Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Wet and Windy Weekend in Wales

While the rest of Europe basked in 30 degree sunshine, we managed to find Welsh rain in bucketfuls. A Year 11 daughter of a disorganised disposition had declared in no uncertain terms that WE MUST STAY AT HOME for half term in order for her TO STUDY; thus, despite my arguments that she could just as well study over there as it is a 'home from home', my plans for a blast of guaranteed hot sunshine in southwest France, following a grey and dreary summer there, were finally dashed. When similarly compromised friends from down south suggested a two day meet equidistant for us both, South Wales seemed an obvious choice. Pembrokeshire has always eluded me and I have long wished to enjoy its rugged salty charms. A boat trip to see seals on Ramsey Island was the final incentive to book up. 

And so we convened at 5.45pm at the Warpool Court Hotel in the village of St. David's, perched on the southwest tip of Wales before the vast expanse of the Atlantic opens up beyond the Irish Sea. 

The hour had changed and it was dark. We were given a short tour of the hotel and its origins as a choir school but had to wait with bated breath till morn to see the splendour of the much flaunted view.

The staff were charming, the rooms cosily old-fashioned and the food excellent. We were left by the fire in the lounge to finish our coffee and drinks while they bade us goodnight - and we retired to bed sated and content a short while later, blowing out the candles as we went.

Ripping open the curtains in the morning, full of expectation, I found it hard to distinguish between land and sea. The air was unseasonably warm but it was howling a gale with rain threatening. My eyes rested on the unheated outdoor/indoor pool in the garden below us but I was untempted. A cooked breakfast proved the greater allure. 

To work off all the culinary excellence we decided to walk the coast path which leads directly from the hotel. I did not look at the map as I knew I would be alarmed at the distance involved, especially in new walking boots and in fearsomely robust company, used as they are to yomping round the outer Hebrides for their summer holiday of choice. No beach basking for them, oh no. 

And so we struck off down the garden and towards the cliff edge, the Welsh winds stirring our follicles and troubling our ears. It was lusty weather indeed and quintessentially Welsh. Indeed I do believe that I have never seen Wales in anything other than a shroud of grey drizzle: the complete Tupperware box experience. No wonder the Celts were so gloomy and desperate to flee to sunnier climes. Aquitaine certainly seemed more appealing to me at that precise moment than this wind-whipped corner of the British Isles. 

The path was mercifully flat (I shouldn't be admitting that coming from the Peaks as I do - but it made a welcome change not to be gasping for breath at every laboured uphill footstep) and we stepped out quite briskly, making good progress. Before I knew it, in fact, we were stopping for coffee and hot chocolate at a little cafe in a creek, just hours before it was shutting down for the season. 

Suitably refreshed, we marched onward, snaking past a group of geology students from Brighton University who were required to stare for hours at the dramatic rock strata and draw sketches thereof as the wind threatened to toss them into the leaden-coloured surf below. We also spied an intrepid group, clad in wetsuits and hard hats, who were thrashing about in the waves as they licked around the rocks they were attempting to mount. There's none so queer as folk.
 
The coast path took many twists and turns, affording delightful glimpses of shingle beaches, nooks, caves and crannies. Just at the point off which Ramsey Island lies - St David's Head - we spotted some seals frolicking in the waves (minus the hard hats) and some blubbery white baby seals splodged on the beaches and dry rocks of the coves, waiting for the tide to come and rescue them (or their parents to stop messing around in the sea and come and give them some bloomin' fish). In the middle distance, between the mainland and Ramsey Island, we spotted the tousled water that looked like a river in spate which is known locally as The Bitches. If I remember rightly, my blogging friend Mark Charlton has often canoed these salty rapids as recounted in his blog Views From the Bike Shed and in his book 'Counting Steps'. Remembering my canoeing days down rapids on the River Wye, I imagined it was fun - if somewhat alarming, not to say dangerous. The coast path seemed a safer bet despite a few dizzying drops which I chose not to get too near, reaffirming my nascent fear of heights.
 
The waters beyond the headland, sheltered from the North Atlantic Swell by Ramsey Island, were serene this autumnal morning. The bracken was toasty brown, warming and enlivening the landscape, while the calm sea was almost blue below. My ankles were giving me jip and having been taking photos and hobbling a little I found myself a straggler with just the Year 11 daughter for company. She complained a lot and asked if she could go to a party on Wednesday night. I was quite annoyed.
 
As we headed towards St Justinians a huge crane loomed, a slight blot on the landscape. Turns out they are building a new Life Boat House. It was here from which we would be taking the rib to Ramsey the following day. I could see the boat moored in the bay and I was looking forward to it hugely.
 
At St Justinians there was mutiny. The push on to Whitesands Bay was a push too far. The pub and lunch called harder. So we struck off inland down the lane that leads back to St David's, past the extraordinarily unexpected and beautiful edifice that is St David's Cathedral. An Italian friend rang me as we walked. It was weird to be in this very Celtic place jabbering away in Italian - a strange juxtaposition which reminded me of the diverse places I have had the fortune to live in my life. The Year 11 daughter said how 'cool' it was that I spoke Italian and wished she could do so too. She may well one day. She has time on her side and all it takes is to go and live there.
 
And so we tipped into the warm and inviting interior of The Bishops pub, shortly before 2.30pm. It had been a four hour walk which is plenty long enough for me, especially with compromised feet. A log fire was burning and filling the room with smoky scent, and there were piles of board games around the place - a pointer perhaps to the fact that the weather is often inclement in these parts and in such circumstances what better place to hunker down than in the cosy confines of the local pub.
 
Indeed, the following day proved true to Welsh form as the rain hammered down relentlessly. Vain hopes of our boat trip to Ramsey Island were soon swept away with the south-westerlies and we took comfort in the cathedral instead. What a magnificent creation it is, nestled in the green folds of this Welsh village. On a clear day the view beyond it of the blue ocean would be a magnificent context. I bought some celtic jewellery in the shop to remind me of my Welsh roots (paternal side, my maiden name is Samuel) and bobbed into the art exhibition.
 
From here we decided to head to Newgale Beach further down the coast, stopping at a pub on the way for a hearty lunch, before blowing away the cobwebs on the wide windswept stretch of sand. Lily was in her element. What a wonderful weekend she had had in this wild Welsh landscape. It may not have been the sun-drenched splendours of south-west France, but it had a monochrome beauty all of its own.
 
 
 
 
 
 
If you look closely, you might just spot the bodies around the rock in the middle of the sea...
 
 
 
Nooks and crannies
 
 
 

The creek where we had our refreshments



 
Wild welsh ponies

 
 

The coastal path to St David's Head



 
Adult seals splashing around in the waves (tricky to spot but they are there, promise!) with The Bitches in the distance
 
 
 

Beached baby seals



 
Anyone got any toast...?
 
 
 

Earthy colours and calm waters




 
 
 

The wonder of St David's Cathedral




The expansive beauty of Newgale Beach...






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