After a weekend in Conwy exploring castles with histories almost more exciting than Game of Thrones, the dream team of ‘Marilyn’ as dubbed by Val and Bry (aka Marita and Lyndsay) diverged for separate horizons. Although we’d each made separate plans and knew this moment would arrive, it was unsettling and strange to finally split the dynamic duo. She was off to Ireland followed by Scotland with her parents, while I was headed down to the Pembrokeshire coast in south-west Wales before commencing several months of WWOOFing. It was with mixed feelings that I caught the train down to Haverfordwest and then found myself stepping off the bus in the UK’s smallest city and most westerly point, St David’s, all on my lonesome.Luckily, St David’s is a bustling little seaside city with a main street and several side-streets worth of art galleries, cafes and a single supermarket. It feels a little like my home-town of Milton, to be honest. Just 3 km outside the city is the lovely hideaway of Pencnwc Farm (pronounced “pen-canook”) where I have been camping for the better part of three weeks. My little purple tent is pitched at the top of the field dubbed “Peaceful Pasture” with views over the fields down to the sea. At night I fall asleep to the surge of the surf with clear, star-lit skies above. The time has flown by, filled with lots of sun, hiking, and my 24th birthday. I was very lucky to arrive in time for an unbroken spell of unseasonably warm weather, and set about industriously filling it with hiking, beaching, reading, writing and even some work fruit-picking.  It was rather glorious. I even had time for a persistent stomach bug but you don’t really want to hear about that, I promise you.
Pembrokeshire Coast Path near St David’s.
The Pembrokeshire Coast Path

Pencnwc Farm is just a short stroll down to its own secluded cove (Porthlysgi) and the Pembrokeshire Coast Path, nearly 300 km of hiking trail directly along the Welsh coastline. Over the course of my visit, I took advantage of the excellent weather and the hiker’s shuttle bus service and hiked from St Bride’s Bay in the south to Strumble Head in the north, a distance of approximately 100 km. It was an exhilarating experience, especially in the more rugged sections where I could walk for 4 – 5 hours and not come across another soul. The heathland is speckled with flecks of bright purple, deep ochre and orange, with yellow wildflowers poking their heads through. Wild ponies are a common sight and the air is constantly filled with butterflies and sea-birds. Gazing from the cliff-tops, I also saw fat porpoises, seals and sleek dolphins.

The Pembrokeshire Coast Path. Image courtesy of http://www.mariannebrand.co.uk
The Coast Path is steep and rugged in many sections as the trail meanders up and down ridges to snug pebbly coves or huge stretches of sandy beach, before it veers upwards again to the cliff tops. Repeat this again and again and you have an idea of what walking the trail consists of. Every headland is different, every quiet beach a gem, and you find yourself wanting to push on and on to see what’s around the next bend. On my walking days, I typically hiked a distance of 16 – 23 km (4 – 6 hours), with a packed lunch and plenty of water. I met some interesting walkers on the trail and continued to bump into some of them over the weeks on different sections of the Coast Path or in and around St David’s.
Along the Coast Path.

Walkers seem to be a special breed. Only some people can be covered in dust, grimy, tired and sore and still stand on a crest of headland with a glazed look of joy as they survey the kilometres they’ve travelled stretching out behind them. With few exceptions, they are all attired in standard uniform of proper non-cotton hiking clothes, sturdy boots and grasping hiking poles and huge maps in waterproof pouches. I moseyed along in my shorts and cotton T-shirt with my backpack and running shoes and had a great time.

Walking through this landscape and the small towns peppered along the accessible beaches, it’s easy to imagine Enid Blyton’s Famous Five gallivanting along the same route, stopping for lemonade and macaroons at farmhouses along the way. They would spend their time exposing smugglers using the myriad of tiny coves and sea-caves and probably solve other mysteries along the way. I still find it hard to believe that their fictional parents would let them jaunt about the countryside when the eldest was barely a teenager, but hey, it’s Wales. Thank you Anne, George, Julian, Dick and Timmy the dog. You guys are the real deal.

Ruins of quarry worker’s homes along the Coast Path.
Smuggler’s coves a-plenty.

In and around St David’s

My favourite part of the coastline so far is the stretch around St David’s. It’s sheer and rugged and makes you feel like you’re miles from civilisation. Near the city is Caerfai, a small sandy beach popular with families. Winding further north is the stunning St Non’s, the restored chapel of the mother of the city’s patron saint, St David. It’s a tiny stone chapel that stands like a sentinel on the cliff-face. Continuing on, the little bay of Porthclais is a teeny 12th century harbour lined by sandstone cliffs, while my favourite little bay is Porthlysgi, the one closest to my campsite. It’s tranquil and calm, with several small islands (named Carreg yr Esgob) offshore and smooth, rounded purple granite underfoot.  The headland opens up into a large grassy area with the ruins of a 19th century copper mine, with lovely views over to Ramsey Island.

Caerfai Beach, St David’s.
St Non’s Chapel by the sea.
Porthclais Harbour.
Further along the coast is St Justinian’s, where the Lifeboat station fits snugly into the cove. It’s an impressive sight to see the large lifeboats jettison off the ramp into the water and speed away. Between the mainland and Ramsey Island is a strong tidal surge known as “The Bitches” which has been responsible for many shipwrecks over the years. It forms immense rapids and churns up white water when the tides turn. I took a trip across on the small RNLI ferry to Ramsey Island for a day’s exploration and we strained through the rapids to the island’s small harbour, as the tidal flow pounded against the southern part of the island. Ramsey is a nature reserve with only a limited number of visitors each year. On arrival, I was greeted by the park warden and given a quick introduction to the site and the resident wildlife. With dozens of rabbits underfoot I hiked around the island, spotting droves of seals and was even lucky enough to spot a peregrine falcon soaring above me.

Lifeboat station at St Justinian’s.
Ramsey Island, northern face.
Ramsey Island, southern face.
Ramsey Island, more of the southern face.

Past Ramsey Island is St David’s Head, which juts out into the sea to provide spectacular views of the coastline. It contains the remains of ancient field patterns and defensive banks, as well as the impressive Coetan Arthur, a Neolithic burial chamber dated to approximately 4000 BC. It’s a huge capstone (almost 6 m wide) that is supported by a metre-high side stone.

Coetan Arthur.
Image courtesy of http://www.geograph.org.uk


St David’s Cathedral and the Bishop’s Palace


St David’s is a small city with an enormous cathedral.. Beyond the cathedral is the ruins of the Bishop’s Palace, which truly deserves the name. The cathedral is dedicated to St David, the son of St Non, who according to legend gave birth to her saintly son on the nearby sea-cliffs during a wild storm (where her chapel still stands today). David’s symbol of the leek has now been appropriated as the national symbol of Wales, so the patronage of this particular saint is a big deal. During the 6th century AD St David developed a monastery on the site and it became an official place of pilgrimage in 1123. The cathedral was built in 1181 and the Bishop’s Palace begun in 1328 as pilgrims flocked to the site. It’s a lovely stone building with intricate wood ceilings and plainly decorated small chapels and cloisters.In medieval times the bishops were quite wealthy and commanded vast estates, with St David’s especially prosperous. As such, they needed a swanky pad in which to relax after the hard work of running services and travelling within their dioceses. The Palace was built and remodelled in the 13th century, largely the vision of Bishop Henry de Gower (1328 – 1347). It was built to house royal pilgrims and of course there was an enormous wing for the bishop as well. It teems over two floors with vaulted caverns below for food preparation and storage, with an intricate labyrinth of servant stairways and passageways linking all the main rooms with the subterranean workspaces. It would have been very plush back in the day. Even in ruined form it commands respect. The entire precinct was initially walled, with only the gatehouse surviving today above the cathedral. The surrounding grounds are perfect for a picnic on a sunny day, although it still seems a little odd to see families lounging against ancient gravestones and playing hide and seek around tombs.

St David’s Cathedral
St David’s Cathedral
View from the Bishop’s Palace (foreground) to St David’s Cathedral and the Cathedral Gatehouse (background).
Beautifully panelled wooden ceiling of St David’s Cathedral.




The altar at St David’s Cathedral.


Pencnwc Farm: the people

 
I’ve met lots of interesting people at the campsite who have made my stay lots of fun. Flo and Ron run the campsite. A lovely retired couple, they’ve been incredibly kind to me and seem to almost bind everyone together. It’s hard to describe but most of the campers are regulars who return year after year, so that the campsite simply feels like a big family gathering facilitated by Flo and Ron. You can’t help but get caught up in the celebratory summer atmosphere here.

  • Jackie and Dick live on-site in their campervan for six months of the year, helping Flo and Ron run the campsite over the summer months. When the cold starts to set in, they fly to New Zealand for a second summer where they run a backpacker’s hostel. They are both extraordinary people and have been incredibly kind to me, offering lifts to different parts of the coast and always ready for a laugh. I’m going to miss my typical greeting of ‘G’day Sheila’ from Dick.
  • Charlie – the surfing nomad who travels and lives in her van.  She calls Pencnwc Farm home over the summer and picks up work pet-sitting, spud and fruit picking and painting. It was with Charlie that I was introduced to the art of strawberry picking and spent a day in the sun harvesting enormous blushing berries at a local farm. For 50 pence a punnet, I picked 100 punnets and earned myself 50 pounds for my efforts. I also probably ate a huge amount along the way. Best strawberries I have ever tasted. Charlie may have eaten slightly too many and made herself a bit sick, but it was an excellent, exhausting day. I worked alongside a bunch of other people my age and this older Polish woman who spoke not a word of English but powered along the rows, picking 200 punnets in the 6 hours it took me to pick 100. She was a whirlwind and the rest of us gave her space in our general awe. Haven’t eaten a strawberry since but I’m sure I’ll be able to eventually.
Some of the strawberries I picked. So tasty.
  • Neil – the photographer who spent his time hiking and fishing and was always quick with an anecdote or joke. He sang ‘happy birthday’ to me on my 24th and it made my day. Thanks Neil!
  • Andrew, Claire, Ally and their dog Pi – an exuberant family from Cheltenham who have set up for the summer in an enormous Mongolian Ger and are a constant hubbub of activity.

There have been plenty of other families over the weeks, some staying for several days and some for a week or so. Everyone is ready with a smile and very kind. I’ve been lent methylated spirits for my camp-stove, a wetsuit to battle the freezing Atlantic Ocean, and offered lifts to different beaches along the coast. Everyone is pretty boisterous and there’s a general herd of children running amok at all times, but it’s an excellent combination.

I’ve read that St David’s is a ‘thin place’, a place where the distance between heaven and earth is blurred. After my experience here I’d have to agree – there’s something other-worldly about this peaceful corner of Wales.
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2 replies on “Pembrokeshire: my 24th summer

  1. Hey Marita!

    Flo n Ron said I HAD to read your blog. So glad they made me! I've been back in Cheltenham for 5 days and it's got me excited about getting back to Pembrokeshire and Pencnwc tomorrow! I'm planning to walk the path from Strumble Head next week – desperate to see dolphins. I'll let you know if I hit lucky!

    Hope Hereford is coming up trumps for you too…

    x Claire

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