The Plan Forms
Unsurprisingly this starts in the cradle of all mad ideas, the pub. I’m sat in the Wellington in Birmingham doing my best Viking impression. And by that I mean me and ‘The Ben’ are drinking mead! In Norse mythology the god Odin drank mead that could turn you into a poet or scholar, our mead doesn’t do this it inspires the following adventure. Oh and it totally gets you smashed too….skål!
So the plan forms to RUN the Pembrokeshire Coast Path in Wales in a fastpacking style.https://www.cicerone.co.uk/what-is-fastpacking The Pembrokeshire Coast Path is a vast challenge of around 180 miles (or 289.68km) consisting of golden beaches, rugged cliffs,marshy tidal creeks and picturesque Welsh Coastal towns. We plan to just carry clothes, water and food. The idea is to run between hostels and campsites making the best time we can, walking only if we have to. The idea itself as usual sounds great in our heads and we imagine running to each stage before late afternoon, spending the remainder of the day swimming in the (probably freezing) sea until the sun starts to go down then hitting the local pubs. Sounds perfect if a little crazy doesn’t it?
Flash forward to a few months later, and myself and Andy have just returned from the alpine mountains of Transylvania See here for the blog and we are ready for the next challenge. Ben is soon off to start teaching English in China so this will be our last adventure with all three of us until further notice. We have all got a few more commitments since the original plan so we have to shorten the plan to four days instead of a week. Also I’m getting the feeling that running 180 miles isn’t really Ben’s idea of fun! He suggests we do the route as a hike instead and RELAXING – (I know you are reading this Ben that was not ‘relaxing!’) I’m terrible at relaxing but when I have an idea in my head it’s painful to me to not carry it out, which later will become a little ironic.
The new plan is to leave the car in Pembroke and catch the train from here to Saundersfoot. This way we will have to walk back eventually arriving at the car, it also gives us a goal and it will help with the motivation to get to the end.
Saundersfoot to Manorbier (18 miles)
Finally it’s about 7am in the morning and we’ve all sleepily packed ourselves into Andy’s car and started loading ourselves up with coffee so we can pass for human beings. The sun’s out, it’s nice and warm and we’ve got the tune’s on. At the moment after hijacking Andy’s stereo I’ve got Iggy Pop’s ‘the passenger’ on because as yet I still can’t drive legally.
We arrive in Pembroke and leave the car in a long stay carpark, pausing briefly for Andy to mutter a short prayer that nobody nicks it while we are enjoying ourselves sleeping in muddy fields. Then it’s off to grab some supplies before we jump on the train to Saundersfoot.
As we are waiting for the train a stereotypically friendly old Welsh lady, toting a can on Gordon’s and Tonic who’s clearly enjoying her bank holiday asks us where we are heading with our heavy rucksacks. We get the usual reaction when we tell her we are walking about 60 miles of coast path in four days. She’s quite happy to talk to Andy as he will humor anybody no matter how soaked in gin they are, after I while I zone out of the conversation where Ben just looks pure uncomfortable. I’m not sure where the conversation is going but judging by Andy’s face it’s now entered ‘smile and nod’ territory. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Welsh I’m just socially awkward. And the ironic thing about looking like you want to be left alone is that everyone will come and talk to you…..
Jumping off the train in Saundersfoot we have a short slog up a steep hill and arrive outside the spooky looking medieval church of St Issel’s with it’s ancient moss and lichen mottled headstones.
From this point it’s not too much further until we reach the Pembrokeshire coast path. Unsurprisingly the beaches are rammed with holidaymakers waiting for the sky to clear again so they can transform themselves into pork scratchings. Screaming children are in tow, some playing pirates in rubber dinghy’s while their parents lie on the beach. I’ve never really been able to get into the mentality of lying on the beach all day having a sleep. Then again I’m not a parent and thinking back to past family holidays as a child when I was swimming circles around whatever bay we found with my older brother this might have been my folks only opportunity to get some sleep!
Along the way we pass though the three short and creepy looking dark tunnels that the coastal branch of the Saundersfoot railway originally passed through. This connected the Stepaside colliery and ironworks with Saundersfoot harbour, now it forms part of the coast path. I wonder what the experience of walking through these tunnels at night would be like. In high winds I imagine they probably make a low, moaning howl.
The coastal path is actually surprisingly brutal as soon as we get past Saundersfoot and is full of short steep sections to begin with followed by long, rooty climbs under gnarled ancient trees. But it’s not long until we leave the noise of the rest of humanity behind.
After about three hours and 8 ish miles we arrive in Tenby and grab a well deserved pint. The pub is rammed with huge queue’s for drinks but it’s well worth the effort.It takes a lot of effort not to just try and find a hostel or campsite, have a few more ciders and get in the sea.
We then continue around Tenby’s headland and past the limestone outcrop ofSt Catherines Island, home to the Victorian St Catherines fort. During high tide this tidal island is cut off from the town and it provides great opportunities for photographers. It would be great to stop here and explore the island but the day’s passing quickly so we walk down onto the beach leaving the coast path temporarily to hike down the sands of south beach.
Walking down south beach the sounds of tourists fade away and are replaced with the sound of the tide, the wind and the seagulls we head towards to dunes on the far end of the beach. At which point the sun comes out fully again as we plod through the golden sand.
Onwards Past Caldey Island
We make our way to Giltar Point, briefly stopping to climb up on top of it’s ‘summit’ and look out across the estuary to the holy Caldey Island. The name Caldey apparently comes from the norse which could have meant ‘Island of the Spring’ or possibly ‘Cold Island’. Though the idea of vikings thinking Wales is cold seems strange to me, however this is Wales and I guess either could have been possible. This remote island has been a religious centre since around the 6th century and it is possible to visit it, but there really isn’t time. Plus I’m not religious, and the only thing I’d say a prayer right now for are my feet….
I am wondering if it’s possible to swim to the island but that’s just a normal thought for me really…
We arrive in Manorbier about 7pm just as the sun is setting over the bay, and the golden path of the sun is shining across the water towards us. And we head towards our first campsite.
Manorbier is tiny and coming down the coast path, across the beach and past the castle we find our campsite very quickly.
The campsite we stay at turns out to be really nice (to be honest though now I’m getting older after a big hike I could sleep in a bush) and has a pub close by too, which by the time we reach it is almost about to stop doing food.
A clearly very tired young woman is about to stop making pizzas when we arrive. We are all so grateful that she makes us food we give her a pretty big tip. We sit in the dark pub beer garden stuffing ourselves with pizza. Being honest here I will take every opportunity to avoid camping food where I can. If there’s a pub nearby siting outside my tent boiling up pasta seems unnecessary. If I’m totally out in the wilderness then I’m all for it – but when there’s a warm fire, a glass of wine available and no washing up to do I’d much rather do that.
While sinking our pints and chewing our pizza we make the group decision to spend the next day just relaxing around the area and go for an explore and swim. Which I’m all for at this point, the weather has been great and we have no idea when it might just change.
Sorry to be disappointing but having actually gone as far as sleeping in bramble bushes in the past, being perfectly honest I prefer a decent hotel over a tent any day.
Being realistic though, you will rarely find a hotel in the wilderness or on a mountain. Some places you only get to see because you tackled the journey on foot. And most of the time that’s why I camp, to see things other people don’t usually get to see because it takes effort and to most people effort is a terrifying concept. Because of having a tent I’ve slept on mountains deep in the Cairngorms where you could never get a car to.
The other reason is because I like being outdoors and also especially in this case because it’s a hell of a lot cheaper than a hotel!
There are definitely downsides such as knowing at some point in the early morning you are going to need to pee, which is pretty easy at home. It gets less easy when a tent’s involved. In this case it means getting dressed in a tent, getting out of that warm sleeping bag and probably shuffling across a wet field. Sometimes you find yourself thinking ‘maybe I should just pee myself and go back to sleep’
It takes me about two days to even get used to sleeping in a tent and I’ve got a good bag, a great tent and sleeping matt and no matter what I do I still wake up feeling like my skeletons been swapped in the night with an 80 year old mans. My body clock totally resets and I find myself starting to wake up as it gets light, which is probably a good thing…
Camping reminds me of being a kid, my tent’s like my little fort and I can lie there when the weathers bad and enjoy the sound of rain on the fly sheet while I’m inside all warm and (sort of) comfortable. Having the tent with me gives me a lot more confidence when I am on a bigger adventure.
It’s not so hard to sleep this time and as I’ve pitched my tent far away from the lads and their wild boar snoring it’s not long before I’m starting to drift off with the sound of the predictable Welsh rain pattering on my flysheet.
Breakfast is for me packet frankfurters that have been literally cremated in my MSR wind burner (seriously it’s a great stove but it has two settings, ‘on’ and ‘crematorium’) my frankfurters have a great crispy shell to them. They say they are 100% pork, just not which bits. How exciting!
Over breakfast we start talking about the next place we are staying and usually my organization is spot on, but this time like a total tit, the YHA I’ve booked at Broad Haven turns out to be at another ‘Broad Haven’ as there’s actually two on this coast path. The one I’ve booked..well that’s about 120 miles away at the northern end of the coast path. Looks like I just cost myself a bit of cash.
It’s rained during the night and the tents are full on soaking wet so we go with the original plan and decide to go exploring while our tents dry out. Packing wet tents up sucks and when you get mildew in them you can never get rid of the smell.
We check out Manorbier castle as it basically right in front of us down the road from the campsite and get some cool pictures with the fog adding a bit of atmosphere before the sun comes out fully.
We go for a swim on the packed Manorbier beach which is the most like a holiday this has felt so far. It’s all good with me because I’m pretty much obsessed with the sea and swimming in every body of water physically possible.
After a swim we get a worried Ben (he’s stressing about saving money for his move to China) lunch at the pub in the sun.
We are out of the campsite so long that the owner has apparently been looking for us to see when exactly we are planning on moving on. He seems a bit annoyed with us because apparently there’s people waiting to take our spots. Oh well.
Manorbier to Freshwater East (6 miles)
After a really short hike from where we are to Freshwater East and a grim hike up a ridiculously steep hill, we find our unplanned campsite and quickly set up our tents and set out for a pint. At this point we haven’t been near any places really we could charge up a phone, and we have a lack of supplies. Due to the time we pick up several bags of peanuts to keep us going the next day.
Freshwater East To West Angle (26.78 miles)
We all know this is going to be brutal even before we begin to head off, there isn’t really any civilization near the coastal path for this leg of the journey. It will be almost impossible to easily pick up any food or water along the way. The coast towards west angle is pretty much wilderness.
We make our way down to the impressive golden sands of Barafundle bay through the arch gateway and cut stone stairs. This bay itself is pretty interesting as you can see the effects of landscaping by the original estate owners. This beach was originally a private beach owned by the Cawdor family but passed into the hands of the national trust This is another beach I wish we had more time at, I think I could easily spend a day here swimming. It’s a bit of a hike so it’s practically deserted when we arrive. In the sun you could almost imagine this place being in another country.
Freshwater East To Past West Angle (27 miles)
We all know before this hike even starts it’s going to brutal. We are basically carrying full kit and hiking more than a marathon distance worth of coastal path in one day.
This beach is great for a photograph even though I’m reminded about my earlier cock up of getting this place mixed up with the one a very long distance away. The awesome landscape is soon replaced with the breathlessness of traversing the dunes, traipsing through the hot sand while carrying our heavy rucksacks. I’m stepping in the footsteps of people that have been before us to make it a little easier (this works on snow too).
We are all pretty hungry by the time we make it to a beach that has a little national trust hut where we pick up some chocolate marzipan to keep us going. There’s a food stall too but unfortuanately for me it’s vegan. I end up forking out for a cheese quesadila loading with what i think is ‘vegan cheese’. This to me is only marginally better than starving.
St Govans Ghapel
A slight detour off the path is St Govan’s chapel which we have to see. A short and steep walk down the very worn and polished stone steps and which at this point makes my calves burn and we pass through the very tight entrance into the chapel. The very atmospheric 13th century chapel has a view that’s hard to beat and as we step out side the small building, with imposing cliffs rising behind it we get a view of the rest of the cliffs heading back off the way we came along the coast. In the sunlight the sea glistens like strands of silver woven into deep blue, and if we had time I could spend hours here in the warm sun looking out into the ocean.
I’m not religious but If I had to pray I’d do it here, at this almost hidden fairy tale chapel nestled in the cliffs. I’m glad we are all getting to see this together before Ben ships off to China.
These giant stacks of limestone rock known as stack rocks, or the Elegug stacks don’t fail to get your attention rising from the water like two giant molars, hewn out of the cliffs by the neverending crash of the waves below.
The Green Bridge Of Wales
I have to admit I’m getting into a bit of a funk about getting the hike for the day finished so I’m bot massively keen to stop. But taking my pack off feels amazing at this point. Looking down from the cliff I see a sea lion hunting in the water below which I’ve never seen before. A bit more of a walk along the cliffs
and look at the Green Bridge but I’m kicking myself pretty rapidly as it is incredibly impressive. This huge sea arch plunges into the waves below with the water fizzing white around its base.
Inland and through Castlemartin
I won’t lie this section of the walk where we turn inland is even harder because it’s painfully boring in fact part of me hopes i’ll get bitten by a grass snake just to liven it up a little.
As the evening draws in we stop for a quick break at a pretty unstable looking old ruin teetering on the cliff edge that looks out to the stark Thorn Island fort across the now steel grey waters.
Ben is obsessed now with staying on the coast path, and I’m not that fussed because there’s been plenty of times already now where we ‘cheated’. At this point getting locked into the smaller details feels unimportant. Even though at this point I’d like to do some of this mythical ‘relaxing’ we originally spoke of it’s the lads last trip and even though I want to kill him a little bit right now that’ll probably be why he’s focusing on it. Even though at this point none of us seem to be enjoying it. It makes me think that maybe this is how people see me sometimes, focused no matter what on winning or achieving even if it means seriously messing myself up and maybe missing the point of taking the time to take in what I’m doing. The more frustrating thing for me is that if I thought we would be hiking this fast without stopping I’d have ran it instead! Oh well, at this point I’m getting hunger anger and I would actually murder someone with my bare hands for a pub lunch.
Towards West Angle
Eventually we end up at a cosy village pub (and there is by the looks only one!) and I can’t describe my relief when we stop for a pint and some point. The food is…well pretty bad and I stop part way through my chicken kebabs to notice they are so badly cooked they probably only just stopped clucking. On the plus side there is beer and cider and because of the wait a friendly barmaid gives us all another drink on the house. I haven’t got the heart or energy to tell them the food is grisly.
The camp site is pretty unusual as it’s based in the ruins of an old castle and we arrive quite late. One of the regulars….(permanent?) directs to some static caravans with a group of people who look like settled travelers outside. There’s trash and kittens everywhere and that strong combination of cat piss and bleach that you never really forget when you catch a sniff of it. It does make us consider if these guys actually own the place or not for a moment. They are pretty friendly though and despite my initial fears of if we will wake up in the repurposed castle dungeon having our skin turned into jackets, we start to settle down.
We all stink at this point after a solid day hiking and noticing we have no 20p’s for the coin op showers Andy heads back to the owners to ask for some change. Apparently a hot sweaty dude he has disturbed answers the door in a dressing gown….turns out he’s breeding quail and other assorted animals in there which seems a bit unusual also. We will let you wonder what hot sweaty dudes are doing in caravans full of quail.
West Angle To Pembroke (12 miles)
And now it becomes a depressing slog.
Today is a wet and miserable day, the fire from the oil refinery glows like the eye of Sauron in the sky and it’s quite fitting for the last day of the trip. We pause occasionally and I take a few pics with the oil refinery flame looking like its firing out of Ben and Andy’s heads like a candle. Ben at this point looks like he’s had his soul stolen where Andy as usual has managed to crack a smile. Another thing that’s almost impossible to ignore is the constant doom-like roar of the flame from the refinery in the back ground which gets louder and louder as we progress.
This has to be the most depressing section of the walk even if it was sunny. It’s as gloomy as dusk all day and not cold enough to have less layers but warm enough to not really bother with a waterproof jacket. It’s just 12 miles pretty much of mud, wet grass and the kind of scenery which wouldn’t be out of place in the film 28 days later. Featureless beaches on one shore and stark industrial landscape on the other. There are occasional old lime kiln buildings being eaten by the ivy but apart from that it’s desolate.
We finally start making our way into Pembrokeshire and as we finally arrive in the town and see the looming structure of Pembroke Castle all I can think of where I can get tea and cake and maybe a cheese toasty. We’ve hiked a total of 63 miles which is not bad going but we are all exhausted, we drive to Bristol and drop Ben off at the coach station, then find, finally a nice comfortable hotel.
There’s still 123 miles left. But I think maybe I’ll just go back and run the lot one day.