Pembrokeshire’s coast is getting a lot of love in this year of the great staycation, but swing your focus away from the crowds to the Cleddau Estuary and you espy ancient oak woods and expansive views with their own quiet, soul-soaring beauty. A whisper away from the sea, The Little Retreat in Lawrenny takes glamping to a whole new back-to-nature level, with wildflower meadows that catch the golden light of late afternoon, secretive walks along tidal waterways and nights spent by the firepit under a blanket of stars.
Why we love it…
Swerve off the busy A40 and drive at a gentler pace down hedgerowed back lanes and you reach the little speck on the map that is Lawrenny. Here, on the edge of an enterprising village that can offer a sourdough bakery, waterside pub and divine cafe despite being small enough to blink and miss, The Little Retreat really hits the ‘hidden’ sweet spot. A handful of luxury geodomes and Lotus Stargazer tents constitute this back-of-beyond glamp, all gathered around a flowery meadow humming with bees. Trails thread up into ancient coastal oak woods. Nature takes precedence here. But it’s nature with a dash of luxury – properly comfy beds, wood-fired hot tubs, outdoor bathtubs with lush-smelling Ayurveda-inspired cosmetics and tents with stargazing roofs playing up the celestial appeal of this dark sky region.
Climb the hill to where Lawrenny Castle once stood, and from a lawn terrace the view cracks open: the estuary spreading out in all its glory beneath you, and beyond the vast natural harbour of the River Cleddau and Milford Haven, which Nelson declared the second finest in the world after Trincomalee in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). These are wide-open horizons to blow away the last lockdown cobwebs; views that are uplifting and hopeful. The area has a rich history of fishing and shipbuilding, as the head gardener Gary – a fount of knowledge on local heritage, history and plant folklore – reveals on his guided walks.
A bohemian soul wrapped in the sleek, modern trappings of the 21st century, with plentiful nods to the nature: this best defines The Little Retreat. As you might expect from the organisers of September’s wellbeing-minded The Big Retreat festival, the vibe is simultaneously peaceful, warm and sociable. It’s all about the outdoors here, whether it’s to be morning yoga with estuary views, a long hike along coastal marshes or a wild swim at a nearby cove. Keep it mellow, relaxed and sustainable is the ethos, with a low-lighting policy so as not to disturb wildlife.
Founder and director Amber Lort-Phillips has poured a lot of love and positive energy into making The Little Retreat what it is. In the same spirit as the festival, the idea is that a stay here should refresh body, mind and soul. People naturally play an important part in this: whether it’s to be sourdough pastries from the village’s artisan baker delivered to your tent for breakfast, foraging and feasting with chef Matt Powell (see below), or a guided walk with Gary the head gardener, who willingly shares his insight on mythology, herbal medicine and edible plants and flowers.
There’s no pressure to take part – you can laze all day in the hot tub, if you so wish, or delve deeper on a wild-swimming tour of the area with a professional guide or painting lessons with a local artist.
Muted tones, lots of light, natural materials, properly comfy beds and a clean, crisp, Scandi-like aesthetic set the tone in the geodomes and Lotus Stargazer tents. Sleeping a family of four, the domes have the luxury edge, with wood-burning stoves and wood-fired hot tubs. The sleep-five Lotus Stargazers are newer and more nature focused, with cool stargazing roofs, telescopes, firepits and outdoor kitchens illuminated by fairy lights. In place of hot tubs, they have freestanding outdoor bathtubs, with lush-smelling Urban Veda cosmetics and bamboo screens affording privacy.
Foraging & feasting
Reason enough in itself to stay at The Little Retreat is the chance to go ‘foraging and feasting’ with Michelin-trained chef and passionate fisherman and forager Matt Powell, who knows Pembrokeshire’s sea, shore and hedgerows like the back of his hand.
We meet Matt on a wild, wind-whipped, rain-lashed day on Freshwater West beach at low tide, moving among the rocks and their pools to gather seaweed for the evening feast: kelp and truffly pepper dulse. The estuary yields riches, too, in the form of sea purslane, sea aster and samphire.
Assembling wild ingredients with an artist’s eye, a choreographer’s skill and a chef’s love of profound flavours and precision, Matt works magic on what nature provides, combining foraged finds with Welsh lamb, fish and lobster.
At an informal chef’s table dinner, we are treated to a multi-course, four-hour-long feast of intricate, unexpected dishes of the like we have never tried before and will never try again. There is wild garlic served three ways (buds, flowers and leaves), smoky air-cured Celtic lamb, an intensely flavoured limpet mousse presented on pebbles with channel and serrated wrack, and “Stack Rocks”: birch meringue coloured with hay ash served with the lightest of egg custards. This is food that conjures the coast on a plate – its brine and beauty, its seasons and rhythms.
“Everything that is around me inspires me,” says Matt. “The plants, the berries, the soil I walk on, the trees I pass, the flowers, the grasses. It’s not all about fine dining, it’s also about conservation. Ecosystems are being destroyed – we need to get back to our roots, back to nature.”
What’s here and nearby
Some of Pembrokeshire’s most delightful beaches – Freshwater East and Barafundle Bay to the south, St Ann’s Head, the Havens and Marloes to the west – are just a quick drive away. But don’t rush straight off. Unfurling beyond the Little Retreat and along the estuary and its mudflats and salt marshes are perhaps Wales’ most enchanting coastal oak woods, gnarled, sun dappled and ripe for a fairy-tale. A circular walk whirls you through them in a couple of hours and lets you stop for a pint by the front at the Lawrenny Arms or lunch at the award-winning Quayside tearoom (review coming very soon), where local dressed crab, lobster salads and delicious homemade cakes sell out in a flash.
For a different perspective, you can kayak or stand-up paddleboard along the coastline, rivers and inland waterways of the Cleddau Estuary. Equipment can be hired and tours booked locally (The Little Retreat will point you in the right direction).
NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From the Little Retreat, it’s 13 miles north to another of our favourite Cleddau Estuary hangouts, the country manor of Slebech Park Estate
At a glance
Snooze factor: 7 The beds are really comfortable and it’s wonderful to wake up to birdsong in the meadows. Generally peaceful but occasional noise from neighbouring tents, which are all in a row together.
Foraging & feasting: 10 Matt’s foraging and feasting experience is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Look, taste and learn.
Food: 8.5 Order in sourdough pastries for breakfast and head to the Quayside for lunch. If the weather’s fine, you might fancy a firepit BBQ (shop in the village). Otherwise the Lawrenny Arms does classic pub grub. Then there is Matt Powell’s foraging banquet to partake of, which bumps up the score!
Eco-friendly factor: 7 A low-lighting policy so as not to disturb wildlife, organic kitchen gardens and a proper back-to-nature feel.
Location: 8 Nicely hidden, with dreamy estuary views and the coast, woodland walks and the coast within easy reach.
Price: Lotus Stargazer tents from £160, luxury domes from £200.