New life buzzes from all directions: why Pembrokeshire in spring is a nature-lover’s dream

New life buzzes from all directions: why Pembrokeshire in spring is a nature-lover’s dream

Edward Thomas’s In Pursuit of Spring, published more than a century ago, is a classic in the nature lover’s library, a lyrical account of the poet’s journey from London to Somerset seeking signs of the coming season. Setting out from a rainy Wandsworth in March 1913, shaking loose a long winter, Thomas yearned for apple blossom and cuckoo flowers, “the perfume of sunny earth”, and the nightingale’s song. “Would the bees be heard instead of the wind?” he questioned anxiously.

This was a relatable pursuit – come March we are all leaning towards the sun – yet rarely might we think of spring as a “place”. For Thomas, it was the rural south-west; for me, the returning spring is best embodied by Pembrokeshire.

Photograph: Guardian Graphics

Though raised a suburban Londoner, like Thomas, I have visited Pembrokeshire probably every year of my life. My mother was born in St Davids, Wales’s most westerly town (or, technically, city), where my grandfather was a member of the cathedral clergy. The family later moved eastwards to Carmarthenshire, but the coastal county remained a regular bolthole throughout my childhood: memories of Whitesands and Caerfai beaches, and of tracing the headland paths and butterfly-fluttered hedgerows are redolent with the smell of warmed bracken and haw blossom.

And as my fondness for the natural world solidified through adulthood – as a gardener, and a landscape and travel writer – Pembrokeshire’s appeal only heightened. Its multitude of wild flowers, treasured birdlife and diverse topography continually draw me back, best of all in the months of spring as new life buzzes from all directions. Long weekend dashes from London, family camping trips, solo stays on its haven islands: if ever I long for vernal brightness, it is always this coastline that beckons.

Stage set … the Gwaun valley at dawn. Photograph: birdsonline/Getty Images

For those whose affections for scenic Cornwall have impeded familiarisation with Wales’s own stretch of pristine beaches and seaward sweeps, I’ll briefly make the case. This still predominantly rural, agricultural county is peppered with Norman castles, Benedictine monasteries, prehistoric ruins, even a Viking shipwreck – and more than a third of it, about 237 sq miles, form the remarkable and rugged Pembrokeshire Coast national park. It may be one of the smaller UK national parks, pipping neither the Cairngorms’ drama nor Dartmoor’s granite-sparkled wilderness, but it is one of the most – if not the most – environmentally varied.

Between the villages of Amroth in the south and St Dogmaels up by the Ceredigion border, the park charts an impressive geology, with the 186-mile Coast Path national trail taking in narrow headlands, limestone arches, isolated stacks and misty islands, stunning bays, beaches, lagoons and coves. For good reason, National Geographic magazine rated it the second-best coastline in the world in 2012, above Italy’s Cinque Terre and the Nā Pali coast of Hawaii.

Crucially, however, the national park also extends inland, along the Milford Haven Waterway, the lowland Dale peninsula and a section of the vast and pleasantly vacant Preseli Hills: beach, cliff, estuary, river, reed bed, moorland, marshland, hill and heath, it’s all there.

This abundance of habitats sets the stage upon which spring plays out, from the earliest sulphur-yellow brimstone butterfly visiting the roadside verges and the breaking of beech buds in the Gwaun valley, to the last Atlantic puffin to come ashore and burrow down to nest. It is a landscape that positively teems.

Atlantic puffin on Skomer Island off the coast of Pembrokeshire in mid spring. Photograph: Philip Jones/Alamy

Add to this some of the UK’s nicest coastal towns and villages – the likes of Newport, Tenby and Solva, whose westward windows open on the cries of curlews and sandpipers – and the rare luxury of regular shuttle bus services (with endearing names like “Poppit Rocket” and “Puffin Shuttle”), and you have a well-catered, easily navigable naturalist’s playground.

My own pursuit of spring through Pembrokeshire would begin inland, and it would begin right now. Global warming has undoubtedly blurred the edges of Britain’s seasons: according to the Natural History Museum, plants in the UK now flower about a month earlier than they once did. Nonetheless, there is a bloom unique to Pembrokeshire that can be relied on as a harbinger of spring: the Tenby daffodil, considered by many to be one of Britain’s two native daffodils.

Right now its speared, glaucous blue-green leaves are pushing above ground; before long – if not already – they will unfurl trumpet flowers more luminous than the primrose. There were once fields of these attractive low-growing daffodils north of Tenby; today, what remain of their decorous tufts can be sought, as I have done myself, in the churchyards of the Cleddau estuary. I think of these as a seasonal starting pistol: soon will follow the stellar whites of stitchwort and wood anemone, and in the fertile soil of nearby Upton Castle gardens, the softly plumped petals of magnolia and tulips.

Before turning west for the wilder coastline I might head south to the limestone lakes of Bosherston, where for some weeks the sweet coconut scent of gorse has perfumed the slim footpath, but now can be seen across the fresh water a new greening of its famous water lilies. At Bosherston I move quietly in anticipation of an otter swirl or kingfisher flash, wandering down towards the secluded, sand-duned bay of Broadhaven South, where the stream meets the sea.

On, then, to Newport, where it is too early to pick samphire from the salt marshes but the scurvy grass is in pink-white flush underfoot. Up on the headland, along from the Parrog (the old port area), the leaf rosettes of foxgloves and sea campion are gathering pace, too.

Harbinger of spring … cheerful Tenby daffodils. Photograph: Taina Sohlman/Alamy

South again, to the blossoming hedgerows of St Davids, yellowed with celandine, and the glinting sea views that draw your attention to Pembrokeshire’s renowned islands. Of the five largest, one is given over to a colony of gannets (Grassholm), another to a Wildlife Trust bird observatory (Skokholm), but the remainder are more easily visited.

From north to south they are Ramsey, Skomer and Caldey, each its own wild wonder. On Ramsey, spring is declared with the arrival of the auks – the guillemots and razorbills returning to their precarious nesting spots on the island’s steep cliffs and ledges. Overhead you might hear the distinct croak of a resident red-billed chough; below, there’s a chance to spot grey seals, temporarily beached for their annual spring moult.

From April onwards, Skomer, the next along, can be reached via the launch at Martin’s Haven near Dale. Considered Pembrokeshire’s premier “nature island”, Skomer is home to the world’s largest colony of Manx shearwater and extensive burrow sites of the nation’s favourite seabird, the puffin. Time your visit just right – somewhere around early May – and these endearingly characterful birds can be seen waddling against a backdrop of violet bluebells and frothy campion: few spring spectacles have struck me so profoundly.

The last stop on my spring pursuit is the “holy island” of Caldey, site of an active Cistercian monastery and probably my favourite quiet corner of Pembrokeshire. Taking the first crossing from Tenby harbour, I would head up towards the island abbey, passing through the sycamore wood beyond, vivid with new leaf, and out on to the high, empty coastline. There, at the mouth of a shallow cave, once a Neolithic shelter, you can sit among cowslips with the sun warming you from the east, and listen for seabirds calling over the muffled waves below. If spring has sprung its fullest, there will be the serenading “pip” of oystercatchers flying in and out from a nest beneath your feet, and a feeling that winter is long past.

Check Also

Doggie paddles: 10 of the best dog-friendly beaches in the UK

Doggie paddles: 10 of the best dog-friendly beaches in the UK

Holkham beach, Norfolk Dog-friendly year-round but with an on-leads rule between 1 April and 31 …

Leave a Reply