Coasteering in Pembrokeshire
I’m dehydrating inside a wetsuit, stuck inside a minibus, rumbling down a country lane. It’s a hot morning and last night was boisterous. Mercifully, the activity we’re about to plunge headfirst into promises an immediate cure. My party of a dozen friends and family (aged 25-55, including sporting and non- sporting types) were clearly inspired by the prospect of our morning’s activity and a location that feels like the edge of the earth. The Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, designated in 1952, is the only UK National Park predominantly nominated for a coastline. The conventional way to view it is via the Pembrokeshire Coast Path, a 186-mile traverse of the region. However, there is an alternative - if the hikers take the high road, I’ll take the low...
There’s a scramble along a tight path descending to the noisy surf. Seabirds wheel overhead. Passing walkers seem to understand what these rowdy souls in wetsuits and buoyancy aids are up to. In a cheeky nod to surf culture we’ve dispensed with board shorts over the wetsuits and gone for a variety of novelty items - goofy boxer shorts rub shoulders with a tutu. From the outset, adventure guides Tommy and Paul explain that they will only encourage us to do what we are happy with and not push anyone beyond their adventure zone. Nobody has coasteered before so we’re all a little apprehensive... but secretly hoping for some wild wave action.
You can coasteer throughout the UK but why Pembrokeshire? The geology is particularly suitable, with sheer rock faces and a long fetch - the unobstructed distance the wind blows over to form waves. The exposed aspect into a prevailing southwesterly explains the power exerted by nature. “The really legendary coasteering is done here in the sport’s birthplace,” explains Preseli Venture Manager Sophie Hurst “No other part of the UK boasts such a diversity of marine landscapes. Sandy beaches shoot up into towering cliffs with the added plethora of wildlife, clean seas and fresh air straight off the Atlantic.” Not that you’d notice from inside the National Park, but Milford Haven Waterway, one of the deepest natural harbours in the world, lies just around the corner. This is an area that uses and protects its unique geography.
We reach a rocky, wave-lapped ledge but there’s no pause. Following Tommy and Paul into the briny, like ungainly penguins launching from a cliff, that first salty shock is intense. Doubts instantly evaporate, replaced by a cocktail of exhilaration, laughter and a dash of fear. We follow the waterline, launching into deep water when the footholds disappear and swim to the opposite rock face. It’s a wild, all-body group workout of swimming and climbing. The geology is perfectly tailored and the smooth rock faces incline just enough to allow sufficient purchase. This suitability continues beneath the surface where there are no sharp outcrops, only deep, cushioning water. An artistic diving and belly flop contest causes banter and pain equally. It’s a natural playground.
We’re led to the base of a rough stairway up a steeply angled rock seam. Alongside is a drop of several metres into a natural plunge pool. There’s a moment of hesitation as the first jumper reaches the top and looks down. Still ascending halfway, I hear a shout as he leaps into the abyss. There’s an explosion of spray, a few seconds of turbulent, churning water and then a beaming face emerges. Another one of us jumps from higher and makes a bigger splash, and before I realise momentum has taken over and we’re all gleefully hurling ourselves off. “Guests love their holidays with us,” explains Hurst. “They tell us they try new things and push themselves to new personal limits.”
A calmer moment follows as we’re guided into a sea cave to the echoes of rushing water. Despite the dim light, the walls taper to a point way above us, like a private salty cathedral. The tide and geology are such that you never feel the bottom. It’s all slightly eerie in the gloom.
Traversing the coastline again, small groups of us swim into a narrow channel with a bowl at one end, nicknamed The Toilet. We take turns swimming towards the neck of the channel where the wave action pulls us into the bowl, casting us up and down several metres on a column of rapidly rising and falling water. This causes so much amusement we’re unaware of two huge, incoming breakers. The first boosts Rich, Tom and I up toward the level of the onlookers on the surrounding rocks... then we’re dragged far below into the channel on the receding water. The second breaker now explodes over us into the channel and we disappear in a foaming torrent. It’s a human washing machine and it takes a few intense moments for buoyancy aids to right us. The water has stolen my gloves and I’m hauled out of the foaming surf, paler than before and with a sheepish grin.
Hurst explains their philosophy is inclusive, not exclusive. “Anyone can go coasteering and enjoy the activity at many different levels. Some can be fearful of the cliff jumping but this is optional and you can work your way up to higher jumps gradually at your own pace.” The only pre- requisites are basic water confidence and a desire for adventure. I ask what do you say to people who are a bit fearful? The Preseli manager answers: “You can feel secure with the wealth of expertise that comes from 25 years of experience, being highly accredited and licensed, and that we are a specialist training centre for coasteering and sea kayaking.” So how do you choose where to go and is it limited by the weather? “We can always go coasteering as we have a variety of different locations depending on wind, sea swell and tide. We take into account the ages and abilities of the group and what they want to get out of their experience.” Regardless of background, safety comes first. Suitable kit and qualified guides guarantee you the best local spots, show you a great time, and keep you secure.
After being shaken, we’re stirred by a laid-back afternoon of sea kayaking. Some of us have kayaked before, but again, it’s a flexible activity that works on many levels. There’s enough chop in the water to make things interesting, working core muscles and arms. We start with a few games to develop paddling skills, diving the blade into the water to swing around and fire a wet ball at someone. Tommy and Paul assist in righting the capsizers - propping each upturned kayak over their own to drain out the water and then launching them back into the fray. Happy we’re now more able, they take us further out to inspect the massive rock faces covered in wheeling seabirds. There are plenty of stories along the way. A lobster pot is hauled up and we’re introduced to its spiny occupant. It waves feelers as we watch it settle gently back into the depths; the water surprisingly clear once you have something to focus on.
Our final treat is an introduction to “rock- hopping”. We wait by the narrow channel between two large barnacle-encrusted rocks for a wave, then paddle full-tilt towards the rocks, surfing the rising wave that carries you over them and back into the water again. This takes a few aborted attempts and then we’re managing it. That is, until Kev’s wave outruns him, leaving his kayak high and dry, jammed in the channel. He’s stuck fast and has to wait until we’ve stopped laughing to be levered out. In the meantime we helpfully shovel paddle blades into the water, creating an impromptu shower.
Intrigued by the sound of human fun, two seals pop up to scrutinise us - they’re enigmatic, glassy eyes and long, bristly whiskers make for cute voyeurs. Like aquatic dogs, it’s entertaining to imagine they might be up for a game of tennis ball tag but they remain distant before disappearing silently.
Coasteering is the core of a range of activities that take place over weekends or longer for activity holidays at the Preseli Adventure Centre. Your itinerary can be tailored to suit. You can go for a real endorphin blast by combining coasteering with surfing, sea kayaking and trail running or go spiritual with beach yoga, hiking and mindfulness sessions. External partners can also coordinate kite boarding, pony-trekking or jet boating – the latter as we did. Jet boats have a low draught, so can approach everything without fear of grounding and then turn away on a sixpence at great speed.
I used to think of tides as a slow, invisible movement of water. Never again. At the right tidal point, water floods out of St Brides Bay to fill the Irish Sea, raging over a series of rocky outcrops called The Bitches. Huge whitecaps form and you can physically see the water accelerating downhill. A high-octane loop of Ramsey Isle, a private bird reserve involves some immense swells on the windward side of the island.
There’s a partnership with the National Trust based on the importance of sustainability - enjoying and protecting a coastline and the wildlife that depends upon it. The Trust’s working volunteers are repaid in outdoor adventures on the very coastline they safeguard. Colleagues can participate together in a new stress-busting workplace resilience course, or if unable to justify escaping from family, can bring them along too. All groups are accommodated explains Hurst: “We started out in 1988, with adult adventure weekends, then included corporate groups, and for the past ten years we have welcomed families and schools too, pretty much year round. There are 11 bedrooms in our eco-lodge, plus a Geodesic Dome. All rooms are different and include doubles, singles, twins and beyond.“
Our adventure comes to an end. We are worn out, but our faces are glowing. Some excellent home cooking refuels us for bonhomie around the bonfire late into the night. The spooky flicker of Strumble Head lighthouse illuminates a low overcast sky. The location conjures up the illusion of being on the edge of the world.
Preseli Venture, Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire. Further details on Fitness and Adventure Holidays & Weekends or Corporate & Family activities, www.preseliventure.co.uk
To view the article click the image below