The Corvid Path: Walking the Pembrokeshire coast with friends, birds, and arthritis

When I pack the night before I leave, the most important things I include are ten tablets of Arcoxia: my backup anti-inflammatory medication, should my monthly injection for my arthritis fail to hold the line. This five-day trip is a leap of faith, regardless. I don’t know what my back or hips will do when they’re asked to carry ten extra kilograms of weight and lie for hours on a thin air mattress. But if I don’t try, I’ll never know.

* * *

The Pembrokeshire coastal path is 186 miles long, beginning in Amroth and ending in St Dogmaels. The National Trust describes it as ‘the most breathtaking coastline in Britain’. I was counting on this. Awe has its own analgesic properties.

* * *

The sun is peeking cautiously around the clouds when Anna, Nick and I set off from our B&B and the last good night’s sleep we’ll know till we go home. The village is called Dale, which thrills Nick (Dale also being the city that once guarded the entrance to the Lonely Mountain, in Middle Earth). There is indeed a Shire-ish feel to the thin road, the trees gathered around it, and the clacking of my hiking poles. Throughout the week that follows, we trade Lord of the Rings lines at opportune moments.

“When we get to the town we’ll have pints!”

“It comes in pints? I’m getting one too!”

The sun decides to stay, and its light tames both land and sea; this part of Wales is more Riviera than rugged, to me. We’re halfway through September, cutting it close to October. What was I thinking, really? And yet the weather is kind. Summer still holds sway in the flowers along the way: pink puffs of field scabious and the deep purple of the rarer devil’s bit-scabious; white and red clover; ribwort plantain with its cloudy halo of little flower heads; red campion and the swollen seed wombs of bladder campion; gorse; heather; a white umbellifer that I think is wild carrot; and a few purple glimmers of knapweed amidst the brown of their already-dead kin. There is ivy, too, growing up against the path and summoning swarms of bees and flies that fill my ears with volumes of buzzing I can barely believe.

The ivy and bramble hedges vie with the sea for our eyes. It only takes a dip in the path for the waves to vanish from hearing until, a minute later, distant sea caves go back to their booming. I had expected the usual maritime sound effects, not least the constant wailing of gulls. But here’s the greatest surprise of the coastal path: corvids rule. We are never without crow, rook, jackdaw, raven, or chough. Chough! This last species is the only rare corvid in Great Britain, with no more than 350 breeding pairs at present. They have bright red bills and bright red legs, and the voices of exuberant children. Every day we hear the high-pitched raspberries of their calls, as if they’re always laughing, as if they take joy in every moment of their survival. And always, they come in twos. I’ve seen choughs once before, on Jersey. But only now do I realise how much poorer their absence in the rest of the country makes us.

Photo by Nick Phillips

Our paths are crossed by frogs, toads, lizards, and frightfully spined caterpillars, and with the birds and the insects in the air above, with all this life around us, is it any wonder that the cliffs and rocks we pass take living shapes too? We see a sphinx, the face of a rhino with two horns, the undulations of a Loch Ness Monster. Archways like eyes or mouths. And then—no, surely just a boulder in the water?—wait, yes, a seal!

I’d read before the trip that grey seals breed on this coastline, but I’d tucked the fact away, perhaps wishing not to get my hopes up. Such folly. There are more seals than I could hope for. We catch a wailing that we all assume is the wind, until we understand: baby seals are making that sound.

The wise mothers give birth in the remotest coves with the sheerest cliffs, so without binoculars, their babies look like little white slugs. Only the occasional flicker of a flapping flipper gives their identities away. We are still transfixed.

Photo by Nick Phillips

For all the rhapsody of nature around us, civilisation is always next door. Roads, sheep, ice cream vans, overpriced pub lunches. Day walkers with tiny packs who step aside with what I hope is respect at the sight of our back-bulks. There’s no getting lost here (well, most of the time), when there are so many posts with the symbol of the acorn showing us the way on. There’s a beauty to simply following the path, falling into the rhythm of the feet, the weight you carry melding with the rest of your body till you forget about it. Forget, until you take a break and unstrap yourself. Then you feel as if you’re going to float away.

Clouds and rain come for us on the fourth day. Wales is unmasked. The sea rages against the shore. My stomach growls in answer, and I wish out loud for second breakfast.

“I don’t think he knows about second breakfast, Pip.”

The wind bats at us like we’re mice between its paws. But there’s pleasure in pitting ourselves against this true face. Along one stretch of path, the wind coming off the sea is so strong that we can lean into it with our heavy packs, arms out, without falling. On the final day, on the only hill we get sort of lost on, we climb through mist and see in the distance a herd of free-grazing ponies. We’ve seen other groups before, but they’ve all regarded us warily. These ones seem eager for novelty, and they mooch up to us, manes dripping. They nose at our clothes and whicker to each other. It feels as if we’re being written into a fairy tale.

Photo by Nick Phillips

We find the path again and leave the ponies behind. Our aching feet take us the final miles to the Blue Lagoon. Our end, though two more days’ walking would take us to the path’s true end. We sit down on a blue pebbly beach and I prise my toes out of my spongy boots, which I knew were leaky before the trip. A gamble that I just about got away with.

My back and hips are still quiet. Even with the walking over, I don’t dare believe in the absence of familiar pain. And even if things had gone differently, I wouldn’t have been able to do anything about it, save go back home early; on the third evening of the walk, I thought I’d try taking one of my anti-inflammatories to see if it helped ease the soreness in my soles. But when I opened my medicine bag, I realised I’d mistakenly taken duplicates of another medication. My failsafe had been imaginary.

Not that I needed it.

I feel lucky. We are all so lucky, Anna, Nick and I, to have bodies that have carried us with so little complaint across these sunburnt and rain-streaked miles. On our last evening in Pembrokeshire we left our tents to go down to the beach below the campsite, ready in our swim gear. I had forecast seventeen degrees Celsius, though it was more like fifteen when we walked into high yet gentle waves.

We swam out. And round black heads rose to join us—the seals had come again.

The End (for now)

Photo by Nick Phillips
Photo by Nick Phillips
Photo by Nick Phillips
Photo by Nick Phillips
Photo by Anna Livingstone
Photo by Anna Livingstone
Photo by Nick Phillips

4 thoughts on “The Corvid Path: Walking the Pembrokeshire coast with friends, birds, and arthritis

  1. Thank you for sharing this wonderful article. Your hike sounds exhausting but well worthwhile. I would have been overwhelmed by the variety of birdlife, the wild and domestic animals and the stunning scenery.

    Like

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