The strange but stunning path to the last invasion of Britain: a circular hike from Fishguard

Distance: 10km (taking Pen Anglas headland loop 11km)

Through the moor to the sea… ©Kerry Walker

Not many people tarry too long at ferry ports: they are all about getting to somewhere else, after all. But with Fishguard, for most just a harbour from which to high-tail it across to Ireland, those that dally will discover one of Southwest Wales’ prettiest settlements. It hugs the pronouncedly riven inlets of Northern Pembrokeshire with its helter-skelter streets, quietly sophisticated cafes, amazing pubs and a Lower Town spreading around the mouth of the River Gwaun that makes it quite simply one of the most prepossessing international ports in Wales or England (we challenge you to come up with a lovelier one!).

Fishguard does not shout about its appeal whatsoever. In fact, it lacks the obvious charms of St Davids, blessed with tantalisingly epic history and abundance of nearby beaches, or the number of boutique eats and sleeps that Narberth can boast. It is winsome, but also workaday – arriving or departing from its port area will leave you unmoved – and you have to make an effort to find its best bits.

Fishguard actually separates into three distinct areas. The ferries to/from Rosslare in Ireland arrive/depart from Fishguard Bay in Goodwick, and here is where the railway station for the ferry is also located. Fishguard itself, both Upper Town and Lower Town, is mostly concentrated around the next headland, and its own separate steep, deep inlet of the bay. And go into its town centre you absolutely should – starting, perhaps, with refreshments at what is in our opinion one of the best cafes in Pembrokeshire. But for an immediate get-off-the-ferry-and-get-out-exploring experience, this hike is quintessential beautiful-but-bizarre Fishguard.

Begin by an opulent-looking but utterly abandoned hotel, climb woods to a Neolithic burial chamber on the edge of a housing estate, then kick out on the coast path over bewitching flower-covered heath and serendipitous bays sunk within precipitous cliffs to the site of the last foreign invasion this country ever saw (which happened in fittingly outlandish circumstances). Complete the circle by coming back cross-country via the delightful dinky hamlet of Llanwnda with its attractive parish church.

The route

The former Fishguard Bay Hotel, styled with some ostentatiousness after the grand hotels of Alpine Europe but now permanently closed and pretty derelict, is the rather strange starting point for this hike. It would have been a neat little bolthole back in the day: close to the port and accessible from there by the coast path, yet serenely screened from it (and indeed all else) by trees. It closed at the beginning of the first Covid-19 lockdown in 2020 and provides rather handy (free) parking for this hike right now, as hardly anyone else goes there.

The trail from here, the course of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path in fact, zigzags steeply up through the woods from the first of the parking bays you’ll see on the hotel access road. It is a nicely maintained section, with handrails in places, and brings you up to the steep New Hill road, on which you turn right. As you enter the area of Goodwick called Harbour Village, the road divides, with the larger road bearing right through the housing development. Take the other (left-hand) fork on the narrower road but immediately hang right along the back of some garages. An overgrown path then delivers you to the trio of bracken-covered burial chambers at Garn Wen, one of an astonishing number of Pembrokeshire Neolithic burial chamber sites. In the scrubby ground at the back of a housing estate walkers would normally make efforts to avoid, It is one of the Fishguard area’s most intriguing quirks: prehistoric tombs dating to anywhere between 2900 and 4400 BC. Continuing beyond the main burial chamber, the simplest route is to divert across to the road bisecting Harbour Village, turn left and continue to the last of the houses and the point where the tarmac transforms into a far more inviting countryside coastal path.

The purple and yellow coastal heathland of Pen Anglas headland ©Kerry Walker

Now the way swiftly becomes dazzling (although without losing any of its eccentricities). You pass above the breakwaters and port buildings far below, contrasted with the otherwise comely and little-developed cliff-framed coastline of Fishguard Bay. The path soon ducks through a wooden gate and enters an enchanting gorse- and heather-festooned heath, part of the National Trust Pen Anglas headland. It now gets rather up-and-down, in true Fishguard fashion! The main coast path is distinctly marked, as is the right-hand turn off across the heath out to the snaking rocky promontory of Pen Anglas. The diversion out to the point is really worthwhile if you can spare the time: not only is the heathland ravishingly beautiful when flora is in full bloom in summer, but you get to spy the harbour fog siren at the far end and grab great views of craggy Anglas Bay, where seals sometimes frolic and where few humans usually venture. Nor do you need to return the same way: a path rejoins the coast path (which you would otherwise be staying on) later.

It is surprising, given how close you are to Fishguard, that this next swathe of coast path seems so little-traipsed. Perhaps it is the lack of road (or path) access points to the sea for the next five miles up to Strumble Head Lighthouse. But it is splendid if exposed clifftop walking, via horseshoe-shaped Anglas and Porth Maen bays, over boulder-bestrewn moorland and and around steep gullies where waterfalls tumble. We passed the only other two hikers we spied on the whole route here, who marvelled at us doing this hike with our six-month-old baby – and that was before a spate of freak downpours, the like of which you rarely see from one year to the next, which lashed down on us in the middle of the exposed parts!

And then, suddenly, as you meet the sheerest cliffs of the route around another remote bay the cartographers could not be bothered to name, you hear the sound (if you are doing this between July, as we were, and December) that will ensure this walk lives on in your memory for a long time. The sound of seals barking. Magnified by the acoustics of the cliffs soaring up around the far-below shingle bay on which, now you look more closely, the seals are lying berthed for giving birth, prostrate on the rocks or slipping between shore and ocean. We have spent much time walking much of Wales’ coast and this was one of our favourite wildlife encounters.

Sealing the deal ©Kerry Walker

The seals are the only ones mooring on the lonely little rocky beaches here today. But back in 1797, it was the French, during the course of the last-ever (and almost certainly the most comical) foreign invasion of Britain. You won’t need to linger long in Fishguard before you hear the story. But as you round the next headland to see Aber Felin, the deepest of the bays on this walk and with a mesmeric blue-green hue to its waters, you are sighting the place where it happened…

The last invasion of Britain

Essentially, during a time of tense Anglo-French relations just after the French Revolution, France’s new government decided workaday folks in Britain would also love to support the revolutionary cause given half a chance. And so an invasion was orchestrated. This was to be headed by one Colonel William Tate, an Irish-American veteran officer with his bloodline descending from two further nations who had precious little cause to like the Brits at that time. With France’s foremost fighting men elsewhere deployed in Europe, Tate’s forces were a motley bunch comprising many former prisoners. And bad luck dogged the enterprise from the beginning. They had intended to land at Bristol, to wreak havoc on what was then England’s second city, but bad weather forced them round the coast to Tate’s second-choice landing place, Cardigan Bay. With Fishguard Bay itself presumably far-better defended, it was the natural harbour here selected for launching the attack, and here the invaders landed on February 23rd. But as fate would have it, a Portuguese ship laden with food and booze had recently been wrecked and had its cargo salvaged by locals and Tate’s men found pilfering the alcohol a much more appealing activity that hardened fighting. Most were too drunk after a couple of days to proceed with the plan of attack. The 47 year-old wife of a Fishguard cobbler, Jemima Nichols, even managed to round up a dozen of Tate’s befuddled men with a pitchfork and marched them to Fishguard for incarceration: a comic end to a comic episode. You can read more here about the last invasion of Britain.

Skirt Aber Felin’s eastern side to the point where it plummets into the steep wooded cwm of Cwm Felin, where your path back to Fishguard shoots off at a sharp angle through fields to the left. Then, staying on the coast path a little longer, descend the cwm and clamber up the far side to the following headland, Carregwastad Point, where a stone marks the French landing. Return through Cwm Felin to take the afore-mentioned path through fields leading diagonally away from the coast with the teensy hamlet of Llanwnda visible ahead.

Llanwnda comprises of a few houses surrounding the originally 6th-century church of St Gwyndaf’s, a prepossessing if tiny building framed by its pitched stone belltower dating in its current form from the 12th to 15th centuries. The place of worship was likely sheltered in by the French forces who were doubtless tired from having hauled firearms and other weapons of war up the cliffs. The fetchingly walled churchyard makes a well-earned stop for tucking into that thermos-full of coffee! Stroll on along the lane to a T-junction and go straight over on a track that detours around Llanwnda Riding School, then at the end of the far side of the property switches 90 degrees to the left. Down the now-muddy track you spy a farm below you, and must pass through a gate between farm buildings to join the end of a metalled road at a farmyard. The views ahead show the full extent of Fishguard, tumbling to the ocean below. The little lane descends to Harbour Village where you rejoin the outward route – by the backs of those garages.

Fishguard is one of our special star destinations. Scroll to the bottom for our mini guide to access all our Fishguard content in one place – at the bottom of each of our Fishguard articles – meaning you don’t miss anything we’ve written about the destination! 

Seal bay from the other side… ©Kerry Walker

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From the start point for this hike at Fishguard Bay Hotel, it’s 8 miles southeast to the Dyffrryn Arms in Cwm Gwaun, one of Wales’ most traditional surviving taverns.

At a glance

How to get there: To get to our recommended start point, from the ferry continue to the roundabout (the first and then immediately the second) and at the second one take the last exit (right) signed towards a fish and chip restaurant. Continue past the station turning on the left a little further to a right-hand turn at a steep bend. This leads you to the old Fishguard Bay Hotel, woodsily screened from the clamorous port goings-on, and the hotel’s several available parking bays.

Parking: Several parking bays in the hotel car park which – because it is abandoned – is not going to irk anyone (and parking on the higher-up road is tougher because it’s a residential area).

Refreshments: At the ferry port, before you start (or the nearby Ocean Lab development just south along the bay). The hotel is abandoned which limits refreshment possibilities (but adds to the intrigue!)

Best time to visit: It has to be summer, May onwards when the flowers carpet the heathland in the early part of the walk, and when the weather stands a chance of being more tamed and less rainy!

Map:

FISHGUARD MINI GUIDE:

Eat & Drink: The Gourmet Pig, Fishguard: one of Pembrokeshire’s suavest cafes

Eat & Drink: The Dyffryn Arms in Cwm Gwaun: a Pembrokeshire boozer not much changed in a century… or more

Sleep: Manor Town House: the guesthouse serving Fishguard with hotel-level class