The sea, castles and Cocoa the dog, a Welsh weekend in Pembrokeshire is a real treat for Deputy Editor Geoff Palmer
Our National Parks come in all shapes and sizes – Dartmoor is sort of round, Northumberland is more long and thin – but none have such an unusual shape as the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, which curves around the edge of West Wales.
Established as a National Park in 1952, this extraordinary combination of rocky cliffs, sandy beaches and softly wooded estuaries remains unspoilt to this day, making Pembrokeshire a special holiday destination.
We stayed at Beach Croft, a stunning waterside cottage (01348 837 871; qualitycottages.co.uk), which overlooks Milford Haven – a vast estuary that snakes inland from the coast, with wide sheltered waters that are perfect for sailing.
Eating our breakfast outside on the cottage’s sunny deck was made all the more enjoyable by watching the little boats scudding to and fro across the water, while Cocoa the dog could trot down the steps to the foreshore and enjoy sniffing about below the tideline.
King of the Pembrokeshire castles
Pembrokeshire is at the far western end of South Wales – looking across the sea to Ireland – but curiously, the southern part of the county where we were, is known as Little England beyond Wales because it’s been English-speaking since the Middle Ages, although no one’s completely sure why.
One contributing factor may be the collection of impressive Norman castles in the area – Carew, Manorbier and Haverfordwest, are worth visiting – but most impressive of all is just down the road from our cottage: the giant Pembroke Castle (pembroke-castle.co.uk), set on a rocky site above a river.
With Cocoa at our feet (they allow dogs in on a lead), we went to explore this extraordinary collection of battlements, winding staircases, secret tower rooms and ruined great halls surrounding a tranquil central area, where kids will love the giant map of Wales laid out on the grass.
A comparatively minor baron called Henry Tudor was born here in 1457 – his father was already dead and his mum was only 13. But before he was 30, he had defeated Richard III at Bosworth, seized the English throne, and founded the Tudor dynasty as Henry VII.
The castle makes a fabulous day out today, though its current calm atmosphere contrasts with its violent and brutal past. After changing sides during the Civil War, it held out for the king for seven weeks in a siege against Oliver Cromwell, who later ordered its destruction, and it remained in ruins until the late 19th century.
Pembrokeshire coastal walks
The following day we headed up to Fishguard, making a shopping stop at the wonderfully friendly Edelweiss Antiques (01348 875 166) on Hamilton Street, before heading off along the coast towards St Davids. Halfway down is the tiny fishing village of Porthgain, where we stopped for lunch and had a great meal at the 18th-century Sloop Inn (01348 831 449; sloop.co.uk).
Don’t miss the walk up the coastal path, west from the harbour. It’s steep at first, so not for the faint-hearted. But the views from the cliffs above are superb, and you soon come across the atmospheric ruins of the old quarry buildings.
Back in the car, we took the minor road onwards towards St Davids, but got distracted by the wonderful Perennial Nursery (07717 783 492; theperennial nursery.co.uk). If you are a gardener, you’ll love its wide range of cottage garden plants – several of which we bought – and if not, you’ll enjoy the coffee shop and its yummy cakes.
Driving into St Davids, we almost felt like pilgrims finally arriving at Canterbury. Although fewer than 2,000 people live there, St Davids is officially a city, and one with a genuinely spiritual air – because this little place has its own cathedral, plus a majestic, ruined Bishop’s Palace. When we visited, the pubs, restaurants and cafes were buzzing with people – an entertaining mix of artists, pilgrims, sightseers and surfers.
But the parallel with Canterbury is apt because this is the final resting place of St David, the patron saint of Wales, and the cathedral became a major pilgrimage centre in the Middle Ages.
It’s hidden in a valley below the village, and only truly revealed as a surprise when you go through the cathedral precinct. It is architecturally quirky, and also slightly wonky – spot the gently leaning pillars as you look up the nave.
The ruined Bishop’s Palace is worth exploring, too, as testament to how wealthy this place was in days gone by.
On our last evening, we went on a personal quest. For years, friends have been telling us of a magical holiday destination hidden on the coast, which doesn’t advertise, and where children can play and explore like the Famous Five, while their parents relax in bohemian comfort and pets are always welcome.
It is called The Druidstone (01437 781 221; druidstone.co.uk), a former 19th-century farmhouse, now a hotel and restaurant, that hangs on the top of the cliffs between St Davids and Milford Haven, overlooking the beach of Druidston Haven.
After exploring many unmarked country lanes, we found it, and because it’s open to non-residents, we couldn’t resist staying for dinner. Sitting outside in the gardens, eating a lovely meal while watching the coastline tint ever redder, the genius of those National Park creators was never more clear.
Great for culture vultures
Don’t miss the Landscape Gallery at the Oriel y Parc Gallery in St Davids, which regularly features the work of Graham Sutherland, who bequeathed a body of his artwork to Pembrokeshire.
Oriel y Parc also includes a visitor centre, artist-in-residence studio, a discovery room, which hosts family friendly art and nature activities, a tower with exhibitions by local artists and a cafe.
Great for spirited adventurers
The Pembrokeshire Coastal Path is a continuous National Trail that twists and turns its way through 186 miles, covering almost every kind of maritime landscape, from rugged clifftops and sheltered coves to wide open beaches and winding estuaries.
The whole thing represents a formidable physical challenge – its 35,000ft of ascent and descent is said to be equivalent to climbing Everest – yet it can also be enjoyed in shorter sections, so it’s accessible to people of all ages and abilities.