BETWEEN Newport and the Pembrokeshire–Ceredigion border lie some truly stunning cliffs with some quite unnerving cliff paths clinging to the top of them. This walk therefore threatened to test my head for heights and so it did. Mostly, I passed, although I admit to feeling unnerved in some places. It was worth it.
Avoiding Solar Immolation
The day started under grey cloudy skies that didn’t fool me one jot. I knew that they would shortly give way to serious, skin-burning sunshine just as they had on both the previous days and that, once again, I’d be needing my own bodyweight in sunscreen. Admittedly that’s quite a lot of sunscreen but then my skin is sufficiently pale that I can catch fire on overcast days. Fortunately, when I’m not walking, I’m basically nocturnal.
Why, yes, I do like black pudding, which is blood sausage. Very much. When I’ve taken photos of churches I’ve not actually stepped on holy ground, no. What’s your point? Do I sleep in a what? Stop pointing that cross at me…
So anyway. I returned to Newport (Trefdraeth), where none of the locals fended me off with garlic (just as well, I love garlic). I took the opportunity to buy water and snacks and found an old millstone, last used in 1943, which had been taken from a mill at Llwyngwair Manor, half a mile east of the town, and set ornamentally beside Market Street. It wasn’t all that ornamental really, just a big round stone.
A little further up the hill, looming over Market Street with considerably more gothic menace than I could muster, was Newport Castle. Or rather the house that now incorporates part of the castle walls. It looked like the sort of place a pale, sunlight-avoiding person would be right at home in.
The castle was privately owned and in entirely the wrong direction, so I turned my back upon it and ambled back down to where I had left the footpath near the Parrog. I arrived when the tide was at its lowest, which meant that the Nevern Estuary appeared to be nothing but mud.
A Leafy Lane
I set off along a wide delightfully leafy path, passing the site of the first Newport Castle, the one built by William FitzMartin in 1197.
While the later thirteenth century castle, up on the hill, had been in ruins, nothing at all remained of its twelfth century predecessor except some unevenness in the ground that might have been visible from the air. That no structures survived was hardly surprising — when William was turfed out of nearby Nevern by the Lord Rhys, Prince of Deheubarth, he built his new castle in Newport with some considerable haste.
This seems not unreasonable; if you’re militarily occupying a country and the locals are mounting armed resistance then you probably want to throw up some sort of fortification as quickly as possible. The material traditionally used by the Normans for such purposes was wood, with more permanent rebuilding in stone to follow later.
In the case of Newport, the rebuilding occurred on a different site, the one now occupied by that house. The original castle is long gone; eight hundred years of damp climate will do that to wooden buildings.
The path led me to a road bridge and across the River Nevern (Afon Nevern). On the far side stood a lime kiln near a path that led me off alongside the muddy expanse of Newport Sands towards a small car park and closed café facing the beach.
Every dog-owning person from miles around appeared to be talking their domesticated wolf-creatures for ‘walkies’ and the beach was accordingly busy. Here, the path climbed slowly and gently, passing a tiny waterfall by which an equally tiny stream splashed its way onto the beach.
All in all, this was a somewhat relaxed start and not at all representative of what the next ten miles or so would be like. Needless to say, it didn’t last long.
Pen-y-bâl means something like ‘the head of the sharp peak’. The path didn’t convey me to a sharp peak exactly, but it still climbed fifty metres in about thirty horizontally. On my way, I passed a couple who were making hard work of it; not for the first time I was glad that I’d been convinced to buy walking poles.
I headed east, allowing an undulating path to convey me along the clifftop. Part of the reason the path was so undulating was that there were many indentations to the coast — like great bites taken out of it — presumably caused by landslips and cave collapses. Some of these the path brushed the tops of, which gave the curious feeling that the vertiginous cliff edge had come to meet the footpath. With others, it was the path that moved, climbing up one edge and then descending down the other.
The Limits of Farming
As I passed by the second or third point where a border of scrubby grass was all that separated me from a lethal plunge to the boiling sea below, I was struck by the notion that the walls and fences to my right were the boundaries of farms.
So far so obvious, particularly with the staring eyes of several dozen sheep watching me go past.
But the thing is, I’ve seen some pretty amazing farmer’s fields clinging to hillsides at angles that you would hardly believe a tractor can navigate. Things have to be pretty terrifyingly inclined or uneven before a farmer walls it off as a furrow too far. This, then, was the unwelcome thought that struck me: the entire path was situated outside the farm walls, where even sheep and tractors wouldn’t go.
That wasn’t reassuring.
O Ye of Little Faith
Fortunately I soon happened on something that showed me how foolish I was being with my assumptions: sheep will go almost anywhere.
As I passed a field full of them, I realised that one was on my side of the fence. Somehow a single lamb had escaped and was merrily munching away on some grass as I approached. Lambs not being the most courageous of creatures, it fled the moment it saw me.
This was a bit of an issue as the path was narrow with a fence on one side and a deadly drop on the other. I moved forward slowly and the lamb fled again and I realised with a sinking feeling that this was likely to continue for miles. Or, more likely, until the next stile where the lamb would panic and possibly run off the cliff.
In Search of Solutions
More in hope than expectation, I looked ahead for a point where the gap between cliff and fence might be wide enough for it to run past. The path was on one of its steep downward sections but there was a slightly wider spot with a gorse bush separating the precarious cliff edge from the path.
The lamb ran ahead and then darted sideways to the cliff edge and I watched it with my heart in my mouth. It stopped right on the brink, peered over and backed up sharply.
Okay, so I was right the first time. Even sheep know when to stop.
Gorse, of Course
I stepped smartly forwards so that the gorse bush was between me and it. It, seeing this protection, ran round the outside along the cliff edge and charged back up the path. Hooray!
I hadn’t wanted to kill a lamb that morning, however inadvertently. After all, I might want to eat it at some point in the future.
Breathing a sigh of relief I pressed on.
Unpredictable Mad Beasts
The path descended to the cliff edge, which had temporarily moved away, and then followed it up another ‘bite’ out of the hillside. Part way up I found the expected stile along with what suddenly turned out to be plenty of room for a frightened lamb to manoeuvre. In fact things opened out enough that an elephant could have manoeuvred. The creatures in that space were neither elephants nor lambs though.
The ponies paid me no attention, for which I was grateful. I paid them no attention either as mine was fixed on yet another chunky bite out of the coastline that considerately brought the full height of the cliffs into focus, just in case I was, for instance, not thinking about it.
The path continued to undulate though overall it was climbing as it rounded the top of the 186 m hill called Foel Gôch. Just past the hill, the path descended into a narrow valley (although still well over a hundred metres above the sea) where stepping stones crossed a muddy stream bed.
A short while (and a steep climb) later I found myself climbing over a stile, God knows how high already, and wondering who the hell had erected a fence that ran all the way down a hillside about thirty degrees off the vertical.
The Height of Folly
Wondering about that proved to be a mistake. Though very much aware of them, I’d been handling the heights quite well. Now I started to overthink it and made the appalling mistake of considering the context of where I was — about 150 m up a steep coastal slope with no hope of survival should I stumble and fall. Yeah, best not to dwell on that.
I did my best to put it out of my mind and pressed onwards, hoping that the cliff situation might become a little more forgiving.
The next stage was Cell Howell, a section of particularly high and landslippy cliffs on which the path in no way hid the fact that I was 150 m up.
Fortunately, I got a mental grip on myself and insisted that I relax and stop thinking about that. And it worked. By the time the terrain levelled out a little I was feeling just fine about the cliff top path.
After Cell Howell, the path began to descend, slowly at first and then in a madly steep fashion. It was soon down to about 80 m but was undulating in the vertical plane rather more than the higher path had.
At one point, it carried me past dense thickets of flowering gorse and, as the coconut aroma filled the air, I delved into my bag: I had come prepared with bounty bars. Taste, after all, is largely smell and eating coconut-based snacks while surrounded by gorse blooms is, well… let’s just say I don’t think you can overdose on coconut.
I now passed the jagged rocky outcrop/islet of Carreg Yspar, a steep-sided part-bare, part-grassy edifice beside which the path again descends, dropping into a narrow valley with a bridge across a stream.
The Witch’s Cauldron
On the far side was the Witch’s Cauldron (Pwll y Wrach), a big watery hole created by a collapsed sea cave. The path climbed out of the valley with steps between the sea and the sea cave, a situation (a drop on both sides) that would normally disturb me but I just enjoyed it for the view.
The path climbed up and around a steeply sloped gorse-covered hillside, from which I could look back to Carreg Yspar.
The path carried me on for like this for a little less than a mile before dropping me into the stony-beached Ceibwr Bay (Bae Ceibwr).
Ceibwr Bay was quite crowded with sunbathers and families paddling at the water’s edge. What it lacked was any form of refreshments and I, having eaten everything I’d brought with me, decided to search for some more.
I knew the village of Moylgrove (Trewyddel) was about a mile upstream and so I set off up the Ceibwr Valley (Nant Ceibwr) by road in search of it. It wasn’t a difficult search — the village was a mile up the road, exactly where I had thought it would be — but it was fruitless, however. Moylgrove had neither shop nor pub. It did appear to have two Nonconformist chapels though.
Two chapels, no pub; must be proper Welsh Methodist country.
Sadly defeated, I trekked back to the bay and crossed the stream by way of the little stone bridge.
The path climbed steeply out of Ceibwr Bay and crept along near the top of another stretch of steep-sided, grassy slopes that blurred the line between ‘cliff’ and ‘grassy plain’. They were, if you like, what you get if you tip a grassy plain on its side. There was a bit of vertical undulation but mostly it climbed, reaching 100 m at Foel Hendre.
At Foel Hendre I found a small walking group sat at the top having a picnic.
‘Only fifty more miles to go,’ they joked.
I didn’t pay them much attention, replying something like ‘I hope not’ as I passed. Ahead of me, and far more interesting, were the cliffs leading out to the headland of Pen yr Afr, which showed the crumpled strata of the local geology in all its glory.
A short while later, I passed a sign that appeared to be directing walkers down an area of subsidence and off the edge of the cliff. This didn’t look right to me and I stuck with what was obviously the real path, which led me down into a valley at Pwllygranant and across a little bridge.
I initially wondered if I could possibly have misunderstood the sign but I don’t think so. I think someone moved it as an extremely sick joke. This frankly enrages me and I hope that they expire in a freak accident involving the bodily insertion of a radioactive cactus dipped in neat capsaicin. After it’s been set on fire.
Pen yr Afr
The path back out of the valley climbed steeply to 150 m, where it clung precariously to the very edge of the cliff, lined by gorse bushes. It then rounded the headland and there, between Pen yr Afr and Cemaes Head, were the highest cliffs in the Pembrokeshire Coast Path National Park, at about 170 m.
Nervous about Nervousness
I was feeling a little nervous and rattled until I made myself stop and actually look down from them. It was a long way down but I realised that, once again, I was feeling nervous because I expected to, not because of my immediate environment.
I’m really hoping that this revelation helps me get a grip on my fear of heights. Not least because abject terror really detracts from the enjoyment of a stunningly beautiful walk.
Almost before I knew it, I had passed the highest cliffs and clambered over a stile and the path was now descending as it rounded Cemaes Head, a headland which had looked so far away in the morning.
Having rounded Cemaes Head, I was now looking across the Teifi Estuary towards Cardigan Island and the village of Gwbert on the far shore.
The path now descended from Cemaes Head through Allt-y-Coed Farm (allt y coed, ‘wood hill’) onto a farm track which led to a road. True to the name, there were indeed trees, casting dappled shadows in the afternoon sun.
After a while the road emerged from the trees and carried me down to Poppit Sands where, in keeping with time-honoured tradition, I arrived just after the café had shut.
My feet, which were clad in trainers because I had somehow — in a show of monumental stupidity and absent-minded nincompoopery— forgotten my walking boots, were a bit achy by now so I gladly kicked off socks and trainers and went for a paddle. The water was cold but not painfully so and, as always, this was wonderfully restorative.
I now felt ready to continue.
St Dogmaels Village
St Dogmaels (Llandudoch) is just a small touristy village now, marking the end of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path, but between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries it was home to one of the richest and most powerful abbeys in Wales.
St Dogmaels Abbey
St Dogmaels Abbey belonged to the Tironensian Order and was founded in about 1115 by Robert FitzMartin (the father of William FitzMartin, who built the first Newport Castle) and Maud Peverell, who was the sister of William Peverell, a Norman knight and an old comrade (and probably also the bastard son) of William the Conqueror.
Meandering through Meadows
From St Dogmaels, I was expecting another mile of strolling down the road towards Cardigan but the Wales Coast Path had other ideas, sending me off down backstreets and then out into a succession of fields that were, to judge from appearances, inexplicably farming buttercups. At some point in this flower meadow journey, I passed over the boundary between Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion.
Counties and Kingdoms
Ceredigion is one of the Principal Areas of Wales, i.e. a current local government area. As Cardiganshire, it was also one of the historic counties of Wales that existed from the Anglo-Norman Conquest until 1974, after which it became part of the county of Dyfed.
In 1996, Cardiganshire was reconstituted as an administrative county and reverted to the name Welsh name Ceredigion (‘Cardigan’ is its anglicised form ) the very next day.
For ceremonial purposes it is still part of the preserved county of Dyfed.
Ceredig ap Cunedda
Ceredigion takes its name from Ceredig ap Cunedda (c. 420-453), who was born in the kingdom of Manaw Gododdin, which was then part of the Welsh ‘Old North’ (Y Hen Ogledd) but is now Lothian in Scotland.
He and his father, Cunedda ap Edern, travelled south to help repel Irish invaders on the Welsh coast.
The Kingdom of Ceredigion later gained control of Ystrad Tywi (in what is now Carmarthenshire) and the Gower and changed its name to Seisyllwg after King Seisyll ap Clydog.
In 920, Hywel Dda (Hywel the Good) united Seisyllwg with the Kingdom of Dyfed to form Deheubarth (which basically just means ‘the southern bit’).
The town of Cardigan is known in Welsh as Aberteifi (‘mouth of the Teifi’). It was the county town of pre-1974 Cardiganshire but didn’t regain that distinction when Cardiganshire was reborn in 1996.
It has a castle, built by Norman conqueror Robert Montgomery in 1093 but which didn’t stop the Lord Rhys from retaking the town for Deheubarth in 1165.
Eleven years later, Rhys held the first Eisteddfod (a Welsh festival of literature, music and performance) in Cardigan.
Rise and Fall
With the passing of the likes of Rhys and the growing English dominance over Wales, Cardigan became a small, sleepy town and river port. Then in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it grew significantly, becoming the most important of the Welsh seaports and handling seven times as much shipping as Cardiff.
This period of booming prosperity slowed to a standstill towards the end of the nineteenth century and start of the twentieth as the River Teifi silted up and ceased to be navigable.
I entered Cardigan abruptly — one minute I was on a farm track, the next I was in Bridgend, the suburb across the river. I crossed Cardigan Old Bridge and found the castle unattractively swathed in scaffolding. Beside me a large metal otter regarded me with disdain.
The following morning I breezed about Cardigan, keen to find out what it looked like in proper daylight with the shops open and everything. The other thing I wanted to see in proper daylight was this:
The cannon is an Imperial Russian artillery piece from the Crimean War, named ‘Shvalov’s Edinrag – the Unicorn’ according to the plaque. It commemorates the 150th anniversary of the 1854 Charge of the Light Brigade. The charge was led by the Earl of Cardigan.
The Charge of the Light Brigade
The Battle of Balaclava
The charge took place at the Battle of Balaclava in which the UK & France were united (for a particular value of ‘united’) against the Russians. The Allied commander, Lord Raglan, had been a hero at Waterloo but was now old and frequently confused enough to call the enemy ‘the French’ much to the consternation of his allies.
Though he made mistakes at Balaclava, the Charge of the Light Brigade was not entirely his fault — he gave orders for Lord Cardigan to take the Light Brigade and harass a retreating Russian artillery battery, exactly the sort of thing light cavalry is good for (as the ex-cavalryman Lord Raglan knew well). ‘Light cavalry’ here means that they were on fast horses, unarmoured and armed with lances and swords.
Garbled in Transmission
Unfortunately for Lord Cardigan and his men, the order had to filter down through the ranks via his superior, Lieutenant General the Earl of Lucan, commander of the cavalry and Cardigan’s hated brother-in-law. Lucan couldn’t see the relevant retreating artillery from his position so what Cardigan received were orders for a direct frontal assault on a different, fully dug-in Russian artillery battery.
The result was pretty much what you might expect although Cardigan himself somehow managed to survive all the way to the guns, attack the gunners and then retreat. Very few of his men were so lucky. Nor did they get a popular type of button-up sweater named after them (the earl wore a knitted woollen waistcoat while on campaign).
Pierre Bosquet, the French commander at the battle, had this to say of the charge:
‘C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre, c’est de la folie.’ — ‘It is magnificent but it is not war. It is madness.’
I feel that way about wearing cardigans, too.
Madness of another kind, namely the closure of Cardigan Railway Station (open 1886 to 1965) required me to catch a bus to Haverfordwest before making my long, slow journey back to London. For once I can’t even blame Dr Richard Beeching as its closure to passengers in 1962 predated the Beeching Axe.
My next trip promises to test my head for heights even more thoroughly than this one: Ceredigion is quite proud of its path ‘cut directly into the coastal slope’. Given that acknowledging the context is key to feeling properly afraid, a path that makes it quite obvious you’re on a ledge halfway up what’s basically a wall should be a barrel of laughs…
This time: 17 miles
Total since Gravesend: 1,417 miles