Starting mileage: 17402 km
Day started: 10:30
Day ended: 22:00
Did I say Wales would not inspire a painter? I didn’t mean Pembrokeshire countryside in the summer!
The landscapes here are painted with broad strokes; vast swathes of basic, earthy colours, like from a cave artist’s pallette: deep ochre on empty, untilled fields, rusty gold on ripe wheat, burnt dirty green on sun-scorched pastures. All this can be glimpsed from the roads which are carved thinly into these fields like canals, walled by gorse hedge and tall grass.
We drove down these tunnel-like roads towards one of the two coastal walks we had planned for the day. The Pembrokeshire NP coast is a walker’s dream, and can be hiked comfortably throughout; we had chosen two small bits of the entire hundreds-of-miles-long path that we thought representative of the whole. The first one was on Marloes, the southern of two broad and long peninsulas that border St Brides Bay. There is a tiny village of the same name at the foot of the peninsula, but after that there are barely any human dwellings for several miles, until a youth hostel and NT car park mark the start of the long coastal walk.
Right past the hostel the path runs towards Marloes Meres – a pair of long ponds and marshes which are somewhat attractive to birdwatchers; there’s even a hide, from which we saw a small flock of lapwings and some ducks. The sightings notepad mentioned an ibis appearing every evening for the last month, but as we were in the middle of the hot day there was little point waiting for the elusive visitor.
South Wales possesses in abundance something that is dying out in England: a real meadow; there is a richness of butterflies, field birds and insects in the unmowed fields that puts the rest of Britain to shame. Perhaps if the owners of every single campsite we stayed at wouldn’t mow their lawns to an inch of height, there would be a bit more of those around.
We turned towards the sea, with the small tidal island of Gateholm right in front of us. The islands in these waters all have Viking names – Skomer, Skokholm, Gateholm – a mark of an enduring presence of these robber warriors; no church or abbey in the Pembrokeshire and Cardigan coast survived the Viking age unscathed, no town unpillaged.
The cliffs and rocks before Gateholm were mildly interesting and we spent a while watching a rather large male kestrel hovering above the field and sea; the bird would follow us for the most of our route. But it wasn’t until when we turned right and followed the path for a couple more minutes that the real wonder of this coast emerged before us. A string of striking angular rock formations, perfect triangles of slate pointing right out of the turquoise sea (the water in Wales is generally a far greener shade than anywhere else so far) like overturned pyramids. On these rocks we could clearly see a pair of adult choughs. We had seen these birds before this year, but not yet so close. They are striking and elegant birds, rightly chosen as a symbol of the Celtic coast from Cornwall to Wales: raven black, but with deeply crimson beaks, as if bloodied. They are the finest fliers out of all crow-like birds, and unmistakable once you see them up close.
From the clifftops we could see towards other islands of the Pembrokeshire coast: Skomer and Skokholm nearest, Ramsay in the north, and far off in the distance, a strangely two-coloured, grey and white islet of Grassholm; we would learn the reason for this odd discolouration the next day, but for now we returned towards the car park along the cliff path, past a beach which, though secluded and hard to get to, was full of people; we would see an even more striking example of the Welsh affinity for wild, secluded beaches later on in the day. The cool water lapping over seaweed-covered stones was a welcome relief to our weary feet.
After a short pit stop at Haverfordwest – we had been to this town a few years ago, and remembered little of interest, so there wasn’t much point of visiting it again – we headed for the northern peninsula for another brief walk. This region, with the “city” of St David’s at the end of the road, wasn’t as empty and desolate as the previous one. Our route started in an affluent village of Porthgain, once a thriving quarry harbour, now a cluster of holiday homes, art galleries and pubs. Of these the more popular was The Sloop, set in an unassuming white-washed building, which turned out to be a 18th century inn with good selection of local ales and meals at prices which made even us balk. It’s been a while since we’ve seen a lemon sole dinner for £20.
The major, easily spotted feature of Porthgain are massive red brick buildings of the old quarry, looming at sharp angles on the slopes over the harbour; this is where, at the beginning of the previous century, the slate and stone were carried on great conveyor belts from the quarries along the coast straight to the hauls of waiting ships. This was a high-tech, industrial scale mining, which scarred the coast leaving curious features in the rock which we were about to discover. The path climbs to the top of the cliff, over the conveyor belt base and past the ruins of quarry buildings. The rock face here is sheer, dropping straight into the sea in great gorges; with the bright sun in our faces and the turquoise water below, these deep coves would not be out of place in Mexico. All that was lacking were careless youths leaping from the cliff tops into the dark sea.
Fans of “tombstoning”, as this pastime is called, do frequent this coast, however, their favourite haunt was still before us. First we had to pass two more of these hidden beaches mentioned before. Miles away from anywhere, accessible only on foot, they were nevertheless full of people, sunbathing, swimming and diving.
Marked with a characteristic rectangular building on top of a bald hill was the target of our journey, the Blue Lagoon, or Pwll Glass; a great hole in the ground left over from a quarry operation, now filled with water the colour of amethyst. Being completely artificial, the Lagoon has perfectly straight walls and deep bottom, and this is where tombstoners gather. Depending on their skill and courage, they jumped from various shelves and levels, from a few feet high ledge to a twenty meter-tall wall. We watched them from a cliff above, which was so high that the sound of their splashes reached us a good half a second later than we saw them.
It was near 7 pm when we finally returned to Porthgain, and we still had to stop by St David’s to pick up tickets for the next day’s expedition. Tired and hungry, we searched for a campsite as near to the St Justinian’s quay as possible.
I don’t even remember the name of the campsite we stopped at. It was one of the C&CC-friendly sites near Caerfai Bay, but I have little good to say about it, and if we weren’t so tired, we would have searched further. It’s expensive, at £20, with only basic facilities. The view over the bay and towards Skomer was nice, but the next morning we discovered there were campsites right outside the quay we were going to sail from, and I wish we would have found out about those sooner.