Wales’s wild west: exploring the Pembrokeshire coast

As the Pembrokeshire Coast Path prepares to celebrate its 55th anniversary, Gaby Koppel discovers untamed scenery and little-known luxury


Pembrokeshire coastline (Photo: Gaby Koppel)

The walk started off with a gut-punching upward climb. From the almost deserted car park, our path rose steeply past a vertiginous hillock surmounted by the Iron Age fort of Garn Fawr. After the briefest of passes it then zig-zagged down so sharply that I was having to consider at every step where I could safely next place my foot.

We’d blithely chosen a walk labelled “more challenging” by our guidebook, thinking ourselves pretty fit for a pair of sixty-somethings. Yet neither of us had quite bargained with such a full-on physical and mental workout right from the outset.

Just a few minutes in, stepping my way carefully from stone to stone, jumping across mud and clambering over rocks, I began to wonder whether I’d make it to the end.

But soon my doubts vanished into the salty air. As the track swept back towards the sea, it became more even, opening up a view of the Pembrokeshire coastline in all its rugged and spectacular glory.

Steep cliffs plunged into frothing turquoise waves and wound their jagged way towards St David’s Head to the west, Cemaes Head to the east. This northern part of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path, with an untamed wildness that conjures up thoughts of King Lear, feels like it’s at the end of the world — and in one way, it is.

This is the very western edge of Wales; on a clear day they say you can see Ireland.

The path itself is a 186-mile walker’s wonder, set almost entirely within the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park.

It won government approval back in 1953 but it took nearly two decades to negotiate with more than 100 landowners to bulldoze the route into a negotiable path, before it opened officially in 1970.

Just over 70 years since its original conception, as its 55th anniversary approaches, thousands have trodden its ways, with most of it suitable for walkers of all abilities – although if you did want to complete the Coast Path walk in one go, it takes around ten to 15 days, while the ascents and descents, totalling 35,000ft, are said to be the equivalent of climbing Mount Everest.

Jutting out into the ocean, the county of Pembrokeshire has a 300-degree coast facing all directions but east, each section with its own micro-climate and geology.

We’d chosen the wildest and loneliest part of the path on the county’s craggy northern coast, making our way towards the dramatic white landmark of Strumble Head lighthouse, perched on the rocky island of Ynys Michael.

Like a mirage, the well-hewn 1908 edifice always seemed around the next headland but one. We worked our way around the Precambrian folds and faults some 140 metres above the crashing waves, passing only the very occasional fellow hiker but delighting in the wildflowers that adorned the rough bracken and the glorious yellow of the gorse-covered clifftops.

Three hours later as the path finally passed the lighthouse and turned inland, the demands of the hike were beginning to tell.

Our legs were heavy, and rests became more frequent. Having by now lost the book’s route, we stumbled cross-country, finally resorting to sat-nav to get us back to the car.

Tired, thirsty and dreaming of a hot meal, when we rocked up in Newport, pretty much every café or inn was shut.

This coastal town is a hub for the boating and surfing crowd who drive down in their MPVs to its beaches and cute selection of galleries and tearooms in high summer, while our visit also coincided with the Easter school holidays — but it seemed in that moment of disappointment that civilisation really did have its limits in this part of Wales.

Much as we’d relished the earthy drama of its landscape, we were ready for some creature comforts.

Retreating to the solace of our shepherd hut, we soothed hunger and despondency with a shop-bought pizza, but had learnt our lesson. The following day, having taken care to book, we arrived at The Ferry Inn in St Dogmaels, the northernmost point of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path.

From its superb vantage point overlooking the river Teifi, bathed in spring sunshine, we enjoyed a beautifully presented plate of sea bass in lemony caper butter, accompanied by asparagus and a buckwheat salad with mustard dressing.

A gentle walk on the compact, dune-backed Poppit Sands among the families with their windbreakers and plastic buckets was the perfect finale to a restorative lunch.

The sole beach café here is an outpost of Cardigan’s excellent Crwst bakery, which made for a timely coffee stop, while among the fishing tackle at the RNLI shop we found a box of promising second-hand books. And then as we were leaving, we struck real treasure. Driving back up to the village, a sign advertising “pottery” lured us in.

Born locally, Peter Bodenham trained and worked in London before returning home to set up his kiln. A teacher and examiner whose own work has been widely exhibited, the wares on display in his tiny gallery-cum-workshop go well beyond the seaside souvenirs we’d been expecting.

The speckle glaze and shapely bowls, so reminiscent of the sea and geology around us, were too good to leave behind.

But a single taste of the Pembrokeshire coast is never enough. Famed for its glorious beaches, Barafundle Bay on the south coast is one of the loveliest.

Run by the National Trust, and only accessible by a 20-minute yomp from the car park, it’s a postage stamp of golden sand enclosed by cliffs and backed by dunes. After trying to swim but being beaten back by the biting cold, we spotted a pod of dolphins leaping and twisting just offshore as if to mock our human frailty.

If we’d sampled some of the wildest parts of the county in the north, it was time to discover the other extreme, not far from the path’s southernmost point at Amroth.

Narberth is an upmarket town that has developed a reputation for live music. It has a huddle of boutiques crowding around the dinky town hall, now itself a dress shop. Its Michelin Green-starred restaurant, smart delicatessens and annual food festival have made this something of a magnet for gastro-enthusiasts. Our destination was a few miles down the road.

After three nights in our own rural idyll at Damselfly glamping, a cabin reached by a stepping stone path that wound past a chicken coop (where rescue birds laid our breakfast eggs), it was time for some luxury at The Grove.

Passing through iron gates and along the driveway, the whitewashed hotel came into view through the trees, sitting in landscaped grounds beside a pond. Bought in 2007 by Neil and Zoe Kedward, the new owners threw themselves into transforming the wreck into a 25-bedroom country hotel.

Passing through the Arts and Crafts portico, the décor is all neutrals, with plentiful nods to traditional Welsh crafts.

The vintage furniture is of natural woods, there are original art works and tapestries on the walls, and a quiet atmosphere of concerned indulgence. It’s luxurious without being in the least pompous.

Spacious and tasteful, every small detail of our loft-style suite seemed to have been carefully considered – from the locally produced toiletries to the display of Welsh love spoons facing the four-poster bed.

Deciding against the formality of a seven-course tasting menu, we opted for the simpler Artisan brasserie. Our meal began with a spicy, crisp mouthful of sea bream, then moved on to a bowl of the most delicate steamed cod, wrapped in a seaweed skin and accompanied by a tangy wild garlic sauce.

For dessert I chose a lemon tart encased in the lightest of crisp yet crumbly pastries and accompanied by a berry sorbet, while my companion went for a melting crème brulée.

It all felt a long way from our adventures in the wildest corners of west Wales. Truly, civilisation doesn’t come much more refined than this.

Getting There

​Rooms at The Grove at Narberth cost from £255 B&B.

Accommodation at Damselfly Glamping costs from £77 per night.

For more information on the area and coast path, go to

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