The plan is to circumnavigate Wales. Slowly. But not this slowly. There’d been some gorgeous days in the Gower with Sue, solo and with friends. The serenity of the crossing from Oxwich to Caldey Island stayed with me. But even before Sue and I set foot on Saundersfoot plans for Pembrokeshire were forming.
A plan started came together for the first weekend of August. A “club” group for a weekend then Sue, Brian and I for another three days. I had a kind offer of company from a paddler from Cardigan Bay Sea Kayakers. Pembrokeshire has some major challenges: Ramsey and Jack Sound, wild headlands and mighty cliffs. I wouldn’t want to attempt this stretch alone. My hope was that 2019 would be as calm and settled as 2018. Then, with some help from friends old and new, I could “get past” Pembrokeshire and be in the quiet waters of Cardigan Bay by the end of the month. In September I could mackerel fish and wild camp my way solo through to Aberdaron. That was the idea.
I like the planning stage of a trip. My end of the kitchen table drowns under a paper sea of ordnance survey maps, admiralty charts and tidal atlas. I have done so much paddling in N Wales and Anglesey that I lazily assume that if the tide is rising the tidal stream will be running towards Liverpool. Down in South Glamorgan I’d had to rethink. Down there, when the tide is rising, the stream flows towards Gloucester. Somewhere along the Pembrokeshire coast this will change. From the tidal atlas it looks like St Ann’s Head. When I reach there I will have “turned the corner”. The flow on a rising tide will be pulling north, towards home.
You have a privileged view from a sea kayak. You see how it looks where the rock that holds our country up meets the ocean. You see the massive folds that formed where tectonic plates once collided. On a still day you can reach out and touch the seams where one geological period meets another. Geology books joined the kitchen table paper sea and then coastal path walking guides. Not that I’d have time for walking.
So I had my plan. The van was packed. But the wind gods had other plans. Through much of August the winds rose and fell around gale force. One paddle plan after another was abandoned. The wind whined around the house, pinning me down. And I felt less and less capable of doing this thing. I felt like a fool. I’d bitten off more than I could chew. I’m not some brave young athlete. I felt old, sad and grumpy.
And then Eve turned up. She hadn’t slept for 24 hours. She was dusty and glossy and beautiful and bright eyed. Her rucksack disgorged cheesy socks and skunk smelling thermals. Even the tent, hung up to air, smelt of salami. She’s been backpacking with the family since childhood but this was her first self directed trip with a pal. She glowed. She had warmth and vitality for both of us. In her sweetness she lent into me in my fusty sofa nest. “So couldn’t we walk it, the Pembrokeshire bit?” She suggested. We surely could.
On a sunshiney August bank holiday saturday the car park at Strumble Head was a turmoil of motorbikes, cars and campervans, glinting horribly in the midday sun. The only space for Gwen the van was perched on a rocky slope. Eve and I set off walking south west along the cliff path and, miraculously, within minutes we were alone. If paddling the cliff base is a privilege then walking the cliff path is likewise. The path spools out like a thread around the edge of our world. Very occasional shingle beaches apron the cliffs and then the sea stretches out in as many blue ripples as a mackerel’s back. Walking the cliffs you have a gannet’s view for mile after mile. Wheatear and countless pretty birds dance above the buckthorn the butter yellow gorse and purple heather. Thanks to the gorse air smells of coconut. I can’t take my eyes off the water below. “Do you think you’re a bit close?” Eve asks, with a firm, sensible grip on my daybag. And then “Pen, you are going too close” “Look at that,” I exhort. “Look at the geos, the caves and the arches. Wouldn’t you like to be able to paddle right in there?” “No,” she says firmly. “I’d rather be up here with you.” And I would rather be up here with her. Much rather.
We are quite alone on the path but have the sense that this has been a special place for many people before us whether as a place of worship or a place of war. The scale of the cliffs is majestic. By contrast we are tiny and ephemeral. Rising inland is a magnificent iron age fort on a chunky volcanic outcrop. Tucked in below is John Piper’s tiny cottage and studio, Garn Fawr. John Piper responded to this landscape with some wonderful drawings, collage and paintings. I wish I could “say it” like he can.
John Piper wrote, in 1938, of the flotsam and jetsam that outlines our coast. His beach combings got into his collage and paintings. In “Abstraction on the Beach” he wrote: “At the edge of the sea, sand. Then, unwashed by the waves at low tide, grey-blue shingle against the warm brown sand: an intense contradiction in colour, in the same tone, on the same plane. Fringing this, dark seaweed, an irregular litter of it, with a jagged edge towards the sea broken here and there by washed-up objects; boxes, tins, waterlogged sand shoes, banana skins, starfish, cuttlefish, dead seagulls, sides of boxes with THIS SIDE UP on them, fragments of sea-chewed linoleum with a washed-out pattern. This line of magnificent wreckage vanishes out of sight in the distance, but it is a continuous line that girdles the country, and can be seen reappearing on the skyline in the other direction along this flat beach.” That was before the jetsam of plastic that lines our modern beaches and will, sadly, last forever.
But there is no jetsam on the beach at Aber Mawr. The water feels delicious, clear and icy clean. We have to swim. We are as hot as tin roofs. Eve had swimmers but I did not. So I swam in my ancient Sainsbury’s bra and pants -which happened to be inside out. Shabby chic? Sadly not. One of the great things about being nearly 70 is that nobody notices or cares how you look. People wisely prefer not to look. There are few expectations of us old funnies. A year ago Eve would have been mortified but no longer. Where did her lovely new confidence come from?
We’re waiting for the bus back with another pair of walkers when a well battered car pulls up. “Get on in! The bus’ll never come!” The bus does in fact come but our new friend is determined to be our tour guide. We’re in the back all cutched up, too many for seat belts. Our driver is all bright eyed naughtiness, his cut off jeans are as speckled with paint as a Jackson Pollock painting. His companion wears a sky blue dress and her hair is a mass of salt cured curls. They look as if they know the secret of a good life. “Look” he says “That’s John Piper’s house. Do you know who he is?”
So here’s my last postcard: watching the sunset at Strumble Head. Next morning we eat breakfast whilst watching a pod of around twenty dolphins just below us. A passing warden confirms that this is one of the best places to see them. Two more days of sun, impossibly blue skies, walking and meeting people and swimming and then, just as the weather changes, we set off for home. Pembrokeshire is no longer a lump to get round. Thanks to Eve I’ve rediscovered the spirit of this circumnavigation: to know Wales. To share the journey. It was always meant to be slow.
Oh, and a postscript: on the last day we take a boat ride round Ramsey, just for fun. A multitude of wild life experiences is promised though, as it transpires, most of it is in hiding. The tour guide doesn’t approve of kayakers. “They cause no end of problems” she says, through her loudspeaker. “They set off with no more idea than when high water is. They have no idea that the race starts hours later. And then we have to rescue them.” I say nothing. I’m watching a pair of sea kayakers silently, elegantly making their way up Ramsey Sound, past the Bitches, bang on slack. Way to go…I just can’t wait.