Thursday, May 23, 2013

On the Pembrokeshire Coast Path: Day 13, from Newport to St. Dogmaels

Time: 6.5 hours
Distance: 26 km
Grading: Moderate to difficult; narrow, sometimes exposed clifftop paths. Care needed in windy weather.
Height gain/loss: 800 metres

Newport – Traeth Bach – Ceibwr Bay – Poppit Sands – St. Dogmaels

And so to the final stage of the walk. All good things come to an end of course, and after almost two weeks of ups and downs, rocks and beaches, gorse and cliffs, this is the thirteenth and final day of my coastal hike. As soon as I wake up, I can sense that it is going to be a wild, windy day. There is a skylight window just above my bed and, through the translucent blind, I do not even need to open my eyes fully to know that the colour of the sky is changing every twenty seconds as a succession of dark clouds and clear blue race across the sky, constantly lightening and darkening the dawn. The impression is confirmed when I open the blind: though the sky is blue in very large parts, successive waves of big, dark clouds are sweeping rapidly in from the sea, crossing above the window in a few seconds then disappearing inland. It is an intensely interesting sky and, I hope, one that will prove to be fantastic for photography.

I have breakfast – a rather disappointing one for my last morning – alone in the conservatory of this suburban bungalow turned B&B. I comment to the landlady on the size of the house, much bigger inside than it looks from the street, and she tells me that until they took the place over two years ago, it was inhabited only by an elderly couple. The house must have at least four rooms downstairs and five upstairs, and I wonder how an old couple managed to fill the place at all. The landlady also tells me about a far more serious long-distance hiker who stayed there two or three nights ago; a man who set off from London to walk all the way round the British coast. At the point where he stayed in Newport, he had already walked all the way up the east coast from London to the far north of Scotland, then back down along the west Scottish coast, the Lake District and North Wales. I forget how many days he had already walked, but it was upwards of 300, putting my own efforts well and truly into perspective!

Morning light on the estuary at Newport
I leave the B&B at 8:40, and ten minutes later pick up the coast path again at the iron bridge where I left it yesterday evening. The light is wonderful, with great clouds scudding across the sky from north to south and dazzling shafts of sunlight bursting through to add colour to the landscape. Away behind Newport, thicker cloud clings to Carn Ingli; I hope that a ray of sunlight will hit the mountain at the right moment for a photograph, but it doesn’t quite happen. Still, the light along the north bank of the estuary is beautiful, the sandbanks and reed beds lit by clear blue reflections from the pools and creeks that separate them. At the mouth of the estuary, the waves are crashing in even bigger than yesterday evening; I very much doubt if any boats will be chancing the passage out to sea today. The path crosses four fairways of a deserted, gale-swept golf course: keeping the ball under any kind of control at all this morning would be a serious challenge for any golfer. I am reminded of the first day of my hike, watching golfers battling against the wind at Penally: today is far, far windier. Beyond the golf course, at the edge of the beach, I stop to fill up my water bottles and use the public toilets, there will be no more facilities of any kind until the end of today's walk. Carn Ingli still refuses to light up in the sun but away to the south, Dinas Head stands out bright green between the dark blue sea and the blue-white-grey sky. 

Looking back to Dinas Head
This final leg of the coast path has the reputation of being the toughest, with more height gain and loss than any other stage. Possibly its reputation comes partly from the fact that many people walk north to south, and so are thrown straight in at the deep end on their first day. My guidebook also tells of some exposed passages where the path runs very close to the edge, and warns that great care needs to be taken in wet or windy weather… well, it could hardly be windier than it is today and, while after thirteen days I do not find the ups and downs in any way difficult, the wind proves to be a real challenge. As the path rises up above the northern end of Newport beach, a large sign in English and Welsh warns of the difficulty of the route ahead: no refreshments, no escape route for the next 465 miles, vertical cliffs with tentacles that deliberately grab hikers and throw them over the edge; lions, tigers and bears with wings… well no, I'm exaggerating a bit, the sign doesn't really say anything about bears. Joking apart though, this is the only place along the whole coast path where I have seen such an explicit and detailed warning notice. 

The first quarter of an hour past the end of the beach sets the scene for the day; the path climbs up steeply to an altitude of 50 metres, then immediately drops back down to sea level and up again. The overall trend is uphill though, the cliffs getting gradually higher as they climb away from Newport beach. And as the cliffs get higher, the path gets closer to the edge and the wind becomes stronger and stronger. It is coming at me from an angle, blasting in off the sea and onto my face. Just keeping upright is a real challenge, and keeping both feet on the thin ribbon of path is impossible; every time I lift a foot, the wind forces me a few inches inland and unbalances me, pushing me off the landward side of the path. It begins to feel rather dangerous and frightening; I cannot help wondering just how strong a gust of wind would have to be to pick up a human being and throw him through the air. Luckily, the wind is coming off the sea and so is unbalancing me towards the "safe" side of the path; had this same wind been coming off the land, I think I would have been forced to turn back. Even with the wind blowing the "right" way, there are places which feel decidedly risky, where the path is so close to the cliff edge that a sudden gust from a different direction could quite feasibly tip me over into the void and down onto the jagged black rocks eighty metres below. In these places, I abandon the path itself, preferring to struggle through the long grass between the path and the boundary fence of the fields… it makes the going harder but puts an extra couple of metres between me and the edge. Inevitably, the place where the path is the narrowest and the most exposed is also the place where the gale is blowing hardest (at least in my mind); here, for about fifty metres, I advance very slowly, one step at a time, gripping the barbed wire fence with one hand and hanging onto my hat with the other. The wind is making my nose run, and I have to keep blowing it… at one point I do not grip my handkerchief hard enough and the wind instantly seizes it, sending it way up into the air and off across the fields, to land goodness only knows where inland. 

Close to the edge and high above the sea
So far, the morning has been dry, but just beyond this particularly exposed passage, a squall comes rushing in from the sea. The sky to the north goes from blue to black in the space of a couple of minutes while, out to sea, successive rainy squalls chase each other southwards. I decide to put my rain gear on now, rather than waiting for the inevitable wetting; it is quite a struggle to get into my waterproof jacket and trousers in the wind, but it is a good move. Five minutes later, at another rather exposed place, the rain hits me and the wind seems to redouble in intensity. The rain lashing horizontally into my face is quite painful, and I really feel that going on would be unsafe. I huddle down in the long grass on the landward side of the path, making myself as small as possible, knowing that I must look very odd and rather stupid. The squall is short-lived though; five minutes later, after a good drenching, the sky overhead is blue again. There will be three of four of these short but intense showers during the course of the day, but none of the others will be as frightening as this first one. 

A wild morning
I can see that the cliffs up ahead are slightly lower, and hope that the loss of altitude will bring at least a relative degree of calm. This is indeed the case; as I drop down towards the next headland, looking back to an impressive natural arch being pounded by the sea, conditions gradually become a bit less extreme. The wind, though still blowing hard, seems less dangerous and is no longer trying to pick me up or knock me down. It's all quite epic though, and it is hardly surprising that I cannot get Sibelius' second symphony out of my head today.

Along this stretch of path, I meet the only other people I will see all day; first a group of four huddled up having lunch, then a young man on his own, and finally two young women, all of whom have presumably set off from St. Dogmaels after an early breakfast. We exchange remarks about being relieved not to be the only lunatics out today, and compare the strength of our respective winds. I'm pretty sure my wind is stronger than their wind though, as it is definitely calmer from here onwards.

At half past twelve, I reach Traeth-bach, the Witches' Cauldron, one of the most spectacular settings along the whole coast path. I am pleased with the progress I have made despite the conditions; this is pretty much where I would have expected to be at lunchtime. The path twists down another steep, exposed hillside into a narrow valley where, in millennia long gone by, a huge cave collapsed into the sea, leaving a natural arch that divides the beach from a rocky bowl behind it. At high tide on a rough day, I can imagine just how noisy and spectacular this place must be, with the sea forcing itself through the narrow gap of the arch then exploding into the cauldron behind. Today the tide is out though, and despite the rough sea breaking against the rocks on the beach, the cauldron itself is not hubbling or bubbling. Although I suspect that the next valley, Ceibwr Bay, will give me more shelter, I decide to stop here for my final picnic: the sun has come out again, the day has become warm and the setting is superbly wild. The waves come crashing into the bay, sending huge plumes of white spray up into the sky. 

Lunchtime at Traeth-bach
I eat my lunch, then stay and rest for half an hour or so, admiring the view, until the sky begins to darken again, signalling the arrival of another five-minute squall. The path takes me up over the top of the huge natural arch, steeply up onto the cliff top, then down again to Ceibwr Bay, the closest thing on this section of the coast to a gentle pastoral valley. After all the epic wildness of the morning, it comes of a bit if a shock to suddenly find myself on a lane with a tractor chugging up towards me. This lane is the only "escape" possibility between Newport and St. Dogmaels, although the nearest village is a couple of kilometres inland. I cross the bay, which is very similar to all the previous Aber Bachs: a narrow shingly beach, a stream to cross, an isolated cottage and a pretty wooded valley running away inland. On the hill that climbs up the far side of the valley, two white horses pose most obligingly and fetchingly while I take their photo against a backdrop of sea and rocks.

Beyond Ceibwr Bay the walking becomes somewhat easier. The path is wider and less close to the edge, though it continues to apply the "what comes down must go up" principle. The cliffs are a bit less vertical as well; though they are still getting higher, the proportion of steep grass slope to vertical rock is tipping in favour of the grass. Ahead, the layers of rock in the cliff face have been folded into strange shapes by some past geological event of vast magnitude. 

Ceibwr Bay
Now begins the final, long climb as the path struggles up to an altitude of 175 metres, the highest point of the whole coast path. The downhill dips are still there but they are shorter, the uphill sections longer and ever steeper. The wind, which seemed to have given up the fight, now comes back with a vengeance, stronger than ever. Another squall comes out of nowhere; horizontal rain lashes my face even though the sky all around is blue. The cloud producing the rain must be half a mile out to sea, but so strong is the wind that it is carrying all the way to the coast. Behind the fence, oblivious to all the drama out to sea, calves graze quietly in a field. 

Close to the edge, approaching the highest point of the coast path
Finally, after one last exposed climb above long, heathery slopes of frightening steepness, the highest point is reached and the end, literally, is in sight. There to the north are the Teifi estuary and Poppit Sands; beyond the estuary is Ceredigion, another county, another coast path. Cardigan Island guards the entrance to the estuary. The path, having spent thirteen days bringing me to this summit point, now seems to consider its job done, and the end comes very quickly. Although there is officially still several kilometres to go, this is the psychological beginning of the end. I drop down steeply to Cemaes Head, pass through my last flock of sheep and head inland towards Poppit Sands, another big beach where waves are piling in, pushed landwards by the wind, with a calm estuary behind a big sand bar. I descend one last time through a tunnel of high gorse bushes; their bright yellow has been one of the most prominent features of the walk. As the smell of the sea makes way for whiffs of a more agricultural variety, I reach the last of the dozens and dozens of wooden gates that I have passed through. Beyond the gate is a scruffy farmyard, and beyond that the path is no more: the final hour and a half of the walk is on roads.

I follow a very pretty lane eastwards from the farm, through woods and between fields, with occasional views opening up across the estuary. The lane brings me down to the car park at Poppit Sands where, until a few years ago, the Pembrokeshire coast path officially ended. Now it has been extended to the village of St. Dogmaels, but the end is something of an anti-climax, an uninteresting, flat walk along a fairly busy road. 

Poppit Sands, the last of many beaches on the coast path
At last though, here is the sign announcing that I have made it to St. Dogmaels and, a few hundred metres further on, a stone plaque set into the ground that marks the official end of the path. Here, of course, I should stop… but after thirteen days, it does not take too much mental self-persuasion to extend the walk by an extra hundred metres to the Ferry Inn… 

300 kilometres, 186 miles...  

Here ends the Pembrokeshire coast path...
It is ten to five, and I am being picked up at six. I order a pint of bitter and take it out onto the sunny but windy and deserted terrace at the back of the pub, overlooking the estuary. I am happy and sad at the same time: happy to have achieved a 35-year-old dream, happy to have been physically and mentally up to it, to have never for one second got bored or wanted to give up. Sad that it is over, that the dream to "do the coast path" will no longer be there bacause it's been done, sad to be going back to the real world. I have written before on here about the strange mixture of sentiments that the long-distance walker feels on reaching the end of the final stage; having walked for thirteen continuous days with no breaks, that feeling of achievement mixed with sudden emptiness is stronger than ever. Already, in my mind, I am wondering what I will do next, how can I follow this. It won't be easy. 

The tide is coming in incredibly quickly, flowing regularly up the estuary, quite choppy in the middle, visibly covering the sand second by second as I sit and watch. A teenager in school uniform – presumably the landlord's son – comes out onto the terrace, stares at the water for a while, then comments "It doesn't usually come in like this, it must be the wind", before disappearing back indoors. The wind was there on the first day of my walk, it was there again on the last day and, probably more than any other feature of the weather, has been the main constant, rarely altogether absent.

I take a photograph of myself to mark the end of the road, and sit back to enjoy the sun. As quickly as the level of the water in the estuary rises, so the level of the beer in my glass falls. I order another pint… 

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

On the Pembrokeshire Coast Path: Day 12, from Fishguard to Newport

Time: 5.75 hours
Distance: 18 km
Grading: Easy; some narrow clifftop paths on the east side of Dinas Head
Height gain/loss: 550 metres

Fishguard – Dinas Head – Cwm-yr-Eglwys - Newport

After yesterday's eight and a half hour marathon, and before tomorrow's final stage, today's shorter and easier stage feels almost like a rest day, a chance to recuperate before the reputedly tough walk from Newport to St. Dogmaels. I have a really long, lazy lie-in, not getting up until half past eight and only going down to breakfast at nine. It proves to be one of the best breakfasts of the walk, with all the usual options plus the local speciality of laver bread, made out of seaweed and oatmeal. I am expecting it to be either absolutely delicious or truly disgusting, and am slightly disappointed to find that it has no taste whatsoever. The owner of the guest house tells me that a real, proper Pembrokeshire breakfast would include cockles in addition to the laver bread; thankfully, he does not offer this option, as I would have felt obliged to try it and suspect it would not have gone down well first thing in the morning!

At the next table, I am surprised to hear that the young couple sitting there are talking French, and even more surprised when I gather from their conversation with the owner that they are on honeymoon here. I think of Fishguard with its boarded-up shops and almost complete lack of anywhere to eat, and wonder what strange motivation would bring a honeymooning couple here from Paris… maybe some family connections?

After breakfast, still taking my time, I wander up the high street to the Co-op supermarket, buy food for my last two lunches, then make my way back towards the coast path. Fishguard redeems itself somewhat in the shape of a really nice art gallery, where I spend a happy half hour looking at the paintings, all of a very high standard and mostly by local artists. There are some really magnificent seascapes and also a series of semi-abstract woodland scenes, all about light and shadow rather than specific forms. Had I had a spare £8,000 in my pocket, I could have come away with some really original art.

I stroll back down towards the shoreline along a steep street called The Slade, which may or may not (probably not) be a reference to the 1970s pop group of the same name. A sign beside the road says SLOW CHILDREN PLAYING, warning motorists to take their foot off the accelerator, but the words on the sign have been arranged in such a way that it appears to be informing passers-by that the children of Fishguard are not the quickest in the world…

It is 10:45 by the time I finally reach the coast path again. The weather seems to be following the same pattern as yesterday: it was cloudy when I got up, even drizzled a bit while I was trying to be enthusiastic about laver bread, but by the time I reach the shore at Lower Fishguard there is an increasing amount of blue sky in evidence. The tide is out, and the boats in the sandy harbour make an attractive scene against the backdrop of the old fishermen's cottages, mostly painted white but with some vivid blue also adding a touch of colour. I cross the bridge over the river Gwaun, then climb up away from Fishguard, a town which seems to have great potential but which has not yet worked out how to exploit it. 

Lower Fishguard
After the rugged scenery of the last few days, today is somewhat tamer, resembling the coastline between Amroth and Tenby more than anything else. The cliffs of Fishguard Bay are lower and gentler than those of the surrounding coastline, the fields are greener and the path is frequently overgrown, a sign that this may be a less popular section than the previous ones. I see nobody at all for the first 90 minutes, and very few people after that. I am mentally not quite in tune with the walk this morning, feeling a bit detached from it and not getting quite the usual level of enjoyment and inspiration from the landscape; possibly because the scenery is less dramatic than the last few days, possibly also because the end is now very near and I have already started to wind down.

The path follows its usual pattern of clifftop sections interspersed with drops down to lonely little bays, while up ahead, the great wedge of Dinas Head, the day's main landmark, grows closer. For the first time, I see trees in full blossom along this part of the path, maybe a sign that this is a slightly more sheltered bit of coastline, maybe also a consequence of the better weather of the last week after what had hitherto been a very cold spring. 

Looking towards Dinas Head
The path climbs up to run right through the middle of a large, very ugly caravan sire and, not for the first time, I wonder how this kind of thing was ever allowed to happen in a national park. Beyond here, the path leaves the shelter of Fishguard Bay and becomes wilder once again, twisting up and down into and out of little valleys. Like yesterday, there is an Aber Bach; this one is a lovely, lonely beach in a secluded valley where a little stream trickles down to the sea. It would make a perfect lunch spot, but with my late start it comes too soon. 

On the next clifftop section, there are some interesting examples of trees that have grown in constant battle with the wind blowing in from the west. These isolated trees have grown almost horizontally, twisted into unnatural shapes in their attempt to get away from the constant battering. I overtake two hikers with big backpacks talking in German; one of them appears to be struggling with the ups and downs, breathing heavily and advancing slowly. The next valley, Pwllgwaelod, is broader and contains a larger beach with road access. More importantly though, it also contains the unexpected luxury of a pub. I have so far resisted the lure of the lunchtime pint on those days when it would have been an option, but this will be my last chance to indulge and, despite having bought everything I need for a picnic, I decide that my sandwich bought in Fishguard should be sacrificed to the cause. I order a pint of Double Dragon and – it seems the most suitable thing to eat on what is still quite a chilly day – a bowl of cawl, a typically Welsh soup made from mutton and vegetables. For some reason, cawl always seems to be served with a hunk of cheese, and I am never quite sure what I am supposed to do with it according to cawl etiquette… chop it up into little bits and put it in the soup, or eat it as a side dish. The cold wind only slightly takes the edge off the enjoyment, as the soup is close to cold by the time I get to the end of my portion. The two Germans arrive and order Coke, which seems a very un-German thing to do when there is beer available… 

Trees versus wind
Now for Dinas Head, the main feature of today’s stage. Dinas stands out from the coast, a great wedge of grass-topped rock that thrusts northwards, rising as it goes until it culminates 125 metres above sea level at its northern end. There are quite a few people on this stretch of the path, who have just come for the afternoon to do the hour or so’s walk around the headland and back to the car park by the pub. All the way up the steep western side of the headland I am buffeted by the wind, but when I reach the highest point there is a sudden and strange calm. The eastern side of the headland has a wilder feel to it, the path a thin, sometimes slightly exposed ribbon of dirt halfway up the steep grass slopes above the cliffs. Away to the south-east I can see the entrance to the estuary at Newport, my destination for the night; between here and there, I can see that the path runs round the edge of two headlands topped with very green fields. 

The way ahead from Dinas Head. Carn Ingli is the hill in the background
I drop down through a tunnel of trees in full blossom to reach sea level once again at Cwm-yr-Eglwys, a pretty little hamlet which remains hidden until the last minute and where there is a sheltered beach, behind which stands a ruined church. In reality there is very little left of it, just one end wall and a few gravestones, but it makes for an atmospheric setting right beside the sea. I leave Cwm-yr-Eglwys by a very steep lane, which I follow for a quarter of an hour before the path once more breaks off to the left. Here, a detour has been put in place to get around a large landslide: over a distance of maybe 50 metres, a huge section of cliff and the land backing it has vanished into the sea, taking part of the path with it. I hope it happened at night when nobody was on the path! I drop down to the sea again at Fforest, another deep, narrow valley with a lovely secluded beach, very similar to this morning’s Aber Bach. This particular valley has the added original feature of some marshland and a miniature lagoon behind the shingle bank at the top of the beach. Then steeply up again to contour round the edge of the two green fields that I saw earlier from the top of Dinas Head. Big waves are booming against the base of the cliffs here, and as I turn into Newport Bay I can see all the power of those waves, as they rush towards the shore in a chaos of white foam. 

Approaching Newport
The arrival in Newport is, without any doubt, the prettiest of any stage of my walk. The coast path follows the big waves inland towards the beach, where they break against the huge sandbar that separates the wild sea from the calm of the estuary behind. A little river flows into the sea past the southern end of the bar, but today is isn’t doing much flowing; the wind is forging the big waves into the channel of the river mouth. There are numerous small boats moored in the calm waters behind the sandbar, and I cannot help thinking that getting a small boat from Newport harbour out into the open sea must be a real challenge; the passage of the bar where river meets sea looks really wild. Behind this agitated foreground, the first houses of Parrog, Newport’s westerly outlier, sit prettily pink and while against a sky of grey and blue. A man is fishing on a rock, standing just high enough above the spray to keep dry as he casts his line. I get a nice smile from a short-haired woman walking a huge white dog; altogether, my first impression of Newport is a really good one.

My lodgings for the night are at the far end of the village, so I stay on the coast path as it runs inland along the estuary; woodland on one side, marshy reed beds, mudflats and pools on the other. In contrast to the wild sea, all is calm here, and children are going up and down in kayaks. At the Victorian iron bridge that carries the road across the river I leave the coast path and head into town.

After eleven nights of pubs, farms and Georgian town houses, it comes as a bit of a shock to discover that I will be spending my last night in what looks very much like a suburban bungalow, albeit a very large one. My bedroom is lovely though; big, comfortable, and the bathroom has possibly the biggest walk-in shower I have ever seen. I waste no time in making full use of it, then have a rest on the big bed as it is still quite early.

Despite being considerably smaller than Fishguard, Newport has a lot more to offer in terms of eating and drinking options. For my last night I am spoilt for choice; along the main street there are two or three restaurants and any number of pubs, all serving food. I settle on the Golden Lion, a busy pub down towards the eastern end of the village, close to my B&B. I order a Thai chicken curry and a pint, and sit down to my evening routine one last time: recap today’s stage in the guidebooks, write some notes as a basis for my future blog posts, look at the map and books to see what tomorrow has in store for me. The curry arrives, hot and tasty, though for the second time today I am not altogether sure how to eat all the ingredients. The curry comes in a soup bowl and has lots of sauce, the rice is in another bowl, there is no plate. Am I supposed to dip the rice in the curry sauce, pour the sauce over the rice, or am I missing the point completely. Technical issues aside, it is a very good plate of food and it is in a happy frame of mind that I go to bed for the twelfth and last time of my tour. By this time tomorrow I will be back in the real world (or at least in Tenby). 

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

On the Pembrokeshire Coast Path: Day 11, from Abercastle to Fishguard

Time: 8.5 hours
Distance: 35 km
Grading: Moderate; very long with lots of up and down from start to finish
Height gain/loss: 750 metres

Abercastle – Pwll Deri – Strumble Head - Fishguard

This eleventh stage, from Abercastle up around Strumble Head to Fishguard, is the longest of the whole Pembrokeshire coast path. Although my Achilles tendon has not bothered me for the last couple of days, I know that today will be a much tougher challenge and that if I come out of it in one piece, I can be confident of completing the walk. This is make or break day.

At breakfast, I share a big square, wooden table with David and Susie, the retired couple with whom I briefly talked yesterday evening. They are Scottish, from Aberdeenshire, though I would never have guessed it from their very un-Scottish accents. They have both done a lot of walking and David is a serious amateur artist, which gives us plenty to talk about. Although I should be getting away quickly this morning, I enjoy the conversation and we dawdle over an excellent breakfast including black pudding in addition to all the more common ingredients. They started a couple of days ago from Newport, where they left their car, and are walking southwards from there, heading on to St. David's today. I recommend the Bishops as a good place to eat, and tell them that they will probably meet the Dutch couple who are now a day behind me. I describe them, and David tells me that he will make knowing remarks about Eindhoven as they pass. I later receive a postcard from the Dutch couple, telling me how surprised they were to meet a random couple on the path who started asking them questions about Eindhoven without having a clue who they were.

I like the way that on these long walks, a kind of virtual community builds up among people who meet over breakfast, or over a pint in a pub; a community that includes anecdotes about people heard of but never quite met. I never really feel alone on a long, solitary walk, much less so than when alone in a city. Eventually, at half past nine (having started breakfast at eight!), I face the fact that it is really high time I was getting going. The landlady returns my two nights' worth of washing to me still distinctly damp; I hope that at least one set of clothes will dry before this evening, otherwise I will have to keep my smelly stuff for the evening and for tomorrow.

A grey morning at lonely Abercastle
It's another grey, cloudy morning, but there is a strong wind which moves the clouds around and makes for a more varied atmosphere than yesterday's uniform blanket of grey. I return back down to the path at Abercastle harbour, where a solitary fishing boat is beached, facing out to the island that guards the entrance to the inlet. There are whitecaps on the sea and, away to the north, occasional half-rays of white sunlight drilling down through gaps in the dark grey clouds.

Buffeted by the wind, I climb up onto the first headland north of Abercastle. The view ahead encompasses a wild, rocky, rugged coastline that stretches away over successive heads to Strumble Head, one of Pembrokeshire's major headlands, beyond which my route will turn eastwards towards the port of Fishguard. At the base of the cliffs are innumerable jagged black rocks standing just offshore. Inland, the terrain is rough and hilly, building up towards the 213-metre summit of Garn Fawr. 

After climbing up to 50 metres, the path soon returns to sea level at Pwllstrodur, where a footbridge crosses a stream above a wild, rocky beach. It's a lovely little spot, perfect in its isolation… even in mid-August, I bet this beach does not see too many buckets, spades or deck chairs! There is a truly desolate feel about this part of the coast, just as there was yesterday morning on St. David's Head. By contrast, the next bay, Aber Mawr, is a wide sweep of shingle-backed sand, where big surf waves roll powerfully towards the shore in orderly formation. On the way down to the beach, I meet the young couple already seen yesterday, the girl still wearing her hiking skirt and prettier than ever as the wind whips her hair into a most attractive disorder. They spent the previous night at Trefin, caught the bus further north this morning and are walking back southwards for the day. Aber Mawr is immediately followed by Aber Bach, a similar but much smaller bay which, by virtue of facing in a slightly different direction, is completely sheltered from the wind and waves. Here, a sign explains that there is a river crossing that may be awkward in flash flood conditions, and indicates a 2 kilometre alternative route… not needed today though, the stream is a mere trickle and easy to cross. Several people are sketching on the beach here, presumably a local amateur art club. 

Big waves roll in at Aber Mawr
The path struggles up onto the cliffs again, ever higher, dipping down and climbing up, each clifftop a few metres higher than the previous one. The next bay, Pwllcrochan, is an isolated stretch of flat sand at the foot of forbidding, dark cliffs; beautiful but at the same time not the kind of place you would necessarily want to go for a sunny sit on the beach. The path down to it is vertiginous, almost Alpine in character, coming close to the cliff edge as it twists steeply down. A smaller, very narrow path breaks off to the left, leading almost down to the beach itself but not quite making it there… the last couple of metres are straight down the bottom of the cliff face, aided by a rope. Had the tide and the sun been out, I would have gone down for a look, but in toady's conditions I decline the challenge and continue steeply up the path on the far side of the bay.

Now my way leads up onto the crest of a panoramic ridge which drops away on both sides – a rarity on the coast path. To my left, vertical, ever higher cliffs plunge straight down into the sea. To the right, inland, a patchwork of green fields, copses and stone walls forms an almost unreal contrast to the rugged grandeur of the coast as it rises gently towards the cliffs. The path itself becomes rocky, working its way up and over successive tops, keeping slightly to the landward side of the ridge even requiring the use of the hands to haul myself up some of the larger rocks steps. I reach an altitude of 120 metres, the highest point so far on the coast path, though it will be well and truly beaten on the final day. Now up ahead is Pwll Deri, an inaccessible bay at the bottom of what must be the highest vertical drop on the whole of this part of the coast, more than a hundred metres from cliff top to sea. On top of the cliffs, the isolated white building of Pwll Deri youth hostel, with its mountainous backdrop of Garn Fawr. Here, the path briefly meets a minor road, the lane that runs north-westwards to Strumble Head. Looking back, the verticality of the cliffs on the seaward side of the ridge is most impressive. 

The contrast between the rugged coast and the gentle fields inland is most striking on this section of the path
Beyond Pwll Deri, as the path gradually loses altitude after this high point, I start to think about lunch. There are no really suitable spots, and I end up sitting on some bumpy rocks just beside the path, above the headland of Dinas Mawr. It's rather uncomfortable and windy, and I do not stop for long… thirty seconds after setting off again, I round a corner and there in front of me is what would have been a perfect, sheltered, grassy spot.

While I eat, the weather improves dramatically and suddenly, clearing from the north-west. In the space of thirty minutes, conditions go from total cloud cover to a majority of blue sky, especially out to sea; inland it is still grey and cloudy. Suddenly there is sunlight, colour in the landscape, flowers everywhere once again. Above the bay of Porth Maenmelyn, somewhat disconcertingly, I pass a young woman walking alone, fast and purposefully, and carrying a very large hammer. I really wonder what would bring you out on the coast path with such an implement, and give her a wide berth… but she smiles, says hello and doesn't hit me. 

Varied scenery on the approach to Strumble Head
The lighthouse on Strumble Head is visible now, seemingly close at hand, but the path takes a twisty route and it takes almost an hour to cover what appears to be a very short distance. This is one of the points where the land juts out the furthest into the Irish Sea; there is little to stop the waves and they are consequently wild and heaving below the now blue sky, with lots of white caps. The path follows a long dry stone wall down into an unexpected area of marshland, a little valley sheltered behind the cliffs and covered with a bed of tall reeds. And here now is Strumble Head itself, with its white lighthouse set proudly on a huge rock just offshore. After St. Govan's, St. Ann's and St. David's, this is the last of the really big headlands that I will pass on the walk. It's a busy place, with a car-park and a bus stop, but a hundred metres beyond the headland I am back on my own again. 

Strumble Head
The trouser legs finally come off...
One of the innumerable steep drops between Strumble Head and Fishguard
Now heading due east, the path becomes somewhat less rugged and the landscape somewhat gentler, although there is still a lot of very steep upping and downing to do. This section of the path is less frequented; over the next three hours I will only see four other people. Someone has very recently been along the path with a strimmer, cutting back the undergrowth; there is a smell of freshly cut hay and I walk on a bed of dry grass and small branches. It has become so warm by now that I even change into shorts – the only time over the whole thirteen days that I will have this luxury. The coastline is a stunning succession of rocky bays, some with a little sand or shingle above the high water mark, others totally submerged. Porthsychan, the first bay beyond Strumble, is particularly lovely; another place whose isolation guarantees that it stays free of ice-cream vans and donkey rides even at the height of the high season. Above the beach is a tiny, isolated cottage in the very middle of nowhere… yet clearly inhabited, as proven by the two pairs of knickers (one white, one black) blowing in the wind on the washing line. The billowing knickers against the wilderness backdrop would make a brilliant photo, but I don't dare… 

More coves follow, where the sea booms and sucks at the rocks. In between, the path constantly goes up and down, there is absolutely no respite, not a metre of horizontal land. Then, in total contrast, comes the surprising and lovely valley of Cwm Felin. Here a deep, narrow, thickly wooded valley runs well back inland. The path drops down its western side, crosses a stream on a little footbridge beneath the trees, then climbs back up, steeper than ever, onto the cliffs east of the valley. I meet two people going the other way; they ask me how far it is to Strumble. They are heading for Pwll Deri for the night; it's already half past four, and I suspect they might be late for dinner at the youth hostel. In return, they tell me that it's about another hour and a half's walk to Fishguard.

The landscape becomes tamer as I approach Fishguard Bay. The cliffs become lower and less vertical, topped with brownish, scrubby grass. The path no longer follows the true coastline round every single headland but takes a straighter line, having seemingly decided that they can be safely ignored after all the grandiose landscape that has gone before. As the path cuts behind the last headland before Fishguard, I reach a point that is further away from the sea than anywhere since Pembroke!

Now I head into Fishguard Bay, high above the long pier of the Irish ferry terminal, before the path finally meets civilisation on the outskirts of Goodwick, Fishguard's western suburb. A long street lined with semi-detached bungalows, a steep zigzagging path down through trees and across the road and railway that lead into the port, then a walk along the sea front to the sandy beach at the back of the harbour. Although the town centre is just above me on its hilltop, it is still a fair walk from here, as the path runs round one last headland, climbing then dropping down yet again. Down below is the old fishing village of Lower Fishguard, completely separate from the town centre high up above, pretty with its painted stone cottages and boats. All of this gives me an unexpectedly good first impression of Fishguard, but it's an impression that will not last once I get into the town centre. 

Breakwaters at Fishguard
I quickly find the guest house where I am staying the night, in what passes for a high street. It's another luxurious place, perhaps not quite hitting the heights of Pembroke or Abercastle but not far behind. My room is small but comfortable, there's a lovely view out the back over an attractive garden, and it's really nice not to have to go through the clothes washing chore… though this itself is a reminder that in two days' time it will be all over. I have survived the day remarkably well: sore feet are to be expected after eight and a half hours' walking, but I have nothing more serious than that and now know that I will be going to the end. I feel that after eleven days, I have walked myself into a level of fitness where I could basically just keep going ad infinitum.

Because of the length of today's stage, I only arrive at my accommodation at about half past six, my latest finish of the whole walk. It is past seven by the time I go out for a look round Fishguard and for food. It will not prove easy: Fishguard appears to have closed down permanently. The big Abergwaun Hotel on the central crossroads is festooned with For sale signs, and the shops around it are all equally empty behind dusty windows. My guidebook mentions the fish and chip shop, the Royal Oak and the Ship and Anchor as good options for food; but the fish and chip shop looks like it has been closed for years, and the Ship and Anchor has boarded-up windows. I try the Royal Oak, a big, rough-looking pub, but they don't serve food, or at least are not serving any tonight. I wander down towards Lower Fishguard, but the little harbour has not been developed for tourism at all – a good thing in a way, but not such a good thing when you are looking for somewhere to have dinner. 

Lower Fishguard... nowhere to eat but very pretty
Finally, on the outskirts where town proper meets a mixture of housing estates, petrol stations and fields, I find the Pendre Inn, a cosy little pub with three or four real ales and plenty of food on offer. The pub is busy with a mixture of locals and tourists, all of whom have gravitated to what seems to be the liveliest place in Fishguard (lively being a very relative term here). Two very large women on holiday from Liverpool come in, generating some banter from the locals about whether they need two tables or just two chairs each. They take it in good spirit though, giving back as good as they get. The food and beer are good and, in the end, I spend a pleasant couple of hours in the pub.

Only two more days to go; an easy stage tomorrow, then a tough one to finish.

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Monday, May 20, 2013

On the Pembrokeshire Coast Path: Day 10, from Whitesands Bay to Abercastle

Time: 6.5 hours
Distance: 25 km
Grading: Easy, but with a very wild feel to the first part of the walk
Height gain/loss: 550 metres

Whitesands Bay – Abereiddy – Porthgain – Aber Draw - Abercastle

I spend probably the least comfortable night of my walking holiday in St. David's. Though my room is perfectly adequate, the bed is possibly the smallest I have ever slept in as an adult, mountain huts excepted. My feet stick out at the bottom, and the bed is too narrow for me to spread out diagonally. As expected given the absence of heating, the clothes that I washed yesterday evening have not dried at all, and I am forced to stick them all in a plastic bag until the evening. The good thing is that this evening will be the last time I have to do any washing: from tomorrow onwards, I will have enough changes of clean clothes not to need to bother any more.

For the first time since Pembroke, five days ago, I open my curtains to grey skies. It doesn't look like it is raining – and there is certainly no rain forecast – but the morning is dark, misty and colourless. I go down to the old-fashioned breakfast room, where the stereo is playing a soothing harp arrangement of the slow movement of "Spring" from the Four Seasons. It sounds quite nice until I realise that the movement has been programmed to play continuously. I think I must have heard it fifteen times during the time it takes me to eat breakfast, by which time I am thoroughly sick of both Vivaldi and harps! The owner and the younger waitress who has come in to help serve breakfast are having a conversation about learning to drive; the waitress apparently has her test coming up. I wonder what it must be like learning to drive in a place like this, then to suddenly be let loose on main roads and in real cities after passing the test. The waitress tells me that for "town driving" experience, the instructor takes her to Carmarthen, which must be more than an hour away. Carmarthen may be a West Wales metropolis but London it most certainly isn't… The main difficulty about driving here, she explains, is the narrowness of the lanes and the amount of tourist traffic on them in summer.

On St. David's Head
The first bus back to Whitesands does not leave until 9:25, which gives me plenty of time to eat a leisurely breakfast and go to the supermarket to buy food for lunch for the next two days. In these small country supermarkets, it is a bit of a challenge finding suitable food for a picnic, or maybe, used to buying specific things in Switzerland, I just don't really know what I'm looking for. The bus comes, completely empty as it was yesterday evening, and ten minutes later I am back at a grey, deserted Whitesands Bay. It's a cool day, not at all unpleasant for walking, but the light is hopeless for photography. During the day, there are times when it looks like the weather will clear and others when it looks like it will rain; in the end though, neither of these things happens and the whole day is uniformly grey and cloudy. The path climbs quickly away from the beach and up onto St. David's Head, a wild, rocky headland where the exact route is often indistinct, though the general direction is perfectly clear. The headland is covered in heather and strewn with huge boulders; the path picks a way through this complicated terrain, twisting up and down and around the humps and bumps and rocks of the landscape. The guidebook tells me of a prehistoric burial chamber that is "unmissable" as it stands out against the horizon, but of course I miss it! The route runs high above the sea along the slopes below the northern side of Carn Llidi, then drops steeply down into a hollow where a few wild horses are grazing, the only sign of life on the path this morning. The cliffs, though not vertical, are noticeably higher today, and the path climbs up to an altitude of 60 metres or more on several occasions. The walking is rough and stony, with lots of steep hills in both directions.

At about eleven, I stop for a drink of water at the bottom of one of these short, steep climbs, huddled down in a little hollow. A group of four people pass going the other way; they are the first walkers I have seen today. It is Monday, the weekend visitors and locals out for a stroll have returned to work, leaving the coast to those who are on holiday. The path continues along the steep northern flank of Carn Penberry, now rising to 100 metres above sea level, the highest point I have reached so far in ten days of walking. The view northwards towards Strumble Head, my way ahead for the next couple of days, looks every bit as intimidating as St. Bride's Bay did from Martin's Haven. Looking back southward, stone walls and fields draw the eye up towards Carn Llidi and its neighbour Carn Perfedd. 

Looking northwards towards Carn Penberry...
... and back south to Carn Llidi
Beyond Penberry, a particularly steep descent leads all the way back down to the shore at the stony little cove of Aber-pwll, followed immediately by an equally steep climb up out of the cove. As I have said before, none of these hills is very long; however, over the course of a day on the coast path, you accumulate a huge number of 30-metre ascents and descents that make it very difficult to truly judge how much you have really climbed by the end of the day. What is certain is that this is the toughest section of the path since the peninsula north of Freshwater West on day 3.

Despite the tough going, I make very good time this morning. I have planned to have lunch at the isolated bay of Abereiddy, slightly beyond the halfway stage of the day's walk. Gradually the path becomes easier and the hills lower, dropping down gradually to meet the sea once again at Abereiddy, where I arrive at half past one. Abereiddy is a great contrast to all the other beaches I have seen so far for one simple reason: the sand is dark grey, presumably indicative of large amounts of coal in the rocks around here. While the fields inland are still very much reddish-brown, the cliffs that border the north side of the bay are black. This perhaps explains the reasoning behind Whitesands Bay's name: the beaches along this next stretch are all of grey sand and, for anyone approaching from the north, Traeth-mawr would most definitely be a "white sands bay" compared to what they had previously seen! 

Cottages inland between Abereiddy and Porthgain
Irrespective of the colour of the sand, there is nothing particularly remarkable about Abereiddy: the beach is neither wild nor developed for tourism, backed by a deserted car-park in the middle of which sits a deserted ice-cream and snacks van but not much else. Luckily I have my packed lunch and find a reasonably sheltered spot down on the pebbles, just below a scruffy sea wall made of old metal girders and rocks. I have managed to find a few things to eat at the supermarket in St. David's: a sausage roll, a packet of crisps, a tomato and an apple. I don't know why I persist in buying tomatoes as a lunchtime ingredient for hikes though; without a proper accompaniment of salad and sauces, I fail to find much enjoyment in them.

Beyond Abereiddy, the walk unexpectedly becomes much easier. A broad path climbs up onto a flat, grassy clifftop which I now follow northwards towards Porthgain, the next village along the way. As I get closer to Porthgain, there is much evidence of this area's industrial past. The flat, windswept clifftops are dotted with overgrown but clearly man-made humps and ditches; ruined buildings stand out against the sky, and paving stones peek through the grass to show where roads ran from building to building. A white obelisk stands on the cliff above the southern side of the entrance to Porthgain harbour, mirrored by a second obelisk marking the northern side of the channel. Porthgain itself is a surprising place; nobody would claim that it is pretty, but it's certainly interesting, and would be fascinating for anyone with a real interest in industrial archaeology. For a brief period in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this was an important port through which slate and brick from local quarries was exported by sea. Its prosperity only lasted a few years though: too isolated, not connected to the rail network, it was soon overtaken by progress and abandoned. Some of the old port buildings still remain: a little white house beside which the path drops down to the quay, and a larger stone building behind the harbour which has been converted into a restaurant. The harbour itself is now only the home to a couple of fishing boats. Above the southern side of the harbour, the whole hillside is lined with the remains of the huge buildings where the slate and brick were stored while waiting for ships to come and take them away. 

After this industrial interlude, the final hour and a half of the day's walk are once again wilder and more rugged, although the walking remains easy. I catch up with a young couple; the woman is very pretty and, unusually, hiking in a skirt. They are walking slowly, looking at the flowers, she is taking photos. We overtake each other a few times over the next hour, hold a few gates open for each other and chat for a while at one of them; they are down here on holiday and "just strolling", they tell me. The path drops back down to the sea at Aber Draw, where there are a couple of cottages, then climbs once again for the final clifftop section to Abercastle. I pass a signpost saying "Trefin Youth Hostel ½ mile". Two minutes later, a family coming the other way ask me if I know the way to Trefin Youth Hostel… which gives me the perfect opportunity to show off my immense local knowledge and tell them exactly how far it is and how to get there!

Now I approach Abercastle, my goal for the day. This is another long inlet, not unlike Solva in many ways but very different in others. Whereas Solva was surrounded by wooded hillsides, here there is a wilder feel to the landscape, with bare hillsides of cropped grass. Solva's inlet was full of small boats, Abercastle has just two or three moored a short distance off the stony beach. And where at Solva was a busy, tourist-oriented village, Abercastle has just a few cottages; no shop, no pub. The entrance to the inlet is guarded by Ynys y Castell, a flat-topped hunk of an island standing a short distance offshore and almost connected to the mainland. 

The path descends through a grassy field where there is a ring of presumably prehistoric standing stones, then contours around a couple of little bays to reach the tiny village itself. My bed and breakfast for the night is on a farm at the far end of the village and a little way outside it, about ten minutes' walk up a steep hill. The place seems to be deserted; the owners have left a note for me which I completely fail to see, but after ten minutes my walking around and trying random doors awakens the curiosity of two dogs who come up barking and wagging their tails, soon followed by a landlady who has clearly been doing some vigorous outdoor work.

Until now, I was swearing by the place where I stayed in Pembroke as the ultimate B&B experience, but I have to admit that it may just about be beaten by Garn Isaf at Abercastle, certainly as far as sheer comfort goes. This is by far the most luxurious bedroom of the whole walk, enhanced by a proper shower connected to a proper hot water system, an absolutely massive bed and original artwork hanging on the walls. The landlady asks me not to hang anything out to dry in the room: this is a problem, as I have yesterday's clothes to finish drying in addition to the stuff I have been wearing today. But she tells me that I can give her the whole lot and she will hang it outside until nightfall, then bring it back indoors. I have a long and luxurious shower, do my last clothes wash of the tour – a reminder that the end is now close – and go back downstairs to wait for Sarah and Peter, who will be coming to collect me to drive to a local pub for dinner.

Downstairs is a comfortable lounge with a good stock of books about local places, wildlife and geography. I talk briefly to a slightly older couple who arrived just before me; we will have a much longer conversation over breakfast in the morning. Sarah gets stuck in the office, but finally makes it to Abercastle at half past seven. We drive back to Porthgain in thick fog, which feels a bit odd given that I have just walked from there, but Porthgain has the advantage of having a highly-reputed fish restaurant and a good pub too. The restaurant is fully booked despite the fact that this is an early season Monday evening, but the Sloop Inn is much bigger inside than it looks from the outside, and we get a table there with no problem. I had expected to be eating a lot of fish and chips during this holiday, but so far have not had anything beyond scampi in Broad Haven. I am determined to have at least one plate of traditional fish and chips, and the Sloop proves to be an excellent place to do it… a portion of monumental size that finally defeats me, but quite possibly the best piece of battered cod I have ever eaten.

Tomorrow is the Big One, the longest stage of the whole walk by a fair distance. I am confident now that my heel will hold up, but I also know that I am probably going to be walking for eight or nine hours over some of the coast path's toughest ground… I just hope it doesn't rain.

She loves me, she loves me not...
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Sunday, May 19, 2013

On the Pembrokeshire Coast Path: Day 9, from Solva to Whitesands Bay

Time: 6.25 hours
Distance: 21 km
Grading: Moderate; narrow clifftop path opposite Ramsey Island
Height gain/loss: 450 metres

Solva – St. Non's Bay – Porth Clais – St. Justinian's – Whitesands Bay

The information sheet in my B&B bedroom in Solva has a laid-back attitude to breakfast which, it says, is served "between 8 and 8:30ish". I go downstairs at 8:15ish and am rewarded with an excellent breakfast, the best since Pembroke. The owner is friendly and chatty. Most of the tables in the café where the meal is served are occupied by people who look like they are going to be doing similar activities to me during the day. It's Sunday, the sun is shining and this is one of the best-known and most walked parts of the path: today I will see more people than all the other days put together. I see the Dutch couple for the last time; they are having a rest day and spending another night in Solva. We wish each other luck for the remainder of our walks. A week after returning home to Switzerland, I receive a postcard from them: they completed the coast path two days after me. I have absolutely no idea how they got my address, but it was a really nice surprise.

Today's walk, though not especially long, involves a lot of up and down and some of the most rugged stretches of coastline yet; I am glad that I will be seeing it at its best. At 9:15, I am on my way. Solva is still very quiet, the Sunday visitors will not start arriving for another hour or so. The harbourside car park is almost empty, making it possible to get some better pictures than yesterday of the village. I walk along the quayside to the old lifeboat station, passing a variety of sailing and rowing boats, still beached until the sea comes in to liberate them. A gentle path leads up through scattered woodlands towards the cliff tops; down below, the tide is just starting to flow into the mouth of the harbour… except that flow is far too violent a word; the morning is incredibly calm and the tide is wafting in more than anything else, a tiny ripple of mirror-calm sea making slow headway inland. So calm is the sea this morning that the reflection of cumulus clouds miles away to the south above Skomer is clearly visible on the surface of the water; I don't think I have ever seen the sea so utterly still. 

An incredibly calm morning
The morning's walk crosses grassy, fairly flat country, dropping only occasionally down to the sea at Porth y Rhaw, Caer Bwdy and Cerfai, where valleys funnel streams down to sandy little beaches. Cerfai in particular must be a lovely beach at low tide, and probably also gets crowded in summer; today, there is nobody on the beach apart from two toddlers paddling in the calm water and their parents sitting Sunday-lazily on the sand. From these bays, paths run inland to reach St. David's, where I will be spending the night, in only two or three kilometres… my own way is much longer!

There is a car park at Cerfai, and significantly more walkers join the path here. Down at the base of the cliffs there are all sorts of interesting geological formations; stacks, arches, rocks of every conceivable shape and size. Above the wild St. Non's Bay are a big country house and a chapel. St. Non's is supposedly the birthplace of St. David, patron saint of Wales, the Non in question being not a French refusal but David's mother. The chapel is a disappointment though; I was expecting something old, but in fact it is a 1930s construction built by the owner of the big house. 

Now I come to the surprising inlet of Porth-clais, an unexpected mini-Solva with a touch of Stackpole Quay thrown in for good measure. The path dips down a hillside ablaze with flowers, from where a steep flight of steps leads down to a tiny stone quay thrown out across the entrance to the inlet. There are two more quays further up towards the inland end of the inlet, but they are unconnected to each other though clearly all part of the same port. My stairway goes nowhere beyond the first quay, I have to retrace my steps back up onto the main path, which continues down to sea level to cross the valley where the river flows into the sea. An elderly woman points up the path I have come from and asks me if it goes to St. David's; I show her where she is on the map and point out a couple of shorter alternatives. There is no village as such here, just a few houses clustered around the place where road meets water, but it's a busy little place, apparently a popular starting point for adventurous nautical activities judging by the number of outboard dinghies and people in wetsuits. 

I decide to push on to Porthlysgi, the next bay, before stopping for lunch. The path runs southwards and seawards again, gradually climbing back up onto low cliffs, some thirty metres above the water. Some people are calling down to friends in the water at the base of the cliffs; eerie answers come echoing back up.

Porthlysgi, despite being unpronounceable, turns out to be a great choice for lunch. Set down in another one of those little valleys, the beach is relatively isolated and has a wild feel to it, pebbly at high tide but with wonderfully clear turquoise water covering a sandy bottom. Offshore, a number of islets and smaller rocks add texture to the base of the angled, grassy cliffs at the top of the beach makes a perfect backrest for sitting facing into the warm midday sun and enjoying lunch. The peace is disturbed occasionally by passing walkers who come down to have a look at the beach, then somewhat more by a couple who arrive with an annoying, yappy dog called Alfie. The woman is absolutely desperate for Alfie to go into the sea so that she can take some wet doggy photos, but Alfie is more interested in eating pebbles. They leave, but are replaced shortly afterwards by another couple with a much bigger dog, confusingly also called Alfie. A third dog arrives and tries but fails to have sex with Alfie No. 2. A long and noisy session of barking and bottom-sniffing finally comes to and end and all the dogs depart, leaving me alone for a pleasant half-hour snooze, the first since Freshwater West on the third day. 

Beyond Porthlysgi, the scenery starts to change. The path becomes more rugged, with considerably more upping and downing. Inland too, there is a different feel to the landscape. Pretty much all the way from Amroth on the first day, the landscape to the landward side has been fields and copses, either flat or sloping gently downhill away from the cliff edge. Now though, the pastoral fields give way to a much wilder landscape of heather and rough grassland, out of which a number of hills rise up higher than the surrounding land. These hills culminate in rocky outcrops that in the south-west would be called tors. Between the hills, marshy lakes lie in the hollows. The path itself becomes rocky underfoot for the first time. All the guidebooks agree that the northern part of the path is rougher, wilder, harder; this new landscape is the first sign of that change.

I have finally reached the northern end of St.Bride's Bay. The path climbs up to a saddle between the headland of Pen Pedol and the inland hills. Here I turn back and look for the last time across the wide sweep of the bay, all the way back to the cliffs in the far distance that stretch away to Skomer. Three days ago, from the cliffs above Martin's Haven, this point looked impossibly far away; looking back, the distance that I have covered is equally impressive. On the very furthest horizon, even the chimneys of the refinery at Angle Bay can just about be made out. 

Inland, the scenery starts to become wilder
Now I turn ahead, northwards. The major feature of the next part of the walk is the large island of Ramsey, a kilometre and a half away across a wild channel of water. I can now see that Ramsey is what I thought might be part of the mainland when looking north from Broad Haven, the feature that the waitress who "wasn't very good at coast stuff" was unable to help me identify. Ramsey is a wild-looking place; its southern end looks almost mountainous, the northern end somewhat lower, with stone field walls and a solitary farmhouse. High cliffs border the full length of the island, and I can see from my map that the hidden western side has even higher cliffs. Between the island and the mainland, even on this perfectly calm day, the tide is running at a furious pace and whipping the sea up into whitecaps… this would be no place to go swimming or even to adventure into with a small boat. The path runs northwards along the top of the cliffs opposite the island, narrow and quite close to the edge in places. This is the first section of the path where there is such a feeling of airiness; anyone suffering badly from vertigo would definitely not be at ease here. 

No such thing as a calm day in Ramsey Sound
I approach the bay of St. Justinian's with its lifeboat slipway, a carbon copy of the old one in Tenby which has now been converted into a private home. I hear someone saying that the one at St. Justinian's is also going to be replaced in the near future. The clifftop flora is absolutely stunning along this section – probably the best of the whole path in terms of the variety of flowers and the intensity of their colour. In places, clouds of pink and white flowers are growing halfway down the near-vertical cliffs, above a turquoise sea. An artist is sitting just above the lifeboat station, working on an oil painting of the slipway with the island in the background. I stop to watch for a while; he tells me that he started the painting yesterday "but the light failed". I feel quite sorry for the light, being so bluntly accused of not being up to the job… Now though, the painting looks close to completion, and there is no indication of a second failure being imminent. 

The final hour to Whitesands Bay is an easy walk across fields, less wild once again as I leave Ramsey Sound behind and turn eastwards. Whitesands occupies a perfect location, a large horseshoe of a bay against the rocky backdrop of Carn Llidi, at 182 metres the highest hill I have seen since starting my walk, and looking much more mountainous than its modest altitude would suggest. If the southern part of the coast path often felt like Brittany, this is most definitely Scotland. The sands themselves are lovely, though no whiter than any of the others I have seen over the last nine days. Whitesands Bay's Welsh name is much more pragmatic: Traeth-mawr simply means "big beach".

In summer, this is a very popular and crowded holiday beach; in May it is absolutely deserted, as is the big car-park above the beach. It is half past four, the beach café is just shutting down for the evening. It's about four kilometres to St. David's, where I am spending the night: I could walk it in less than an hour, but I know that there are some long days ahead and prefer to wait half an hour for the bus. When it comes, the bus is just a minibus and I am the only passenger for the ten-minute ride, which costs just £1. 

Whitesands Bay
St. David's is, famously, the smallest city in Wales (or in the UK, or possibly the world, I cannot remember the details of its claim to fame). It has this distinction because of its large cathedral, but in reality is no more than a village: in fact, though I knew it was going to be small, St. David's is even smaller and sleepier than I was expecting. The bus drops me in the "city centre" in front of the "city hall", and I decide to go and visit the cathedral and have a beer before looking for my B&B. The cathedral is an astonishing building for such a small place: set in a little dip of the land, it is invisible from the centre, hidden by houses and geography. To find it, I have to go up the side of a pub, through an archway and down a long flight of steps. Inside, the cathedral has a remarkably ornate carved wooden roof, but its most surprising feature – not so noticeable from the outside – is that it slopes quite significantly upwards from west to east. As you walk up the nave towards the altar, there is a very noticeable feeling of walking uphill. I have never seen a sloping church before and wonder about the reason: was the rock underneath the church too hard to allow excavation, were the builders too lazy to bother digging, did the local bishop want it done on the cheap? Someone is practising the organ inside the cathedral and then, as I leave and walk back up the hill, the bells start to peal as the local campanologists rehearse their change-ringing. It is all rather lovely.

The pub I walked past, the Farmer's Arms, has a sunny beer garden out the back, which I find impossible to resist. Getting served is a slow process though; the bar is full of thirsty rock-climbers (at least that's what I assume they are given that their conversation is all about harnesses and falling off things) and the solitary barmaid is having trouble providing refills of Double Dragon as fast as they need them! I sit in the hot sun and drink my pint, then wander into the village centre to check from where and at what time I can get a bus back to Whitesands in the morning, and whether it will be possible for me to stock up on provisions before the bus leaves.

My B&B is out towards the edge of St. David's… though in a city where nothing is more than two hundred metres from anything else, this still makes it pretty central. It's an odd little place; clearly recently renovated, but in the style of a 1960s seaside boarding house with dark-coloured wallpaper, heavy curtains and carpets and totally inadequate lighting in my tiny bedroom. It is very comfortable and the owner (who fits perfectly with the décor) is very friendly, but it is all rather old-fashioned and caught in a time warp. I do my usual showering and washing; there is no heating, which is understandable after such a warm day, but I already know that my clothes will not be dry in the morning.

For dinner, I go to the other pub in the centre, ambiguously called The Bishops. It is not clear whether the name refers to a single but ungrammatical bishop, or whether St. David's had a whole multitude of plural bishops… It's a nice pub though, busy but not overcrowded. A big hulk of a barmaid with tattoos serves me a pint of Reverend James, then another one to go with a very tasty plate of pork with mustard sauce, which the menu describes as "Dijonnaise". The pub is warm, the evening sun is coming in through the window and lighting my table far better than the ceiling light in my bedroom, so I linger in the pub for quite a long time after I have finished eating, reading my books and looking at my map. Tomorrow's leg will be longer and will take me into the final third of my walk. 

All my Pembrokeshire Coast Path photos here