The decision to take on the 186 miles of the Pembrokeshire coastal path just appeared in my head, just like ideas about what to have for dinner. I made up my mind quickly and thought that it would be a good, even a fun thing to do. I wanted to get away, I guess to hide from life for a while, to escape reality and to do something different, something worth while, and importantly something which would be good for me. With no plans to go abroad, I decided that this would be my holiday, my time away. The practicalities with Olly staying with my parents, who at the furtherest point live no more than an hour or so away from where I would be worked out, and that was it. Decision made. The ordinance survey (OS) maps of South and North Pembrokeshire were ordered and promptly arrived allowing me to match up miles per day to camp sites. I worked out that I could get from St Dogmaels to Amroth in 8 days.
As someone who has only one experience of camping (as a girl guide), my knowledge on best practical equipment was somewhat limited. I spent countless hours researching and watching YouTube clips to find the best of everything for my budget. This, combined with a few trips to Go Outdoors to check on the weight of these items turned me into a camping equipment expert over night.
The idea to the start line took less than a month and on Friday 6th August I was ready to go.
Day 1 (Friday 6th August 2021)
After packing, unpacking and repacking my 55L bag numerous times it was time to leave the comfort of my parents house where I had stayed the night before and head north of the county to St Dogmaels. After a few obligatory photos at the start line, I along with my parents and Olly set off on the 1.3 miles to Poppit Sands, where they then waved and barked me off.
The start at St Dogmaels
After taking in the view of the beach and coast, I headed off up a very steep hill. Not the start I wanted. I knew that I was not going to be able to run with the pack on my back so resigned myself to walk and enjoy what was around me. According to the coastal path calculations, and my plan, I had 21.9 miles to cover to take me to my camp site in Dinas Head. It did not take long for my bag to feel heavy, but I did not let this deter me from a big day of walking. I followed the little acorn signs directing me along the path and kept the sea on my right as I walked through farms, fields and rugged ground.
I was instantly struck by the scenery, I took time to study the vastness of the ocean. Around each corner was a different shaped cove, unique in its standing and appearance. No two shapes the same. The sea in its wildness crashing against the rocks beneath me. Above me was blue sky with minimal cloud; however, the ferocity of the wind became my enemy as I battled it with every step, not knowing the best way to handle it as it came off the sea and swirled around the cliff top. There was no shelter and there was no escape as I walked along narrow and uneven paths. To my right, the cliff face dropped down, to my left blew some sort of bracken, fern or wildly growing weed. I kept telling myself that if I was going to blow over then to make sure it was to my left. My baseball cap was already on backwards so not to blow off, but soon enough I had to take it off and clip it to my bag. The wind plus the added weight of my bag and steep descents on craggy rocks often made me stop and think about exactly how I was going to tackle the section. I soon worked out the nature of this part of coastline as a steep down hill to a cove at sea level was soon followed by a dreaded up hill climb. I would like to think that I am relatively fit, but when you have steep steps, rocks, mud and uneven terrain on narrow paths it becomes more of a challenge and perhaps one that I may have overlooked. It was technically difficult, more so because of what I was carrying with me.
It wasn’t long before I did fall over as I lost my footing whilst climbing up a hill. Thankfully I fell left which resulted in a couple of thrones in my hand. There were times when I had to crouch down and slowly manoeuvre myself around the cliff as the wind was so strong. It was the only way I could balance myself. I felt like some sort of ninja turtle. I was averaging 2mph. Somewhat frustrating when knowing I could run that distance in 15 minutes.
I walked miles without seeing a single human being. I was out there on my own, with my own thoughts and in my own world. The first person I saw was a man running towards me. He looked like a pro, by that, I mean he was carrying poles, wearing compression clothing and had a small back pack. I jumped left into the hedge so he could carry on along the narrow overgrown path. We exchanged pleasantries and continued on our respective journeys.
I quickly learnt that no gate (of which there were zillions) never opened the same way and the stiles got bigger the tireder I became. My tactic was to throw my bag over then sit and rest on the stile until I could get moving again.
Acorns and stiles
As the sun warmed up, and after a challenging 7.1 miles, I sat on the pebbles at Ceibwr Bay and ate the picnic which my mum prepared for me. I made the decision to eat proper food throughout the day and not rely on energy packs or drinks. I would be burning in excess of 4000 Kcals per day and would be exercising for 7-8 hours.
As I sat down I felt the peacefulness wash over me. I felt a calmness about everything, it was as if I had escaped the monotony of life and everything felt right. This is why I decided to do this. This was what it was all about. I sat there watching a dog playing in the stream, s/he was having the time of their life. Two children close by looking for sea life by the rocks and a small group of adults chatting on a picnic blanket. There were two other ladies with dogs and that was it. It was like a secret cove that nobody knew about. I could have stayed there for the rest of the day, just soaking up the early afternoon sun, but that would have not got me to my camp site.
With a belly full of pitta bread, cake, crips and an apple, it was time to pick up my pack, which I named turtle and head off. Putting a heavy 55L pack on my back was difficult and over time I learnt tricks on how to do this, but from a low position on the beach it was difficult. I managed to get the thing on without toppling over and decided that my next stop would be at Newport. I saw a sign telling me that it was 8 miles away and swear in my head as that would take me at least 4 hours.
The peacefulness of Ceibwr Bay
Bored of my own voice in my head, I decided it was time for an inspiring audio book from some ultra runner. I stick on the headphones and I am immediately disappointed by the boring tone of the narrator. I switch off, remove headphones then randomly start humming a stupid tune. I must have hit delirium.
As my Garmin beeps and tells me that I have covered 10 miles, 2 people appear in front of me carrying large back packs like myself. We have a brief conversation and they tell me that they are also walking the coastal path and it was their last day of 14. I felt like poking them in the eyes, but instead wished them well for their last section as I plodded on to Newport.
The coast is deceiving, it has this ability to look beautiful, as the shapes, contours and colours along the headland blindsight you into thinking that what you can see ahead in a straight line is close. The dips, swerves, gradients and hidden coves tell a different story as you follow the crow who clearly wants to the take the piss and not the one who has gone ahead in a straight line. As I saw Newport in the distance I tried not to get disillusioned, instead, I gave myself a kick up the butt to keep moving. It was hard to get into any sort of rhythm due to there being very little flat or even ground. The descent into Newport tested my new found hiking skills as I had to bend down, putting my hands on nearby rocks to keep me stable as the wind kicked up around me. As I rolled into Newport (literally) the half a mile up into the small town to get some refreshments was not what I wanted. I had no other option as both me and turtle bashed our way through a small Spar shop. I headed back down the hill to the path eating jelly babies thinking that I only had another 7.8 miles left of the day.
Unfortunately the 7.8 miles turned out to be a lot more, which was another theme of the day. Was the coastal path correctly measured, or was my Garmin GPS and data significantly out? I found that Garmin was adding at least 2-3 miles on to each section that I was doing which was massively skewing my plans and screwing my head.
My first campsite was located on Dinas Island and as time crept on and the wind continued to gust all I wanted to do was get there. I knew I was close when I got to Cwm-Yr-Eglwys, a small place centred around some church remains on a grassy area where some teenagers were sitting. I didn’t have a clue where I was going as I lost track of the small acorn signs. I had no phone or wifi signal, and thinking that my OS mapping would not work, I took out my big multi folding map. I had thankfully screen shot the address and some directions to the campsite, but these did not make sense from where I was. The campsite was also not depicted on the map. Total bollocks. Pick a direction. Any direction. I walked back past the teenagers and headed towards a caravan park and towards a hill. Adamant that I was not going to walk up the hill, I put turtle down on a bank and once again studied the map. My reluctance to walk up the hill sent me back the way I had just come from (yep, past the group of teenagers again). By now it was early evening and the sun was still thankfully above me.
I stood there, like the lost tourist I was. My neck, shoulders and back in pieces. I was just about to ask the teenagers for directions when a male and female walked towards me. I looked down at my map when I heard the male say ‘hi, fellow Ironman’. He noticed the tattoo on my wrist as he pointed to the one on his calf. We instantly had that mutual appreciation and respect, like a special bond of toughness. He asked where I was going and after some more chat, pointed me in the right direction, which was thankfully not back towards the hill. Thank you lovely people.
Relieved to see the acorn sign (less than 100 metres from where I was standing) I continued along the path to Pwll-Gwaelod beach. Too tired to appreciate it at this point I headed towards the camp site after spotting a sign. Thankful to have finally made it alive I followed the direction of the sign which happened to be up a very long hilly drive.
I have been very fortunate over the years to travel and stay at some fantastic resorts. On arrival at said resorts, my luggage is taken off me, I am given the option of champagne or juice, I am greeted by pleasant (mostly) staff behind the reception desk, handed a key card, a map of the resort, taken to the nearest buggy and transported through the resort in warm temperatures to my room. My luggage arrives shortly after, my bed is turned down as I tuck into the complementary water, chocolate or fruit.
Back to reality. I am stood in a field in force 10 winds on the top of Dinas Island. Too many expletives to type here. In front of me were about thirty tents and vans / motorhomes. The wind was cold and a few people were sitting outside their tents in thermal clothing having a BBQ. Just to the right of the entrance was a male and 2 two females. I asked them where I was supposed to go. They said to ring the owner of the site to let him know that I had arrived and advised me where the sheltered area was. It appeared that wherever I went it was going to be windy and that no doubt tomorrow I would be in a different field. You can imagine the deep joy I was feeling. I found my pitch, unpacked my tent, fought with it in wind, wrestled it to the ground and just lay on it. I could not move. My body had decided to give up. This is how I was going to spend my first night. Laying on top of my tent.
It was then like 3 superheroes, the male and 2 females approached me and offered to help. For the second time in an hour I was being helped by kind strangers. Relieved that I had a practice build of my tent in my garden, I confidently, and somewhat professionally explained what went were. Finally, twenty minutes later and at 8pm my tent was up ready for me to climb in to. Thankfully not hungry as there was nothing near by, I put on my fluffy Christmas pyjamas, looked at the painful blisters on my feet and hid in my sleeping bag. It was light outside as I lay there listening to the wind, hoping and praying that I did not blow away (obviously not possible, but my brain was playing tricks on me). A few hours later, heavy rain joined the wind. I lay there putting all my trust and confidence into my well researched Vango tent.
Due to the way I changed the recording on my Garmin, I do not know exactly how many miles I covered but I know it was more than the 21.9 it should have been.