“Arise, Sir Benfro”
It’s been pretty quiet on here of late. Mainly because my current job forbids me from taking any leave until my weather forecasting qualification is complete. I’ve had three days holiday this summer, a crushing reality check for a man more accustomed to a four-month vacation between university terms. Needless-to-say I’ve struggled to realise any antipodean adventures, however, I was lucky enough to visit somewhere I’ve been hankering to go for ages…the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, for a long weekend last month.
Pembrokeshire or, in Welsh, Sir Benfro is the extreme south-western county in Wales. Originally sustained by agriculture and slate mining, Pembrokeshire’s legendary coastline was officially recognized in 1952 when it became Wales’ second national park. In many ways this was a move ahead of its time. Marine reserves are now all the rage, as scientists finally manage to impress upon governments the importance of conserving our oceanic ecosystems for the global economy, but back in the 1950s the idea of a national park that was predominantly water was bold and unusual. Pembrokeshire remains Britain’s only coastal NP.
Regardless of the foresight, whoever decided that this slice of the Welsh seaside needed to be preserved was on the money. It is a glorious part of the country. Just looking at an OS map tells you all you need to know about the physical geography of the park. Rocky coves and inlets separate hundreds of little beaches, some completely inaccessible at the bottom of cliffs, and an impressive number of caves. Better still, there are plenty of whopping great big beaches, famous stretches of sand like Newgale, Whitesands and Freshwater West. I spent a considerable amount of time at these well-known sites, trying my hand at a well-known Pembrokeshire pasttime – surfing.
My favourite “session” was at Freshwater West; a beach popular with the local surfers, located in the extreme southwest of the park. Despite a tricky rip tide and a tightly bunched crowd of dudes and dudettes jostling for waves it was absolutely excellent. The water was pretty warm (for the UK), and the waves were just about big enough that the big ones were scary. I reckon I got my ratio of catches to wipeouts down to about 1:100 as well, which was encouraging. By the end I was even trying to show off to Anna on my 8-foot banana board. Credit to her she hid her amazement well and didn’t let on how impressed she was with me.
When we eventually left the waves we treated ourselves to lunch from a beachside food truck that (unbeknownst to us) is something of a local sensation. Called The Pembrokeshire Beach Food Company this surf-chic cafe on wheels is an award-winning hybrid of burger van and gourmet seafood restaurant. Their special move is the use of laver seaweed in a lightly spiced butter that they spread on all their produce. It is super effective. In fact, everything about the truck was appealing, from their snippets of history about the seaweed harvesting industry that used to thrive locally (the women who own the business still harvest the seaweed by hand!) to the delicious menu written in colourful chalk on blackboards tacked to the van. In the end Anna plumped for the grilled mackerel bap and I went for the cheeseburger (+ seaweed butter of course). As a post surfing snack it hit the spot wonderfully. I only wish I’d had the self-restraint to saver it for longer than 96 seconds.
It isn’t just the surfers who exploit the Pembrokeshire coast to realise their passion; kayakers, SUPers and rock climbers also flock to the National Park in search of thrills. The other watery activity that’s very popular (and allegedly invented) in these parts is coasteering. It’s basically the marine equivalent of canyoning and involves rock climbing, scrambling, swimming and cliff jumping as participants scramble along the shoreline. Determined not to enjoy a single lie-in during our holiday, Anna and I signed up for a coasteering trip on the morning of our last day with a company called Celtic Quest.
The experience lasted three hours yet for the most part was pretty disappointingly tame. Our two guides were fantastic but, as is often the case with “extreme” sports in the UK, everything was very controlled, very slow and fairly unthrilling. That said, anyone who finds jumping off 2-3 metre rocks into sea exciting would have got quite a rush from the activity. It was also a cool way (literally) to see some of the coastline and we got some great views of a grey seal that came to check us out and see what we were up to. The weather on our morning was also beautiful. I should also mention that the nutters at Celtic Quest go out in all weathers in all seasons and I’m sure that doing what we did in a severe gale in January would be more than exciting enough for me. I did get my comeuppance as well, when our coasteering culminated in a place called the Blue Lagoon, near Aberreidy beach.
The Blue Lagoon is the remains of an old slate quarry that was intentionally flooded by the sea after it fell into disuse. It is a unique place with weirdly lurid blue water filling the bottom 30 metres of an enormous pit with sheer walls at least 100ft high on two sides. The remnants of the quarry’s processing plant overlook the channel that connects the lagoon with the sea and these towers form a famous cliff jumping spot, with three different heights to choose from when jumping; 5m, 6m and 10m (33ft!) respectively. For most people in our group 6m was more than high enough but for those that wished to go off the top spot our instructors examined our tombstoning tekkers at the 5m height to make sure we weren’t going to belly flop if we did attempt the larger jump. Having been complacent throughout the morning and cool as a cucumber going off the 6m drop, I realised that a 10m cliff is really pretty high. It looks easy enough from below but when you are standing on top of it, peering over the edge, it is scary stuff. Heart pounding, I had several refusals before I finally took the plunge and stepped over the edge. I was immediately put to shame by Anna who hopped off the ledge first time.
The force of the impact was impressive and it was clear that if your entry was poor you could really hurt yourself doing this cliff-jumping thing. That didn’t stop one of our guides pulling a ‘gayner’, at least I think that is what he called it…essentially a running jump into a slow back-flip that really emphasizes the hang time before hitting the water. What a man.
But even despite this last minute rush of adrenaline I couldn’t help thinking that I’d paid CQ quite a lot of money to do something I could have just done on my own. The blue lagoon is full of punters and members of the public every day. Its very safe and the thrills are free.
Not all of Pembrokeshire has to be enjoyed actually in the water though. An excellent trail follows the entire coastline of the national park for those who like walking, and there are plenty of land-based attractions that are worth a look. St. David’s, for example, Britain’s smallest city, is a very attractive little place with colourful shops and cafes and an incredible mediaeval (I’m guessing..) centre that houses the old Bishop’s palace and his seat, the cathedral. Both are considerably more impressive than you would expect given the size of St. David’s and when we saw them at sunset they looked incredible. If you were going to visit just one place in this part of the world this would be my recommendation. Much nicer than the famous Tenby, which seemed tacky and crowded in comparison.
In four days I was never going to experience all of the delights that Pembrokeshire has to offer. There are countless castles, art galleries and islands that I wasn’t able to visit. But what I did see and do was generally excellent. Like a chilled-out Cornwall or North Devon without the crowds most of this county still feels quiet and deeply rural. Despite this though, I didn’t ever really feel like I was in darkest Wales either. Yes, there are plenty of unpronounceable place names and lots of ARAFs on the road, but almost all the voices you hear are English, and many of them posh English at that. Historically the region has often been an anglophone stronghold, regularly referred to as the ‘Little England’ within Wales. Nowadays that moniker takes on a new relevance, as more and more middle-class English families come to holiday in this county. I am sure that I will return again, and add to their number…I very much hope so anyway.