With the name “Wynne-Jones”, you know that Tim’s family is Welsh. His father was born in Wales, and going there was an important part of this trip. We also wanted to walk on whatever coastline we could get to. So we headed out to discover what we could of the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path.
The Pembrokeshire Coastal Path comprises 186 miles of south west Welsh coastline. It is remote and, in November, isolated. We decided to base ourselves in the city of St. David’s (Tyddewi) in case the weather turned bad and we had to just curl up with our books instead of walking. Late November is very much the off-season and we weren’t sure what to expect.
St. David’s is the UK’s smallest city. With a population of 1,800, it seems miniature in all respects.
Tiny cottages nestle together on two main streets, and you can circumnavigate the whole city in about 10 minutes of walking.
St. David himself established a monastery here in 589 AD, and it has been a place of worship ever since. The city status is due to its large and impressive cathedral.
St. David’s Cathedral was begun around 1180 AD. An extraordinary feat of workmanship, the cathedral has beautifully carved and painted ceilings, tile floors, mosaics, sculptures and tombs throughout.
In the 14th century, Bishop Gower secured the importance of St. David’s when he appealed to the Pope to agree that two visits to St. David’s equals one to Rome. This means that pilgrims can be as blessed by visiting St. David’s twice in their lifetime as they would be by visiting Rome once. “This pilgrimage and the wealth that pilgrims brought though their gifts granted the bishops of St. David’s enormous power and wealth” (from the Treasure exhibit, in the Cathedral) The wealth of the cathedral is evident. Pilgrims, and tourists, have kept the Cathedral alive, and it is very much at the centre of the tiny city’s life.
But our days were spent appreciating a much older and more rugged beauty. Wales is a land of mystery and legend, and the Coastal Path, with 58 beaches and 14 harbours, has many stories to tell.
We began our first slightly rainy day with a visit to the superb tourist information centre. We picked up the path about ½ mile from the centre and found ourselves overlooking Caerfai Bay.
The wind was fierce, but not cold, invigorating, not overwhelming as we set off along the edge of the cliffs.
The walk took us to the most westerly chapel in Wales, St. Non’s.
St Non was St. David’s mother and a nearby fresh water spring, credited with many miracles, is said to have sprung up at the moment when St. David was born.
The present day St. Non’s chapel was constructed from stones of the old chapel, built around 1300. A tiny refuge, we were surprised to find lit candles and offerings to the Saint with not a soul in site.
The chapel at St. Non’s isn’t used for regular service in the winter because the rains come through the 2 ½’ thick walls, despite the waterproofing. Coming out of the chapel, the rain hit us sideways from the sea and we didn’t have much on in the way of waterproofing. So we decided to abandon the path and head back to St. David’s.
We were drenched when we walked into the Farmer’s Arms, but after a bowl of leek and potato soup and a pint of Double Dragon we were dry, and so was the weather. A bit of sun came out so we headed out of town again, about 3 miles out, to join up the path at Whitesands Bay.
Whitesands is breathtaking. Tradition has it that St. Patrick left from Whitesands on his mission to Ireland in 430 AD.
A long, pristine white beach with huge crashing waves, bordered by hard edge cliffs, we had the place to ourselves.
We worked our way back to the path, skirting the edge of the cliffs.
The views are unbelievable. It is the kind of place where people go to extremes to get good photos – apparently a prominent photographer was swept to his death by the fierce winds while trying to capture a perfect shot. Signs remind us: “Cliffs kill! Keep to the path”. We did.
We walked as far as St. Justinian’s where there is a lifeboat station, built in 1869, tucked into the inlet. St. Justinian was St. David’s friend, a strict ascetic who lived on Ramsey Island. Legend has it that his disciples beheaded him (he was apparently a bit too strict!), but he picked up his head and walked across the water over to the mainland to die, where a chapel was built in his name.
Light fades quickly on these short winter’s days and we didn’t want to be on the cliffs at night.
So we headed overland back to St. David’s, where even in the off-season we are able to find an excellent Indian restaurant that served a brilliant curried fish dish with coriander, lemon and smoked paprika – Tarkary Basa – like nothing I have ever tasted.
The next day dawned sunny and dry, so we picked up the walk at Porth Clais, a harbor featured in the Mabinogion (a famous collection of Welsh legends). It was the landing place of a giant boar, pursued from Ireland by King Arthur. More recently (18th century) it was an important trading quay with lime kilns in active use until the beginning of the 20th century. It is a perfectly hidden, tiny harbour, and from April to October it is the launch for boats and kayaks that head out to Ramsey Sound to see porpoises and seabirds.
The waves crashed, the wind blew and a new breathtaking view was around every corner.
From Porth Clais we walked to Porth Lisky, a bay filled with red and green pebbles formed from Pre-Cambrian ash and lava.
The rocks are beautiful and the colours gleam like jewels as the water flows over them. We were treated to a sun shower, and although wet again, we were delighted by a rainbow overhead. The wind dried us quickly as we proceeded along the coast.
We passed 19th century copper mines, and the sheltered bay of Carn ar Wig, used by ferry boats since the 13th century. But the weather started to turn again, and we decided it was time to turn away from the shore, inland back to St. David’s where a late plowman’s lunch at the Farmer’s Arms awaited. We had met only one person on the path in our two days, Jimmy from Montana, who had devoted the whole month of November to this walk. He was heading to St. David’s with his life on his back (tent, cook stove, sleeping bag, everything). We couldn’t imagine what it is like to camp out in this constant wind! It was Jimmy’s last night before heading back to the States, so we shared a drink together and got advice for our next coastal walk.
The day ended with Evensong at the Cathedral. Even as an agnostic, I felt blessed.