of me as two snakes slithered across his path and disappeared into the undergrowth. With its purple heather, yellow gorse and sweeping views across the Preseli Mountains and towards Fishguard, Mynydd Dinas (Dinas mountain) presented an impressive landscape, and I could only imagine how much better its stark beauty would look under a sky that wasn’t wall-to-wall grey.
While I was enchanted by the wild ponies and their apparently fearless foals (none of which seemed particularly concerned by my camera-clicking presence), Harri had turned his attention to what looked like a large pile of boulders ahead of us. Rocky outcrops are familiar features along the coastal contours of the Preseli Mountains and the one facing us now was Garn Fawr, the largest outcrop on today’s route and, at 307 metres (1,007 feet) above sea level, the highest point on Mynydd Dinas. I was surprised when Harri declined to scramble to the top, but the wind was cold and blustery and we still had quite a lot of walking to do.
We headed downhill, soon passing a second outcrop known as Carn Enoch, which is more accessible given its proximity to parking. This time the haphazardly-heaped boulders were dotted with members of (we presumed) the same family: mother reclining against a large upright boulder on our nearside, the summit conquered by two boisterous teenage boys and, sitting quietly in contemplation on the far side, a man we presumed to be their grey-haired father.
We returned to the coast at Cwm-yr-eglwys, where the big draw is the one-walled Church of St Brynach the Abbot. In one catastrophic decade in the mid nineteenth-century, this little place of worship was battered not once, not twice but three times as harsh punishment for its too-pretty beach setting. During the first and second storms in 1850 and 1851, the church was left hanging precariously above the sea and many graves (and their human contents) were exposed. The Great Storm of 1859 (the same storm which saw the Royal Charter wrecked off the Anglesey coast at Moelfre) caused further damage, rendering the church unusable, but the ruins remained in place for a further two decades. Nowadays, all that remains of the original church is the truncated west end, with only its entrance arch and bell tower intact.
Our first north Pembrokeshire walk ended as it had started: with an undulating section of high-level coastal walking – this time around the very beautiful Ynys Dinas, which is not actually an island but a headland turned over to sheep pasture. The stretch of land that ‘joins’ this island to the mainland is a low-lying valley carved out by melt water from a glacial lake. If sea levels were to rise dramatically Cwm-yr-eglwys and Pwllgwaelod might well disappear under the waves and Ynys Dinas would more accurately reflect its name.
Halfway around the headland, the coast path splits into two, with the high-level, grassy route being the easier option and the alternative undulating and significantly tougher ‘lower’ route offering a Boot Camp option. Both routes emerge at the trig point at Pen-y-fan (142 metres). Predictably, Harri felt we should follow the lower route, although he will outline both routes in his walk directions.
It was twilight when we finally arrived back in Pwllgwaelod and we were disappointed to find the Old Sailors pub in darkness (we later learned that it opens from 11am to 6pm on Sundays). Like the majority of drinking places in this part of the world, it claims to have been visited by Dylan Thomas on at least one occasion.
STOP PRESS: Harri’s latest book has just been published. Day Walks on the Pembrokeshire Coast is available from Vertebrate for £11.96. There’s no denying that Pembrokeshire is one of the loveliest parts of Wales and we thoroughly enjoyed researching and walking the twenty routes that made the final book. Go on, treat yourself or why not treat someone you know who loves walking?