During a wet weekend in Wales, Lottie Gross is bowled over by Pembrokeshire Coast National Park’s natural beauty and learns how to enjoy this coastline’s many adventures in a responsible and sustainable way.
The rain is like a thousand tiny pins attacking my face with brute force. There’s a small stream making its way down my brow, culminating in a mini waterfall at the end of my nose and the relentless wind trying to throw me to my death as the waves batter the black rocks below. Conditions are far less than ideal, yet I’m still voluntarily standing here, staring out to sea, marvelling in the blue-green waters and spellbound by the view across Pembrokeshire’s Blue Lagoon, after an adrenaline-cocktail of cliff jumping, coastal walking and kayaking.
This isn’t the first time today that I’ve stood, soaked to the bone, in awe of the sheer black cliffs and astonishingly blue seas along this 186 mile-stretch of coastline, and I’m not the only one to have ever done such a thing. A staggering 4.2 million tourists visit Pembrokeshire Coast National Park each year and the attraction is obvious. Not only do the lichen-covered black, brown and yellow hued cliffs make for a spectacularly dramatic backdrop to the beaches, but the array of wildlife – hundreds of bird species, seals and even orcas – and quaint fishing villages nestling within the bays are a huge draw for holidaymakers. And then there are the adventure sports.
This entire coastal expanse is like a gigantic playground for adults and children alike, and especially for those with an adrenaline addiction. I’ve spent my weekend at Preseli Venture, an eco-lodge near the small ferry port town of Fishguard. I’ve donned a borrowed neoprene wetsuit and hesitantly jumped into the 10ºC (50ºF) waters to see the rocks and sea life up close. I’ve nervously scrambled across crags and up small cliffs – without ropes and harnesses, might I add – to launch myself from the top just for the thrill of it, and I’ve kayaked into caves that could serve as the perfect setting for Mordor in Lord of the Rings (while one does not simply walk into Mordor, it seems a kayak does the job just fine here).
There’s opportunity for wind, kite and conventional surfing, and even the coastal walks offer a slightly more manageable adrenaline fix as the excellently maintained paths often stray a little too close to the edge of a 40ft drop for comfort. This place is so unsurpassable as an adventure sports hub that Red Bull chose the Blue Lagoon, where I’m standing now watching a group of young coasteerers navigate the sharp rocks in pursuit of a platform to jump off, as one of seven prime locations for the World Cliff Diving Championships in 2012.
But while this booming adventure tourism industry does wonders for the local economy, it has its downsides too. The natural landscapes and wildlife habitats are in danger of being destroyed, and tourism increase and development is one of the two major contributing factors.
Pembrokeshire Coast National Park is home to the smallest city in the UK; the quaint village-like St Davids with its impressive ruined Bishop’s Palace and hill-side cathedral has remained pleasantly small, much like many of the towns and villages in the area, thanks to strict planning rules imposed by the park authorities. But as they stave off any unwanted and damaging development to help keep the environment as natural as possible, Park Ranger Ian Meopham explains to me how visitor numbers pose another challenge.
“Coasteering is becoming more and more popular, our sea kayaking is right up there; it’s one of the best in the world. So, when you come to do to those activities you don’t expect to be part of a herd, you don’t expect to arrive and have to queue because that’s not what you’re paying for.
“So there’s pressure from private landowners and the National Trust to maintain an experience for everybody. It’s about making sure that everybody gets a fair cut of the pie.”
The National Park works with the Outdoor Charter to regulate the local adventure tourism industry. They monitor everything, from licensing, safety and quality of instructors, to restricting numbers of people in certain areas that are at risk at particular times of year. The Blue Lagoon is one of those areas as seal pups are born here from August to December, meaning there are some months when no one can have the pleasure of exploring this striking physical environment at sea level – a necessary sacrifice nonetheless.
Just around the corner from this cliff diving hotspot, Ian shows me another stark reality facing the Pembrokeshire coast on Abereiddi beach. As we turn the corner, men in high-vis jackets are milling about on the beach and an enormous digger is poised, ready to demolish the remains of a seawall that’s been standing here for forty years – “an experiment that went wrong” according to Ian.
Climate change is helping the sea reclaim the land; water-levels are rising at a rate of 2mm per year here, cottages overlooking the beach have been abandoned since the 1940s and a 200-vehicle car park on the seafront has now been destroyed thanks to extreme storms in the last few months.
Ian told me how locals were outraged and disappointed at the final destruction of the car park by the county council, as such easy accessibility had opened the bay to all ages: “It was great for granny and granddad who could sit and watch the sunset over the seafront in comfort, or for families with kids who wanted to park up and explore on foot.” But I couldn’t help thinking it was a good thing – it’s returning the bay to its wild, original form and allowing the sea to take a natural course. Perhaps I’m defeatist, but I wonder if there is any use in trying to fend off the ocean’s design.
Of course, there is no quick fix to eliminate climate change, but Pembrokeshire Coast National Park is trying to encourage responsible living and holidaying to better preserve the area’s future. Preseli Venture, my home for the last few days, is the first eco-friendly accommodation in the park. Using Ecotricity (electricity from wind turbines), a ground source heat pump (which takes the natural warmth from the earth and uses it towards the building’s central heating) and solar panels, the lodge itself is entirely sustainable.
Excited by all things eco, they urged me to come from London by the First Great Western and Arriva Trains Wales – a surprisingly efficient way of getting to Wales from the capital – and fed me only locally-sourced meat (and booze – their selection of Welsh beers and spirits was a sure bonus; I’d recommend the Tomos Watkin’s ale or Brecon Gin).
A resolve for the preservation of this environment is evident throughout local businesses; the Sloop Inn is like a small museum to its Porthgain location with various photographs and keepsakes from the surrounding areas on display, and serves up a mean locally caught crab sandwich – the council even runs a shuttle bus service along the coastal back roads, making responsible car-free holidays an easy option.
I’m watching history unfold before my eyes as the workmen prepare to dismantle the old seawall and as the crystal clear waves lap over the slate-and-pebble beach, I understand why this is such a popular holiday destination, and why it must be preserved so carefully by Ian and his colleagues at the National Park and Trust. If it’s this beautiful and spellbinding now, in such dreary and harsh conditions, then I wonder what it looks like with sunshine and blue skies. I’ll have to come back in summer.
For more information on how to explore this striking coastline go to visitpembrokeshire.com. Explore more of Wales with the Rough Guide to Wales. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. For the best value train tickets and offers buy before you board at www.firstgreatwestern.co.uk, telephone 03457 000125 or download their free mobile app. Advance single fares from London Paddington to Cardiff are available from £18.30 each way. The remainder of the journey to Pembrokeshire can be booked with Arriva Trains Wales www.arrivatrainswales.co.uk