When Harri and I met nearly seven years ago, I was convinced I knew my home country pretty well. After all, I’d lived here all my life, with the exception of the few years I spent working in Cornwall in my early twenties.
I’d visited all the well-known South Wales resorts – Tenby, Saundersfoot, Porthcawl, Barry Island – travelled to the North Wales coast for one infamous and very wet camping holiday (I bailed out after five days and headed off to sunny Salou) and regularly drove to Llandrindod Wells to attend public sector meetings.
Yes, as far as I was concerned, Wales was covered and I was eager to see the rest of the world. Except… my new boyfriend Harri had different ideas. A fluent Welsh speaker who learned the language as a university student, he is passionate about Wales – its culture and its landscapes. For him, hiking in Wales is as good as it gets and he was eager to share his love of the Welsh countryside and coastline with me.
We’d been together for about six weeks when Harri suggested we visit the Gower peninsula where we could walk the coastal path from Rhossili to the Mumbles in two days with an overnight stop at Oxwich.
Like most people I was familiar with the iconic Rhossili Bay but once Worm’s Head had disappeared from view, I found myself in an unfamiliar landscape of rugged cliffs, undulating grassy paths and sheep. With only the occasional walker passing, we had the wild, rugged coastline practically to ourselves; it was exhilarating.
As we walked, I discovered the ‘secret places’ of the Gower peninsula for the first time; places like the tiny, secluded Pwlldu Bay with its high, pebbly beach and the nature reserve stretching along Oxwich Bay… I’ve been childishly enthusiastic about sand dunes for years (which I put down to years of holidaying in my Auntie Min Onions’ caravan in Newton).
I loved meandering along footpaths that clung to the edge of the cliffs and, though it wasn’t the easiest ascent, the long scenic climb on sand-covered boardwalks to Pennard Castle, with its sweeping views across Three Cliffs Bay and the Gower’s ‘backbone’ Cefn Bryn.
I waited while Harri clambered down to a small cave called Goat’s Hole. The partial remains of a human skeleton were found here in 1823. The bones were stained with red ochre and the presence of nearby jewellery resulted in the conclusion that the remains were female. ‘The Red Lady of Paviland’ is now known to be a young man who lived around 29,900 years ago when the sea level was 80 metres lower than it is today; he is the first known human in Britain to belong indisputably to our own species.
You see, there’s a fascinating story to be discovered everywhere, it’s just a matter of knowing what to look for. That weekend, I fell in love… with Harri and with Wales.
Later that summer, we headed even farther west when we walked the 186-mile Pembrokeshire Coast Path over several four-day weekends (aren’t those the best kind?). Once again, I found myself hiking in wild and beautiful scenery: St Dogmael’s, Dinas Head, Porthgain and Strumble Head on the north coast, Barafundle Bay, Stackpole and St Ann’s Head on the south.
They were all just a stone’s throw from the bustling towns of St David’s and Tenby, yet they appeared to be overlooked by the majority of tourists and day trippers. Harri joked that you could tell when a car park was approaching; after miles of solitude we’d suddenly find ourselves sharing the coast path with others.
Harri devised an ingenious itinerary which allowed us to cover as many miles of coastline as possible in one day while relying on local transport (and on the north coast, the goodwill of our bed and breakfast host, John, who dropped us off several times). Unfortunately, it meant we occasionally had to walk the coast path out-of-sequence, disorientating to say the least!
We’ve returned to the Wales coast many times over the years, but it was that first summer’s hiking with Harri that convinced me that our little country’s coastline can definitely compete with top holiday and hiking destinations around the world. Barafundle Bay, for example, has received many plaudits; it’s been included in a list of the Top 12 beaches in the world and has been voted the best beach in Britain and best place for a picnic.
Its remoteness is probably the main reason it remains so unsullied – the car park is 1km from the beach which is only accessible via a steep cliff path. Like Rhossili on Gower, the beach is managed by the National Trust which, I was surprised to learn, manages 157 miles of Welsh coastline from north to south, making sure the natural habitats we love can be enjoyed by wildlife and humans for a long time to come.
Dare devils (count me out on that score!) might be interested to know that the National Trust has just launched a competition to win a day’s kayaking and/or coasteering at Stackpole Quay. You just have to visit their Facebook page – National Trust Love Wales – click on the new Welsh Coast app, choose your favourite location and share your memories (closing date is October 31).
The prize goes to the most original and inspiring comment (and don’t worry about sea temperatures in January because you have a whole year to claim your prize). I’ve entered but in the unlikely event I win, I’ll be standing on dry land taking the photographs!
No seaside walking this week but hopefully, fingers crossed, a trip to New Quay, Pembrokeshire, in early September (and this time I’ll make sure I take some photographs!).