Wild Wild West - Paddles Touring Guide - South Pembrokeshire

Mark Rainsley - June 2005


Green Bridge of Wales (Castle Martin Ranges)

Pembrokeshire in Southwest Wales was the UK’s first ‘Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’ and has our only coastal National Park. It shouldn’t be a surprise then, to learn that it boasts some of the finest coastal scenery anywhere…despite this, paddlers visiting for the first time are often blown away by the place! The name is an Anglicised form of ‘Penfro’, meaning Land’s End... it really does feel like you’ve reached the edge of the world. For the sea paddler, Pembrokeshire has it all; beautiful beaches, cliffs, estuaries and islands, populated by wildlife galore. In this installment of the Paddles Touring Guide, we take to the seas between Tenby and Skomer Island, outlining a series of trips leading you further and further west. Note that all of these trips involve tidal flows and exposed sections of cliffs; seek experienced guidance if you are unsure about the risks involved.

Lydstep Haven to Stackpole Quay

This twelve kilometre trip offers a perfect warm-up to the area. A mix of beaches and sandstone cliffs means that you’re never too committed, and although you’ll encounter some tide races (rapids), they are small and easy enough to negotiate when the sea and wind are calm. The tide starts flowing in your direction an hour before HW Milford Haven, and the flow is quite strong; once you’ve launched, you can’t turn back, although you can finish early at any of the beaches. Lydstep Haven offers convenient parking and launching, but is a Haven for the cursed Jet Skier; don’t hang around unless you like the stench of diesel exhaust.

Rounding Lydstep Point, the first highlight is Skrinkle Haven, after two kilometres. If there is a more perfect sandy cove, we’ve yet to find it. After this is Old Castle Head, which will have a small tidal race speeding you around it. Above on the cliffs is a firing range…obviously you will have called Milford Haven Coastguard on (01646) 690909 beforehand, to check that nobody will be firing at you…?

The next landing point is Manorbier Bay. There is often surf here, so be careful! The castle behind the beach is worth a detour to explore. Between here and the finish are two more possible resting points; Swanlake Bay is delightfully quiet (no road access!) but Freshwater East suffers from over-development on the hills around. The last few kilometres to Stackpole Quay include some great rockhopping around the Iron Age fort of Greenala Head. Stackpole Quay itself is a tiny harbour built to serve the local limestone quarries. The National Trust own the land and supply their usual expensive car park and cafe. Finish – if you dare – by cooling off with a jump off the quay!

Near Broad Haven

Stackpole Quay to Freshwater West

This is the most spectacular coast within the National Park, and a serious but manageable undertaking for the sea kayaker. The eighteen kilometer paddle around the Castlemartin Firing Ranges traverses a fifty metre high limestone plateau plunging vertically into the sea. Along the way are incredible rock formations and enough birdlife to make your ears bleed. The tide rips along with some bouncy wave trains and flows often in excess of five knots. The tide flows west along this coast from around three and a half hours before HW Milford Haven.

Check with the Coastguard or Range Control (01646) 661321 that no firing is taking place. If this is the case and the weather is good, don’t miss this. Out of Stackpole Quay, aim for Stackpole Head, past Barafundle Bay (winner of a ‘Britain’s Most Beautiful Beach’ award). The Head offers the brave a shortcut right through, via a tunnel! On the far side, the air is thick with screaming Guillemots, not the last seabirds you’ll see in the next few hours.

The wide sandy beach of Broad Haven offers a last resting point, after that landing is not permitted by the military…although Bullslaughter Bay offers a possible emergency landing. Paddle around St Govan’s Head and ahead of you a line of imposing limestone cliffs materialises. It’s all pretty stunning, although a few landmarks stand out. First is tiny St Govan’s Chapel, hidden in a cleft near the shore. This is quickly followed by the vertiginous ‘zawn’ (sea-filled cleft) of Huntsman’s Leap. Passing Bullslaughter Bay, the sky fills with Guillemots once more, from the colony on Elegug Stacks. You won’t miss these rock pinnacles, they are stained white with…well, you know. Shortly after the stacks is a famous tourist attraction, ‘The Green Bridge of Wales’.

Oddly, this enormous natural arch is no great shakes when seen from water level; as the surrounding caves and formations are arguably more impressive! Eventually you will reach the end of the cliffs, suffering from scenery overload. The beach of Frainslake Sands is tempting, but you are still on military land so keep slogging to Freshwater West. The last challenge of the day might well be making a surf landing onto the sand here…if the waves look too big, your next sheltered landing is six kilometres further on at West Angle Bay.

Near Broad Haven

Skomer Island

A circumnavigation of a wild island! This twelve kilometre trip includes rampant fauna, crossing strong tide flows and plenty of exposure. Setting out from (and finishing at) Martin’s Haven at the far west of the South Pembrokeshire Peninsula, you get the satisfaction of bypassing the queues of tourists taking the boat trip. The crux of this trip is right at the start, when you ferrygide across narrow Jack Sound with its intimidating tidal race. This starts flowing north four and a half hours before HW Milford Haven, and south two hours after. Whenever you launch, you will find yourself either paddling against or across the tide at some point; study tidal flow charts carefully!

If this seems a step too far for your group, consider following the tide south through Jack Sound to visit fantastic Marloes Sands instead; this trip involves passing steep-sided Gateholm Island and a break on Marloes Sands before heading back. Take time to explore Marloes; the beach features a unique mix of sand and spectacular geology. If you are taking on the trip right around Skomer…be aware of the Marine Nature Reserve’s ‘Seabird Protection Zone’. You can get details of this from the shop at Martin’s Haven, but basically you are asked not to get too close to the island’s cliffs in summer, and the inlet known as ‘The Wick’ is always out of bounds.

We all know that sea kayakers cause minimal disruption; so how they square this with allowing hundreds of fee-paying tourists to walk right past the bird colonies every day, beats us. Also, if you choose to land at the island’s quay, there is theoretically a ‘landing fee’ although they don’t tend to harass kayakers for this. Once you’ve negotiated all this bureaucracy, focus on the positives. Seals are everywhere on this trip, and the Skomer seals are as intrigued by kayaks as any. The island is home to the world’s largest colony of Manx Shearwaters, whom you’ll meet out at sea by day.

There is a colony of Puffins on the south coast, and you’ll almost certainly spot them bobbing around or flying in their usual unconvincing manner. What else? Look to the north and you’ll spot Ramsey Island in the distance across St Bride’s Bay, famous for the ‘Bitches’ tidal Race. But that is in North Pembrokeshire, which will be covered in a future Touring Guide. Watch this space…

Marloes Sands

Marloes Sands

Further Reading

‘Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion – a Sea Kayaking Guide’ by Susan and Raymond Griffiths
‘Irish Sea Pilot’ by Imray Norie
Ordnance Survey Explorer OL36 – South Pembrokeshire

Useful Websites


Mark Rainsley - June 2005