THE plan was simple. Get up at the crack of dawn and leave before breakfast, giving myself plenty of time to amble slowly and leisurely around the coast to Strumble Head. And then, if time still allowed, to continue on to Goodwick. It was a good plan. It was doomed.
The enemy, contact with whom no battle plan survives, was in this case me. As evidenced by my getting up somewhat later than intended and then taking time out for breakfast.
It was a good full Welsh breakfast, admittedly, and, when I said that I didn’t like fried tomato, its tomato element mysteriously turned into black pudding. That is a kind of breakfast magic which is not to be sniffed at.
Also, it was grey and blowing a gale outside, so fuelling up on brekkie was probably a really good idea. But it scuppered the plan.
Not that that stopped me trying.
Back to the Start
Although I’d cheatily caught the bus from Whitesands Bay (Traeth-mawr) to St David’s (Tyddewi) the previous evening, my late start was still too early for the first bus of the morning. Accordingly, I would be walking two miles of country lanes to the start point (but not to Start Point, which was rather more than two miles away and fifty walks previous).
Before I reached those country lanes, though, I needed to pass through St Davids itself, which gave me a chance to take a look at the cathedral.
While the site of St Davids Cathedral (Eglwys Gadeiriol Tyddewi) dates back to the late sixth century — St David founded it himself and died in 589 — the Close Wall surrounding it was not built until the fourteenth century. This fifteen foot high edifice served to separate the cathedral from the city and was pierced by four such gatehouses.
Only one now stands, the Tower Gatehouse (Porth y Twr), which served as home to the mediaeval city council. A thirteenth century Bell Tower stands beside it, which houses ten bells, while the bishop’s dungeon is hidden directly beneath it.
The Bishop’s Dungeon
As to why the bishop had a dungeon: He held a lot of power, both religious and temporal. With respect to the latter, the Kings of Dyfed gave the bishop control over the cantref of Pebidiog, the part of the kingdom in which St Davids sits.
Then, when the Normans invaded, they recognised the bishop’s authority and chose not to occupy Pebidiog militarily, as it was the property of the church. Instead, the Anglo-Norman kings made the old cantref of Pebidiog into the hundred of Dewisland and gave the bishop the authority of a Marcher Lord, answerable only to the King. In other words, he could imprison whom he liked.
The Bishop’s Palace
From shortly after 1284, when Edward I arrived on a pilgrimage and Bishop Thomas Bek (1280-93) found himself embarrassed at his home’s lack of splendour, the bishop lived in a rather splendid palace.
Bishop Bek embarked on a massive programme of building, which was extended and embellished a century later by Bishop Henry de Gower (1328-1347), creating a palace fit for a Prince of the Church and Marcher Lord combined. This magnificent building lasted another two centuries or so before it encountered the Reformation.
Decline and Demolition
In 1536, Bishop William Barlow stripped the lead from the roof to pay for his daughters’ dowries, apparently making so much money from so doing that it exceeded twelve years’ revenue from the bishopric. With its roof no longer intact, the palace fell into disrepair and the bishops relocated to Carmarthenshire. It was partly demolished in 1616 and again in 1678. What’s left of it now is in the care of Cadw, the Welsh heritage organisation.
The cathedral grew out of a monastic community founded by Saint David, who was Abbot of Menevia — Menevia (Mynyw) was one of two commotes into which Pebidiog was divided.
One of seven bishoprics in early Dyfed (one for each cantref), it rose to become one of the most important religious centres in Wales. As such, it was a bit of a magnet for Irish and Viking raiders between 645 and 1097.
A famous descendant of Vikings, William the Conqueror, visited St David’s to pray in 1081 and the present cathedral building was begun one hundred years later.
A partial restoration by John Nash in 1793 turned out to be sub-standard and the whole building was restored by George Gilbert Scott between 1862-70. Further restoration work followed between 1901 and 1910.
It is built from stone quarried at nearby Caerbwdy, which I had passed the previous afternoon.
Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond and father of Henry VII, lies buried in the cathedral, his body having been moved there in 1540 when Greyfriars’ Priory in Carmarthen was dissolved.
This was all very interesting, and the buildings suitably impressive, but it wasn’t helping me get on with my walk (indeed, at this point I’d technically not even started, not having reached Whitesands Bay yet) so I decided not to linger in the cathedral grounds but instead to press on.
A narrow lane flanked by the once fifteen-foot high Close Wall, now more like waist high, led me away from the cathedral and onto an open country lane. The two miles or so passed quite quickly and the bulk of Carn Llidi, 181 m high, loomed ever closer.
Carn Llidi’s etymology is uncertain and could mean ‘Cairn of the Gates’ or ‘Cairn of Wrath’. I favour the second one, purely for its melodrama.
It looms, slightly squatly, over Whitesands Bay, which comprises a sandy but windswept beach with a narrow rocky promontory called Trwynhwrddyn (meaning ‘ram’s nose’).
While tales of St David’s life and works abound in this particular part of Wales, Whitesands Bay is associated with an altogether different saint. For it was here, about a century earlier, that St Patrick had his vision to convert Ireland.
Patrick had been kidnapped by Irish raiders as a boy and lived as their slave for four years before escaping back to Britain. Later, as an adult and member of the clergy, he set sail from Whitesands Bay to convert the land of his former captors. The remains of a chapel dedicated to him are buried beneath a mound beside the car park.
So was St Patrick Welsh? No one knows.
According to the two letters written by him of which content survives, he was born in Bann Venta Berniae and no one knows where that was. Various suggestions have been made, ranging across Wales, England and Scotland.
One traditional interpretation would have him coming from Cumbria, which is now English but then was part of Yr Hen Ogledd, the Old North, and considered one with Wales.
The Walk Begins…
I strode briskly past the mound and plaque showing where the chapel once stood and ascended the path towards St Davids Head.
Behind me, the tide was high in the bay, hiding the remains of an ancient, submerged forest from a time when the sea level was lower. I wasn’t surprised — so far I’ve managed to not see any of the submerged forest remnants that I’ve passed.
St David’s Head
The path up to St Davids Head (Penmaen Dewi) was rocky and windswept. The head was both of those things only more so. Amid the billion boulders and crags are the remains of an Iron Age cliff fort and Coetan Arthur, also called Arthur’s Quoit, a Neolithic burial chamber. The latter dates from about 3000 BC.
St David’s Head was beautifully described in a Roman Survey in 140 as the ‘Promontory of the Eight Perils‘. That’s a lovely, evocative name and I quickly enumerated as many perils as I could think of.
- Being blown off the cliff.
- Wind chill.
- Being blinded by blown mist and falling off the cliff.
- Tripping on a rock and falling off the cliff.
- Wind chill while being blown blindly off the cliff, having tripped.
Penberry (Penberi) is also known as Kites Head Rock and its summit is 175 m high. On a good day, it commands views across the whole of west Pembrokeshire. It still wasn’t a good day when I reached (almost) the top but it was slowly getting better.
As the path dropped back down from Penberry, it took me past a tiny rocky islet called Carreg-gwylan-fach, which means ‘Little Gull Rock’. There weren’t any gulls on it, or indeed anywhere in sight. The gulls had more sense than to be out in that wind.
A cup of restorative coffee (I had cunningly taken a flask) helped me refortify myself enough to show my mammalian superiority and I pressed onwards, passing a couple more hill forts and a field full of horses who, like me, were demonstrating mammalian endurance.
Abereiddy & Porthgain
Eventually, I spotted a black-sanded cove ahead and, not long after, I found myself in Abereiddy (Abereiddi).
A woman in a hot-dog van was showing heroic optimism in Abereiddy car park, which contained very few cars. I decided a hotdog-shaped brunch was in order, and also a large mug of hot chocolate.
Hot-Dog Lady turned out to also be a walker, who had been making her way round the Welsh coast in stages (when not selling hot dogs from her van). She owned herself surprised at how few other places there are to buy refreshments on the coast path.
I said something like ‘mmmf’. My mouth was full of hot dog.
Abereiddy was once a slate quarrying village, with a small but profitable quarry by the sea and a tramway to carry the slate to Porthgain, a village a few miles further north. These days, the disused quarry is flooded, the sea having broken in, and goes by the name of the Blue Lagoon: the water is stained blue through mineral leaching.
The path was pretty gentle for the next two miles, and conveyed me past fields and coves. Further remnants of industry past could be seen up on the cliff top, with the broken shells of old buildings now empty and open to the elements. This post-industrial theme would be continued when I reached Porthgain.
Porthgain was another slate-quarrying village and also served as the port for Abereiddy, receiving the latter’s slate via a tramway. The quarried slate was then sawn into appropriate sized slabs using saws powered by watermills.
Later, when slate quarrying ceased to be economic, Porthgain proved adaptable and concentrated on brick-making, which it had already been doing using waste material from the slate business. All of these industries disappeared in the early twentieth century.
The Shed and the Sloop
These days, Porthgain has a tiny fishing fleet and tourism, the latter of which is catered for mostly by a bistro called the Shed (which was shut when I got there) and a pub called the Sloop (which looked madly busy).
It turns out that the Sloop is highly recommended as one of the best pubs in Pembrokeshire. And most of Pembrokeshire seemed to be in it.
No Lingering for Lunch
I had a short rest in Porthgain but soon pressed on, not least because I hoped to find in the next settlement somewhere less busy than the Sloop that might serve me lunch. The settlement in question was the village of Trefin, formerly Anglicised as ‘Trevine’ but these days sticking firmly with the Welsh form (although they’re both pronounced the same). Trefin lay about a mile and a half away and I charged off with purpose. But not before I’d passed this:
Retirees & Realisations
I dashed past the navigational daymark and fairly bombed along towards Trefin, only to be halted by a retired couple heading the other way who stopped me to comment that the weather had warmed up considerably. I’d not really noticed that I was no longer fighting the wind, nor was I chilled to the bone but, when they pointed out, I realised that they were right. This cheered me immensely. As did the realisation that I could see Trefin from where we were standing.
Up or Down?
I extricated myself from what threatened to be a long rambling chat about nothing in particular and continued around to Trefin. It was at this point that I became properly aware of something I’d seen on my map but not yet properly considered.
I now had a choice: leave the path and climb the hill in search of food or just keep going on to Abercastle, another two miles down the coast. I chose the hill. Trefin was larger than Abercastle and so more likely to have somewhere to eat. Also, I was hungry now.
One short but steepish climb up the road later and I had the choice of pub or café. I chose the Mill Café, where I was served a proper tuna sandwich, with serious tuna chunks. Om nom nom.
Etymology & History
Trefin’s name derives from trefaen (tre + maen = ‘village on the rocky outcrop’) so the clue about it being up on top of the hill had been right there in its name all along. It’s a small village and was mostly historically associated with milling flour.
In the twentieth century
, it gained another string to its historical bow with links to the Archdruid Crws (William Williams 1875-1968) who was Archdruid of the National Eisteddfod of Wales (Eisteddfod Genedlaethol Cymru) from 1939 to 1947.
Lunched Too Long!
I spent altogether far too long in the café, enjoying my lunch and having a rest, which led to a bit of a shock when I checked the time. It was starting to seem unlikely that I would reach Strumble Point before the last bus or, if I continued on, that I would reach Goodwick before nightfall. A lot would depend on whether I made good progress between Trefin and a bay called Aber Mawr. I resolved to set off apace…
Rushing by Road
Since I was already atop the rocky outcrop, I felt no particular need to backtrack down to the coast path and instead opted to leave Trefin by the road, which led directly to Abercastle.
I thus continued through the village, passing an old village pump in the centre, and headed down a narrow lane the name of which was reassuringly signed as ‘Ffordd Abercastell’ (Abercastle Road).
Taking the road shaved a mile off my journey and clawed back over half an hour. The sea ahead was now a resplendent aquamarine and the grey cloud and high winds of the morning had been replaced with blue skies and sunshine. It was glorious.
A Tiny Village
Abercastle is a tiny village which was once a trading harbour and still services fishing boats and divers.
Alfred Johnson Plaque
A plaque near the quay revealed that in 1876 it was also the landing site of Danish yachtsman Alfred Johnson who had just completed the first single-handed Atlantic crossing, taking sixty-six days to cross from Gloucester, Massachusetts.
Abercastle’s other claim to fame is Carreg Samson, A Neolithic burial chamber half a mile from the village near the coast path. To my chagrin I quickly realised that it lay half a mile to the west on the bit I’d just missed out. That was annoying but I had no one else to blame.
Telling myself that it was just one of those things, I headed east from Abercastle, snapping a photo on my way out.
The path onwards undulated a bit but was nonetheless delightful, with the sunlight highlighting that everything was in flower. It dropped down to cross the tiny stream that meets the sea at Pwllstrodur and then climbed to skirt around the hill of Mynydd Morfa (‘marsh mountain’). And then, all of a sudden, I was looking at a long pebbly beach and I knew that this was Aber Mawr (‘great rivermouth’). I checked the time.
I had lost a little of what I’d clawed back. This was very annoying. I usually have no problem with taking the road instead of the coast path when necessary, or even just preferable, but I was enjoying the coast path and didn’t much care to leave it. But, thanks to my own laxity with respect to breakfast and lunch, I was going to have to. Either that or finish in the dark.
Resignedly I consulted my map, attracting the attention of a couple with a camper van who asked if I was lost. I explained my predicament and they produced official guides to coast path mileage and bus timetables.
Not only had I lost time, but I was consistently underestimating distance by a couple of miles here and there. There was no way, the couple thought, that I would make Strumble Head for the last bus or, failing that, Goodwick by daylight. Mind you, they thought the distances I was walking were madness anyway.
Biting the Bullet
I put away my map and bit the bullet. I would have to go by road.
The Road Route
A Leafy Lane
After a few minutes I stopped berating myself and relaxed so as to enjoy the road. Banks of wild garlic and other flowers lined both sides while a canopy of trees cast sun-dappled patterns across the tarmac. I was actually quite glad of the shade — the sun was now scorching — and a small stream gurgling beside the road helped keep things pleasantly cool.
After about half a mile it opened out into a more typical country lane but even here it was hardly unpleasant. The hedges were not so high as to block the views of Pembrokeshire’s farmland and, between the hills, there were glimpses of the sea. The place where the road left the woods was near to Melin Tregywnt, a whitewashed woollen mill that has stood on the spot since the seventeenth century.
Tresissllt & Velindre
The road was long and fairly straight — by taking this route I hadn’t shortened the distance, just guaranteed easier going — and it led me through tiny settlements with names such as Tresissllt and Velindre.
The Mermaid’s Curse
According to local legend a fisherman from Tresissllt once captured a mermaid at Aber Bach (the next beach on from Aber Mawr) and carried her home. The mermaid escaped but cursed his house so that no child would ever be born there. Although one was in 1960, so I guess mermaid curses aren’t permanent.
After a couple of miles the road curved as it approached the hamlet of Trefasser (Tref Asser, ‘settlement of Asser’, where Asser may mean the ninth century bishop who was friend and biographer of Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, or it might mean his nephew).
Trefasser certainly goes back to at least the fourteenth century, when it is mentioned in a survey of Episcopal lands carried out for the Bishop of St Davids.
Behind it, in the near distance, I could see a line of tors:
It was choice time again. If I’d clawed back enough time, I could return to the coast at nearby Pwll Deri. If not, I would be sticking with the road.
It turned out I’d clawed back some time but not quite enough. But it also turned out that the road in question climbed up to pass between Garn Fawr and Garn Fechan and I rather liked that idea.
On the way up I encountered a man walking his dog. Both dog and man turned out to be friendly and, after the obligatory comment on the weather, we discussed what I was doing. ‘If you get the chance to come back this way,’ said the man, ‘you must do the section of coast you’ve just missed. It’s spectacular.’
Well, thank you universe. Rub it in, will you?
Having determined that, yes, I pretty much will come back and redo this stretch at some point — although only this walk counts for purposes of mileage — I plodded my way up Garn Fawr.
The moment when i crested the brow and saw Strumble Head laid out before me felt quite magical.
The Home Stretch
The rest of the walk had the virtue of being downhill. I followed the winding country lanes past the farm of Caerlem and the tiny hamlet of Tresinwen down to Strumble Head, where a lone sheep had somehow escaped from its field and was wandering aimlessly about.
The head is supposed to be one of the best places in Britain to spot dolphins but none were in evidence when I arrived. I looked out at the lighthouse on Ynys Meical (St Michael’s Island), which was built in 1908.
1908? That rang a bell…
It was seven o’clock dead when I reached the headland and the last bus was due at exactly eight minutes past. I had eight minutes to spare. I had made it.
Getting to Goodwick
Catching the Bus
The bus arrived right on time and the driver chatted amiably. Having asked where I was staying, she consulted with the bus’s other passengers as to where would be best to drop me off. This turned out not to be at the expected stop but at the end of a road that would lead me directly to my B&B.
The Final Footsteps
I made my way along, following the directions given on the bus and, when I paused map in hand to look out at a view, a couple in their garden asked if I was lost. Armed with new (and identical) directions I soon found where I was staying and the owner was no less helpful than the other locals I’d just met.
I’m rather liking West Pembrokeshire.
This time: 19½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 1,382 miles