During World War II my mother served in the Women’s Land Army of Great Britain. She and her sister were assigned to work on farms in the countryside of Wales while the Welsh farmers went off to fight the war. She used to tell me that it was dirty, hard work; but then her eyes would always twinkle a bit and she would smile and say, “...of course Wales is the most beautiful country in the world.”
One night as my wife was watching Juno from Netflix I began doing searches on Google. I started thinking about my mother’s life and without much thought googled “walking in Wales.” I was surprised by how many outfitters exist to help you plan and accomplish a walking trip in Wales. I was recently retired, four months away from turning sixty and four years on from heart surgery. I was looking for some excitement, and the more I read about Wales, the more exciting the thought of hiking through a part of the Welsh countryside became to me.
Since we were going to be in Scotland for part of the summer, a side trip to Wales looked to be easy. There are a lot of walking options in Wales. Generally the north is more rugged than the south. I started looking south and came upon the Pembrookshire Coastal Path, a Welsh national park. The actual trail is 143 miles long and they say if you are fit, you can do it in 12-14 days. If you are really fit, you can do it in 10-11 days. It runs along the southern coast of Wales, turning north on the western edge. Jean asked if the path had access to come and go, and when I discovered that it did, she suggested about half that length might be better. And so we found a great route from St. Davids north to St. Dogmaels. It is 61.2 miles and can easily be done in six days. By walking north we had the added benefit of having the wind to our backs, which turned out to be a very good element in our favor. I picked my outfitter and we booked it for the third week of July.
During the prior two weeks in Scotland, I checked the BBC’s weather report every night. And every night the weather and the forecast in Wales were the same. Rain, wind, and more rain. It was looking like a soggy six days were in front of us. But we were committed, had paid our outfitter in advance and there didn’t seem to be anything we could do other than to make sure we moved our rain suits from our golf bags to our rucksack.
On July 12 we flew from Glasgow to Cardiff and arrived to brilliant sunshine. Our driver was excited because he hadn’t seen the sun in three weeks. We spent Saturday night in St. Davids and toured the historical St. David’s Cathedral before turning in early. Sunday morning, as instructed, we went to the St. David’s City Hall where at 9:00am a small coastal bus called the Strumble Shuttle arrived to take us to a boathouse on the beach of St. Justinians, the starting point of our walk. There was a fine mist in the air. Not rain, but just enough mist to break out the rain suits. In two hours the rain suits were back in the pack and the day was becoming bright and sunny. That remained our weather pattern for the next six days.
The Pembrookshire path is well marked with posts showing an acorn symbol. The acorn posts often contained a second symbol, this one of a man falling off a cliff, which I believe is there to remind us walkers to pay attention. Most of the cliffs you are walking along have sheer drops of up to 400 feet to the ocean. Our outfitters prepared us well. We had an excellent guidebook written by two guys who are professional walkers and writers about walking. They had accurate notes to go with their hand drawn maps, which provided rich detail. Their hand drawn maps were the perfect compliment to the official map of the coast that we were also provided.
What’s it like?
The walk? Well, it’s a bit rugged. “Walking, climbing over huge rocks and hiking up and down massive hills” might be a better description. Some of the ascents and descents are quite steep. We walked through farmers fields, on paved roads through small villages and along the edge of cliffs. We had the constant companionship of sheep, wild goats, horses and cows. The only time I was truly scared was on the final day when we crossed over our last mountains into St. Dogmaels. If you saw the British Open this summer you may remember the 50-mile per hour wind gusts they had along the British coast on Saturday. As those winds were howling, we were walking along a path eighteen inches wide and only a couple of feet from a 400 foot drop down a slate rock cliff. The pint at the end of this walk was, without a doubt, the best one of the trip.
Along the way we met a wide variety of interesting people. These are not organized walks. You are on your own and go at your own pace. But we were constantly passing people walking the other way or passing us heading north. It seemed every time I stopped to catch my breath after a particularly steep ascent, a little guy looking 80 years old would come breezing by with a, “Morning. Nice day for a walk, isn’t it?” At one stop in the village of Newport we shared some banana bread with a twenty-year-old woman from Slovenia. She must have had 50 pounds on her back as she was camping and cooking along the trail. She told us she was averaging 15 miles a day, which we had no trouble believing as we watched her take off straight up a steep hill.
We walked about eight hours in a day and spent every night in a B&B arranged by our outfitter, who even showed up every morning to move our luggage from one B&B to the next. Some of the most interesting people we met were the folks who owned and operated these B&B’s. Several of them were young to middle age English people who had quit the rat race of London to buy and operate a B&B in Wales.
Words of Wisdom
The best advice we got before our walk was this:
1. Buy good low cut walking shoes and start breaking them in a minimum of four weeks before your walk.
2. Walk six miles a day four times a week at least a month in advance of your walk.
3. Buy a good walking stick.
But the absolute best advice I discovered was in the first page of the guidebook. “Take your time. Stop to enjoy the views. Take pictures. Don’t focus on how much further you have to go today.”
We followed that suggestion and enjoyed our walk because of it. I’ve told my friends that I am glad I did it and I’m glad it’s over. But I absolutely loved it and I can now smile back to my mother and nod my head when she says, “Wales is the most beautiful country in the world.”