Hiking Wales’ storied coastline

The first long-distance trail to trace a country’s entire shoreline, the 870-mile Wales Coast Path is alive with vibrant scenery and legend, from the Llŷn Peninsula to Pembrokeshire.

The first long-distance trail to trace the shoreline of an entire country, the Wales Coast Path offers an immersion into some of the Principality’s most charismatic scenery and legends. Dip your toe into the 870-mile route with one of three short walks, from the remote Llŷn Peninsula to dramatic Pembrokeshire.

Walk one: The west
Where the land runs out is a wild place, where the cliffs are the prows of ships, enduring the battering tides. Pembrokeshire’s south-westerly winds bring waves of freshened skies over the Celtic Sea. On a clear day, the whole western tip of Wales is visible; the Coast Path skirts the yawn of St Bride’s Bay in a long curve that runs between fields and the coves, cliffs and beaches, all the way from St David’s Head in the north to Skomer Island in the south.

Walking any stretch of the path reveals curiosities, from abandoned airfields to hermit’s chapels, but few sights are more peculiar than an oval eye of glass that gazes out of the clifftop at Druidstone, overlooking the middle of St Bride’s Bay. Known locally as the Teletubby House, it is home to former MP Bob Marshall-Andrews and his wife Gillian. The roof is turf and wild flowers; the whole structure landscaped into the ground.

‘It’s a very beautiful coastline to walk,’ Bob says. ‘To a certain extent repetitive – you round one headland and there’s another. It gives it a quality that’s quite unique in walking: after a while you stop being starstruck and enter into what it is. I love it – the islands offshore give it a frontier feeling.’

In the waves below are surfers; a benign cavalry of pony-trekkers from the village of Nolton Haven crosses the sand. It is a truly heavenly place to live.

A hundred yards away is the Marshall- Andrews’ local, the Druidstone Hotel. Part home, part refuge, its windows filled with sea-light, its walls crammed with pictures and its beds old and kind, the hotel has a bohemian enchantment. Beth Wilshaw and her husband Gus Bell are nominally in charge, but you could equally say that of their little girl Seren or cat Yoda.

‘People come down to dinner in a wetsuit or a tux; no-one minds,’ Beth says. ‘When someone rings and asks if there’s a pool I say yes, but it’s very big, and salty.’

The southern edge of that great pool is the Marloes Peninsula, where Wales runs out. The last of the land is the Deer Park, where the radiance of the light, the warm surges of the wind, the dark outlines of Skomer Island and Midland Isle and the streaming silver of Jack Sound – the tide-race between the peninsula and the islands – combine in pure invigoration. I feel I could launch myself into the air.

Turning left from the wuthering cliffs of the Deer Park begins one of the most beautiful walks in all Wales: the couple of miles along the coast path to Marloes Sands. Choughs fall headlong into the wind – they are supreme fliers, handsome with their black plumage and scarlet beaks and legs. Old beliefs held that they stole lit candles and burned hayricks; their Latin name, Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax, means fire crow.

Another legend says that King Arthur did not die but turned into a chough, so harming one is very unlucky. The birds on this walk seem blessed and blessing.

The smells along the path are sweet reeks of bracken, heather and turf. The sea rushes white pounders at the cliff: other sounds are the ‘ciao!’ of choughs, the wind and wicketing crickets. A cormorant flaps across the water, fat on mackerel, along with great black-backed gulls, which sailors believed were souls of executed pirates. A ship appears, three-masted, with the mainsail up. A raven goes over. Some myths hold ravens to be messengers of sorcerers and gods: they are said to hear everything and report it to their masters. Greet one with a ‘pruk!’ and he may answer, as this one does.

In the death zone between the rock shoals and the breakers, two grey seals float and turn, fishing, peering, wallowing like fat ladies in a spa pool. The ground is springy and cushioned, starred with pink thrift.

In a field of flowers on the clifftop above Marloes Sands a young woman gives the sun a yoga salute. Saluting the sun has been practised here for millennia. A tidal island at the end of the beach, Gateholm, has the remains of Iron Age and later settlements on its flat top: archaeologists found an amber bead there which they believe was associated with sun worship.

On the way back to the Deer Park a kestrel appears, hovering and still in the wimpling wind. Tail and wings adjust to the floods of air so that the head is perfectly still. ‘My heart in hiding stirred for a bird,’ wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins, and seeing the choughs, and the kestrel, brings the same stirring. Like Gateholm, Skomer and the Deer Park were settled in pre-antiquity. Our ancestors were here and felt as we do now, walking the coast at sunset; people will, for millennia to come. There is the most gentle eternity in the spirit of this place.

Walk two: The estuaries
Laugharne is a country all of its own. Here is a land of woods and fields falling to estuarine worlds that submerge with every high tide and gleam with every low. The path out of town is signposted with extracts from Dylan Thomas’s Poem on his Birthday. The mustard-seed sun, as he called it, is bright today; the clouds are boiling towers. The path runs under ash trees like universes, constellations of leaves high against the blue. Rocks drip like Hades. To go south along the shore is to walk with the ghosts of cockle-pickers and fishermen; the latter still make this lovely, unusual trek. There is cow-tramped mud underfoot and a rune of marshes to the left.

On the other side of the dyke are rough pastures and an army firing range, which has saved the land from the pillages of modern agriculture. Man’s additions to the landscape are harmonious and kind: small white horses, the farms of Carmarthenshire, round bales – it is like moving through a Constable painting. The dyke is your guide and thoroughfare, all the way to Pendine Sands. Swallows hunt along it, flinging into the wind. On the sands themselves the shells of razor clams pop underfoot as the sea opens before you, a road to all the world.

The writer Jay Griffiths travelled to the Arctic, the Amazon and West Papua, among many other places, in the service of her book Wild, which explores the connection between human societies and the wilderness. She might have chosen to settle anywhere on Earth but all her journeys begin and end on the wide beaches of Wales. ‘A long, open shoreline is good for long, open conversations,’ she says. ‘The horizons of sight and the horizons of the mind reflect each other, and the one influences the other. And there is a long breath in the fetch of a wave which makes me breathe easy.’

Breaths come deep and contented on this walk, flavoured with the tang of the marshes; breaths hush as you study their creeks and runnels, infinitely complex, home to nymphs and goblins arguing over green-glass beads, and my breath catches as a hundred curlew flock together, a wild net of birds. It is a sight left over from an older Britain, when great flocks were common.

Laugharne rests in the sun like a gypsy with his back to a rock. You can see why sea captains liked to retire there: close enough to tides to measure the seasons by their comings and goings; far enough away from the waves not to be reminded of their terrors. On the way back into town, passing a farm, a peacock strolls across the track. A Welsh walk holds more unpredictability than the weather.

Walk three: The Llŷn Peninsula
The tip of the Llŷn Peninsula is a kind of promised land. It was the last home of the poet RS Thomas, who was the rector of St Hywyn’s church in Aberdaron, the last town before the sea. Thomas’s poetry records a life spent searching for an encounter with divinity. During one of his walks on the peninsula, while watching small birds in a thicket, he felt a oneness, a kind of transcendence, which he described as ‘a repetition in time of the eternal I AM’. Since the 6th century pilgrims have come to Llŷn, where the world ends in bright sea-light, to seek and pray to that eternity.

The walk west along the cliffs from Aberdaron is a favourite of the writer Niall Griffiths and his partner Deborah Jones. ‘You can easily fall off the end of the continent,��� Niall says. ‘One step and you’re somewhere entirely else.’ Watching one’s steps as well as being open to transcendence is the way to follow the path from Aberdaron beach to the end of the world. The coast path runs westwards, first climbing along the Cwrt headland, then descending to Porth Meudwy, for centuries a base for fishing boats. After climbing back to the clifftop the path passes Porth y Pistyll, where the Llŷn’s mineral wealth of jasper, quartz and granite was once loaded onto boats. The descents and climbs make good exercise, with a stunning reward at the end. As I round the headland of Pen y Cil there is the sudden prospect of Bardsey Island, like the head of an elephant surfacing from the deep.

‘Bardsey is a land that belongs to birds and seals,’ says Niall, who has stayed there. ‘No wonder the devout wanted to be buried on it. You feel like one half of you is already in another realm.’

Bardsey is known as ‘the island of 20,000 saints’: they were supposed to have Horatio Clare was raised on a hill farm in South Wales, an experience he recorded in the best-selling memoir Running for the Hills. He walks some stretch of the coast of Wales every year. His next book is Down to the Sea in Ships, a story of seafaring. been buried there in pre-medieval times. The gravestone of a 5th-century Christian priest, Senacus, was found on the headland, marking his burial ‘with many followers’, which may be the source of the belief. Whether or not saints lie under its turf, the island’s spiritual reputation was such that three pilgrimages there were held to be the equivalent of one to Rome.

It is easy to understand why pagans, poets and pilgrims from the dawn of Christianity to our own times have been drawn to this land’s end. Around heathered stumps, like the silhouettes of hunchbacked watchmen, flocks of choughs tumble and strut. The birds’ colony makes Pen y Cil a Site of Special Scientific Interest. I walk among them quietly and they seem unbothered, as they probe the heather for ants. Climbing up the steep green flanks of the headland to the lookout point on Mynydd Mawr, I turn back to the sea to watch the sun go down. As unexpected and miraculous as a revelation, pale blue hills appear, far over the water. The map says they are the mountains of County Wicklow in Ireland, but they seem just as likely to be the contours of Cantre’r Gwaelod, the sunken kingdom of Welsh legend, a kind of Celtic Atlantis. Anthropolgists suspect that the repeated claims, over the ages, of a fertile land just beneath the waves, may be the echoes of an ancient folk memory of sea-level rise at the end of the last ice age.

Myths, stories and suppositions wash over reality in the most beguiling way here. Deborah Jones makes me promise not to dig for gold if I climb the Rhiw, one of two hills near Aberdaron. ‘The giant who buried it will send a lightning bolt at you,’ she warns. I can find no reference for this except a cairn of stones on Mynydd Ystum, to the northeast of Aberdaron, which is said to mark the grave of a giant, Odo; a rock nearby was apparently thrown there by Samson, before Delilah cut his hair, and is said to have a pot of gold beneath it.

To walk the Welsh coast is a kind of pilgrimage, whether or not you believe in myths or God. The views of the horizons, the workings of the land, the wheeling birds, visions of the sea and tombs of saints may not convince you of RS Thomas’s ‘eternal I AM’ but they are absolute assurance of an eternal-seeming ‘this IS’. For that, at the end of a day of waters and skies, you feel as grateful and as humble as any worshipper.

The article 'Hiking Wales’ storied coastline' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Traveller.