As I walk along the coastal path at St. Davids Head, a promontory that juts into the sea along the Pembrokeshire coast in Wales, the ocean roars around starkly contorted volcanic cliffs and dark pinnacles of rock as jagged as broken teeth. A stiff wind rakes the Irish Sea and seabirds cry against a sky of rolling clouds.
I can’t think of a more dramatic start to the Coastal Way, one of three recently launched routes designed to showcase Wales from its most captivating angles – the others are the Cambrian Way, an epic jaunt through the moors and mountains of the country’s heartland, and the North Wales Way, ticking off mighty fortresses and Victorian seaside resorts.
Though designed as a road trip, the 290-kilometre Coastal Way is intimately intertwined with the 1,400-kilometre Wales Coast Path, a public footpath that traces the entire seaboard of Wales. Anyway, to just sit behind the wheel in Wales would be a travesty. As with all wild places, the most evocative stretches of the Coastal Way are only accessible on foot. Muddy boots here are a badge of honour.
Look at a map and it soon becomes clear that Wales is not the small appendage to England that some believe. Distances are deceptive and the country soon reveals its grand scale when you go, as the Welsh say, igam-ogam – or off-the-beaten path – on single-track hedgerow-bordered lanes that often require some neat reversing skills.
Kicking off in St. Davids, the Coastal Way embraces the full summer sweep of Cardigan Bay, curving for 290 kilometres north to Aberdaron. In many ways, the route presents the country in microcosm: from cliff-flanked coves, wildlife-rich islands and miles of dune-backed beach, to medieval castles, Iron Age hill forts and standing stones bearing witness to the mysteries of the past. Though just a couple of hours’ drive west of the Welsh capital, Cardiff, this coastline feels a million miles away in spirit. This is Wales at its wild best.
As the sixth-century birthplace of the country’s patron saint, the city of St. Davids is a natural launching pad for the Coastal Way. The saint was born at St. Non’s chapel, where humble ruins and a holy well – once feted for its miracle-working powers – mark the spot. Though officially Britain’s smallest city (population: 1,800), St. Davids feels more like a village, with the notable exception of its formidable Norman cathedral. Here a shrine to St. David has attracted pilgrims since the Middle Ages.
According to Iain Tweedale, who has been a guide for nine years with the pilgrimage-holiday organization Journeying, St. Davids was a pilgrimage destination to rival Santiago in Spain in the medieval era. To mark the 900th anniversary of the canonization of the saint, in 2020 Journeying is offering multiday walks that reaffirm the Celtic connection between Wales and Ireland.
“Pembrokeshire [County] is my home and I love sharing its wonderful wild landscapes and spiritual heritage,” Tweedale says. “This is a place where you can still feel the spiritual connection with the living landscape. The Celts call this a ‘thin place,’ where the gap between Earth and heaven is small.”
Driving north of St Davids, I am drawn to what is marked on my map as the Blue Lagoon, a surreal turquoise pool in a flooded slate quarry. It’s famous for cliff divers, I’m told, but even on this summer day there is just one wild swimmer splashing around in the frigid water. I am not quite so brave.
The farther north I head, the lonelier the coast feels, with exhilarating views out to sea from Strumble Head and nearby Dinas Island. At the latter, I hike a five-kilometre trail leading up and over heather- and gorse-clad cliffs deeply indented with old smugglers’ coves. I’m rewarded with a glimpse of puffins returning to Pembrokeshire for the summer at Needle Point, cursing the fact I’ve left my binoculars behind.
Crossing the county border into Ceredigion, I consider visiting Cardigan’s medieval castle, but the lure of the coast is too powerful. So on I head to the bay of Mwnt instead, along a crazily narrow single-track lane that threatens to tip me into the Irish Sea. The bay is glorious: an enormous thumbprint of butterscotch sand rimmed by cliffs. It is frequently visited by dolphins, Atlantic grey seals and harbour porpoises, which no doubt appreciate the coastal solitude as much as I do.
The next morning brings dazzling sunshine, so I forgo the cultural charms of the seaside town of Aberystwyth and its National Library in favour of driving north in search of lesser-known beauty. I find it at the Dyfi Unesco Biosphere Reserve, where the Ynyslas dunes unfurl to a fabulous five-kilometre beach. Marram grass bends in the breeze and spray whips off the sea, which has churned up driftwood and giant cockleshells.
On the other side of the Dyfi Estuary, the peaks of Snowdonia National Park form a spectacular backdrop to the Llyn Peninsula, where the Coastal Way officially ends at Aberdaron. A local tip inspires me to climb the 304-metre Mynydd Rhiw, following a rough path through fields hemmed in by drystone walls that trace the land’s ancient contours.
Storm clouds are bubbling on the horizon, but not even the risk of rain can spoil the moment. From this modest rise I can take in the peninsula’s great curving bays, the gnarly mountains of Snowdonia and, to the west, Bardsey Island, where 20,000 saints are said to lie buried. Ireland is faintly visible across the sea.
Tweedale believes that walking the country’s coastal paths gives us a way to rediscover a rhythm that we’ve lost – the rhythm of the tides and waves.
“We notice simple things like rocks, flowers and birds as if we’re seeing them for the first time,” he says, adding philosophically: “We sense that we are part of something bigger.”
Where to stay and eat
Twr Y Felin, St. Davids
Graffiti art lends a dash of contemporary cool to this revamped windmill in a cracking coastal location. Menus play up carefully sourced Welsh produce. twryfelinhotel.com
Llys Meddyg, Newport
This Georgian coaching inn turned stylish boutique B&B is for food lovers. Garden-grown and foraged ingredients star in entrées such as cod with pea, cockles and pickled kohlrabi. llysmeddyg.com
A secluded Georgian country manor in enchanting gardens on the Llyn Peninsula, with serious culinary cachet. bodegroes.co.uk
This is one of a four-part series sponsored by Visit Britain, which did not review or approve the article.
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