Staying in Pembrokeshire with Under The Thatch
The first thing you see when you get off the train at Fishguard in Wales is a vast white ferry. This is the end of the line for trains to this part of the Pembrokeshire coast and the start for people wanting to sail to Ireland. Either way, it felt like a long way from London, which we had left nearly five hours earlier. The ferry is Stenaline's service to Rosslare in Ireland, but we walked past the cars and trucks lining up to board, and went in search of a taxi to head up into the hills.
We checked with the information desk at the now deserted station (our only other train companions were some Goretexed geologists who were whisked off in a minibus bogged down in backpacks and books) where we could get a taxi. We also needed food, what with two hungry children to feed and a cottage in the middle of nowhere for the weekend, so they advised us to walk to the supermarket about twenty minutes away, stock up on supplies and call the cab from there.
Fishguard harbour and train station is actually in the village of Goodwick, separated from the town of Fishguard by a stretch of coast called The Parrog. Just at the start of the Parrog were the two things we needed: a supermarket and a café with the best all day breakfast I have had in ages. So, weekend shopping done (there were few options for shopping local at this stage of the proceedings) we stuffed ourselves at the local café, knowing that we still had half a day to walk it off when we got to our cottage. When our cab came, and we told him we were headed up to Strumble Head, about four miles away, he said, “Ooooh, nothing much up there, is there?.” “Not even a pub?”, I asked, “Oh, no, nothing up there at all.” The children gave me that totally unimpressed with my holiday plans look as I tried to respond with feeble comments like, “Fantastic, a real adventure”. Their sulks soon subsided however, as we drove into the driveway of our homestead for a couple of days. Trehilyn Farm has, as its centrepiece, the main stone farmhouse which, literally, glowed in February’s late afternoon sunshine, with its mixture of white lime plaster and red ochre pigment . Pure eye candy for city dwellers who crave a house in the country.
Similarly, the interior is one big picture book of Farrow and Ball rural elegance, with well lived in armchairs, dark red walls, fine oak desks and tables, elegant beds draped in woollen blankets and copious cushions, flagstone floors and a bathroom that was bigger than our London flat. The children had run off to discover the gardens, climb over recently restored dry stone walls, and splash in the (safely shallow) stream which flows through the farm. Forgetting their despair of only half an hour ago, they ran in shouting, “We’ve spotted a mountain we can climb. Can we go right now?” Yesss, I thought with a secret punch of the air. Goodbye London, hello space.
The ‘mountain’ was, in fact, Garn Fawr (meaning ‘big rock’), an iron age stone fort apparently and, thankfully, just a few fields away. We climbed to the top of this wild rocky terrain, surrounded by barren heathland, and were able to see the surrounding fields with grazing cattle and sheep, and ponies, which have been provided to farmers by the National Park to keep bracken and gorse low along the Coast Path, allowing the indigenous flora and fauna to thrive. We also had a clear view of StrumbleHead lighthouse, which illuminates the dramatic 140 metre cliffs which stretch out infinitely along the Pembrokeshire coast all around us. The wind and, indeed, the wilderness, took our breaths away.
Trehilyn Farm accommodation is marketed by Welsh holiday accommodation provider, Under the Thatch, award winner for its commitment to sustainability. It was one of the company’s owner, architectural historian, Greg Stevenson’ s major undertakings, as he acted as consultant on the project to renovate this 1840 stone farmhouse (and adjoining cottages), brick by brick, tile by tile. Stevenson is committed to renovating some of Wales’ derelict properties, many of great heritage value. He is on a mission to show second home owners that they can have a huge positive impact on the local communities by keeping their properties occupied all year round. Under the Thatch offers a wide range of self-catering accommodation at a reasonable price and, therefore, are often booked all year round, bringing much needed tourism income to remote areas like Fishguard. They have detailed information for their guests on all things local, from activities, to shops and bus services, so they don't leave visitors to just find their own way.
Trehilyn iitself is a work of restorative genius, and we were lucky enough to bump into the building project leader, Jill, who is now taking the building project into stage three, converting the accompanying mill and barn. Not that you would know it, as any construction was being done very discreetly and away from the main accommodation. She was delighted to show off her giant hopper and boiler in the barn, packed with wood pellets (shipped in from Ireland) and providing all heating and hot water. She led me to the natural reed bed, which deals with all the waste, talked me through the painstakingly slow process of restoring the stonework with mortar and lime plaster, showed me the nature walk which they created along the stream, and shared the stresses of restoring the buildings' roofs.
The roof restoration had been complicated. After realising that the original slates were not salvageable, because the old Pembrokeshire slate had been too soft, they chose a North Wales slate for the new roof, using random shaped slates, and hammering them in one by one onto the local timber lathes using oak pegs. The adjoining cottages have also been redone exactly as per the originals, but these have had lime washed grout painted onto the tiles, as per tradition. As well as serving as protection from the elements, their chalky bright hue offered the perfect juxtaposition against the incoming dark grey sky of a threatening storm.
As the clouds burst, we tucked up beside a log fire, generously stocked up by the owners using farmland supplies, although hardly even necessary with a soft warm heat emanating from the under floor heating being blasted by that hopper next door. The next morning the rain had stopped, and we donned raincoats and walking boots to take in some of the other local walks. Trehilyn is a walkers' dream house. The taxi driver had forgotten one important thing when he said there was nothing up here.The Pembrokeshire Coast Path. Yes, there is no pub or shop within easy reach, and I am sure that most people visiting here come by car. However, I was so relieved that we had left ours at home. It is a four mile walk into Fishguard, but you can follow the 'old road' into town, using a waymarked path across fields and on smaller roads, and then take the one of those best kept secrets of our National Parks back home again, the rural bus service which in this case is The Strumble Shuttle (there are several along this coast path, which stretches for 186 miles in total). This has services all year round, offering not only a service for local people, but also a superb, cheap way for visitors like us to get around. It is important for tourists to avail of these services, as we help sustain it for local people and visitors, but it also keeps cars off the roads. At present, a shocking 90% of visitors to National Parks come by car.
This was our first visit to Pembrokeshire, and so we studied the OS map in detail before planning our 'big' walk of the weekend, with two young kids in tow. We were able to take footpaths across fields and woodlands to main clifftop path. Heading west were the beaches of Glany-Mor and Aber Mawr, but we decided to head East back towards Fishguard, as wanted to guarantee ice cream and a beer when we got there and, being out of season, we thought that the town was a safer bet. Our choice of route was also thanks to the über-efficient local tourist information centre, Oceanlab, which we rang to check on bus services. They talked me through the OS map grid by grid and, with expert local knowledge, and gave me all the time in the world to help plan my child-friendly route.
We started on the cliffs at Carregwasted Point, and followed the beautifully managed coastal path for about six miles in total, along four headlands, following streams heading seawards, watching the Irish ferry come and go, and looking out for dolphins as we walked. This is one of the country's best spots for bottle nosed dolphins, although a little early in the year for us, sadly. Later in the season you can go porpoise spotting, or 'Strumble Watches' with Seatrust. The walk is exhilarating enough without them, and the children found it just the right length (about four hours including picnic break).
Most of the cliff walk from this point into town is set back from the cliffs themselves, and feels very safe. There are a couple of spots, however, which dip right down to the cliff edge, so tread carefully and don't let the children run on too far ahead, when you can't see how the land lies. We didn't meet a single soul until we came into Fishguard, where we had timed an hour to have drinks, chips and game of pool at the Rose and Crown pub, before taking the Strumble Shuttle back up the hill, to the land of nothing, as the taxi driver would have had us believe. For us, on this much needed family weekend away, it turned out to be the land of just about everything.
There are many more details of Pembrokeshire’s stunning landscape, activities and transport options at the NationalPark Authority’s website.
To stock up on local supplies, you can also visit Fishguard Farmers’ Market, held regularly at the Town Hall.
For more information on Fishguard and surrounding area, contact excellent information centre, Ocean Lab, Goodwick, Fishguard, SA64 0DE, Tel: (01348) 872037 . Email: firstname.lastname@example.org