Saturday, 1 March 2003

Pembrokeshire Coast Path : Part 6

Having pitched my tent on the dunes just behind Barafundle Bay, I settle down to calculate exactly how many miles I’ve walked each day so far (not including detours and diversions) – 14, 17, 24, 18, 16, 15, 19, 12, & 18 miles respectively.  Now there are about 25 miles remaining.  My feet are no longer troubling me like they were and I decide to try and finish on a high note by completing the walk tomorrow.  I have enjoyed planning and reviewing my progress along the way.  I also realise now how obsessive I am about ordering my campsite, keeping things tidy and efficient.  I take great delight in making a cup of tea – using my petrol stove to boil just the right amount of water in the billy can which fits snugly back into its nest between frying pan and saucepan.  Finally, I make my way back down onto the beach and make a good bonfire but before long it starts to rain so I kick sand over it and go to bed.
Later, in a state of semi-consciousness I hear the breathing of a great creature just outside the skin of my tent.  Its huge deep measure sounds like that of a giant and my body tenses for the inevitable ….  As I emerge more fully from my sleep I recognise the muffled steady grating roar of the waves curling over and running up the beach before drawing back against the pebbles.  No giant after all, but my thoughts turn back to the unsolved murder and I feel vulnerable again.  I repeat my night prayer,  “I will lie down and sleep in peace …” and try to lull myself with the rhythm of the waves but every time I’m about to drop off “Fee Fie Foe Fum …” runs through my mind instead. Eventually I sleep fitfully between heavy showers. 
I wake to more showers but they soon pass and at 6 am I get up to blue skies with scattered clouds.  I am ready to go at 7.15, and with a last look back at the beguiling beauty of Barafundle, I set off into what is promising to be a perfect day.  The cliffs are as dramatic as ever and topped by limestone grassland like a sweet green carpet woven with the blue, pink and white of wild flowers.  Using an identification guide I’ve managed to learn some of the different species along the way.  The names are poetry enough in themselves: wild thyme, common storksbill, rock sea-spurrey, thrift, sea campion, bird’s foot trefoil, common centaury, sea mayweed, viper’s bugloss, heath spotted orchid and scurvygrass.  I stop and chat for a while to a widower.  He’s very friendly and loves being out on the cliffs – but I rather sense that the beauty can’t quite fill the emptiness.
Will I manage to finish today?  I don’t know.  I’ll have to see.  The thought of it feels a bit like the end of life after all that I’ve been through.  What will it feel like when I do finish …?  I turn my attention from such questions to the hot pasty and cup of tea that I have just bought at Freshwater East.  When I get to Swanlake Bay, I am almost tempted to stop and camp.  My guide book is accurate in describing it as one of the most secluded and least visited bays in Pembrokeshire.  There is plenty of driftwood for a good bonfire too but the day is still young and I press on to Manorbier.  As I approach I pass a magnificent house which is being extended to provide yet more opportunity to sit and enjoy the already panoramic views of the bay and the cliffs.  I am envious.  I think about the effect it must have on someone who is lucky enough to live with such a view.  I think of the little flat I’ll be going back to. Its views aren’t too bad actually.   To the east I can see the crematorium and to the west glimpses of road, railway, river and canal, a steelworks, a retail park, cleared industrial land, and residential areas – certainly interesting.  There are flats not far from it, however, which look straight out onto a brick wall and hardly get any light – soul destroying, I should think.
In Manorbier, which is dominated by its mediaeval castle, I make a diversion to the Church.  It is full of interesting features, strange angles, and enticing views, which draw you to go in further.  Continuing on the path again there is a sudden spectacular view of Lydstep Head.  I go back up the way I’ve come to take a detour around it.  Then I go on round Giltar peninsular with spectacular views over Caldey Island with its living monastery.  Once again I am overwhelmed by wind, sea and clear sky and I honestly feel that if I jumped off the cliffs I could fly – though I decide not to for now.  Rounding the point, I get a new view and suddenly feel a lump in my throat.  For the first time, as I look at the distant coast, I can’t say “That’s where I’ll be walking tomorrow”.  I can see beyond Amroth and know that the end is nigh.  However, there are still plenty of miles to cover today and I push on towards Tenby, making an entry by way of the beach, where they seem to be filming some kind of period drama on the sand around St Catherine’s Island.
I pass the very quaint harbour, devour a cream tea and visit the Tourist Information Centre.  Then I push on again.  Tired now I pass along in a bit of a dream through the pinewoods towards Saundersfoot and on.  My right heel is beginning to seize up.  It’ll all be over today whatever happens.  Just after Saundersfoot the path plunges into a tunnel – once the route of a narrow gauge railway that connected coal workings to the harbour.  The exit is partially obscured and it is so dark I can’t see the sides.  The roof drips with cold solemnity.  There are hidden alcoves that recede further into darkness and the metaphor of death seems to become more powerful.  More so again when I emerge from the gloom into what feels like the last judgement.  The old railway course is just above the sea at its high tide and the waves come crashing in between the groins, tearing at the rocks on the beach so that they roar like lions waiting to pounce. The heavens above open for a while in a solid downpour.  Then the sun breaches the clouds and a full rainbow arches over the path.  What more can there be?  I can almost believe I have entered a new state of being with a weight of glory founded partly on the suffering it has taken to get here and partly on the sheer beauty of Life.
Then suddenly it is over.  No lights, no cheers, no welcome party.  Nothing much at all really.  Just a modest sign by the sea wall where I pause for a time before making my way into the welcoming warmth of the pub.
I sign the visitors’ book.  They are very friendly and quite impressed by my ten-day effort especially as I was carrying all my gear.  According to them about 25 people complete the full walk each year.  Some do it unencumbered by baggage and with full backup – the record is 2½ days.
(The end)

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