Circumnavigating Dinas Head

St Brynach's Church at Cwm-yr-Eglwys
St Brynach’s Church at Cwm-yr-Eglwys

Slow Journey County: Ceredigion

Slow Journey Destination: Dinas Head, near Newport

Slow Journey Distance Travelled: 3 miles


You know somewhere is going to be special when you have to negotiate long sections of narrow lanes in order to reach it. Cwm-yr-Eglwys (pronounced as ‘coomer-egg-lewis’) is unusual in that it’s one of the few Welsh bays to face north east. It’s a tiny bay crushed between the mainland and Dinas Head, a vast lump of rock that, were the sea level to rise by a couple of metres, would be a true island. Indeed, it is sometimes known as Dinas Island.

The most striking feature, just above the shingle and sand bay, is the remains of St Brynach’s Church: one wall rising out of the bowling-green-flat graveyard. On 25th October 1859 a huge storm destroyed the church that gave the place its name (Cwm-yr-Eglwys translates as Valley of the Church), and also 114 ships out at sea. It seems a little ironic that the church was destroyed by an act of God.

St Brynach's remains at Cwm-yr-Eglwys
St Brynach’s remains at Cwm-yr-Eglwys

Dinas Head draws you away from this tranquil scene. Its height promises magnificent views and it delivers them. But finding your way out of the village isn’t straight forward – the collection of cottages clinging to the hill side make finding the escape route a little difficult to locate, but with the help of an Ordnance Survey map I stumble across a wooden footbridge that takes the path alongside one of these cottages and into the welcoming shade of trees.

The sun can be strong even in a north east facing bay in July, and the shading leaves perform another function – to tantalise. What shields that sun also hides the view, as the slow ascension of the narrow footpath raises my expectations. When I stagger into a clearing the national park coastline stretches far into neighbouring Ceredigion. Over my shoulder a timeless vision of Cwm-yr-Eglwys’ cottages gaze out across the Mediterranean-looking sea. I smile. This is where the locals come to escape the tourists.

Looking back towards Cwm-yr-Eglwys
Looking back towards Cwm-yr-Eglwys

The coast path climbs – not too steeply, but steeply enough to feel that I’m exercising. A series of gull-screeches high above gives me an excuse to stop for breath, as I shield my eyes from the sun and search the cloudless sky. My search is not rewarded, for I fear the noise has travelled from heights that put them way out of my vision’s capabilities.

But I’m not devoid of winged creatures completely. In fact, I’m overwhelmed with them. Every step I take brushes long grasses out of my way, the vibrations of which disturbs squadrons of tortoiseshells, meadow browns and the occasional red admirals into the air before me. I stop, hands outstretched, offering a resting opportunity to any that are brave enough, but none take up my offer.

My stopping offers another benefit: the unmistakeable sound of crickets exercising their wings in the undergrowth. It’s a sound every schoolchild should experience in summer, and one that I don’t remember hearing for many years. It’s as though I’ve stepped back in time.

The quest for the summit pulls my legs once more, and as I turn a corner the Irish Sea dominates my view. Is that the curvature of the earth I can see, or is my mind fooling me? Just off the nearest cliff edge rises a large incisor-tooth-shaped rock, marked on the Ordnance Survey map as Needle Rock. It’s almost white-washed with seabird excrement, revealing its popularity with nesting seabirds between May and mid-July.

Needle Rock
Needle Rock

Further along, a wooden gate provides the perfect resting point to take in the Welsh coastline behind me. There is not a wind turbine in sight, which is just as well, because there’s not enough breeze to bend a blade of grass at the moment.

Gazing along the magnificent Welsh coastline
Gazing along the magnificent Welsh coastline

The path negotiates its way through the vibrantly green bracken. I look around me. There is not a person to be seen anywhere from this vantage point, either on land or on the sea. This spot on the world is all mine for this moment.

Emptiness ...
Emptiness …

After an hour, for I’ve been savouring every step, the summit trig point finally reveals itself, and moments later, I’m there. As I lean against its cool concrete structure, a fresh breeze wipes the beading sweat from my forehead. This is Dinas Head’s highest and most exposed point, which probably explains the breeze. I’m 142 metres above sea level, or 465 feet in old money, and seeing as I was at sea level about sixty minutes ago, I can be confident that I have climbed all 142 metres closer to heaven.

The summit!
The summit!

And what a heavenly view! If it wasn’t for a distant haziness the blue of the sea would imperceptibly merge into the sky’s same blue hue. I have a 180 degree view of uninterrupted sea before me. Half the world is missing, it seems.

I can relax now, knowing that it’s downhill all the way, as the path carries me southwestwards, with far-reaching views towards Fishguard Harbour. A small white dot on the horizon signals the next batch of tourists approaching from the Emerald Isle.

The gentle turning of my path in its slow anti-clockwise direction now has me descending towards Cwm-yr-Eglwys’ opposite bay, and whereas before on my right was vast open areas of Irish Sea, now I have the craggy cliffs that are Pembrokeshire’s dramatic national park coastline, with its idyllically inaccessible coves and bays. Purple heather shoots accompany each footfall as they descend to Pwllgwaelod, which translates as The Bottom Cove, apparently. The occasional child’s excited scream permeates the air, because this dark sanded beach is more popular with the tourists, due to its car park and toilet.

Pwllgwaelod - or The Bottom Cove
Pwllgwaelod – or The Bottom Cove

Moments later, I join a concrete farm track. My feet make contact with civilisation once more, for which I’m grateful. The searing sun has encouraged a thirst to develop and the Old Sailor pub, with it’s beachside location and shaded picnic tables offer welcome relief.

The return to Cwm-yr-Eglwys runs almost at sea-level, between a mile-long valley of trees. I am in the dark, both literally and geographically, for with no view or vista to entertain me in a manner to which I have been accustomed, I am unable to determine my exact whereabouts, until about fifteen minutes later, when the path spits me back into the open summer sunshine at the end of a green field.

Ahead, poking into the sky is the bell tower crowning the remaining wall of St Brynach’s Church: my journey’s end. There is a certain satisfaction to be had from circumnavigating a land mass. In those three and a bit miles, I’ve traversed the pentagon-shaped rock that has transported me back to some schoolboy memories, enabled me to witness vistas capable of devouring whole countries, and allowed me to sample the simple pleasure of a summer’s wander around our spectacular coastline. Life doesn’t get much better than this.

The Pembrokeshire Coast Path, with Fishguard Harbour in the distance.
The Pembrokeshire Coast Path, with Fishguard Harbour in the distance.

The pentagon-shaped DInas Head, Pembrokeshire
The pentagon-shaped Dinas Head, Pembrokeshire

© Simon Whaley

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