UK breaks: Pembrokeshire

A 'Little England' in the far south-west corner of Wales

UK breaks: Pembrokeshire © Chris Moss
By Chris Moss

Despite its location in rural Wales, Pembrokeshire is a surprisingly English escape where visitors can wander along stunning shorelines or simply enjoy the rustic solitude.

The trip

I'd been hearing about Pembrokeshire for too long. Along with the Gower peninsula, it was always touted as a cool/boutique/refined corner of Wales, a 'Little England' where you got all the gastropubs, organic grub and Egyptian cotton sheets of a metropolitan centre but with the inspiring landscape of the margins - the jagged West Wales coastline. It was time to see the place for myself.

The experience

It was all of the above, but only if you wanted it. I chose the high ground just west of the tiny conurbations of Fishguard and Goodwick - where there's a port for ferries to Ireland, which placed me close to the Pembrokeshire Coast Path, handy for small fishing hamlets and stony beaches on the coast (and Goodwick's Tesco) and far away from the hotspots of Tenby, Whitesands and Oakwood theme park.

I booked in to a lovely early-nineteenth-century cottage called Trehilyn Isaf. When not setting out on walks and bike rides or driving to buy local produce - lamb, sausages, cheeses, cider, jams and even chocolate - I lived out a hermit fantasy. I was happy being out on 'my' lawn, reading beneath the trees, pottering around the working farm that surrounds the cottage, or just sitting in the dining room, which used to be the kitchen and housed an ancient range and one of those rough wooden tables where you imagine Silas Marner counting his gold.

You may know the Trehilyn estate. Owned by Griff Rhys Jones, it featured in a makeover TV show in 2006. I hate those shows, but I loved the cottage. It was classy but cosy, with oxblood red walls rendered with lime; inside were slate floors, lots of clean, white-wood walls, a spacious kitchen and a log-fired burner in the living room for cold nights (there were none when I visited).

Stroll along the coast path

It was all of ten minutes' walk to the coast path, from where I made a long loop north around the rocky promontory of Strumble Head. The cliffs along this stretch are real spouse-pushers: sheer, sudden and extremely high. At the bottom were pretty coves, rock formations, or small islands, and in one wide bay was a trio of seals making a racket. The male swam around screaming, his partner responded, the pup tried to copy, and it all echoed eerily in the caves that lay at sea level along the bottom of the cliffs.

The weather was changeable, as you'd expect of an area so exposed to the sea. Even when the sun shone, squalls brought light drizzle in and at times the clouds turned moody and purple. Pembrokeshire was full of energising gusts and clean, briny air - just what I needed to lose some cobwebs.

The coast path is fairly well marked, but the OS Explorer 35 map was handy when it came to working our how many inlets I had remaining - always more than you think, such is the deceptive nature of coast walks - and while I sat and ate my Y-Fenni cheese doorsteps on a bluff, I scanned the map to learn some topographical Welsh. All the names were full of 'cwm', 'aber' and 'pen' prefixes; I recently bought a reissue of a lovely book called 'The Shell Country Alphabet', written in the early1960s by Geoffrey Grigson, so knew these meant, respectively, 'valley', 'place where stream and river meet' and 'top'.

My walk ended in Llanwnda, where the last French invasion of Britain took place, in 1797. According to one legend, the invaders got drunk and locals kicked them out. For now, their descendants seem happy to put up with the latest invasion from south-east England, and it has to be said that that 'foreign' - and celeb - money has made Pembrokeshire a bastion of rural chic. But, as much as I appreciated the home comforts, I was blown away by the wild beauty of the coast and the Welshness of the fishing hamlets.

Where to eat

The Shed

Occupying a low-slung building on the front at the ultra-cute fishing harbour of Porthgain - worth seeing even if you're not eating here - this much loved bistro serves fish stew, a range of shellfish and fresh fish from that day's catch, and also does takeaway fish and chips. Service is friendly and relaxed, and there's a good value wine list.

Porthgain, Haverfordwest (01348 831 518, www.theshedporthgain.co.uk).
Dinner for two with wine: from £60.

Where to stay

Trehilyn Isaf

This carefully rebuilt Welsh cottage, about a mile inland from the coast, sleeps four comfortably (one double, one twin). The dining area, a traditional inglenook room, has a large table where eight can eat; adjoining is a modern fitted kitchen kitted out with basic implements. The walls are lime, the insulation is Welsh sheepswool and there's recycled woodchip central heating - which is under the slate floors so you can walk about barefoot. Next door is larger Trehilyn Uchaf (isaf is lower, uchaf is higher), sleeping up to five, and while they share a garden you are unlikely to feel intrusive or intruded upon.

Near Trefasser, north Pembrokeshire coast. See www.underthethatch.co.uk
From £268 for three nights (Fri-Mon); the cottage takes weekend bookings in summer, which is fairly rare.

Getting around

Cars

To get to this corner of Britain, and to self-cater, you're going to need a car.

If you don't own one, Europcar (www.europcar.co.uk) rents small cars from £93.10, Friday-Monday (second driver £4.99 per day).

Bikes

Local firm Newport Bike Hire (www.newportbikehire.com) can deliver mountain bikes (£15 per day) at the cottage for your arrival.

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