With its wild cliffs, pretty coves and puffins galore, St Brides Bay holds the best of Pembrokeshire
By Monica Woods
Calling all curious travellers: if you’re on the lookout for an alternative sun, sea and sand destination in the British Isles, the wild west coast of Wales may be just the thing. Turn away from the popular southwest and south coast, make for Pembrokeshire’s western reaches and be prepared to fall head over heels for St Brides Bay.
The Gower peninsula may get most of the attention, but this notch in the Welsh coastline has similarly spectacular beaches, charming towns and villages, fantastic wildlife and, crucially, enough space for everyone. Topping it all, literally, is St Davids, Britain’s smallest city, perched at the tip of the bay and wooing visitors with its medieval cathedral, winding lanes and foodie hotspots.
Of course, it’s thanks to the cathedral that St Davids – with a population of less than 2,000 and the diminutive size of a village – can claim city status. Dedicated to the patron saint of Wales, the splendid cathedral was built in 1180 but it was back in the 6th century that St David founded a monastery on the site.
And the site was well chosen – tucked into a dell next to the River Alun, the cathedral was less vulnerable to attack. Today, as you pass beneath Tower Gate and make your way down to Cathedral Close, the overall impression is one of sheltered calm. Unusually, there is
no admission charge (although donations are welcome), so you are free to admire the purple-tinged stone exterior and elaborate latticed oak ceiling, just as flocks of pilgrims have done over the centuries.
Indeed, there was a time when two trips to St Davids were deemed by the Pope the equivalent of one to Rome.With everything within walking distance, and a high street crammed with independent shops and galleries, delis and cafés where local produce reigns supreme, plus a weekly market on Thursdays, St Davids is perfect browsing territory.
Following the curve of St Brides Bay eastwards brings you to another colourful enclave, Solva. This bustling little village has an artistic bent, with galleries, crafts and ceramics shops and, one mile upriver, a woollen mill where you can see weavers at work and buy distinctive runners and rugs. The village is split between Lower Solva, clustered at the end of the L-shaped harbour, and the more residential Upper Solva. At low tide, the harbour water drains almost completely away, leaving boats lodged in the sand and revealing rock pools and caves. Children will enjoy crabbing from the harbour wall – naturally those critters must be returned to the water once they’ve been counted up, but don’t miss freshly dressed local crab and lobster, specialities on offer in many of Solva’s plentiful cafés, restaurants and pubs.
Take one of several paths leading up to the Gribin, the rocky headland guarding the entrance to the harbour, to be granted superb views of the village and the surrounding rugged coastline, plus the chance to see the remains of an Iron Age fort and settlement. Depending on the tide, you may also be able to peek inside 200-year-old lime kilns, evidence of the area’s industrial heritage. Down on the other side of the Gribin, there’s a glimpse of a more distant past – the pebble beach of the Gwadn was formed by meltwater at the end of the last Ice Age.
With such historical significance, not to mention stunning scenery, it’s no wonder that this stretch of southwestern Wales was designated a national park back in 1952. The Pembrokeshire Coast National Park comprises a series of coastal and some inland areas, not always contiguous but adding up to a sublime patchwork of land- and seascape.
The 186-mile-long Pembrokeshire Coast Path plots a course over windswept and wildflower-flecked cliffs, quiet sandy coves and lush green glades. When the sun shines, it may be hard to resist the golden beaches of St Brides Bay, but the coastal path gives a different, sometimes dizzying perspective, with views of outlying islands, bobbing seals and flocks of seabirds. Down at the water’s edge, you’ll find the beaches are so much more than just a place to flop on a beach towel. The steep cliffs at secluded Druidston Haven are a Site of Specific Scientific Interest (one of 17 along the coast path), thanks to their rich fossil content, and are a favourite haunt of gannets and peregrine falcons.
A natural waterfall gushing down the cliffside at one end of the cove provides an ideal post-swim shower point. There are treats and surprises like this all along the bay. While some beaches, like the wide sweep of Broad Haven, offer more conventional, family-friendly seaside fun, others reveal their often unique charms more discreetly. At Caerfai Bay, for example, the purple sandstone underfoot may look familiar – it was used to build St Davids Cathedral. At Marloes, there’s a winding walk from the car park, or along the cliffs, to get to the beach but reward comes in the form of dramatic, jagged rock islands and cliffs seamed with purple, grey and gold. And even at Broad Haven, at low tide a separate, smaller bay, The Settlands, becomes enticingly accessible.
If paddling or swimming don’t appeal (although be reassured that most beaches boast Blue Flag and/or Green Coast awards), there are other ways to take to the water. Holiday sailing courses are popular at Dale, officially the sunniest place in Wales. You could also try your hand at kayaking or windsurfing – and it certainly can get windy. The gusts at St Ann’s Head, the promontory immediately south of Dale where Henry Tudor landed in 1485, on his way to fight for the English crown, often exceed 100mph in winter. Wind-lashed walkers
or sodden swimmers will be grateful of the warm welcome at the Griffin Inn in Dale, a 300-year-old pub overlooking the bay.
The best way to experience the Celtic Sea, though, is to join a boat trip out to Pembrokeshire’s offshore islands, Skomer, Skokholm, Grassholm and Ramsey. Departing from the peninsula’s harbour at Martins Haven (April to September, weather permitting),
the crossing to Skomer only takes around ten minutes, bringing you up close to southern Britain’s largest puffin colony. Ten thousand pairs of puffins nest here, and the turquoise waters and green-blanketed cliffs of the island and its neighbours also attract Manx shearwaters, razorbills, gannets and guillemots, not to mention grey seals and dolphins.
Prime time for puffin- and puffling-viewing is June and July. Boat tickets are sold on a first come, first served basis, so arrive at the harbour early to secure your place on this most memorable Pembrokeshire voyage.
There is no station at St Davids but trains run to Haverfordwest from Swansea, which is 2hr 45min from London Paddington. Parking can sometimes be tricky in smaller places so make use of the Pembrokeshire Coastal Bus network, which operates a handy seven-day service in summer. www.thetrainline.com; www.pembrokeshire.gov.uk
Where to stay
Close to St Davids, the former Victorian convent of Penrhiw Hotel makes a comfortable rural base, right in the heart of the national park but only ten minutes from the cathedral. Further down the bay and slightly inland, Mill Haven Place is a good self-catering option with three well-equipped cottages. www.penrhiwhotel.com; www.millhavenplace.co.uk
Where to eat
The Refectory offers homemade, good-value meals in a calming, light-flooded space within St Davids Cathedral. For a drink, you can’t beat sipping a pint on the Swan Inn’s terrace, carved into the cliffside at Little Haven. Runwayskiln café, in a perfect clifftop location above Marloes Sands, is a real foodie find right on the coast path, serving up local seafood, delicious pakoras and tempting cakes. www.stdavidsrefectory.co.uk; www.theswanlittlehaven.co.uk; www.runwayskiln.co.uk