Pembrokeshire - beaches and castles

Best Pembrokeshire Beaches

Barafundle Bay

Like a Welsh Greek Island reached through historic stone archway lapped by calm crystal clear waters

Tenby

A colourful walled city perched on a cliff top surrounded by beaches on all sides (the St Ives of Wales with bells on)

Broadhaven Beach South

Emerald waters and white sand in a sweeping bay accessed via sand dunes from Bosherston Lily Ponds

The Pembrokeshire beaches plan

It’s February, it’s raining and for the sake of sanity I need to book a holiday. Spot an Early Bird YHA offer of 15% off for May Half Term bookings.

Have a current membership card (for £20pa which gives us another 15% off) so can get 4 of us in a family room for £60 a night, en suite (makes a big difference) and available for 5 nights, right by the sea in Manorbier, Wales. Almost as cheap as camping (for which I have an age related decreasing enthusiasm, especially in arctic May). Would never normally book 5 nights in untested YHA waters (the quality of the accommodation varies from Grade 1 listed stately home to bunkhouse) but the idea of not packing up and moving on every couple of days appealed, and we’d probably have to settle in for a few days anyway for a chance of a good Welsh beach weather day.

Husband had always rejected Wales as an adult holiday destination, after a spending every childhood half term there surrounded by grey slag heaps and matching clouds, but Wales is the new Cornwall without the crowds, and the Pembrokeshire beaches get amazing press, so talk him into it anyway as an experiment.

Day 1 – Manorbier YHA Knock knock. Who's there? Dr Who or spaghetti hoops?

Youth Hostels are just great. They are in fab locations and only recruit the friendliest, most helpful people  who want you to get out there and have an adventure without breaking the bank. See my YHA’s – Best in Britain post for the A listers.

But sometimes they turn out to be ex-military bunkers. 

Manorbier YHA, which looked quirky on the website (described as something from a Dr Who set), was just a bit depressing set against the matching steely Welsh skies and bore a stronger resemblance to a rusty tin can than anticipated. The acid yellow bin looked suspiciously like a hospital sharps receptacle.

The £60 family room suddenly seemed less of a bargain than at the point of booking. But the 15% off price was the holiday gambler’s non-refundable type deal, so there was no point in frantic internet searching for more visually appealing alternatives. We checked in. Having totally judged this book by its cover we were more than pleasantly surprised to find a vine and palm filled glass lounging atrium inside, together with a lovely cafe.

But disappointingly, from the point of view of getting away from it all and back to nature etc., the military associations did not end with the bunker. In my search for the nearest beach, Google maps sent me via the rifle range next door. Weirdly, 3 slightly stunned looking horses were housed inside the razor wire, and would have had nowhere to hide  during the sporadic, heart stoppingly thunderous shellings.

As is often the way with googling-maps, there was really no need to go this way at all.  I could simply have popped over the road, gone through the car park, down a 100ft metallic staircase and voila. GREAT beach, Church Door Cove. I had stumble across a sneak preview of it on the internet and this was one of the main reasons for booking a holiday here.

Best Pembrokeshire Beaches 1- Church Door Cove

You wouldn’t want to be carrying beach accoutrements down the vertiginous cliff stairway, but this most interesting of Pembrokehsire beaches has a great archway which you feel compelled to tentatively stand underneath for a photo as the incoming tide sloshes around your feet (and whilst trying not to imagine the Chicken Little roof falling  in). 

Another, much smaller, secret tunnel leads right through the cliff on the other side of the beach to the cutesy named Skrinkle beach with pristine white sand. But why so empty? Answer: no actual access. Big yellow warnings everywhere inform you that passing through the tunnel would lead to instant death (or words to that effect), and without its own metallic cliff ladder, it remained deserted as an island. You might be able to boat or swim round if feeling particularly adventurous. Probably not with kids though.

The tiny tunnel of certain doom looking a bit too deadly, we checked out the coastal walk running along the top of the beach from the hostel car park instead.

Pembrokeshire coastal path

Manorbier coastal path

As always there were 2 types of coastal path to choose from – the “official” new one – back from cliff edge, wide, safe, bit dull (can‘t really see the coast) and the old, established one – right next to the edge, great views, perilous vertical drops centimetres to your right, and sometimes really just made out of turf over-hangs.

The children gave it a valiant 5 minutes on the latter but all too soon  rejected cliff walking as an activity, and chose life instead in the form of a sit down protest. To be fair, one gust and they’d have been off like kites.

After joining the YHA microwave dinner queue with 4 other families, as no BYO is allowed inside the hostel, we head out through the car park, in the manner of homeless people, clutching warm wine in plastic cups and gloved hands against the chill wind to gaze out at the grey seas beyond. 

A couple of drinks later, the emboldened grown ups struck out along the cliff unhindered by faint hearted young ‘uns – only to scare ourselves silly on later viewings of the path choices photos.

Day 2 - Lilies and beaches

Freshwater East
Freshwater East
fried-egg-jellyfish, Pembrokeshire beaches, Freshwater East
Fried egg jellyfish

Sun was promised today. Having assessed the limited potential of walking-distance Pembrokeshire beaches for all-day lounging, a beach driving tour was on the agenda.

First stop – Freshwater East. Googly-maps  dropped us off a little early – so another cliff-face scramble later, we popped out on this pleasant stretch of sand, fringed with burgundy boulders and the  occasional oversized solid jellyfish.

Too fresh for sitting down, and with no beach kit, due to the rock scrambling entrance, we ended up walking along the beach to where the normal people get in – the actual car park and log cabin style café, with its colourful Scandi Noir chalets.

The sun remaining tepid, lounging was still not on the cards and it was decided (by me) that we should make a pit stop round the corner at Bosherston Lilypondshaving just about persuaded the boys that looking at flowers is a cool afternoon activity (marginal success on this front).

Bosherston Lilyponds

Very pleased to find this was a free attraction (hooray). There is a mile long (“how long?” – whined) trot around the man-made lily lake and across, not really a bridge – more of a wall with a handle on one side. This makes passing people coming the other way a bit of a gamble, with more at stake than is usual in bridge crossing scenarios – who gets the hand rail side? You could see people clinging to the banister, abandoning all established social rules about children and old people.

Coming to the end of the lake, a magical sandy path appeared, leading up into the now blue sky. Running up it like desert rats we found a shimmering vision of a Pembrokeshire beach, Broadhaven South, stretched out below.

Why were we not on this beach? The sun was out and everything for God’s sake!

Best Pembrokeshire beaches 2 - Broadhaven South

Bit of a faster trot round rest of pond, no one quite so interested in the lilies now. Mad drive to find our new beach even has a car park (not a given). Run down the cliff path (always with the cliff path) to golden sands just as the sun pops back in behind icy back cloud for rest of day. Brazen it out with games of anoraked catch to keep warm.

Day 3 - Tenby town

With rain lashing down and the sun not being scheduled to turn up until the end of week, we hunker down for the morning around the (only slightly ripped) pool table and Catch Phrase board game, which it turns out doesn’t work so well with half the picture cards missing as this makes guessing catchphrases from the 90’s even less achievable for your preteens.

Best Pembrokeshire beaches 3 - Tenby town beach

Then a break in the weather means we are off to enjoy the delights of penny falls, lamb pasties and dining in a BOGOF Dominos pizza “restaurant” (no microwave queue for me tonight – yay) in Tenby, the St Ives of Wales – with its beaches on 3 sides and a castle on a rock. When the  tide and sun are out you are left with wide swathes of golden sand. The beach cafes down the end with palms and decking feel practically tropical.

In town, a crusty “bubbleman” had stopped traffic by creating 6 foot alienesque orbs and releasing them into the wild.

Day 4 - Castling

Pembroke Castle

Time for a castle. It is Wales after all. Chose Pembroke as not only was this the birthplace of Henry VII, it promised high street boutiques, once we had had enough of castling. It was apparent from the reasonable pricing (£28 for a family ticket) that the castle was not part of a chain. And also from the tour guide scripts, which were are not as tight, shall we say – in their attempt to cover all Welsh history ever.

Checked out the cool “Wogan’s cavern”, a cave underneath the castle, used since the Stone Age (the guide taking time out of his recitation of the entire nation’s history tell us all about Terry Wogan and Irish stereotypes).

He also repeatedly insisted that “wheelchair and children” come to the front. “Wheelchair” looked a bit narked off that this seemed to be his new name, but he was far too high profile to escape. We, however, legged it part way though the 12th Century.

Next was the falconry display, brought to an abrupt end by the departure of 19 year old Jeremy, who nicked off the moment he was released from his leash, making for a somewhat unnerving afternoon, warily scanning the skies for signs of talons clasping  small puppies or similar.

Great castle though – turrets, towers, moat and (going the extra mile for an additional 50p) all day parking for £1.50. Sadly, we couldn’t find many boutiques so, unable to fully benefit for the final 6 hours of parking, decided we should move on. But where?  Not another castle, towns thin on the ground, so, steely skies and all, another of our Pembrokeshire beaches had to be found.

We struck out to Freshwater West and hid behind a wind break for a couple of hours waiting for teatime as the waves crashed around us and hardier holidaymakers took to the seas without wetsuits.

A rainy evening meant no slightly drunken cliff top car park for us, but instead a  “show” was performed by the boys outside our ground floor bedroom window and a family card games evening took place on the floor between the bunks (due to the one chair per room allocation). In bed by 9:50 – like the days before TV.

Day 5 - Heatherton and Barrel-of-fun Barafundle

Heatherton Activity Centre

Last day (boo – as quite enjoying ourselves now, and looking out at the world from the hostel not half as depressing as looking in at it from without).

Rainy morning plan of action formed at Heatherton activity centre with its excruciatingly complex advance credit purchase system. Everyone has their own “credit card” and to make it as restrictive as possible there is a no “sharing” of credits between people rule (unless you spend big bucks on the family bundle or it’s the third Tuesday in Lent and the moon is blue or something). Brain hurting levels of concentration required to navigate the prices and age limits for each activity, so delegated the task of interpreting the full A4 sheet of miniscule type and forming cheapest workable schedule to the interested parties.

Zorbing, pillow jumping, zipwire and arrow shooting ensue for £2.25 a pop (good work boys). Sun peeped through the clouds so all the fun of the fair had to end in a final beach quest. (Some illicit credit sharing may have taken place to speed departure.)

Best Pembrokeshire beaches 4 - Barafundle Bay

Barafundle in cloud
Barafundle Bay

Earlier in the week, we’d spotted (from a distance) the beach of our dreams for this afternoon, Barafundle Bay. Even in the ubiquitous Welsh cloud we had seen its potential.

Families appeared over the drizzly headland, who had been prepared to tackle not 1 but 2 cliff stairways and a section of coastal doom path with surfboards and huge beach bags to access this gem, even in bad weather, so we knew it had to be good.

We’d also checked out reviews online comparing the Pembrokeshire beach to a Greek Island when the sun comes out, and were very excited.

But on the only other sunny day, we’d clocked “car park full” signs at the start of 2 mile single track access loop from the main road. We are clearly going to be in competition with the entire half term holiday crowd, gunning for today’s imagined one remaining car park space, which in our minds also has our name on it. We were trying not to panic but found ourselves recklessly overtaking potential competitors on narrow country lanes.

The car park has spaces! Not only was there a lovely National Trust café serving cream teas in Stackpole Quay, but the sun was still shining AND there was a castellated arch to walk through on the way down to the now emerald waters. Actual heaven.

Without hesitation, everyone was wet-suited up (usually takes me a good hour to steel myself  before entering British waters – although the new winter long suit with gloves helps).

Slight delay when realise the batteries in the electric pump have died at some point during the 3 years since their last outing, and the boat has to be blown up the old fashioned way  – a team effort which left us all feeling a bit sick.

Totally worth it though, as we set out to sea. Although no longer able to squeeze in the whole family of 4 (children having grown in the intervening years),  at a push made it to 3 men/women/children in a boat , and with only one big blue jelly fish bobbing next to us in the surf. Bliss. Didn’t get swept out to see or anything.

Pembrokeshire beaches and castles holiday –  Lessons Learned

  • Don’t blindly book a run of 5 days in untested hostel – go for a hedge-your- bets 2 centre break.
  • Save up and if you have £600 try out the cool hobbity glamping place we saw advertised in St Florence. 
  • If you are happy to part with £1500 a week – book one of the National Trust cottages next to Stackpole Quay – where you can walk to the tearoom and Barafundle beach, avoiding car parking induced stress. https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/holidays/farm-cottage-wales
  • If short on time, skip all the others and go for the best Pembrokeshire beaches of all,  Barafundle and Broadhaven

Pembrokeshire beaches and castles holiday – Summary

Castles, crumbly cliffs, rain, the military and magic beaches – that’s Wales for you, as Tom would say.

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