National Parks Week: All about the Pembrokeshire Coast Path

Journey through Wales' beautiful seaside National Park, The Pembrokeshire Coast on the west coast of the country.

Even as recently as the 1950s, there were sections of West Wales where transport routes between towns were so ineffective that the best way of travelling between them was by boat. Noting the problem, naturalist and author Ronald Lockley set about instigating change. In 1953 Lockley compiled a report for the Countryside Commission in which he put forward the idea of a coastal pathway. It was part of wider proposals to make Pembrokeshire the country's first (and only) coastal National Park.

Within just two decades, Lockley's vision was realised. The Pembrokeshire Coast was not only a dedicated National Park, it also boasted its very own coastal path stretching for 186 miles (300km) from St Dogmaels in the north to Amroth in the south.

Today the path is as popular as ever, with visitors from across Britain tackling individual sections alongside those wanting to traverse the entire stretch in a 10-15 day escapade. Before heading out to enjoy the path, though, it pays to learn just a little more about what lies in wait.

Variety

Pembrokeshire's Coastal Path is among the most varied in Britain - taking in all manner of maritime landscapes. It's not long before the holiday havens of Tenby and Saundersfoot (replete with their quaint houses and golden beaches) make way for craggy limestone cliffs, volcanic headlands, imposing coves and sandstone bays. Whilst there's the argument that 186 miles of coast is sure to throw in a few variations along the way, regular ramblers often reserve special praise for the sheer diversity of Pembrokeshire's offering.

Visitors to the trail needn't crane their necks seaward in order to take in the path's offering, though. The farmed landscape, for example, shows a rich, rural heritage dating back centuries. Similarly, Iron Age forts, Norman castles and hermit churches pepper the coastline across its entire route. On top of this, the physical geography of flooded glacial valleys hark back further still - some 20,000 years.

It may stretch out for the same distance as a drive from London to Swansea, but there certainly is plenty of variety along the Coastal Path route.

Nature

As could be expected on a coastal trail, seabirds are bountiful along its route. From gannets to guillemots, choughs to cormorants, there are plenty of seabirds attracted to the nutrient-rich waters of Pembrokeshire. So attractive is the area, in fact, that many of these birds will have made journeys totalling thousands of miles in order to be there.

The months between March and July are best for bird-spotting, and certain areas prove more fruitful than others. Skomer Island, for example, can become home to 300,000 Manx Shearwaters - the largest colony of its kind on earth.

It's not only seabirds on offer along the Pembrokeshire coast, though. Seals regularly make their way to the coast, while anyone willing to venture a little further out to sea could catch rare glimpses of whales, dolphins and porpoises that have taken to the clean Atlantic waters.

Rockpooling is also popular along the coast path, with shrimps, starfish, crabs and even jellyfish prevalent in the area. Periwinkles, limpets and sea anemones should also be relatively easy to spot, as well as the carnivorous sea slug, or nudibranch - which is much more colourful and attractive than its name may suggest.

No easy task

Whilst few people would think of a 186-mile coastal trek as being an easy task, the difficulty of some stretches may still surprise people. For example, the ascents and descents - which total some 35,000 feet - have been given as an equivalent to climbing Mount Everest. Plus, the total length may be given as 186 miles, but depending on tide this can rise to 193. Factor in short ventures off the path, or walks to and from accommodation, and it can easily swell to more than 200 miles.

If all this wasn't enough, there are two notable points - at Sandy Haven and Dale - where large tidal crossings mean that a poorly-timed walk would make for the unenviable decision between an about turn or lengthy detour.

Improvement works

With the Coast Path having been established for more than 40 years, attention has shifted to maintaining and improving the path. Not only is there a focus on protecting the path from erosion - from both human users and the elements - there's also pressure to make it more accessible for all.

To that end, the Pembrokeshire Coast Path National Trail authority has - according to its most recent statistics - opened up 45km of path so it had no introduced obstructions to wheelchairs. Before the work started only 10km of the path was as accessible.

Not only that, the number of stiles that walkers needed to cross has been reduced from 536 to 223 - a drop of more than 300. On top of this, three quarters of the path's two-beam bridges have been extended to four-beam ones, whilst 50 bridges that were deemed to have been made of poor concrete have been replaced with timber alternatives.

The Welsh language has also played its part on the walk, with 75 per cent of all the English-only signs having been replaced with bilingual alternatives.

The Pembrokeshire Coast Path has certainly come a long way since Ronald Lockley first put the idea forward back in 1953. Today it's a popular route not only with walkers and ramblers but plenty of wildlife too. It may require 15 days to complete in its entirety - and take walkers along inclines comparative to Everest - but the rewards for doing so are plain to see. Travelling around the Pembrokeshire coast by boat may still hold a certain appeal, but it's hard to complain about such an attractive alternative.


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