When I tell people I’m going on holiday to Pembrokeshire, which I’ve been doing with my family for about 15 years, they tend to say, ‘Oh, St David’s, wonderful. And I say, ‘No, further south, a little place called Stackpole, just at the lower end of Wales,’ where they’re mostly glazed. And if I add that there are exceptionally beautiful beaches with fine soft sand, they nod politely, not convinced.
It’s one of the joys of the area that it doesn’t have a higher profile – move those beaches just across the Bristol Channel in North Cornwall and they’d be heaving. But on a late July evening on Barafundle Bay – regularly included in lists of the best in the world, beating Bondi and Copacabana – you’ll find you have it pretty much to yourself. And the phone reception is so terribly awful that it’s really unlikely you’ll be able to take a call from the office.
Barafundle was the private beach of the Campbells of Cawdor who owned the Stackpole estate from 1689 until they handed it over to the National Trust in 1976, and can only be reached on foot via a hilly cliff walk (via good weather you might see pods of bottlenose dolphins) or across the old deer park from the Cawdor stately home of Stackpole Court. In fact, where the vast house used to be is now an empty stretch of grass. Soldiers quartered there during World War II ripped the lead from the roof and sold it, allowing rain to seep in, and in 1963, with the building beyond repair, the Cawdors had it demolished. The outbuildings remain ghostly monuments, as does the large terrace overlooking the vast lily ponds with which the Cawdors flooded the land below the house. Their creation was an extraordinary experience madness of grandeur, but now offers the public dreamy, shaded walks to Barafundle and the larger but equally secluded Broad Haven South Beach. They are home to otters.
The sea temperature, even in summer, is far from the Caribbean, but it’s, uh, like a bath when you’re there. The coastline is dotted with cathedral-like caves that you can walk through at low tide or coasteer around at high tide. For the warmest little pocket of water, take a short drive to Freshwater East Beach and hike to the end where the sand is softest and the early evening sun hits the water. .
If you’re serious about surfing, head to Freshwater West at the tip of the peninsula, a short drive around Castlemartin Army Range on farmland requisitioned from the Cawdors in 1938 ( at night you can often hear the slightly eerie muffled boom of tank fire, like distant thunder). Freshwater West hosts the Welsh National Surfing Championships and, with its tide warnings, is altogether wilder than the other beaches around Stackpole. Harry Potter fans will probably want to see the pile of decorated stones that grows larger every year as more fans make pilgrimages to the site of Dobby’s grave in the Harry Potter film. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. After a short drive, visit the small 13th century cliff side chapel of Saint Govan. He was a 6th-century hermit who lived in a fissure in the rocks – and, depending on who you believe, he was an Irish monk, a thief or Sir Gawain in his declining years.
After you get hungry, head to the Boathouse Tea-room at Stackpole Quay for a cone of Pembrokeshire Promise or Merlin’s Magic Welsh ice cream, Welsh rarebit or cream tea, then to the local gastropub, The Stackpole Inn. Head chef Matt Waldron has worked with Hélène Darroze at the Connaught and his menu showcases local produce – Angle Bay oysters with shallot vinaigrette, roasted Welsh rump of lamb with Wild Garlic Stackpole – with a constantly changing fish menu depending on the catch of the day. The front garden is perfect for an early evening pint and there are lovely rooms where you can stay in an adjacent building. It’s not an area flooded with hotels but there are plenty of good holiday rentals: we go to an old carriage house with an enclosed courtyard and a barn-sized kitchen in the village of Stackpole Cheriton . The National Trust also offers a range of pretty cottages and barns to rent around the estate.
The nearest town is Pembroke, with its well-preserved medieval castle that sits atop a prehistoric cave, Wogan’s Cavern. For lovers of antiques, curiosities and salvaged furniture, head to Aladdin’s Three Caves at the Pembroke Antiques Center (in the old Wesley Chapel), The Chapel (in the old Baptist Chapel) and the Pembroke Market Emporium; and there’s an unexpected indy guitar shop, Main Street Music, with Fenders, Gretschs, Tanglewoods and more hanging from the rafters. Wisebuys grocery store is the place for foodies, with local fresh fruit, vegetables, cheese, herbs, cakes and cookies. Outer Reef, just down the road from the resort, will arrange water sports activities for you – and a wetsuit, if the water turns out not to look like a swim.