Paul Gogarty's Pembrokeshire
Travel writer Paul explains why despite criss-crossing the globe, he's yet to discover 'anywhere that can quite eclipse the Pembrokeshire Coast'
Over the past two decades I have been fortunate enough to globetrot the world writing travel features for national newspapers and a host of magazines.
For three years, whilst Jill Dando was at the helm, I also regularly reported for BBC 1's Holiday programme in exotic destinations.
A pretty lucky boy then as far as earning a living goes I hear you say and you'd be absolutely right. And so why is it that I still think my very first job as a 16-year old deckhand ferrying holidaymakers from Tenby across to Caldey Island was the best I ever had? And why is it that having visited some of the world's most fabled coastlines - Highway One between San Francisco and LA, and South Africa's Garden Route, come to mind - that I still haven't discovered anywhere that can quite eclipse the Pembrokeshire Coast?
Even in summer Britain's only coastal National Park has more than enough coastline to find a bay all to yourself (well it is 186 miles long!). But once autumn arrives, you can stroll an entire afternoon along the sublime trail and see more seals than you do people. Autumn, winter and spring, for me are when Pembrokeshire is at its best: when it is unashamedly itself - rugged, wild, dramatic, and sensationally beautiful.
My romance with Pembrokeshire stretches back to 1965 when I arrived at Bush Grammar, a school marooned halfway between Pembroke and Pembroke Dock where I regularly cursed the teachers for banning round balls from the playground ("Well Gogarty you'll just have to take up rugby then won't you?").
Since leaving Pembrokeshire and home, I have returned innumerable times - to research the Southwest chapter for the Insight Guides 'Wales' guidebook, and write articles for national newspapers and magazines. The very first Holiday programme I ever presented, back in 1994, was even shot in St Davids. And ever since I've had kids of my own, at regular intervals my wife, children, and our pooch Lucky, have returned with me to scamper about the beaches and countryside.
In Pembrokeshire there are as many holidays as there are towns. Whenever we visited when the children were smaller, they always insisted that our first stop was to Folly Farm near Kilgetty on the Narbeth Road. This is no common-or-garden theme farm with a few straggly animals corralled in a corner. Folly Farm has sheep, chickens, pigs and numerous other farmyard creatures. But it also comprises a wonderful Edwardian funfair (the largest in Europe), indoor and outdoor adventure play areas and a zoo with 200 animals.
Folly Farm has been well thought out with wet-weather indoor options such as treasure hunts which is probably why in 2015 it won the 'Best Family Day Out in Wales' award (thankfully too it's open every weekend right through autumn and winter). What’s more many of the visiting families bring their own picnics - something that would have Walt Disney turning in his grave (unlike Disney, Folly Farm does not ban its visitors from bringing in their own food).
On another of our regular sorties a couple of years back, when accompanied by Lucky, our Manchester Terrier/Jack Russel mongrel, we stayed in one of a cluster of handsome self-catering stone cottages adjacent to the forested walks of Llysyfran Country Park (Pembrokeshire is hands down the best county in Britain when it comes to catering for dogs). For several days Lucky led us on and around the Preselis (an area that is also known as "Bluestone Country"), miraculously bringing us to memorable pubs just around lunchtime.
Nevern was definitely the prettiest village we came across but our favourite watering hole was without doubt Tafarn Sinc - the Zinc Pub - in Rosebush, whose floor was covered in sawdust and its exterior dressed in corrugated zinc sheet! Once watered, we popped a couple of doors down to eat at the Old Post Office which boasts a shoebox-sized restaurant and even smaller adjoining bar and grocer's shop. Some counties may have lost their distinctiveness and character but Pembrokeshire rightly makes a virtue out of it.
After a leisurely lunch in Rosebush, we headed out for another stroll in Cwm Gwaun, a Site of Special Scientific Interest that appears to have been locked away in a time warp. Before finally turning homewards that day, we popped into another pub for one last pint (well we were on holiday and my wife was driving!). Here I was informed by the publican that their New Year's Eve party or Hen Galan would not be celebrated until the night of January 13th because the locals were still using the Gregorian calendar!
According to The Mabinogion, South West Wales is Gwlad hud a lledrich, "The Land of Mystery and Magic" so it didn't seem too far fetched, particularly as the Preseli's are peppered with Druid temples, burial chambers and the huge bluestones that were used to construct Stonehenge 5000 years back and 200 miles away. Mystics claim that chieftains transported the huge bluestones by means of levitation, romantics say they were rolled on felled tree trunks, whilst hard-nosed geologists believe an Ice Age glacier handled the removals.
When we had done with the Preselis, we moved on for more adventures and walks with Lucky along the coast where, as it was autumn, summer dog restrictions had thankfully been lifted on the most popular beaches.
I have returned to walk different stretches of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path at least half a dozen times and my favourite base is St Davids. Britain's smallest city would not be much more than a village if it didn't happen to house the country's finest cathedral (Saint David grew up here, hence the reason for the Cathedral). The floor of the magnificent purple-grey stone building rises sharply at one end where pillars splay outwards like a bloom of flowers to meet an intricately carved 15th-century wooden ceiling. I was admiring the view on a recent visit, sitting in a pew in the early evening when the choir suddenly burst into song, rehearsing for the weekend service. At that moment I felt as close to heaven as I'm ever likely to get!
But the exquisite cathedral, and the posy of pastel-coloured shops and restaurants that surround it, are not the major magnet I and many others choose St David's as a base. The biggest draw of all is the 186 dramatic coastal miles that fan out south, north, east and west from the town.
The Pembrokeshire National Park consists of ancient submerged forests, Neolithic burial chambers, myths, legends and a rollicking rollercoaster of a coastal path flanked by scattered parishes that rarely manage more than a handful of homes, a Norman church and of course a pub.
On my first day in town, once togged up in walking gear, I usually head south skirting a grey Passionist monastery, a votive well (said to have appeared, along with St David, during a thunderstorm) and a simple chapel dedicated to David's mother, St Non. Once out on the coast path, I turn westwards, passing limekilns and strange cement-grouted cottage roofs at Porth Clais. It was around here apparently that Twrch Trwyth, a legendary boar that had swum all the way from Ireland, wrestled with King Arthur's sons.
The rollercoaster path hugs sheer cliff edge one minute and drops to another finely-fretted bay the next. On many occasions I've sat in these bays for half an hour or more watching moustachioed seals and their pups (and even once a shy porpoise). Overhead fulmer petrels ('petrel' apparently from St Peter because they have the same capacity to walk on water!), buzzards, and caterwauling kittiwakes soar above oyster catchers busily using their orange beaks as pneumatic drills to prise open limpets on the rocks below. Eventually I arrive at Ramsey Head overlooking the Sound and the aptly named "Bitches", a can-opener of jagged rocks that have wrecked more than 60 ships. I now turn north until I reach St Justinian lifeboat station, before heading wearily inland for a well-deserved tea and Welsh cakes back in St Davids.
Our family explorations, naturally, aren't just restricted to walks. Often we'll drive out past overgrown hedgerows that bow down as the car pitches and soars its way through countryside as pretty as you'll find anywhere. As we ride the switchback, hamlets give way to the occasional isolated farmhouses until eventually we arrive at another of the fabled beaches such as Whitesands whose EC Blue Flag will still be proudly fluttering in the breeze (with 13 Blue Flags, 30 Seaside Awards and 15 Green Coast Awards).
Down on the deep sandy beach, boys skim stones across the sea and dogs bark loudly, keen to chase after the projectiles but reluctant to get wet. A couple of hardy souls in wetsuits sit on boards at sea, hovering like dragonflies patiently awaiting the right wave to ride their surfboards home. Fifteen hundred years earlier St Patrick used a very different kind of surfboard (in fact a coracle) to set sail from this very beach on his quest to take Christianity to Ireland. He knew a good beach when he saw one.
After working up an appetite at Whitesands, we usually lunch at the Sloop Inn in Porthgain where Cerys Matthews from Catatonia had her wedding reception. Even though it's the tiniest of hamlets, Porthgain even has a small restaurant known as The Shed that's open in winter Thursdays through Saturday nights. What's the saying? - Great things come in small packages?
On the way back to St Davids (also small but great), Tenby (larger but just as great!) or wherever we happen to be based on our latest sortie, I invariably bore my children with a story about each town ("Yes Dad you've told us all your stories - every time we come"). The problem is this bottom left corner of Wales is in my bones and there's always so many stories to tell. "Did I ever tell you about the halcyon summer of '66, when aged 16, I got a job as boat boy on one of the Tenby - Caldey island ferries?" Larne and Max groan from behind me.
You can pack an awful lot into a Pembrokeshire break, which is probably why we keep coming back. There's bucketfulls of family stuff to do, wet or dry, and if you have willing children there's endless fine coastal walking. It used to be claimed that if you stood on a turf cut from St David's churchyard and looked out to sea, you could see the enchanted islands where the fairies lived. With its submerged petrified forests, and menhirs dotting the fields like mushrooms, perhaps I shouldn't have raised an eyebrow when one local in another pub claimed to know someone who knew someone who'd caught a mermaid.
A few Pembrokeshire gems.
Tenby. My favourite British seaside resort. Handsome pastel-coloured Georgian homes stand corralled within the Norman ramparts and glorious beaches fan its flanks. The streets pitch as if left that way by an earthquake, the medieval walls and towers peer down imperiously, the oldest parish church in Wales slumbers on its grassy knoll, gnarled old fishermen's cottages hunker down on precipitous lanes and tourist and specialist shops continue to attract visitors year round.
The painter Augustus John, Tenby's most famous son claimed, "You may travel the world over, but you will find nothing more beautiful; it's so restful, so colourful and so unspoilt." Tenby's North beach is well sheltered and its pretty harbour beach equally sheltered, but the 200 metre-deep, one and a half mile long, dune-fringed South Beach is the most glorious for autumn and winter walks. Out at sea you'll see CaldeyIsland, an Italianate monastery inhabited by Cistercian monks that can be reached from Tenby by boat from Easter to mid October. But at this time of the year, you'll just have to make do with the view (and what a view!).
Whitesands. The long sandy beach, a couple of miles north of St Davids, is popular with surfers and swimmers and regularly appears in the top 20 British beaches.
Nevern, just north of the Preseli Hills, is a sublimely somnalent village radiating round its fabled churchyard which still boasts a horseman's mounting block as well as an avenue of yews. The fifth-century Vitalanius Stone in the graveyard commemorates a Celtic soldier of the Roman legion.
Cwm Gwaun, an ancient forest of alder, blackthorn, hazel, hornbeam, wych and elm carpeting a hidden valley that separates Fishguard from the Preseli Hills. One of the last retreats of the otter and the Gregorian calendar!
The Long Barrow burial chamber of Pentre Ifan near Cilgerran is the finest Neolithic cromlech in Britain and dates back 4,500 years (about the age my children accuse me of being) and from a distance looks like a giant toadstool fed on steroids!
St Davids. Birthplace of the Welsh patron saint and Britain's smallest city, boasting Wales' finest ecclesiastical building. A smattering of restaurants, guest houses and bookshops hunker round the Cathedral and looping around them is the most dramatic stretch of coastline in Britain
BET YOU DIDN'T KNOW
- The last invasion of Britain took place near Fishguard in 1797 by a French force of 1400 led by American General William Tate.
- One third of the world's grey seal population is found on the Pembrokeshire coast.
- The last recorded use of stocks in Britain took place in Pembrokeshire when Jack Foster was imprisoned for three hours for drunkenness in 1872.
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