Walk the Pembrokeshire Coast Path with a Cicerone guidebook
The Pembrokeshire Coastal Path
From Amroth to St Dogmaels by Dennis Kelsall, Jan Kelsall
A handy guidebook for anyone planning to walk the Pembrokeshire Coast Path National Trail. The scenic 182-mile long distance route from Amroth to St Dogmaels, typically takes around 2 weeks to walk. The Pembrokeshire coast path offers some of the finest walking in Britain, with soaring rugged cliffs, tranquil inlets and broad sandy beaches. More...
Buy from Cicerone
Other eBook formats (more information)
The Pembrokeshire Coastal Path
The Welsh Pen-Fro means Land’s End and aptly describes this south-western tip of Wales; a long and much indented peninsula bounded by sea on three sides, its western extremities facing the Atlantic ocean. Pembrokeshire is blessed with some of the finest coastal scenery in the country, and its great natural beauty and diversity were factors that led in 1952 to its inclusion within a national park, Parc Cenedlaethol Arfordir Penfro, the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park. Virtually the whole of the county’s coastline was incorporated within the designation, only the industrial and urban conurbations of Pembroke Dock, Milford Haven and Fishguard being left out. The wild beauty of the Mynydd Preseli that dominate the north-eastern corner of the county and the secretive tidal reaches of the Daugleddau twisting their way deep into the heart of the countryside from its south-western tip were also included. And, although in terms of area, it is one of the country’s smallest national parks, it has possibly the greatest natural diversity of any.
In the year following the Park’s designation, approval was given to create a continuous footpath around the coast, and work commenced to establish what has become one of Britain’s most splendid long distance National Trails, Llwybr Arfordir Penfro, the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path. Although the coast had been exploited for millennia as the most effective communication and transport route between the numerous settlements scattered around its shores, travel had been by boat rather than land. There was, therefore, no traditional course for the new footpath to follow and indeed, in many places, there was not even public access to or along the coast. The creation of the Coast Path took many years and considerable negotiation and discussion was needed to establish rights of way with the many, not always sympathetic, land-owners along its length. That was, perhaps, as monumental a task as the subsequent construction necessary to take the Path across often difficult and much overgrown cliff tops. Much of the work was led by Paul Blick, who was created the Path’s first warden and whose dedication is now remembered in a plaque at a viewpoint above Haroldston Chins.
The Coast Path was officially opened by Wynford Vaughn Thomas in 1970, linking the village of Amroth on the south-eastern boundary of the county to St Dogmaels at its north-eastern corner. For much of its way the route follows either the cliff edge or high water mark, but there are occasional necessary deviations inland, mainly to avoid military and industrial complexes. And, although the Path passes through the urban sprawl of Pembroke Dock and Milford Haven, and the holiday towns of Saundersfoot and Tenby, the diversions and encounters are brief, and for much of its length the Coast Path exhilarates in the unspoilt beauty that divides two vastly different and often opposing aspects of nature: the land and sea. In many places, the route lies along the untouched fringes of cultivation that previously had little or no practical value and where nature has been allowed to evolve with little interference from man. Sometimes wild and remote, elsewhere just forgotten corners that have been missed in man’s eagerness for development, these places have become havens for plants, birds and animals that elsewhere are increasingly marginalised by modern farming practices.
However, nothing remains static with this path, perhaps, more than others, and unceasing effort on the part of National Park staff is necessary to conserve a clear and safe passage along the Path’s length. Winter storms, the natural regeneration of vegetation and the tramp of countless feet collectively create a need for maintenance of ‘Forth Bridge’ magnitude. The line of the Path has changed too, with many improvements in access to the coastal strip being achieved since its conception. For example, reassessment of operational need and a co-operative approach by the Army has enabled some previously prohibited sections of coast to be opened. It was not until the late 1960s that public access between Broad Haven and St Govan’s was generally possible and the section between Lydstep and Skrinkle Haven was not opened until 1983. More recently, although general public access is still not possible, guided walks organised by National Park staff allow an opportunity to appreciate the spectacular limestone cliffs and countryside around Linney Head. Industrial presence has also changed; two of the large oil installations that once overlooked Milford Haven have been dismantled and a third is used only as a storage depot. The contoured platforms of the former refineries on which the massive storage tanks once stood are cloaked in green and present much less of a visual intrusion. Closed too is the once-controversial massive oil-burning Pembroke Power Station.
However, whilst many people despair at the intrusion of modern development, it is a point to remember that many of the ‘natural wildernesses’ encountered around the coast are, in fact, the abandoned industrial and military sites of earlier centuries. Similarly, most of the now-quiet harbours and tiny villages that punctuate the cliffs were not that long ago busily engaged in trade. Pembrokeshire satisfied many markets at home and abroad with the products of its rich farmland, fishing fleets, mines and quarries, and their exploitation brought prosperity for many. Our nostalgic vision of the enterprise of earlier ages might help retain a perspective on today’s industrial and commercial activity. Industry is important to the local economy, and development will necessarily continue. However, the controls exercised by virtue of its status as a National Park, a greater awareness of environmental needs and the pressures of the people who both live in and visit the region should ensure that a balanced approach is maintained for the future.
The necessity to pass through the industrialisation of Pembroke Dock and Milford Haven should not be a deterrent to walking the Path in its entirety, for even here there are some surprises. Despite stretches along pavement and a view sometimes imperfected by man’s handiwork, the route invariably finds undeveloped corners and there is always something of interest for those prepared to look.
The Pembrokeshire Coastal Path brings together an almost unique combination of different landscape types, where the progression of the seasons and constantly changing weather present an infinite variety of moods. The country’s complex geology and the effects of erosion have combined to create a coastal strip of outstanding scenic beauty. The coastline’s favourable association with the relatively warm waters of the Gulf Stream has created a multiplicity of rich and varied habitats on both land and sea, promoting an immense range of plant and animal life. Relative inaccessibility and impracticality of use of this narrow ribbon of land has allowed many plants, animals and birds to retain a foothold, and the reintroduction of traditional land management techniques in many areas is encouraging greater species diversity.
An Outline of the Geology of the Region
A spectrum of the region’s geology is portrayed by the record contained in the layers of rock that are revealed along its perimeter. Strata laid down during successive periods of volcanic activity, sedimentation and accumulation have been distorted by massive earth movements and erosion to create the complex structure of the Pembrokeshire peninsula. An almost unbroken geological sequence can be traced in its rocks, the earliest being dated at over 3000 million years old and the latest, coal, formed a mere 280 million years ago.
The oldest rocks are hard igneous and volcanic pre-Cambrian granites, which underlie the whole of the region and outcrop on Ramsey and at the southern tip of the St David’s peninsula. Later sedimentation during the Cambrian era, between 500 and 570 million years ago, produced sandstones, now exposed along the northern coast of St Brides Bay and whose fine properties were exploited in the building of the cathedral at St David’s. The next 65 million years are classed as the Ordovician geological period, when fine muds laid down at the bottom of an ancient sea were compressed to produce shales, rich in the fossils of early marine life. Periods of intense volcanic activity during that era added further complexity with both intrusions and surface flows to create tracts of harder rock. These Ordovician rocks dominate the northern Pembrokeshire coast, the footpath from St David’s Head to Fishguard being alternately striped by softer multi-layered slates and shales and more durable volcanic rocks. The relative resistance to erosion of the products of subterranean activity has left a line of isolated hills along the coast from Carn Llidi to Garn Fawr and determined the headlands of St David’s and Strumble. Volcanic outcrops also form the basis of the Mynydd Preseli. A succession of limestone, shale and conglomerate associated with the ensuing Silurian period, some 435 to 395 million years ago, can be seen along the southern Marloes peninsula, overlying a contemporary volcanic feature that is exposed on the northern side of the peninsula and continues beyond Skomer to the offshore islands.
The end of the long period of sedimentation is defined by the collision of a continental mass composed of north-western Scotland, Greenland and Labrador with that of Europe. This event, known as the Caledonian orogeny, created many of Britain’s present mountain regions and produced a SW–NE folding across northern Pembrokeshire, which raised the St David’s peninsula. A combination of rapid erosion of the newly created mountain areas and the hot dry conditions existing in the area during the Devonian period (395–345 million years ago) led to the formation of the Red Sandstones that now dominate the coasts of the Haven and the southern shore of St Brides Bay. During the later Carboniferous era (345–280 million years ago), climatic and land level changes created a warm sea in which the limestones, exposed between St Govan’s and Castlemartin, and subsequent deposits of millstone grit, appearing to the north of Tenby, were formed. The youngest rocks visible along the coast are coal measures, created as the Carboniferous period came to an end; sea levels fell, leaving a vast region of tropical swamp that was lavishly exploited by plant life. The exclusion of oxygen retarded decomposition in the steady accretion of plant debris, and subsequent compression of this organic mass by the weight of later sedimentation produced coal, which now outcrops along the eastern shore of St Brides Bay and between Amroth and Saundersfoot.
A further period of earth movement, originating in what is now north-western France, pushed from the south-west to fold these new layers of rocks and complicate the earlier period of plication to produce hills and ridges. However, these hills, together with the sediments and accretions of the last 280 million years, have been largely eroded by rising sea levels some 17 million years ago. This planing action of the sea has removed the overlying softer rocks, resulting in the plateau at about 200ft (60m) above present sea level, which is predominant over much of the county. Areas of harder rock, largely those of more ancient volcanic origin, survived as islands until sea levels fell once again, leaving them as hills above the plateau.
The contours produced by earth movements and changing sea levels have been subsequently modified by ice and water. Today’s drainage pattern was superimposed upon the landscape at the end of the last ice age, some 20,000 years ago. South Wales was at the southern limit of a gigantic glacier that originated in the west of Scotland and which flowed south, completely filling the Irish Sea basin. Moving ice scoured deep channels, the debris being carried south and later dropped as it began to melt. It was this process that left deposits of sand and gravel, such as those seen at Dale and to the south of Tenby. As a warmer climate developed, vast quantities of meltwater carrying glacial debris flowed in torrents to the sea, then some 300ft (90m) lower than its present level. Its power was sufficient to gouge deep valleys into the bedrock, their magnitude out of all proportion to the modest streams now flowing through them to the sea. Such a monumental release of water caused sea levels to rise and the lower reaches of these valleys were flooded. Erosion patterns have left a number of these drowned valleys or rias around the coast, and their attributes of shelter and deep-water access have been exploited as harbours; those at Solva and Milford Haven are fine examples.
The process of change is never-ending. The sea steadily gnaws at the base of today’s cliffs and is creating another plateau that can be seen at low water in impressive areas of wave cut platform. Wind-blown sand is accumulating to create dune systems, and the weather is persistently softening the contours of the land. The debris is washed away to contribute to the accretion of sediment below the sea and thus form the substance of some future land.