The South Pembrokeshire Coast: A great route for beginners from Bikepacking Wales
June 20, 20237 min read
2023 is going to be a great year for bikepacking. New trails and routes keep popping up all over the UK. Equipment from companies such as Alpkit gets lighter, more durable and better designed for the British climate, and most of all, bike technology now gives us a range of gravel and mountain bikes ideal for overnight adventures.
What is bikepacking? Call it what you like – bicycle touring, adventure cycling, bikepacking – these are all different names for what is fundamentally the same thing. At its core, bikepacking is all about getting on a bike and going on an adventure. Pioneering cyclists have been doing exactly that for years, well before the term ‘bikepacking’ was coined but the sport has seen an explosion in popularity in recent years. However, like most broad definitions, the reality is a little more nuanced. Bikepacking as a term has arguably developed over time and is used here to describe a style of adventure riding which is self-supported, largely off-road and which incorporates the same type of fun trails you would normally choose for a day out mountain biking. This gives riders the freedom to explore remote landscapes and less-ridden trails which are often only accessed by backpackers on multi-day hikes, and camp out along the way.
Bikepacking in Wales Considering the country’s size, Wales boasts a huge variety of trails and landscapes to explore on two wheels. Come riding here and you might experience craggy mountains, deep valleys, expansive moorland, peat bogs, rolling fields, ancient woodland, limestone pavements, pristine beaches and miles of varied coastline, possibly all in the same day. All of this makes Wales an incredibly scenic place to ride, but often a very hilly place too. On most rides you will need to be prepared to spend a considerable amount of time climbing or pushing.
While there are many options for epic mountain rides in Wales, here we highlight one of the more accessible routes from Emma Kingston’s book Bikepacking Wales, published by Vertebrate Publishing. This route is perfect for those just getting into bikepacking or looking for a laid-back weekend adventure with plenty of time for swimming, exploring and pub stops.
South Pembrokeshire Coast – one of the best shorter bikepacking routes Wales has to offer.
Stretching from Pendine Sands in the east to the Angle Peninsula in the west, the South Pembrokeshire Coast is much flatter than the northern coast, but it is just as dramatic. The area is home to the pretty seaside town of Tenby (Dinbych-y- Pysgod), pristine golden beaches – including award-winning Barafundle Bay – and huge vertical sea cliffs. There are a number of impressive rock features along the coast between Castlemartin and St Govan’s Head, including rocky chasms, huge sea stacks and arches with evocative names like Huntsman’s Leap, the Green Bridge of Wales and the Cauldron. To the north, the coastline is guarded by Pembroke Castle – the birthplace of Henry VII and founder of the Tudor dynasty, while off the mainland nearby Skomer Island is a haven for puffins. Public access along the coast is restricted due to military activity at Castlemartin Firing Range, but when the range is open it feels remarkably empty and remote.
With its sandy beaches, flat non-technical trails, and low mileage, you’d be hard pressed to find a more laid-back bikepacking trip in Wales. This scenic route takes riders on a leisurely tour of Pembrokeshire’s south coast, working its way west predominantly on quiet tarmac lanes to explore the Angle Peninsula, home to sandy bays, historic forts, and Cafe Môr – an award-winning solar-powered mobile kitchen specialising in seafood and now based at The Old Point House pub. Once past Freshwater West, the route hugs the edge of the cliffs on the Pembrokeshire Coast Path across Castlemartin Firing Range. There are birdwatching and swimming spots galore, as well as plenty of places to explore along the way such as the fun mountain biking trails on the Stackpole Estate, Bosherston Lily Ponds, historic Stackpole Quay and St Govan’s Chapel – a tiny hermit’s cell wedged in a cleft between the cliffs.
Turning down the narrow road into the artillery range, the red flags are lowered, curling limply around their white poles in the absence of any coastal breeze. A row of army jeeps is parked up in a line outside the observation tower. Further on, the rusting shells of two camouflaged tanks poke out behind a grassy bank, while Flimston Chapel sits on its own in the middle of a field. For a second, it looks like the chapel tower is on fire, a burst of pink flames rising from the roof. In the time it takes to do a double take and look back again, the flare has vanished. The South Pembrokeshire Coast is a land of contrasts and contradictions. It is one of the most restricted outdoor spaces to visit in Wales, yet it contains the longest section of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path National Trail open to cyclists. It is part of Pembrokeshire Coast National Park –designated primarily for its stunning coastline – yet it sits cheek by jowl with the Pembroke Oil Refinery on the industrialised shores of Milford Haven (Aberdaugleddyf), with its huge storage tanks, cooling towers and eerie flares. And it boasts a huge number of peaceful and unspoilt beaches, yet a significant part of the coast is used by the military for intensive large-scale target practice. In spite of these contrasts, and in many ways because of them, this stunning stretch of coastline is a fascinating place to ride, camp and explore. Perhaps the most obvious contrast though is where the land meets the sea. As you ride along quiet lanes to reach the south of the Castlemartin Peninsula, the fields stretch out in front in a smooth, unbroken plateau. The ocean simply appears to be a continuation of the land. With nothing to fix upon the horizon or provide a sense of scale, there’s a feeling of vastness and grandeur which seems at odds with the flat terrain. That is, until you reach the edge. At Flimston Down, the land abruptly terminates in sheer limestone cliffs with the ocean suddenly 50 metres below, roiling and churning around the area’s impressive geological features. At the end of the artillery range road, the famous Green Bridge of Wales arches out of the water next to two huge pillars known as Elegug Stacks. Further east along the coastal bridleway, Flimston Castles headland is well worth exploring too – cross the defensive curving ramparts of an ancient fort to find the Cauldron, a cavernous blowhole that you can walk all the way around and peer into.
In spring and summer, these cliffs are a bristling, noisy sight to ride past, teaming with guillemots, razorbills and rare choughs. The guillemots like to pack together, squeezing in huge numbers on to the narrow ledges, while razorbills – the emblem of the national park – build their nests in crevices in the rock. Castlemartin has the highest concentration of seabirds on the Pembrokeshire mainland, and this is largely due to the continued military presence in the area. The route crosses Castlemartin Range East which has been used by the Ministry of Defence as a firing range since it was requisitioned in 1938. Further west, the coastline around the Angle peninsula is dotted with ruined forts and batteries built to defend the Milford Haven waterway from the French and the Spanish, while just across the water you can make out Mill Bay where Henry Tudor landed in 1485, ready to stake his claim to the throne. The route passes right under the imposing walls of Pembroke Castle (Castell Penfro), the future king’s birthplace and childhood home. ‘Harri Tudur’ would have been able to draw on his Welsh lineage as he marched through the country, recruiting local men for his army before defeating Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth and claiming the crown as Henry VII. Riding east along the coast, the bridleway is broad, flat and grassy, yet never dull. The sea is a hypnotic and constant presence; regular signs remind you of the explosive consequences of straying off the path and, every now and then, a colourful climbing helmet pops up into view. Pembrokeshire’s cliffs offer some of the most spectacularly positioned rock climbs in the UK, and riding along the cliff edge you get a sense of what it must feel like to make move after committing move high above the ocean. As Mike Robertson writes in the Pembroke guidebook, this area ‘epitomises all that our eclectic world of climbing can offer: isolation, wonderment, freedom, space’. Bikepacking here feels much the same. Peer down into the long, narrow chasm known as Huntsman’s Leap, ride out to Saddle Head along a strip of concrete lined with pink sea thrift and sea campion, and clamber down the steep stone steps to visit tiny St Govan’s Chapel carved out of the limestone cliffs. As the route works its way east, the sheer cliffs briefly disappear. A new, permissive bridleway passes through a military checkpoint, narrowing to singletrack above Star Rock just before reaching Broad Haven. Leave your bike here to explore the golden bays, sand dunes and secret coves, as well as inland to the Bosherston Lily Ponds and the Mere Pool Valley, all of which can only be accessed on foot. Further inland, Bosherston has a great pub and cafe, the waymarked mountain biking trails in Stackpole Estate are short-lived but good fun and the extensive ruins of the Bishop’s Palace (free entry) near Lamphey – once a lavish country retreat for the medieval bishops of St Davids – are well worth visiting too.
Stackpole Under the Stars, Cheriton (three nights minimum stay in high
T: 01646 683 167
Upper Portclew Farm Camping and Caravan Site, Freshwater East.
T: 01646 672 112
Camping pitches need to be booked well in advance in the summer, as well as during school holidays and bank holidays.
Watch out for WATER – there is an outside tap at the toilet block in Broad Haven National Trust carpark. Otherwise, there is little access to fresh water – carry what you need or fill up in one of the pubs or cafes en route.
Other Welsh classic bikepacking routes:
The Gower Peninsula; a 95km classic route.
SOUTH WALES & BANNAU BRYCHEINIOG
Sarn Helen & the Gap Road; at 128km this ride is considered one of the UK’s best tours.
Lower Wye Valley & the Forest Of Dean; 95km of idyllic trails.
Trans Cambrian Way; a 170km challenging rite of passage for any rider.
Machynlleth & Nant Yr Arian; 100km of world-class trials.
NORTH WALES & ERYRI
Tour of Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon) Wales’s 100km answer to the Tour du Mont Blanc.