With staycations booming, James Ruddy discovers some surprising ‘hidden treasures’ on a short break to Pembrokeshire’s magical coast.
As I wandered through a Jurassic Park-style valley of fallen trees and babbling waterfalls, I soon realised that this year of ‘Staycation Britain’ could teach us all to appreciate the intrinsic beauty of our own land.
My ramble was taking me through a little-known trail in the ‘hidden’ Cwm Gwaun Valley where just a few savvy walkers pass occasionally to enjoy its remote tranquillity and closeness to Pembrokeshire’s primaeval beauty.
That such a rarely-touched delight exists in the heart of Britain’s most popular tourist magnet – the magnificent Pembrokeshire coastal national park – is evidence that some secret delights may await us all, even on our doorsteps, in this year of continuing pandemic chaos for foreign travel.
Indeed, the valley wasn’t the only surprise I was to discover on a short break to this geological miracle, carved by ancient ice flows and renewed daily by the ebb and flow of the lively Irish Sea.
My base the ultra-modern Twr Y Felin Hotel, which proved the perfect centre for an exploration of some ‘hidden’ local sights, starting with Caldey Island, just an hour’s drive away via a boat from Tenby.
Public visiting has just reopened after pandemic lockdown and provides a reverential insight into a world of Cistercian monks and an abbey that sits where Christians have prayed since the sixth century.
There were no monks in view, but there was a definite sense of otherworldliness as we toured the empty beach and made our way up to the small Calvary, with its dramatic view over the bay.
Later in Tenby, we had an early evening meal in another lesser-known eatery, Nora’s Kitchen, a Malaysian curry stall, where authentic Nasi Goreng Kampung and Nyonya Lime Chicken Curry are cooked under the roof of the county’s oldest market (chartered in 1290) and in a fabulous Grade Two listed building.
Our journey back took us to Prendergast Woods, for the carpet of bluebells, near the pretty Solva fishing village.
Bug Farm and Grub Kitchen
Next day we were heading for another little ‘secret’, Dr Sarah Beynon’s Bug Farm and the Grub Kitchen, run by her chef husband, Andy Holcroft, the UK’s first edible insect eatery.
After a lively chat with Sarah about the sustainability of insects as a major source of worldwide protein foods, Sue and I sat down to a mixed platter of foods.
Of course, Andy stressed that his menu isn’t all about bugs. Indeed, the main ethos of Grub Kitchen is serving freshly cooked, full-flavoured, local and sustainable food. Plant-based and children’s dishes are always available.
But we had to try. After sampling fried bats in Malaysia, which were crunchy and cooked in sesame oil, we had to try the VEXo Balls, looking like meatballs but using the farm’s award-winning insect and plant protein, which tasted like . . .well . . . decent meatballs. The same could be said of the VEXo Bolognese, although the Spiced Cumin and Mealworm Hummus had dried bugs on top and was very palatable, although quite crunchy.
Our final ‘secret’ came the next day and involved several miles of slow driving along single-track country lanes deep into the Cwm Gwaun Valley, a hidden and utterly unspoilt place surrounded by steep, wooded hills, including the Preseli Mountains.
We were there to meet Robert Vaughan, a sheep and Welsh Longhorn Cattle farmer, who was visited three years ago by TV chef Jamie Oliver to cook his renowned mutton on his Channel 4 TV series Jamie and Jimmy’s Friday Night Feast.
Penlan Uchaf Gardens and Tea Rooms
Our aim was to witness the reopening of his family’s nearby rural heaven, the Penlan Uchaf Gardens and Tea Rooms, run by his elderly father and mother, Dilwyn and Suzanne Vaughan.
Having also been closed by the pandemic, the three acres site is at the top of a steep hill, where the couple live and have nursed it for three decades, attracting as many as 20,000 annual visitors from across the world in its heyday.
Great British gardens describe it as ‘on the wild side and on the side of a hill. Do not expect manicured borders and tidy lawns. It is however in a magical position and has many different plants which give great colour especially early on in the season.’
And that is the essence of the place, according to Dilwyn and Suzanne, to allow visitors to enjoy the tranquillity and the views, amid the ponds, the wildlife and the natural beauty of the place.
Later, Robert pointed us to his other local ’secret’, the twin waterfalls walk which lies, largely hidden opposite his farmhouse a mile or so along the valley.
This was another utterly peaceful place, where the water trickled amid damp moss and broken trees covered in fronds of lichen and surrounded by carpets of ferns. Magical.
Before we left, we were directed to one of the country’s quirkiest pubs, the Dyffryn Arms, locally known as Bessie’s and run by Bessie Davies’s family since 1845. The draught beer is Bass, served through a hatch via a jug and the pub celebrated 40 years in the Good Beer Guide back in 2015. Quirky, indeed.
And so, we ended our ‘secret Pembrokeshire’ tour on a fascinating and idyllic note, in the knowledge that even the most popular and busiest tourist places still have their hidden gems if you just take the time and trouble to look for them with fresh eyes.
Tell me more about exploring the Pembrokeshire coast
The Twr Y Felin Hotel provides a lasting memory of its 100 artworks, which evoke the dramatic landscape of the region. Rooms are £250 a night. Go to https://twryfelinhotel.com/ T:01437725555 E: firstname.lastname@example.org;
For more information on the area, go to Visit Pembrokeshire