Cycling in the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park
Cycling in Pembrokeshire, on the far west coast of Wales, is like cycling in a dream. The Pembrokeshire Coast National Park has one of the most spectacular coastlines in Europe. An ancient and powerful landscape dotted with pre-historic standing stones, and steeped in Celtic and Arthurian legend.
Tantalising glimpses of the sea are revealed as you cycle along quiet lanes to picturesque fishing harbours, sandy beaches, and towering cliffs pounded by Atlantic breakers.
Photo: cliffs between St Davids & Solva in St. Bride's Bay.
Cycle inland from the coast and you fine a subtle landscape rich with rewards. Deviate off the obvious routes and you'll discover standing stones, pretty little churches, ancient woodlands, and quirky nooks and crannies.
St David's is the smallest 'city' in Britain, the size of a village. Built in the atmospheric Vale of Roses, its fantastic cathedral has a 15 foot drop from altar to west door, ruined Bishop's palace, and plentiful watering holes.
Sustrans route 4 goes through St David's (warning: DON'T cycle through the ford - there's a big step either side). Bike ride Ideas.
Photos: the Cathedral
Photos: the Bishop's Palace & that ford
Photos: detail of ruins of the Bishop's Palace.
"Common People Like Us"
Deviate from the straight and narrow. Zig-zag your way across the landscape and you discover all sorts of interesting things, like the wetland commons to the north of St David's: Tretio Common (photo below), Wern Moor, Dowrog Common, and Treleddyd-fawr Moor are not to be missed. Even St David's old airfield is worth cycling around.
This little harbour on the north Pembrokeshire coast is well worth a visit, if not for the history then for the eateries - The Sloop pub and The Shed fish & chip bistro. The harbour developed to export the stone from the nearby sea-edge quarry and slate from the Blue Lagoon quarry at Abereiddy at few miles to the south. From the large brick hoppers (on the left in the below photo) crushed dolerite stone used to be lowered into sloops (one-masted sailing boats with a mainsail and jib rigged fore and aft) and transported to London etc to build roads. Note the two white-painted harbour markers, on the cliffs either side of the inlet. Boats out at sea would struggle to find this tiny inlet if it wasn't for the white stone pillars.
If you walk (no bikes) up the steps next to the white-painted building (photo above) it leads past the remains of quarry buildings to the sea-edge stone quarries...
Take care exploring these quarries and don't swim here - dangerously strong currents. Walk down the old railway incline next to the brick building (photo above) and you get to see the remains of explosive holes drilled into the rock, plus great views up the coast towards the Strumble Head lighthouse. This is one of our favourite spots, but do take care.
The Preseli Hills & the Gwaun Valley
The Preseli Hills were formed by very hard volcanic igneous rocks, once part of a chain of mountains as high as the Himalayas stretching NE through Wales. The blue stones capping the Stonehenge megaliths came from the northern end of the Preseli Hills. Its strategic trading position between Ireland and Britain, meant the Preselis emerged as one of the great centres of Celtic culture. The hills are littered with cairns and standing stones. Many of the old Mabinogion stories are centered here, and tales of King Arthur abound. See our Preseli Calendar Bike Ride.
Photo: Pentre Ifan neolithic burial chamber
Pentre-Ifan is the largest and best preserved neolithic burial chamber in Wales, built c.2,000 BC (above photo; map ref: 090 356). The capstone weighs 16 tons. Now denuded of its soil covering, the original barrow was over 130 feet long, 65 feet wide, and 11 feet high.
Gors Fawr or 'the great wasteland' (SW of Mynachlog-ddu; map ref: 135 294) is a prehistoric circle of 16 2-foot-high stones in a field of tea cosies (actually they are gorse bushes). Alignment of 2 larger outlier stones, 100 yards north, indicates a solar line giving sunrise on the longest day and sunset on the shortest day. A magic spot were cyclists can revive the ancient ritual of passing the Garibaldi biccies in a widdershins direction ('widdershins' being the old word for anti-clockwise).
Rosebush is where a local land-owner attempted to create a Victorian spa town. The arrival of the Maenclochog Railway in 1878 led to a spate of developments. The slate quarries were extended, cottages built, lakes dug, ornamental gardens laid out, and the corrugated Preselly Hotel (locally called Ty-zinc, now renamed Tavern Sinc) built. But the tourists turned up their noses. The water proved to have no special properties; the railway failed because Brunel built a better railway around the mountain instead of over it; and the quarries closed. Barbara Cartland's grandfather lost the family fortune in the failed railway, and this is the reason why Babs had to start writing to help support the rest of the family (who were now down to their last servant!).
The quarries are well worth a visit (actually private land, enter with extreme care), especially the secluded pool (photo above; don't swim, the water is very cold and dangerous) and the deep hole we call The Lost World (look down into this hole with care, very dangerous).
The Gwaun Valley (Cwm Gwaun in Welsh) runs down to the sea at Fishguard (Abergwaun). The hamlet of Pontfaen, halfway down the valley, never converted to the 'new' Gregorian calendar in 1752 so still celebrates New Year on the 13 January according to the old Julian calendar (its a local event for local people, so best not to intrude). Note: the council call Pontfaen village 'Cwm Gwaun', which is actually the Welsh name of the valley.
Bessie's, the locals' name for The Dyffryn Arms, is a wonderfully old-fashioned pub in Pontfaen where not much seems to have changed since WW1. No food but well-kept beer is served in a jug through a hole in the wall. An aside: one day we kept meeting a man on a moped followed by a very large coach. When we arrived late afternoon at the pub, we discovered that Moped Man had been guiding American tourists around the Preseli Hills and had mistakenly brought them to Bessie's for lunch. Bessie said with a smile, "I've sold 37 'Wagon Wheels' today".
BBC Countryfile's video of the Preseli Hills & Gwaun Valley...
A little look inside the wonderful Dyffryn Arms (Bessie's)...
Careg Sampson & Abercastle
Careg Sampson cromlech is a 400-year-old neolithic burial chamber standing in splendid isolation in a field (near Longhouse Farm) just a short walk from the picturesque inlet harbour of Abercastle (Abercastell in Welsh).
Pembrokeshire is littered with standing stones. Our favourite stones are by Tremaenhir farm (below left; east of Middle Mill; map ref: 827 263) and at the start of the lane down to Porthgain from Llanrhian (below right; map ref: 818 315). See The Blue Lagoon Bike Ride.
An aside: a few years ago whilst standing in front of the Tremaenhir stone, I (Rob) had a revelation about the story of King Arthur pulling the sword out of the stone being more metallurgical than mythological. This stone looks a little bit like a sword blade poking out of the ground. Could the story be about having the knowledge of extracting metal from stone and then shaping it into sword blades? This knowledge would certainly have made the beholder a very important person.
Enemy Tricycles at 2 O'Clock Sir!
During WW2 the now-dismantled Kete airfield (near Dale) was a busy radar training school for the Royal Navy. There were classrooms and accommodation for over 800 people. Aircraft could not be spared for training, so the Navy requisitioned ice cream tricycles from Wall's.
Photos: tricycle before and after being adapted for radar training
Each trike was fitted with a radio telephone, a compass and metronome for beating time. One trike would pretend to be an enemy bomber, and steer a course by compass while pedalling in strict time with the metronome. The radar operator's job was to spot it and direct the 'friendly' trikes to attack.
An aside: at other airfields in the UK, bicycles were fitted with small airplane wings so trainee pilots could practice 'flying in formation' safely on the ground before being let loose on the real thing!
A vernacular feature to look out for in some Pembrokeshire churches is what we’ve always called ‘shoulder pads’ (mainly because we could never remember the proper name). The correct term is hagioscope or squint - “a window set at an oblique angle in a church wall to permit people to see the altar from areas where it was not otherwise visible”. If you imagine the cruciform layout of a church as your body (with your torso being the nave, your head being the chancel where the altar is, and your out-stretched arms being the transepts), then the hagioscope between the transept and the chancel would be a bit like a 'shoulder pad' next to your ear. Keep that image in your mind...
In Llanhowel church (near St Davids; map ref: SM 818 274) there is a rather fine walk-through ‘shoulder pad’ (photo above) on your right shoulder. In medieval times there was a small window in your right ‘armpit’ (left wall of the north transept) opposite the ‘shoulder pad’ so lepers (who weren’t allowed inside the church) could still see the altar from outside via the transept and the hagioscope, thereby taking part in the church service without having to enter the church.
In St. Ishmael’s church (near Dale; map ref: SM 830 066) your left arm has a ‘shoulder pad’. Apparently naughty nuns (what had they done?) who were confined to this transept (hidden from the congregation by a large curtain) could still see the altar through the ‘shoulder pad’.
Sustrans South West Wales Cycle Map - shows on-road and traffic-free paths, height contours, 5 town centre maps, recommended linking routes connecting the National Cycling Network with quiet roads. Includes the Celtic Trail (route 4), Lôn Teifi, and Millennium Coast Park (near Llanelli). 1:110,000 scale. (Also available from Waterstones)
Or buy the ordinary Ordnance Survey Landranger Map from Amazon.co.uk; scale 1:50 000 (1.25 in to 1 mile), about £9:-
Number 157 St David's & Haverfordwest Map covers North Pembrokeshire.
Number 158 Tenby & Pembroke Map covers South Pembrokeshire.
- for St Brides beach, the Rebecca Riots, lime kilns, the last invasion of Britain and much more.