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.