A beach-lover’s guide to hidden Pembrokeshire
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When I tell people that I’m going on holiday to Pembrokeshire, which I’ve been doing with my family for around 15 years, they tend to say, “Oh, St David’s, wonderful.” And I reply, “No, further south, a little place called Stackpole, right at the bottom tip of Wales,” by which stage they’ve mostly glazed over. And if I add that it has outstandingly beautiful beaches with soft fine sand, they nod politely, unconvinced.
It’s one of the joys of the area that it doesn’t have a higher profile – move those beaches just across the Bristol channel into north Cornwall and they’d be heaving. But on a late July evening on Barafundle Bay – regularly included in lists of the world’s best, beating Bondi and Copacabana – you’ll find you have it pretty much to yourself. And the phone reception is so blissfully awful that you’re genuinely unlikely to be able to take a call from the office.
Barafundle was the private beach of the Campbells of Cawdor who owned the Stackpole Estate from 1689 until they handed it to the National Trust in 1976, and it is only accessible on foot via a rolling cliff walk (on a good day you might see pods of bottlenose dolphins) or across the old deer park from the Cawdors’ stately home Stackpole Court. Actually, where the vast house stood is now an empty swathe of grass. Soldiers billeted there during the second world war stripped the lead from the roof and sold it, allowing rain to pour in, and in 1963, the building beyond repair, the Cawdors had it demolished. The outbuildings remain as ghostly monuments as does the grand terrace with views along the vast lily ponds with which the Cawdors flooded the land beneath the house. Creating these was an extraordinary folie de grandeur, but now gives the public dreamy, shady walks down to Barafundle and the larger, but similarly secluded, Broad Haven South beach. They’re home to otters.
The temperature of the sea, even in summer, is far from Caribbean, but it’s, ahem, just like a bath when you’re in. The coastline is punctuated with cathedral-like caves that you can walk into at low tide or coasteer around at high. For the warmest little pocket of water, take a short drive to Freshwater East beach and walk all the way along to the far end where the sand is smoothest and the early evening sun hits the water.
If you are serious about surfing, head to Freshwater West at the very end of the peninsula, a short drive around the edge of the Castlemartin army range on farmland requisitioned from the Cawdors in 1938 (at night you can often hear the slightly eerie muffled boom of tank fire, like distant thunder). Freshwater West is the home of the Welsh National Surfing Championships and, with its rip tide warnings, is altogether wilder than the other beaches around Stackpole. Harry Potter fans will probably want to see the pile of decorated stones that grows yearly as more fans make pilgrimages to the site of Dobby’s grave in the film of Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows. A short car journey on, visit the tiny 13th-century cliff-side chapel of Saint Govan. He was a sixth-century hermit who lived in a fissure in the rocks – and, depending on who you believe, he was an Irish monk, a thief or Sir Gawain in his declining years.
Having worked up a hunger, head to the Boathouse Tea-room at Stackpole Quay for a cornet of Pembrokeshire Promise or Merlin’s Magic Welsh ice cream, Welsh rarebit or a cream tea, then to the local gastropub, The Stackpole Inn. The head chef Matt Waldron worked with Hélène Darroze at The Connaught and his menu showcases local produce – Angle Bay oyster with shallot vinaigrette, roasted rump of Welsh lamb with Stackpole wild garlic – with an ever-changing fish menu depending on the catch of the day. The front garden is perfect for an early evening pint and there are cute bedrooms where you can stay in an adjacent building. It’s not an area awash with hotels but there are many good holiday rentals: we go to a converted old coach house with a walled courtyard and barn-sized kitchen in the village of Stackpole Cheriton. The National Trust also has a range of pretty cottages and barn conversions to rent around the estate.
The nearest town is Pembroke, with its well-preserved medieval castle that sits on top of a prehistoric cave, Wogan’s Cavern. For antiques, curios and reclaimed furniture fans seek out three Aladdin’s caves at the Pembroke Antiques Centre (in the old Wesley Chapel), The Chapel (in the old Baptist chapel) and the Pembroke Market Emporium; and there’s an unexpected indy guitar store, Main Street Music, with Fenders, Gretschs, Tanglewoods and more hanging from the rafters. Wisebuys grocer’s is the place for foodies, with fresh local fruit, veg, cheese, herbs, cakes and biscuits. Outer Reef, just down the road beyond the station, will sort you out for watersports activities – and a wetsuit, if the water proves not to feel like a bath to you.