Exploring Pembrokeshire : A Few Of My Favourite Things

My family and I have been visiting the starkly beautiful and atmospheric Pembrokeshire coast on an annual two-week holiday for the past nine years. Over time, our holidaying fellowship has evolved and what started as a quiet break for the four of us (my parents, sister and I), has now become a wilder event involving partners, cousins, aunts, uncles, the occasional brother-in-law and a puppy. When people ask why we return to the same place in south west Wales year after year we struggle to articulate its enduring appeal. For us, it’s a slice of Heaven. The landscape feels otherworldly, the towns and villages are quaint, pretty. But most importantly it provides us with some uninterrupted time each year to reconnect, where regular life doesn’t get in the way. It’s a home from home but a true escape from our real worlds.

We’ve always chosen to stay just outside St Davids, which feels like a village but is actually Europe’s smallest city owing to its gorgeous cathedral, on a working farm that hosts enough converted barns to accommodate our ever-expanding group. The owners are now so accustomed to our visits that our favourite barn is permanently reserved for us during the first two weeks of September! The farm sits on top of a quiet and secluded pebbly bay which is perfect for kayaking, swimming, seal spotting and generally lazing about and is accessible by the Pembrokeshire Coast Path. We try and get down there each day during our stay.

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My sister’s puppy, Reggie, playing in the bay below our accommodation.

Over the years we’ve considered ourselves “lucky” with the weather which has granted us some warm and bright days on, in and by the ocean, (I guess we can thank global warming for these Indian Summers in the UK!). But, for me, the coastline comes alive on the stormier days, when the sea is whipped into frothy white waves that crash against black igneous rock faces. When the wind rips through the last of the purple heads of heather, casting its scent across the moorland. When our barn windows are battered by gales while we cuddle up inside. I’ll be honest, I do tend to have the odd Kate Bush moment when I find myself out of earshot of other humans. Hair everywhere, no make-up, belting “Wuthering Heights” at the top of my lungs. It’s difficult not to get swept up in the drama.

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Taking a stroll along the Pembrokeshire Coast Path.

Pembrokeshire is fast becoming a hotspot for stay-cationers in the UK and St Davids and its surrounding towns and villages never really change (I love that), so I’ve put together a list of my five most favourite things to do while staying in the area. I hope you find a chance to fall in love with them too.

Grab an ice cream at Gianni’s

Gianni’s is an institution in St Davids, renowned for their amazingly varied, constantly changing ice cream menu. They’re fully indie and source all of their milk from nearby Caerfai Farm so you’re truly supporting local business when you shop here. My lactose intolerant dad is always a big fan of the dairy free option and dogs can enjoy their very own bowl of caramelised bacon flavoured ice cream. My personal favourite is Turkish Delight – rose flavoured with huge chunks of dark chocolate. Nom.

Take an offshore boat trip with Voyages of Discovery

Voyages of Discovery offer a few types of excursion from the lifeboat base at St Justinians, and I think at this point we’ve just about covered them all. But, for me, no other tops their offshore trip to Grassholm. A small, uninhabited island, it lies approximately 8 miles from the Pembrokeshire coastline and a huge colony of gannets rule supreme. You can hear and smell them before you see them! The turbulent waters surrounding Grassholm are also teaming with curious dolphins, porpoise and occasionally other whales and sharks so it’s an excellent opportunity to observe the oceanic wildlife. The Voyages guides are always funny and knowledgeable too.

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Gannets surrounding the shores of Grassholm.

Stop for a pint at The Sloop

The Sloop Inn at Porthgain is, quite simply, my idea of the perfect pub. Set in a picturesque fishing harbour, it’s one of those places that thrives no matter the weather. The patio is a sun trap and a dreamy vantage point of the harbour on hot days and the cosy pillowed booths, fairy lights and warm smiles are all the respite you need in a storm. If you want to feel like you’ve earned your drink then go for a brisk walk up to the white navigation beacon (and beyond!) above the harbour beforehand; you’ll find some stunning views and curious ruins to explore. And if you have time for more than a swift half, try booking for lunch or dinner. The Sloop’s seafood is always fresh and locally caught, you won’t be disappointed (unless they’ve sold out!).

Try Coasteering with TYF

For those seeking a slice of adrenaline-filled adventure look no further than TYF’s half day coasteering session around St Davids. For those unfamiliar with coasteering, it’s essentially a bit of a scrabble around the coast including some rock climbing and swimming, exploring the biodiversity of the area with the always friendly and erudite instructors, and a lot of throwing yourself off of rock faces. TYF provide all the safety equipment you need and they’re on hand to offer a gentle word of encouragement if you’re feeling a little shaky. I had a real sense of achievement at the end of our session and I can honestly say it was one of my favourite things ever. I can’t wait to do it again.

Devour a lobster roll at Café Môr

We only discovered Café Môr two years ago but it’s now a permanent fixture on our itinerary. Set amidst the sand dunes at Freshwater West, this small street food stand may not look like much at first glance but it really is something special. They place an emphasis on traditional Welsh ingredients and sustainability, using laver seaweed in most dishes and harnessing solar and wind energy to power the café. There is something about fresh, locally caught seafood that is unbeatable for me, so their Famous Lobster Roll complete with Welsh Sea black butter and lemon mayonnaise is my choice. But if you’re a dedicated carnivore like my husband then the Môr Burger (a beef and laver bread patty) is an excellent alternative. Eagle-eyed Harry Potter fans will also recognise Freshwater West as the site where Dobby is buried in Deathly Hallows, near Shell Cottage (home of Bill Weasley and Fleur Delacour). Yes, I geek out every time.

Pembrokeshire is a place that is calling out to be explored, and although these are some of my favourite things I urge you to visit and discover some of your own. We might tread some familiar paths each time we stay but we also make an effort to search for new and hidden gems – nothing feels better than finding a tiny secluded cove, a new seal pupping beach or shipwreck while rambling along the coast. The area is steeped in history, myth and folklore – from tales of King Arthur to the legend of St David (Dewi Sant) himself. I always arrive feeling tired after a relentless few months at work but can rely on feeling refreshed, inspired and just a little more content when I leave.

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Adulting, Actually : (Not At All)

On the approach to my thirtieth birthday this December I’ve been feeling reflective. Before you sigh and move on because this is another “quarter life crisis” (more than!) post – it’s not. I know that nothing about entering my thirty-first year on Earth will alter who I am – my loves, hates, morality, ideologies – I know they will remain the same. But despite my better judgement, I have on occasion found myself thinking about the ways I’ve spent my time and whether things should be different. Should I have studied harder? Own a property by now? Have a better job?

My favourite website The Pool recently ran a series of articles entitled “Adulting, Actually”, wherein some of my favourite writers talked about their experiences of making the transition from “post-adolescence” – that sweet spot around your early to mid-twenties – to full blown adulthood, and the defining moments that help the process along. Some surmised that adulthood is more of a construct than a way of being, designed to make us feel a bit shitty about ourselves when we’re not “adulting” properly. Others agreed that it’s a process; becoming an adult is like rifling through a pick n’ mix of life-altering events, exploring the choices we make and how we make them. There are also those who strive for a certain type of adulthood, whose every move is considered, with the sole purpose of being perceived as a successful human. The Instagram Perfect Adults.

When I look back on the moments that have helped to define me I am overcome with a feeling of uneasiness. It’s a bizarre mix between the most sorrowful and uncomfortable and hopeful and contented events. One writer at The Pool suggested that experiencing the death of someone she loved for the first time shook her violently into the first throes of adulthood. She talked of mustering the power to comfort others while grappling with her own grief and suddenly having a distinct sense of her own mortality.

My own initiation occurred in 2008, with the death of my beloved grandad. But although most certainly a defining moment for me, I didn’t feel at all adult-like on that day or in the weeks that followed. A university student at the time, I fell into a most ridiculous and self-indulgent routine of drinking too much wine, smoking weed and having faux philosophical conversations, listening to the same Annie Lennox song over and over, and just sobbing. Painful gut-wrenching sobs, into my pillow. Like I was in Dawson’s Creek or something. Then at the funeral I clung to my younger sister, undoubtedly the more mature of us, relying on her for strength. And later at the wake, drinking too much Champagne, and arguing with my aunt (whom I adore) for the first time, openly and publicly. I don’t think I could have reacted to the loss in a less dignified way, it certainly didn’t feel like I’d made it to the rarefied atmosphere of The Adults.

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Baby me, with my Pa.

There was another moment, it happened a few years earlier, a girl accused me of racism at a party. The accusation was unfounded and I’ll never understand what prompted her disdain, but what followed undeniably changed my outlook. A month after the party she set up a Facebook group entitled “This Girl Is A Racist”, with a photo of me plastered across it, edited to look like a pig. She invited two hundred of her friends to the group, people I had never met, and they disparagingly discussed my appearance and joked at my inevitable demise, the result of karmic justice. It took months for the group to be removed, despite flagrantly flouting Facebook’s community rules. I watched it all unfold quietly, like a frightened toddler, never saying an unprompted word to anyone about it. Ignoring messages from friends who had stumbled across it and were harmlessly informing me of its existence, just in case I hadn’t seen it. I never bit back at the girl or try to defend myself. I was paralysed by humiliation; wondering which of my friends and family members had started to believe the charges against me. I learned some of the most valuable lessons from that experience; it has and continues to shape the way I approach all interactions. But I felt no more mature when it was all over than I did at the party where it all started, downing WKD Blues.

By far the most outwardly adult thing I have done to date is get married. The sheer logistics of planning an event which you expect a hundred of your loved ones to attend and enjoy is enough to bring out at least a fraction of the adult in anyone. Signing the marriage register with my new husband felt so grown up, we were committing to a life together. The only thing I’d committed to before then was a regular Sunday morning hangover. And yet, despite the legally binding contract, public declarations and thousands of pounds spent, when it came down to it I didn’t really feel like an adult at all that day.  We were playing at being grown up. We giggled at the pageantry of it all, the way everyone stared at us like we were a couple of new-borns. We drank and ate to excess, shared immature jokes with old friends, jumped about in the mosh pit (yeah, we moshed) until the early hours. A couple of twenty-six year old teenagers.

I’ve traversed my most life-defining moments like an infant; observing, absorbing, learning. Not pretending to know what I’m doing because, let’s be honest, no one does. I’m sure my impetuousness has often concerned my parents. In difficult times I have navigated the landscape in the only ways I’ve known how. I would tread the paths differently now because I’ve learned from mistakes, not because I’m more of an adult.

Because what is an adult, really?

Someone who makes lunch plans and sticks to them? A person who can put up IKEA shelving? I’m a woman about to turn thirty, I’m married, I have a good job, I hate coffee, I don’t own my house, I don’t have any children, I struggle to stick to lunch plans and generally avoid DIY projects. These things don’t define me or help me score points towards being a successful, fully mature human.

What I feel in my bones is that the most important step to adulthood is accepting that you’re not going to be an impeccable adult, because that doesn’t exist. I’m not without responsibility, but I’m not laden with it either. I enjoy messing around, inexplicably kicking off my shoes after getting a bit boozy and running through the streets, laughing at willy jokes, dancing around in my pants. I know when I should be sensible and when I can cut loose. I generally feel happy. I value kindness and empathy above all things and find that most people are kind and empathetic towards me. I hope I never stop being able to view things like it’s the first time I’ve dealt with them. And therein lies my secret: to be a successful adult I have to hold onto the child.

Cogges Manor Farm : The Festival Players

Cogges Manor Farm is a little gem of a place in the heart of Witney, West Oxfordshire. It’s one of those things that the locals cherish but could easily be overlooked if you’re just passing through. My husband and I first stumbled across it on a rainy Sunday while lazily driving around looking for something to do. Prepared for the autumn drizzle, we spent hours wandering through the walled vegetable and flower garden, the apple orchard and along the River Windrush. It’s an idyllic place steeped in history, once held by Henry VIII among other kings and lords, which as a Tudor history fanatic holds a certain resonance for me.

My mum, being a local and constantly on the lookout for something diverting for us to enjoy, first heard about The Festival Players three years ago when they were due to perform Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” on the Cogges Manor lawn. She knew very little about the troupe but knew the play, a comedy, and suggested we go along and see what it was like. It was a departure from my usual penchant for Shakespearean tragedy (goth for life), but I had seen comedies performed before (with varying results), so was intrigued to see how this group would interpret it.

I’m no theatre critic, so I won’t pretend that I understand how every gesture, nuance or piece of artful direction is supposed to impact an audience, but The Festival Players were great. I’m not a stranger to Shakespearean enactments and have many school memories of watching dire amateur productions – there was a particularly cringey “Twelfth Night” in which no one could remember their lines – and have unfortunately witnessed a few as an adult.  But this young all-male cast have natural comedic timing and sensibilities. They never stray far from the original work (if at all) but from what I have seen they have a knack for making it feel new and relevant. Their “lad” nature, bantering the crowd with their brash physicality, makes them exciting.

Since “As You Like It”, we’ve seen the Players perform a further two times at Cogges. We were treated to “Hamlet” last year, on a particularly grey and wet summer’s evening under umbrellas – some real pathetic fallacy. The ensemble were electric but grimly foreboding in their performances. A tragedy just as I like them; dark, bleak and philosophical. Then, two nights ago, a sharp turn back to comedy with “The Merry Wives Of Windsor” – a chance for a newly invigorated cast to play around with a centuries old tale. It was crude and hilarious and made us realise how translatable Shakespeare is to modern life. How great stories are reflected across the ages and humanity never really changes.

After months of touring the country together each year, you get the impression that you are watching a group of pals having fun with it. At times I imagine they must be exhausted, but they clearly trust one another and are enjoying themselves. They know and comprehend the language and understand what it takes to make it accessible to even an entry-level audience. Their energy is infectious.

Cogges Manor Farm know how to host an event; we’ve visited their excellent Beer and Cider Festival twice and they are among the most sought after wedding venues in the district. These nights have been no exception – the staff are always welcoming and helpful, the bar is well stocked with local beer, good wine, Pimm’s and hearty homemade food, and the lawn beautifully prepared with rustic seating and blankets for the audience. As a venue it is stunning, with the large bucolic Manor sitting at the centre of it, draped in Wisteria, flanked by gardens and surrounded by animal pens filled with chickens, goats, pigs and Shetland ponies. Old Cotswold stone barns have been renovated to create a beautiful spaces for parties and functions and others have been transformed into a tasteful gift shop and café showcasing resident craftspeople and offering locally-sourced food and drink.

An afternoon at Cogges is a treat for all ages and you can find out more about their annual events here. Unfortunately The Festival Players are coming to the end of their national tour this year but you can keep a tabs on their plans for 2018 here.

DarkMoor 2017

At the beginning of 2017, following a year of hate-filled rhetoric in the UK media and divisive global politics, my sister Emma and I set ourselves a goal to be kinder. To more keenly show our family and friends how much we appreciate them, be receptive and supportive to colleagues when we’re feeling stressed, be warmer to strangers whose stories we don’t yet know.

Alongside this general aim, we decided to undertake a physical challenge for a charity who are intrinsically linked to the theme of kindness in communities. Marie Curie provide end-of-life care to those suffering with terminal illness, and the compassion and reassurance their families need in the darkest of times. They were a natural choice.

Their DarkMoor challenge consists of a ten-mile hike across Dartmoor, starting at 10pm sharp, which is a particularly poignant time for the charity as this is when the “changing of the guard” occurs – Marie Curie nurses around the country set off from their homes in the darkness to tend to their patients, to hold their hands throughout the night.

Thanks to a childhood of mountain walking in the Brecon Beacons and Snowdonia with our parents, upon registering our names on the participant list we both felt confident we could finish the trek without a hitch. But as the day drew closer our self-assurance began to falter. Neither of us had tackled Dartmoor before, or done any type of night-time walking.

On the hour drive from our friends’ house in Newton Abbot to our check-in point in Princetown the Everything Everything song “Regret” played on the radio. It could not have felt more fitting.

“First you’ll see me on the news,
Then never again.
Regret, regret.”

Eek.

We arrived in Princetown at around 9pm and were warmly welcomed to check-in by the event co-ordinator who had perhaps the friendliest face I have ever encountered.  Our kits were checked, numbers issued and glow sticks happily handed around. We spoke to the volunteers, watched as our fellow trekkers prepared themselves and observed a room awash with yellow, the Marie Curie colour.

Before we left, a Marie Curie nurse spoke about how immensely proud her job made her; that it comforted her to know that her patients were treated with gentleness and dignity. She thanked us for attending and impressed upon us the importance of fundraising events such as DarkMoor in maintaining the service the charity provides. It was a quiet moment of reflection for us and we sensed everyone in the room strengthen their focus on our purpose there. We set off at exactly 10pm, as the night nurse shift began.

A step-by-step rendition of the trek is probably the least interesting I could write, but over the course of the following four hours a few things happened that I will truly never forget: the pitch blackness of it; we couldn’t see further than our head torches shone which at times felt suffocating, the “buzz” of the group; the happy chatter you could hear from several hundred metres away, witnessing a shooting star in the clearest night sky, the moment Emma nearly walked into the back of Dartmoor pony.

Many people that night had direct experience of the work Marie Curie does in the community. Several had lost relatives who had been cared for by a Marie Curie nurse. We heard their stories filled with contented memories of kindness they had received from strangers. We had both assumed that we would be desperate to crack through the trek as quickly as possible and get home, but we became immersed in the experience and felt proud that we were contributing to such a worthy cause.

Those who know us know that Emma and I are the closest of sisters, we always have fun when we are together, and DarkMoor was no exception. We laughed and gossiped most of the way and for the rest took comfort in the steady pounding of the others’ boots upon the rocky pathways. We could both tell when the other was struggling on a steep ascent and quietly urged them on. We sensed when a joke was needed and when silence would be easier. It confirmed our sisterly bond; the thing that makes us complete each other’s sentences or feel like we’re reading the others’ mind.

We listened as a woman whose father had recently been diagnosed with leukaemia quietly said to her son, “…you have to remember that life isn’t a rehearsal”. It reminded us both why it’s so important to try and prevent negativity from consuming you; why love, openness and living in the moment is so vital.

The experience has undoubtedly strengthened our long-term goal and we couldn’t recommend the event more highly, it was expertly organised and executed from start to finish by Marie Curie employees and volunteers. We will be searching for further challenges over the coming months and if you are thinking of doing something similar or just supporting Marie Curie’s work you can find out more about them here.

The Ashmolean Museum : LIVEFridays

I consider myself incredibly lucky to live so close to a city I adore. Oxford has been home to us for the past seven years and it has played a pivotal role in some of the happiest days of my life.

It’s a small city brimming with culture, vibrancy and diversity. For a place built around one of the oldest and prestigious universities in the world it has a distinctive aura of inclusiveness and respect that is difficult not to become infatuated by.

Alongside the university buildings, one of Oxford’s many jewels is the gorgeous Ashmolean Museum. My husband and I have been regular visitors of the Ashmolean since we first moved to Oxford in 2010. Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics are his thing, I dig Viking and Saxon runes.

So when I heard about LIVEFridays, where visitors are invited to venture through those time-honoured stone columns after dark, I took my chance to get involved. The first LIVEFriday I attended, and the one this post is focussed on, was an evening celebrating multiculturalism and linguistic diversity.

Over the course of the evening I heard the tale of Ragnarok spoken in Old Norse, witnessed the translation of the opening chapter of Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone to Arabic, Mandarin and Italian (among many other languages it was eventually translated to by the end of the night) and listened to an African choir which celebrated the birth of the gospel tradition.

Shortly before I left for home, I found myself in a quiet portrait gallery listening to the story of a young Iranian poet. She talked of how difficult life had been for her family, how she had travelled to the UK alone, how she had just won a local award for her poetry, how she felt the same way about Oxford that I did. It was one of those quiet, life-affirming hours you need every now and again. She read some of her poetry to us, then read a poem by Rumi to us in Farsi.

She then asked us to observe one of the paintings on the wall. It was called “Still Life With Lobster And Turkey” by Abraham van Beyeran (look it up, it’s a strange sort of beauty but I couldn’t find a good stock image of it, soz). Then she asked us to write about it, in the style of Rumi. Whichever thing we identified with most in the scene she asked us to write about using his rhythmic style, and then talk about it if we wanted. Everyone in the room wrote. Then people read what they had written – about the peonies, the half-peeled lemon, the silverware. I didn’t share what I wrote at the time, but it feels a little safer to here.

Here’s a bit of me, from “Still Life With Lobster And Turkey”. (N.B. I’m a goth forever):

I am the shadow
The impenetrable darkness
Ever present, out of reach.

Enveloping the table
Tempered chocolate glossiness
Inviting you in.

My inky dress
Complementing wine-stained smiles
The sinister party.

The bitter of your coffee
Decay of fruity flesh
I bear witness, silently.

I am the shadow.

I left the Ashmolean that night feeling that buzz you get when you discover something for the first time. Except I was rediscovering something. I hadn’t written a poem for years, since the end of my university degree, and yet a few hours in a museum, with a bunch of people I didn’t know, listening to languages I didn’t understand had inspired me.

Ashmolean LIVEFridays are held most months, mostly for free although there may be a nominal fee for more elaborate evenings, and they’re an experience unlike any other. You can check out future and archived events here.

Night at the museum, anyone?