Finding magic in the ordinary on the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path
A little more than a month had passed since beginning my life in England. Following her initial snowy greeting, Bath soon began to thaw out and, by March, a soggy winter quickly melted into a mild spring. And unusually mild spring, in fact. As I write, we are experiencing the first grey day we've had in weeks. So as far as the weather is concerned, my life here in Bath has been idyll.
So what can be said about uni? Well, all semester my class schedule afforded me a four day weekend. Here students are given iplenty of ndependent study time and are allowed to work at their own pace. So without the frequent, petty assignments that keep college students in the States feeling burned-out, it was a relatively relaxed semester. Because of the more relaxed pace, it kept me passionate about my subject. And having successfully avoided the exam-driven majors, as of May 22 when my final projects were all due, my relaxed semester transitioned into an even more relaxed summer.
Life has been good. No stress to speak of. So naturally, in March Luke and I decided to take a vacation. Here I am, in June, finally getting around to writing about it!
We decided on Pembrokeshire, the southern coast of Wales, for a couple reasons: first, as it was mid-March we figured it might be too cold for the lake district, and it'd be too long of a journey for only 3 nights; second, I'd seen Luke's pictures of his family's holiday to Pembrokeshire a few years back and was itching to have a rambol along some of those hills and cliff-side paths; thirdly, Wales is easy-ish to get to from Somerset and it was the last week of the "low season," which meant we could get low rates on a hostel. Of course, going to Wales in March also meant the weather could be absolutely foul. We knew we ran the risk of being cooped-up in the hostel in a tiny village in rural Wales with nothing to do (because the only reason you go to such a village is to walk the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path) while a miserable grey rain pelted down on us for three days straight. But hey, you run that risk anytime you go on an outdoorsy holiday... especially in this country. So we went anyways, prepared to make the most of even the lousiest of weather.
As expected it was raining in Bristol the morning we set off. Still, we were chipper. We'd packed our jackets, umbrellas and waterproofs and were prepared to make the most of whatever Wales had to offer us. So imagine our delight when, on the train journey to Fishguard, Wales, the sun began to shine through the grey film hanging over Somerset. And as we chugged along west and crossed the border into Wales, the sun seemed to gain more intensity as if determined to outshine the English sun. By the time we arrived in Fishguard, we had shed a couple layers of clothing each.
I love train travel in Europe. Our train journey to Fishguard was no less pleasing. The train ride affored me my first views of sun-splashed southern Wales along with some peaks of the coastline we would soon hike. From Fishguard we caught a bus heading south towards St. Davids. The twenty minute bus ride took us through rolling green pastures and farmland of [i]How Green Was My Valley[i] fame. On the bus we were surrounded by locals who lived in the one-pub villages we passed or, often, in farms tucked away on dirt roads, fifteen minutes walk from the nearest village. Everyone on the bus spoke Welsh. Though the Welsh all speak English now and most identify themselves as British as much as Welsh, they've done well to preserve their language as part of their unique Celtic heritage. But with the arrival of each new generation, the older folks sit in sunless pub corners and pose the question to one another in hushed voices, Will the young people preserve our culture, our language? And what a beautiful language it is! It is the lilting language of poets and bards, medieval kings and gentle green valleys. As a visitor to Wales, it's by no means necessary to speak Welsh in order to get by (and the Welsh don't seem to hold it against you if you don't). But hearing the sheer musicality of it next to the rigid functionality of English often makes me a bit sad that such a beautiful language is being preserved, and with some difficulty, in only one small pocket of the world.
The bus dropped us off in a small coastal village called Trefin (pronounced Trevin as there's no "f" sound in Welsh, though they use the letter in its written form). Our backpackers hostel was literally 50 meters away from the bus stop on the main road, which was, coincidentally, the only road in Trefin. There was another couple waiting outside the hostel when we approached. They had a 10kg rucksack each resting between their knees and they were heating a pot of soup on a very small camping grill. After chatting with them for a bit, we discovered that they'd just finished a 5 hour hike from Treffaser about 6 miles north along the coast. They'd arrived sooner than expected and were waiting for the hostel owners to return so they could check in. Rather than wait around, Luke and I decided to head down to the coast and get a quick walk in.
A leissurely walk through some sheep pastures, a hop over a fence and we were on the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path. Just like that, it could literally be seen from the hostel window. To our right the path snaked along a grassy path bordered by gorse bushes in full bloom. In the distance we could see how it began to trace the tops of the 50 to 80 meter high cliffs which fell into the Irish Sea below. To our left the path fell slightly to where we suspected we might be able to find a bit of beach. In front of us the Irish Sea, a quivering deep blue, expanded towards the horizon. We went left.
The beaches in Pembrokeshire are peppered with polished stones in every shade of grey, blue and purple, the likes of which I remembered from our family visit to Aberdovy years ago. I remember as a little girl crunching along the huge mounds of these rocks and delighting in the sound of their earthy grumbling. I love it still. I tried to imagine the journeys that each rock took before arriving on this tiny beach near Trefin, Wales. Still, I cannot comprehend the amount of time it must take for the ocean to wear down a huge boulder like the one over there to the small, smooth stone I'm holding in my hand. It's no bigger than a robin's eggs and nearly as blue.
Trefin's beach, with the old ruined mill on the hill overlooking it, reminds me of the beaches in Portugal with their pink, orange and beige colored rocks of varying sizes strewn across the sand. In many of the stones you can trace your finger along the ridges of fossils and ancient sea shells that have been preserved there for countless thousands and millions of years. On these beaches where boulders lay along side stepping stones, pebbles along side grains of sand, an unfathomable timeline of history stretches out infront of you. Right there under your feet is life and death, but without a clear beginning or an end. Sifting through rocks on that beach one realises that Nature has a completely different sense of time than we do. Luke and I walked down to this beach essentially to kill time as we waited to check-in to our hostel. But what a gift to be able to, for just an hour, be a participant in a timeless world.
Unable to comprehend the mystery of it all, Luke and I began to skip rocks (or skim rocks as the Brits call it). Just by being there, by dislodging one rock with a clumsily placed foot and hurling another back into the sea, we became part of the history of that beach.
We'd been in Pembrokeshire no longer than an hour and already the beauty of the place had repaid us double for our effort of coming. The land was a playground and still there was [i]so[i] much to explore. We wanted to carry on along the path past the beach, but ultimately decided to go back the way we'd come and walk along the cliffs for a few hours before sundown. On this walk Luke pointed out the gorse plant to me, a beautiful and rugged bramble that has a shockingly yellow flower when it is in bloom but, like thistle, is covered in thorns. In the sun, the gorse appears golden against the green of the valley. Luke and I also noticed that the sheep in Wales appeared whiter than British sheep. We had no idea what could possibly keep these beasts so white until we looked closer at the gorse. The gorse was actually decorated with spiderweb-like clumps of wool. In there determination to get at all the choisest bits of grass along the cliffs, the daring little buggars would squeeze right through the thorny gorse. The thorns would subsequently card out their wool. So that is the welsh sheep's beauty secret.
It was also lambing season. And as the coastal path takes you right through open pastures where sheep graze freely along the cliffs, we spent all weekend awwing at the darling new additions to the flocks.
Our hostel was in itself an escape from a busier pace of life (somebody elses, that is, not ours). Chris and Sue had escaped to Pembrokeshire in favour of a quieter life, more in touch with Nature, over the stress of their former lives in London. Chris had worked for a corrupt, high-powered banker in London and was himself getting caught up in the hamster wheel of power. This all changed, though, when he went on eco, hiking holiday in Scotland and realised that there was so much more to life. As well as living honorably and not in the service of the corrupt, a full life, in his mind, prescribed living as a steward of the earth. So he and Sue quit their jobs and fled to Pembrokeshire to open an environmentally-friendly backpackers hostel. Every morning at The Old School Hostel started with a big steaming bowl of home-made caribbean porridge with local honey and fair trade products. Many of the guests cooked their own meals and made use of the compost and recycling containers. The set-up was easy, natural, and so the reflex became natural too.
After getting an unexpected first taste of the trail the day before, we were raring to see as much as we could during what was to be our first full day of walking. Over breakfast Chris suggested busing into St. David's about 12 miles south, visiting the historic town and cathedral and then walking back to Trefin along the coastal path. Sounded like a good plan to us. It was another beautiful morning. St. David's was aready familiar to me, as only a place that's introduced in a favorite novel can be. My memories of St. David's and its cathedral stemmed from my one-time favorite author, Sharon Kay Penman, who wrote historical fiction novels about the legendary medieval Welsh and English kings, Davidd and King John. The earliest foundations of a christian community in St. David's date back to 500AD. But long before then, the peninsula of St. David's Head was the capital of druidic spiritualism in Wales. Conveniently, our walk started inland at the cathedral before extending out towards the coast and continuing on through many of the druid burial mounds.
Searching for the start of the path.
Our one day of bad weather (if you want to call it that) arrived just as we started the hike from St. David's cathedral. When we bused into St. David's the landscape was under a halo of light. The promised heat even tempted us to sample the ice cream from shops in the city which patroned local Welsh dairies.
St. David's is officially the smallest city in Great Britain, smaller than many towns even. It's given the title of "city," simply because it possesses a Roman Catholic cathedral. That's all a town needs in England to be called a city. We found the cathedral easily enough and began a quick walk around its impressive buildings and ruins. We're students, so we didn't pay to go inside, In any case, we were anxious to find the coastal path. It was already 11:30 when we started out from the cathedral and we had 14 miles to walk back to Trefin. Also, the sun was beginning to disappear behind frothy grey clouds. Within minutes, a mist like a mosquito net enveloped the countryside around us.
One variety of buriel mound.
The mist remained our constant companion throughout the entirety of our walk along St. Davids head, a peninsula jutting out from the south of Wales. Spookily, St. David's head also happens to be the site of several druid burial mounds and rock circles, the likes of stonehenge. For several hours Luke and I were the only hikers (or pilgrims) on the mystical peninsula. The land was a hilly mooreland, sparse in colourful vegetation and silent except for the sound of waves crashing into the cliffs 80 meters below us, cliffs we often could not see because of the mist. Because of the mist we often wandered off the path proper and would walk right up to the edge of the cliff before realising our serious error. If we weren't happening upon enshrouded cliff edges, we were stumbling across stone circles and burial mounds, which were strewn across the mooreland like several olympic rings. The whole scene was like something out of a King Arthur movie and we would not have been surprised at all to see Merlin walking towards us out of the mist.
Though I was naturally a little hesitant about walking along a cliff-side coastal path in thick mist (especially considering our accident-prone track record!), there was only one real hairy moment. We came across a lovely waterfall that cascaded from the top of the moore and down the limestone cliffs before disappearing into the mist and the tourqouise sea below. It was a beautiful, etheral sight. Naturally, I wanted to get a picture. But as I stepped towards the edge of the cliff, my foot caught a mound of earth and I fell forward. I managed to catch myself a foot away from the drop-off. Ok, so maybe a foot of leeway wasn't that extreme. But for someone who's afraid of heights and who'd just taken her fiancé to the emergency room weeks before after a freak walking disaster, it was enough to make us extra cautious for the rest of the walk. I somehow managed to shake it off. It's always easier when it's yourself. Luke was not impressed.
My little scare happened towards the end of St. David's head. Once we'd rounded the last bay of the peninsula, the mist eased up a bit and we began to encounter the far reaching tentacles of civilisation for the first time in hours. This troupe of ponies were some of the first warm bodies we met.
Our first day of proper trail walking, Luke and I weren't sure of our abilities. Were we up for walking 14 miles in one day? It was mostly flat terrain but with some up and down hills. How long does it even take to hike 14 miles? Would we be back before sundown, or, more importantly, dinner? Just to be safe, we kept a brisk pace. We were therefore pleased with ourselves when, half way into the walk we ran into the seasoned hiking couple from our hostel. The were heading to St. Davids and had started out much earlier than us. Yet we were meeting them more than halfway into our walk. Or so we thought, judging from the map Chris had loaned us. We were making good time! Either that, or we had to pick up the pace, as we feared the next part of the journey would take that much longer.
We walked for a couple more hours. This time the path led us down to frigid lagoons, across pebbled beaches and past white-washed lighthouses. Then around 5:00 we spotted the fishing village Porthgain in the distance. Trefin, and dinner, was just the next village over.
We had done it! We'd successfully completed our first long-distance walk and managed to cover 14 miles in just over 6 hours. Not bad, we thought. Our feet had been a little sore the night before, but after a footsie rub and a good nights rest, we were ready for more the following morning. The mists of Saturday had cleared and an absolutely glorious Sunday welcomed us. Again we sought trail advice from Chris, who suggested we walk in the other direction from St. David's to an old woolen mill about 6 miles up the coast. As it was Sunday and there were no buses, we'd have to walk a shorter distance and then walk back. There was a good pub at the woolen mill, he said, that did a plowman's lunch that was worth the walk. We couldn't match Chris's plan, so by 9:30 we were on the path again. This time we went right at the crossroads.
Gone were the ethereal moores of St. David's Head. This part of the journey took us through golden gorse-splashed cliff-side paths and verdant pastures. To the left of us lay the dramatic limestone cliffs that plummeted into the tourquoise Irish sea. Seagulls soared on thermals and rock pigeons tried valiantly to protect their nests of newly lain eggs on the rocky islands that had broken off from the mainland millions of years previously. To our right extended a patchwork quilt of pastures, open fields and corn fields as far as the eye could see. If we thought we'd seen our fair share of dramatic landscape the day before on St. David's head, Wales would soon reveal even more of her glory to us today. Beaches, waterfalls, and trecherous cliffsides that would raise our heart-rates every time we had to walk along side them, were to be the order of the day.
Chris warned us to look out for the big pebble beach just past the fishing village Abercastle. We were meant to cross the beach (though not forgetting to skip a few rocks along the way) and then find a path that jutted inland. At the end of this path would be the woolen mills and lunch. 12 o'clock. Perfect timing. The path to the woolen mill took us through charming forest where we were afforded glimpses of some of the first spring flowers in the region.
Ok, now on to the important bit in the story. The Ploughman's. For anyone who doesn't know what a ploughman's is (and I know I had never heard of it before coming to England), allow me to describe this platter of tasty goodness. You can either choose a meat or cheese ploughmans. Obviously, we always go for the cheese. You're then given a generous hunk of two to four kinds of different cheeses, practically half a loaf of fluffy, hearty homemade bread, bfrom the local dairy, and then you usually get a variety of several different kinds of pickles, i.e., relishes. At the woolen mill this included pickled spring onions, sweet red cabbage relish with caramlized onion, and kerkins (dill pickles). We brougth along our own hard boiled eggs that we'd purchased at the only grocer in Trefin, a one-room shed, twenty minutes walk from our hostel. I can't think of a more satisfying lunch after soaking in the sun and the salty-sea air on a morning's hike. We washed it all down with a bottle of Welsh ginger beer each. De-li-cious!
The walk back was equally refreshing. We took another forested path back to the beach that took us through one man's whimsical wooden sculptures of aligators and birds which he strewn in the woods along the path. Chris had also advised us to look out for some prehistoric petrified tree stumps that are visible along the beach at low tide. Unfortunately, the tide was up and we missed out on this treat.
I realise that for anyone who is not a nature lover, this blog will not be all that exciting for you to read. I confess that when I travel I don't look out for the liveliest pub, bar or night club where, I'm sure, countless friendships are made and countless more tales are spawned. I tend to flee to the hills. If confined to a vast city, I'm on the constant look-out for green space in the forms of parks, cemeteries, anything, just get me away from the concrete. For that reason, I can't give a very positive account of my weekend in a gargantuan Picidilly hostel where outside the sounds of a city zoo can be heard at all hours of the night. But I can gush for hours about Hyde Park and St. John's Park where I spent many happy moments people watching and pretending that I was back in Somerset or Pembrokeshire.
And though some might not see the magic in some crusty, old tree stumps, or hear the music of beach pebbles crunching under your feet, or appreciate the mystery of a mist-enshrouded druidic holy-land when they read about it from the computer screen in the stress-filled environment of an office cubicle, I'm sure many would be surprised at how much joy can be derived from these simple pleasures when, for just one weekend, they abandon the world of virtual entertainment and discover the playground, or sanctuary, that lies on a rocky beach in a secluded part of the world.
The walk back to Trefin was lessiurly as we tried to soak in a store of fresh salty air that would last us another month or two. When we arrived back to the hostel we had enough time to wash off the dust from the trail before the pub opened. But before dinner there was one more thing to be done. With about ten minutes before sunset we ran back to the familiar sign at the crossroads of the coastal path. Automatically, we went left. Towards the beach. Fell-running down the path and over the hills we stopped at the top of a grassy cliff that over-looked the beach where we'd played our first afternoon in Trefin. Out of breath, beaming, we watched the rosy orange sun set over the Pembrokeshire path, and we were content.