Pembrokeshire Coast Path - 180 miles
In far west Wales is Pembrokeshire, a county with a seaboard that is the UK’s only coastal national park. Cliffs, beaches, wooded estuaries and wild inland hills are connected by a path that runs 180 miles. Last month I ran its full length. The path is not just a distance: it goes up and down. When you add the ups, cumulatively there is more ascent than in climbing Everest.
I was supported by a team: my brother Ed and his boys Sam (8) and Harry (6), and my friends John and Tim. Between us we hired a cottage in Weston near Haverfordwest as a base. From here I ran the path in 44 hours. This was broken into five stages: 20 miles on Friday afternoon, 45 miles on Saturday, 45 miles on Sunday, 45 miles on Monday and 25 miles on Tuesday morning. That is three full days and two half days of running, and I do not think there was a low point. Friday. After personal training sessions in north London between 06:30 and 10:30, Tim and I drove from Kentish Town to Amroth and met John. From here I ran the near-tropical 10 miles of south-facing coast path to Tenby while Tim and John parked a car further down the coast and drove back to Tenby so we could run 10 miles back to Freshwater East together. Blue sky and heat made the route through wonderful places like Lydstep and Manorbier the ultimate antidote to north London and five hours on the M4.
The first big day was Saturday. We’d stopped at Freshwater East the previous evening so that Ed could take Sam and Harry to Barafundle and Broadhaven, two of the finest beaches you could ever hope to see in the UK (unless you were going on to see the rest of Pembrokeshire’s shoreline). We ran onto these beaches and watched the children run around, then made our way onto the Castlemartin military training area. The route we followed is only open at weekends. We ran past the ancient hermitage of St Govan’s Chapel, derelict half-tracks and tanks, PERGYL signs warning us to keep to marked footpaths lest unexploded ordnance from miltary exercises should blow us up and an extraordinary colony of seabirds at Stack Rocks.
We moved inland here towards Merrion Camp, Warren and a rendezvous at Cold Comfort Farm. Unfortunately our maps did not correspond and at Cold Comfort farm the support car wasn’t there. The other mooted rendezvous had been Warren, so I ran back there and then back to Merrion. Again, no sign. I went back up a long hill to Cold Comfort where Tim was waiting. Eight hundred metres further on we found the team scratching their heads as to why it had taken us so long to reach them. Purists take note: at this point we bent the rules. Taking into account the fact that I had run nearly two extra miles to go nowhere, I got in the car and drove exactly the same distance further down the route (which was at this point was all road anyway). Even by doing this we were still behind schedule. Running into Freshwater West brought back very happy memories of the campervan honeymoon in Pembrokeshire last year.
John now took over the job of keeping me company. We re-started after eating one of Cafe Mor’s delicious lobster burgers. If you are hungry, I would say it is worth anything up to a five hour drive from anywhere in the country to go Freshwater West and eat the unfeasibly delicious locally-sourced sea food provided by Cafe Mor. With these super calories in my belly, we ran onto the Angle headland where an eerie sea mist took visibility down to zero and created a strange otherness in this remote place. I have run this stretch in bright sunshine; the mist now made the ruin of a hermitage or farm house perched over the edge of the cliffs beyond Rat Island look very special indeed. The sun reappeared at West Angle Bay, where Harry and Tim were swimming. At the other side of Angle John swapped with Ed and we ran the larger Angle Bay together. At the other end Sam joined us as we ran past the oil refinery at Bulwell Bay and power station at Pwllcrochan Flats. The landscape underneath these huge structures is lush woodland that has grown unrestricted I n the shadow of the heavy industry. Sam now came into his own as a support runner, being thoroughly entertaining in a way in which adult support runners are not. That is to say, he jumped in every patch of long grass he could find, vaulted fences, climbed under gates and sprinted as fast as he could down precipitous slopes. He covered four miles with ease and we reconvened a couple of times with the support vehicle to refuel before making our way into Pembroke. My goal for day one had been to make it across the Cleddau Bridge from Pembroke into Neyland and then onto Milford Haven. John took over again and together we ran the comparatively bleak concrete stretch towards the magnificent Cleddau Bridge at a good pace while Ed took Sam and Harry home and Tim waited down in Neyland. Tim swapped with John for the last plod of the day, underneath the James Bond-esque oil refinery and into Milford Haven. We had covered 45 miles in 10 hours which all things considered was pretty good going.
Day two: Sunday. We re-started in Milford Haven and were soon happily making our way across Gelliswick Bay, underneath the LNG plant and finally back into the open coast path. The oil and gas pipelines were now behind us, which was a relief. The day was looking beautiful but unfortunately the tide was well in, forcing us to take very elongated routes around Sandy Haven and Aber y Gann. We set off to make our way around the Dale headland but Tim and I decided time was against us and made to cut across the point rather than follow the route right around. Unfortunately we followed the wrong track. We followed our noses and made our way across two fields. At the third we came across a herd of cattle. Having recently heard two stories about people who had been killed by cows we took care, remembering to make ourselves big and loud. At a point that was close enough to the cows’ feeding station yet far enough from either side of the field for us to be stranded, Tim and I spoke simultaneously: “They’re bullocks.” We made some strong moves towards them, which were countered by equally strong moves back towards us. At first we made loud masculine noises but these rapidly deteriorated into a high-pitched ‘ewwwugghheewwarrgghhrrruuuunnnn’ as we began to sprint and (at 85 miles in) moved faster than I had for some time. At the corner of the field there was no exit, but there was a lot of barbed wire and a tall, dense hawthorn hedge which on any other day would have seemed impenetrable. The adrenaline coursing through our systems took us through. Cut to ribbons but untrampled, for the next thirty minutes Tim and I laughed in the loud, nervous way that people react to a near miss. The support team was amused. We ate some food and pushed on across the abandoned airfield where I think my grandad was stationed in 1944, past Marloes Sands and Deadmans Bay. At Martin’s Haven we were greeted by the 40-mile sweep of St Brides Bay. John switched with Tim. Blue skies and the vast views made for some very pleasant running. At Little Haven John swapped with Sam, who literally ran in circles around me asking “Why are you running so slowly?” Or: “Uncle Henry, this is you: run 25 miles, sit down, run another 25 miles, sit down”, before becoming distracted and saying “Watch me jump this fence”.
At Broad Haven Ed left to take Sam and Harry back home. We said a disappointed farewell. John rejoined me as I pressed on towards Newgale past the grand beaches at Druidstone Haven and Nolton Haven. We were relaxed as we reached Newgale. The situation changed, though, as we could not find Tim in the carpark at which we had arranged to meet. We looked around but he definitely was not there. Our day two goal was to get to Caerfai Bay, about 110 miles in, by the end of the day. Without more food and water this was in the balance. John is some sort of Welsh celebrity or in the Tafia or something, and had earlier seen one of his mates drive past. We decided that I would press on to Solva while John would find Tim. They would then meet me in Solva. Or and if he couldn’t do that, he would recruit his mate to help. I ran on, low on water and out of food, now stressing and worrying that Tim had crashed, got lost or run out of petrol. The stretch went on for a good time, most of which I spent running worst case scenarios in my head – for instance, that I spent the night freezing in Solva whilst John tried to locate Tim without a mobile phone and Tim walked 30 miles to the nearest petrol station. This mood was intensified by the dark band of rain that was moving in and the fatigue after running over 100 miles in less than two days. As I approached Solva the rain started properly. I plodded further into Solva wondering what on earth to do, then heard a cheerful ‘Dooks!’ and saw Tim standing by the car in a pub car park happily drinking a pint of bitter. We had run straight past him in Newgale with none of us noticing. John had found him and they had driven straight here. Reinvigorated, I scoffed a tuna sandwich and glugged a lot of electrolyte filled water. John rejoined me. We raced on to Caerfai. I arrived there after 10 hours and 59 minutes looked back across the St Brides Bay to the place whereat I had admired the view six hours before. We ate fish and chips in St Davids. One hundred and ten miles done.
The third day began like the previous two – up early, make sandwiches, fill cardboard boxes with food and bottles with water, eat a lot of breakfast, drive out to where we had finished the night before. Had been looking forward to the next stretch, around St David’s Head, past Ramsey Sound and the rugged Carns. Tim and I ran through Porthclais, past Porthtaflod to face the infamous Bitches – an outcrop of rocks in Ramsey Sound which sees furious, violent tidal flows. It was really good seeing all this through Tim’s fresh eyes. On we ploughed to St Justinians lifeboat station. This place is special in its own right with a charismatic red-topped life boat house and ramp shooting 30ft straight down into the sea. Fascinatingly, a new station is being built, with a building site on a cliff top and a platform on hydraulic legs sitting just off shore with workmen working between the two structures to build the new ramp. We met John, marvelled at this feat of engineering and continued to Whitesands. Overhead was a remarkable bird of prey sat above us in the sky. Its wings did not seem to move and the markings were like nowt I had seen before. We ticked off every bird of prey we knew, until a cheerful local walked past and told us it was a peregrine falcon. From Whitesands we continued around St Davids Head and the ancient landscape of Carn Hen and Carn Lidi. Here we met one of the many herds of wild ponies which roam the northern Pembrokeshire Coast National Park. The sun was again out and strong, and we were now on a long stretch – eight or nine miles – without a meeting point. However, at the end of it was a reward: Porthgain, 135 miles in, near enough to the finish to make things exciting, and home to a fine fish and chip shop in a converted boat shed. The terrain here was tough. Much of the previous landscape had been on the serene side, whereas now it became increasingly dramatic. Tim revelled in telling the people who were asking where we were going: ‘St Dogmaels… he’s run from Amroth’. When some wisecracker told Tim that I was holding him back, he enjoyed describing the look on the man’s when Tim told that ‘He’s run a 130 miles and has 50 to go’. Shortly before Abereiddy (where we like to go and jump off the 30ft wall into the sea filled quarry) I turned my foot quite hard. I hobbled into the bay where Ed, fresh back from a 300 mile round trip to Wiltshire with the children, was swimming in the sea. Jealously, I carried on running in the heat, past the old slate works and a few miles around the corner into Porthgain. I was delighted to reach this picture postcard harbour, take the weight off my foot, eat a small bowl of chips and start thinking about the finish. I’d fixed this point in my mind as ‘nearly there’ and mused on this as I guzzled my delicious chips in the Shed. Inevitably John saw four more people he knew. Bearing in mind our remoteness at all times, this speaks volumes for the man’s popularity, or notoriety, in Wales. John carried on with me while Tim dropped Ed at Abercastle and my relatively fresh brother sprinted back the five miles to meet us and run back up the way he’d come.
The next stretch – past Trefin, Abercastle and towards Mynydd Morfa and Strumble Head – was the hardest of all. My sense that we were somehow on the home straight had been very premature. On one level – 135 miles run with 45 miles to go – the remaining distance was not so far. However, 135 miles in your legs is a lot and 45 to go is a big task on any day of the week. My head went down, my foot was hurting and the terrain had become very ‘technical’ – for which read incessant steep, loose and uneven scree surfaces. I spent the afternoon staggering towards Strumble Head which was also demotivating as I knew that headland was going to be a big challenge in itself. Other than another peregrine falcon sighting, and a surreal moment where we guided an elderly couple on the top of a cliff to a bus stop using our map, this was an arduous afternoon. Upon arrival, Tim and John were enjoying the glorious sunny panoramic views back towards St David’s Head. I think it was quite clear how knackered I was. John joined me for the first stretch from Pwll Deri out and round to the headland. At first I continued to struggle. But after a couple of miles we crested a hard summit and there on the horizon was Cardigan Island: the point at which I had been aiming for the last 150 miles. Now there it was. Suddenly my legs started working again. I motored up and down the coastal rock faces, ecstatic that the land mass I had been imagining for the last 30 or more hours of running was now in sight. John swapped with Tim at the headland. We made our way around the point, buoyant in a still, hot summer’s evening. We saw seals in the near-turqoise sea and a badger romping in low, golden light. Not one moment of that stretch felt difficult and as we came towards the end of the headland and into Goodwick and Fishguard we found another herd of wild ponies blocking our way. Chastened by the experience with the bullocks we made cautious progress, with only the last horse showing any sign of disapproval. After eleven hours of really hard slog another 45 miles had been covered. We made it back to the car and cracked open a tepid can of Shandy Bass to celebrate. It was delicious.
The final day started later as we only had 25 miles to cover. Starting in Fishguard, Ed and I ran the first stretch to Dinas Head with relative ease, although the previous 155 miles were now taking their toll. My foot hurt a lot and I was not as cheerful as I had been on previous mornings. At Cerig Duon we came across an amazing small bay, semi-circular, shallow, its water emerald, with steep cliffs either side, circled above by another peregrine. At such moments, which had happened with increasing frequency as the run progressed, the discomfort of tired legs had lifted. Looking back, while I can recall the sense of exultancy when I took in that view, I cannot conjure up the soreness of the foot. Perhaps that is why I keep doing these things. At Dinas Head the coast path sign posts allow you to cut across the headland, which we gleefully did. The lush green woodland between Dinas and Dinas Island was straight out of Arthurian legend. I soaked up the verdant atmosphere before catching up with my brother who was dumbing things down by playing on a huge rope swing on the hill side. Ed switched with Tim here and we ran to Newport where I’d gotten married to Ele last year. It was the first time I had been back and I was quite excited to be passing through.
At Newport we agreed that all of us would run the last 12 miles to St Dogmaels. This was probably the most remote stretch of the whole route; earlier Tim and John had parked a car in St Dogmaels before driving back to meet Ed and I so that we could all run together. The first stage was to try to hop across Afon Nyfer, the river which flows out of Newport. It is quite wadeable at low tide. Unfortunately the tide was high and after an abortive attempt we decided to cheat by making a two mile drive to cut around to the other side of the beach. This cut out about 400m of the route and added about 15 minutes to the time. Satisfied that we had a large enough carbon footprint for one day, we finally set off and made our way up the very steep and overgrown coastal trail which first visits Ceibwr and the Witches’ Cauldron before finally arriving at Cemais Head and – at long, long last – Poppit Sands and St Dogmaels. If the afternoon stretch on the previous day had been the most psychologically demanding, the route into St Dogmaels was the most physically punishing. There is no easy running here – it is either straight up and down, or overgrown, scree, or uneven weathered rock. Places which seem straightforward or distances that look short are turned by hidden coves and steps into journeys that take three times as long. On the other hand, this was the finishing stretch and I know most of it very well. Familiarity with a route makes it easier to tackle because nasty surprises are reduced to known challenges. At the Witches’ Cauldron there is a collapsed sea cave which reveals a beach, only accessible through another cave at low tides. After two hours of running we arrived there and Ed, Tim and John dived straight in. I sat with my legs in the deliciously freezing water, fearing that a full immersion might end my ability to run. From here we set off on the final stage to St Dogs. I kept my eye open for a car key I lost hereabouts last summer (no luck) but as the hills got steeper and the cliff paths narrower, the finish was getting closer. After 44 hours of running and 180 miles further up the coastline than I’d started, we crested Cemais Head, Cardigan Island was there in front of us, and we ran down the track towards Poppit Sands. This was the only time that I became really excited: there was quite a bit of incoherent shouting, before drinking a lot of lemonade and collapsing on the beach. As glamourous a finish as you could imagine.
It could not have been done if Ed, John and Tim had not given their support. Even more luckily they seemed to have had a good time, so my thanks don’t need to be too drawn out. I have run in many organised ultra-marathons, but this experience of running in perpetually captivating landscape, under my own steam, with no worry about things other than the length of the holiday let, is up there as one of the most enjoyable things I have ever done. I can think of few better ways to spend a week.