It wasn’t a surprise that the bay below us had been named for a saint.
Nor was it surprising that the view from the early-medieval ruins marking where she had lived — of the crystal, mouthwash-hued shallows below an unruly tangle of Welsh sandstone cliffs — was particularly, well, divine.
The surprise was that because of the chapel, we knew exactly where we were on the Pembrokeshire Coast Path National Trail, possibly for only the second time that day. The rest of the hike had been divided between not knowing our location and — as with suddenly finding the spectacle of what turned out to be St. Non’s Bay — just not caring.
The Welsh love to ramble. They are ramblers. Not so much in the sense of pointless conversation, but in their love of a “good hike” through a countryside heavily embroidered with walking paths, some of them based on trails flattened by Celts and Romans.
Add to that a rural (and sometimes remote) coast where the geography is a jigsaw puzzle with no edge pieces and the geology is both defiant and deformed, and you have a country that reserves many of its finest treasures for those willing to walk.
I was at the shore in Pembrokeshire, Wales’ westernmost county, to sample the scenic and cultural rewards of leaving the car behind — if only to better understand why a small country with more coastline than California believes you should be able to walk every step of it.
In May, Wales marked the completion of the Wales Coast Path, an unbroken string of walking trail that traces the entire 870 miles of the country’s craggy seaside. The finished path — combined with the Offa’s Dyke Path National Trail, the north-south route that closely follows the border with England — completes a 1,030-mile route around the country. You can, in fact, now walk rings around Wales.
Wanting to experience the coast path, but deciding that the 870-mile route would take too much time, I found myself in Pembrokeshire, where the 186 miles of coastal limestone cliffs and volcanic headlands have been lusted over by legions of geologists, historians, photographers and hikers. The Pembrokeshire Coast Path National Trail passes 58 beaches, 14 harbors and scores of seaside villages, including the medieval walled town of Tenby, where my wife, Ann, and I set up base for a series of day trips — driving to highlights along the path.
On the map, the beach at Freshwater East appeared to be bigger than the village itself, but we weren’t there for sand.
I had asked about a scenic, non-taxing portion of the path and Andrew, one of our hosts at Glenholme Guest House in Tenby, a three-story home across the street from the local bowling club, had pointed us west and south to Freshwater East.
After a short drive to the beach, we found the coast path and followed it up into the headlands, tromping past dense shrubs of common gorse and grassy hills dotted with violet-colored thrift, as well as through fenced pastures with long-haired horses. (The concept of being allowed to pass through so much private property without the threat of being shot takes some getting used to.)
The trails were pleasant and ultimately civilized, but along the Pembrokeshire coast, the rock-star geology has a wild streak. The swirling, tilting layers of strata that we found with each new view were shaped in a continental head-on that twisted the landscape like taffy at least half a billion years before the Alps began to form.
The trail fell and rose a few times — nothing we couldn’t handle — and, at a high point, we stopped for water next to a field of plump sheep. The only sounds belonged to Mother Nature: breeze through the grass, the waves below us and the soft munching by sheep too busy eating to bleat. The view along the coast where the sea gnawed at the hillside, creating gaping sea holes, stone arches and pillar-like sea stacks was probably not all that different from when Romans patrolled here.
Three miles up the path from Freshwater East is Stackpole Quay, an outpost with a tea house, parking lot and restrooms that sits on the northeast border of what was once the sprawling Stackpole Estate (now a National Trust park and visitor center).
At the tea house, we loaded up on provisions — panini with brie, bacon and cranberry sauce, a Diet Coke (me) and bottled water (her) — and followed stairs up a bluff and back onto the coast path through the Stackpole property, which had been developed as an estate in the 12th century.
There were many more ramblers on this stretch, in part because of the easy access to parking and restrooms but also because of the popular beach at Barafundle Bay, a tan, flat strip with rock walls on each end and the Stackpole Estate behind it. We hiked to a perch above the beach, admiring the rock arches beyond the bay, as well as an ancient shoulder-high sandstone wall that ambitiously runs up the ridgeline above the beach — and that probably predates the Pilgrims.
The coast path follows the beach and continues up the coast, although passage is not always guaranteed — a large portion of the original estate is now used by the British military as a tank artillery firing range.
Seemed as good a reason as any to turn back.
By basing in Tenby, we could easily have experienced the trail without driving. The coast path passes through the medieval walled city, including a side loop that takes walkers along the city’s harbor and promenade.
Tenby is a seasonal “holiday town,” seemingly with as many guesthouses and vacation rentals as permanent residences. During the summer, there is a reliable stream of both international and domestic visitors coming for scenery, history and beaches during the day, and at night, an unlikely abundance of lively restaurants and rowdy pubs.
Still, it has plenty of its own personality. We learned first hand — helping a groom dressed as a 6-foot-tall condom get a photo with bridesmaids in feather boas — that on a Saturday night, Tenby is the popular hub for all bachelor (stag) and bachelorette (hen) parties for the entirety of Pembrokeshire.
After hiking during the days, however, we more often than not were headed back to the guesthouse after dinner to fall asleep to episodes of Gavin and Stacy and newscasts entirely in Welsh.
Follow the Wales Coast Path for even short stretches and you’re bound to hit a castle.
Both the walking path and the road to the town of St. David’s led through Pembroke, so we stopped to find Pembroke Castle — and to take a break from the maddening number of clockwise roundabouts (driving on the left) in rural Wales.
The expansive stone stronghold, built starting in the 11th century on a promontory over the Pembroke River, is just a couple of blocks from the coast path route, although at this point the only “coast” is the Milford Haven Waterway.
Thirty miles up the road is St. David’s, which, like Tenby, is geared for tourism, much of it related to the coast path, with trinket shops, cafes and a small park lining the main road through town.
We found the town square, a neon-orange espresso shop, a surf shop and, eventually, St. David’s Cathedral — which appeared large enough to fit the rest of the town inside it — but didn’t fully grasp the map route on getting to the path. We stopped in at the Farmers Arms, a by-the-book Welsh pub and, after a pint (or so) of Carling, got directions to “the path” from the bartender.
Ten minutes later, Ann wasn’t convinced. “You’re sure this is the path?”
If it was the correct path, it was not the most well trod in the United Kingdom, really just a narrow corridor between a tall hedgerow and a barbed-wire fence. I knew there was a boot-packed rut beneath our steps, but we couldn’t actually see it. Grass on both sides created a tiny jungle canopy that engulfed our feet in a comical way — comical until I realized I couldn’t see uneven spots and that we didn’t know what else used this path. (The snakes that left Ireland had to go somewhere, right?)
Just as my claims of qualified navigator were starting to look thin, we met a 50-ish English couple in the corridor heading the other way.
“Is this the coastal path?” I said a little too hopefully.
Not yet, they said. Keep going and keep straight and right past the gate.
“Is this the path to St. David’s?” he asked.
Yes, I said. Turn right at the horses and left at the stop sign.
On Welsh paths, apparently, courtesy means providing more than a simple yes or no.
SCENTS OF NATURE
We trod on, passing through path gates and stopping occasionally to examine varieties of buttercup, Queen Anne’s lace and more violet thrift.
The aromas of walking the paths in Pembrokeshire seem to come a la carte: grass with a side of sea breeze, grass with a side of sheep dung and, well, just grass. We were standing at yet another vague junction in the path when a side order of salt-seasoned breeze was served. We cut through a caravan park, found an opening in an ancient wall and stepped toward the cliffs.
Other than a muttering or two in awe, we didn’t speak.
It was postcard-blue water lapping on pocket-size beaches of the sort more often associated with Grand Cayman than Great Britain. The cliffs were tumbled and tilted blocks, as if ruins of an ancient castle under constant attack — not by outside invaders but by its own moat.
We followed the well-marked path along the cliff top until we found St. Non’s Bay (and our bearings), and visited the saint’s chapel, supposedly built on the spot where she gave birth to Wales’ patron saint, St. David, in the middle of a storm in 500 AD. The drama of the scenery seemed appropriate to the history.
The location these days also has a spiritual retreat center that is accessible by car. But I considered the surroundings here, and on the coast along the path up to this point, and figured that to earn the view, you either have to be a saint or you have to be willing to walk.
As we headed up another path back to the Farmers Arms, I was pretty happy we chose the latter.