The bus driver is highly critical of my plans. Why am I walking to Castlemartin on a Thursday? I should wait until Saturday when the firing range will be open to the public and I can walk along the coast. I should go and walk somewhere else today.
When I explain I must walk the coast in sequence, and can’t pick and choose, he raises his eyebrows in disgust. ‘Oh, you’re one of those,’ he says.
The bus – the Pembroke Coastal Cruiser – bounces along the country lanes, going down every dead-end and visiting every beach it can find along the way. It takes 90 minutes to cover the short distance from Pembroke to Stackpole Quay, so my walk begins rather late. It’s nearly midday by the time I reach Barafundle Bay.
Yesterday this beach looked sunny and tropical. Today, on a dull and windy morning, it doesn’t look quite so inviting. But us Brits are a hardy lot. There are people swimming and surfing, although I notice everybody in the water is wearing a body suit.
On the other side of Barafundle Bay, I walk up a wooded slope…
… and arrive on the high grassy plain of Stackpole Warren, where I stop to take a photograph of the caves on the other side of Barafundle Bay and the natural arches on this side of the bay. The wonderful beach is now hidden around the corner.
From the high cliff on Stackpole Head, I look across to the next major promontory, St Govan’s Head. And the sandy cove I can see over there must be Broad Haven. Strange. It doesn’t look very ‘broad’.
There are a number of people walking around Stackpole Head – an unusual number, given that the day is dull and the nearest car park is at least a mile away. I snap a photograph of a woman taking a photograph of the caves below us.
I stick as close to the cliff edge as I dare, walking around the spiny point of Mowingword and the dramatic inlet of Running Hole. (How do they get these names?) The next significant beach is unnamed on my map. The sand is deserted. I’m not sure if you can get down there by foot.
On the landward side of the beach is a wide hole in the ground.
At first I think it’s an old quarry. But then I realise the sides look natural. It has a sandy base and a gap through which the sea rushes in. Waves ebb and flow. When the tide is high, I imagine the bottom of the hole would be filled with a boiling mass of froth.
It reminds me of a similar hole I came across, The Devil’s Frying Pan, near The Lizard. This one has a less dramatic name. Sandy Pit.
I guess the cavity was formed when a cave roof collapsed. Over time, the roof over its doorway to the sea will collapse too, and the ‘pit’ will become just another sandy inlet.
The coast is constantly changing. There are the changes we can observe, such as the washing in-and-out of the tides. And then there are the changes we can barely comprehend, because the timescales involved are too immense for our brains to cope with.
Thinking of the shortness of our lives… I remember I have to get to Castlemartin before the last bus leaves at quarter to six. It’s 1pm already. I hurry on.
Rounding Saddle Point, I reach Broad Haven, and I realise the beach is larger than it looked from Stackpole Head.
The sand extends inland and up into a river valley. Dunes and cliffs form a semicircle of higher ground around the flat expanse.
I make my way across the beach and begin a weary climb up the soft dunes on the far side. As I near the top, a cloud comes down and the rain begins to fall.
At the top of the slope is a car park, a sad-looking ice cream van, and some public toilets. I shelter in the porch of the toilets, pull on my waterproof jacket and cover my rucksack, before setting off to regain the cliff edge. But the rain begins to fall with a fury and by the time I reach the end of the car park my trousers are soaked through. I can feel water seeping into my boots.
I hesitate, knowing I’m going to get drenched if I continue – in fact I’m half-way there already! But does it matter? No. Actually, the main problem is poor visibility. Not only is everything shrouded in mist, but my glasses are splattered with rain. What’s the point in walking this beautiful coastline if I can’t see anything?
I return to sanctuary of the toilet block and pull out my map. There is only a short distance of coast left before I would have to turn inland and walk up the road in order to avoid the closed section of the Castlemartin Artillery Range. But I could turn inland now, following another road up to the village of Bosherston, where there is both a pub and a café.
Once the decision is made I feel better. Although it’s still a long, wet and dispiriting walk inland – heading in the wrong direction is always irritating – the pub turns out to be a perfect ‘Country Inn’. There is a half-hour wait for food. Do I mind? Not at all. I nurse a cider and watch dripping people come in and out. My lunch arrives eventually.
A return bus leaves Bosherston at 15:35 pm. I decide to catch it, but then the rain stops. Knowing I don’t have time to walk back down to the coast and resume the walk to Castlemartin, I decide to do a circular walk around the famous Lily Ponds instead. I should get back to Bosherston in plenty of time to pick up the final bus of the day at 18:17.
The walk around the Lily Ponds is surprisingly lovely. The lily flowers are shy, barely showing themselves. Maybe it’s the rain, or maybe it’s the wrong time of year (June is the best month for lilies). Still it’s beautiful. And silent. The rain has driven everyone away, even the birds have disappeared.
These ponds were created as a vast landscaped garden for Stackpole Court, a country mansion now demolished. I gather you can see otters if you’re lucky. But I didn’t manage to spot any.
I didn’t even see a toad, although I liked the handy ‘actual size’ guide on the Toads Crossing sign!
It was wonderful to emerge at the inland end of Broad Haven. The rock that marks the entrance to the beach looks like a guardian dragon, but is actually called ‘Church Rock’.
Back across the beach and I retrace my morning’s route. It’s much easier walking up the dunes with the sand dampened by the rain. At the top, I take a photo of the sadly optimistic ice cream van, and the toilets where I sheltered from the rain a few hours earlier.
Then I turn back to the coast. My aim is to follow the official Wales Coast Path as far as I can get along the ranges, before heading back towards Bosherston and my bus.
The path is grassy and clearly marked. Ahead, is the first checkpoint. I wonder if I will be turned back?
But the guard post is unmanned and I assume this part of the range is open. I walk along a gravel track, surrounded by high gorse, and with no clear view of the sea. Shame. Signs warn me to stick to the path, or else I might get blown up.
I come to the road that leads up to Bosherston, with a car park and another checkpoint. This post is manned and has a red flag flying. Yes, the range is definitely closed from this point onwards.
But, before I turn away from the coast, I notice there is a steady procession of visitors going up and down some steep steps.
At first I think they’re heading down to a tiny beach. Then I realise there is a building at the bottom of the steps. It’s St Govan’s chapel.
I go down. There is nothing much left in the chapel itself, which is tiny. But you can walk through the building and get access to a rocky cove.
The chapel looks more impressive from the seaward side.
And the view is wonderful.
Apparently St Govan was a hermit who, legend says, hid himself in a narrow fissure in the rock to escape pirates. He decided to stay and a chapel was later built in his honour. He may or may not be buried under the floor.
It’s a lovely place and I’m glad I discovered it.
After taking photographs, I make my way up the steps. Legend also says there are more steps going up then there are coming down. I can testify that this particular legend is true!
My walk along the coast has come to an end. I could return on Saturday, when the ranges are open to the public. This would allow me to walk another 3-4 miles along the cliffs, but the far end of the range is permanently closed – except for a few, rare, weekends when wardens take visitors on guided walks, and I have been unable to book a suitable date.
Tomorrow I will walk from Bosherston to… I’m not sure how far I’ll get tomorrow. Depends on the weather.
The road up to Bosherston is quiet. I pass several deserted military huts. And this quaint looking farmhouse which, on closer inspection, is boarded up and has signs warning of asbestos inside.
I pass through several more checkpoints. All are unmanned and look bedraggled. I wonder if this road is ever closed for military training?
A little further on I pass a ramshackle farm, and spot this cheerful ice cream van hiding behind a barn.
It’s only a mile back to Bosherston.
I return to the pub, buy another half of cider and sit outside in the intermittent sunshine to wait for the bus. But when the bus appears (late, as usual) I let it pass by, knowing it will go down to Broad Haven and St Govan’s chapel before returning.
‘Where have you been?’ the driver asks me. ‘I was expecting to pick you up in Castlemartin.’ Shame-faced, I confess to spending much of the day in the pub. He is not impressed.
Miles walked today = 9 miles, mainly round in circles.
Total along Wales Coast Path = 333.5 miles
Total distance around the coast: 1,940.5 miles