The horizon rises, I swivel on the back of my board, paddle hard, air drop in, my fins bite, my body catches up, I see the lip feathering, tuck in, pump, the wave whumps top to bottom giving me a momentary glimpse down the line with my buddy holding his arms aloft, it swallows me up, sends me through a spin cycle and I emerge in waist-deep water with my eyes, ears and everything else full of sand, with the beach just 20 yards away.
Where am I? Hossegor? Mexico? A secret location on the west coast of Africa? No. I’m in Pembrokeshire, Wales. Yes, Wales.
When people come to Pembrokeshire, they often remark that I live in the middle of nowhere. I then point out that I technically live at the end of nowhere. Yes, when judged against the gargantuan proportions of the U.S. or Australia, or considered in the context of the ever more epic nature of surf travel, a four-hour drive from Heathrow airport is nothing…but Pembrokeshire nevertheless remains unknown to most surfers – even those in the UK.
I think that’s odd. Here’s why.
Pembrokeshire is ancient. Its soaring cliffs lay bare the geological stratification which document the passage of time over millennia. Secret caves provide a glimpse into the lives of stone-age man, and ancient hills are peppered with indomitable monoliths that are the cousins of Stonehenge hundreds of miles away.
Pembrokeshire is beautiful. National Geographic ranked Pembrokeshire the second most beautiful coastline in the world (yes, the world). So if you are thinking of a trip to Costa Rica, or Namibia or South Africa, Spain, France, Iceland or Morocco – they are all downright ugly when compared to the place I call home.
Pembrokeshire is fun. Whether your flavor of fun is physical (Coasteering, the act of jumping off cliffs into raging seas was invented here) or party-related (FHM once voted the small town of Tenby as the second-best place in the world – yes, the world – to go for a New Year’s party), you can make merry here.
So what about the surfing?
Pembrokeshire sits at the most south-westerly tip of Wales, just north of its more famous Celtic cousin, Cornwall. Whilst Ireland often takes the brunt of the most ferocious Atlantic storms, long period swells wrap themselves around the Emerald Isle and provide Pembrokeshire with plenty of reasons to holler. Just about any Atlantic storm will deliver us waves, but obviously the blobs of low pressure that sneak to the south of Ireland work best.
Pembrokeshire is also craggier than Rip Van Winkle’s forehead, so whether you need a wide-open west-facing beach to suck in the faintest whiff of summer swell for a longboard dance, or a sheltered cove to clean up a huge south-westerly winter storm, you can always find a spot that is pointing in the right direction.
Modern wetsuits have almost made sea temperature a non-issue, but you can expect to be in your 5/4 and hood, gloves and booties for the winter, a 4/3 for the spring and a 3/2 for the summer and autumn.
Now, I don’t really want to tell you about all the spots, because – well, no one really wants more people to come and surf at their local break. However, none of what I am going to say here hasn’t already been said, and I’ll keep some of the less well known spots under wraps. Discovering these gems will be your reward for patience, perseverance and spending money in the local pubs.
“Fresh” is a long sweeping bay, facing into the Atlantic with open arms. It gobbles up swell like no other beach in Pembrokeshire, producing everything from overhead barrels to rival anything east of Mullaghmore, through to aquamarine knee high-peelers that would delight a septuagenarian longboarder (of whom there are several in these parts).
It is actually home to multiple spots. At the gnarly end of the spectrum is The Pole, difficult to access (it sits under the shadow of a Ministry of Defense firing range which is often spitting bullets, and is nearly a kilometer out to sea), and rivaling almost anything in the UK. Breaking over a shallow spit of limestone at low tide, it appeals to a small handful of locals who have put in the effort to master the paddle and the beatings it hands out. The rest of the bay offers up a variety of beach-breaking pleasures, which waft and wane with the ever-changing sandbanks – and a couple of reef-break spots which light up when the tide falls back, all of which will be self-evident to any visitor standing in the car park.
With a long period swell and an off-shore wind, Fresh is epic – certainly providing a stiff enough challenge or thrill for 99 percent of surfers. However, it’s not the place to go when the sou’westerlies are up unless you want to spend a couple of hours duck-diving and getting mashed by walls of whitewater.
Manorbier, my home break, is however a south-westerly facing bay which can handle the on-shore winds that often accompany a decent ground swell. A 12th century castle and a stone-age burial chamber overlook the bay, which combines a right-hand point-break-inducing stone reef, and a golden(ish) expanse of sand over which left-handers appear at mid-to-low tide. Manorbier can produce everything from a mushy, rumbling, somewhat gutless wave, through to (almost) double overhead thumping right-handers that speed across the reef and funnel the hooting and hollering all the way to the shorebreak.
There are some particular dynamics of the break which need to be understood if you are going to turn up at the right time and make the most of Manorbier, but I’ll let you work that out when you get here.
Tenby South Beach
Tenby has a long history stretching back all the way to when humans were working out how to write stuff on paper and spent many centuries fighting off pirates and invaders (as evidenced by Tenby’s coastal fortifications). The place probably reached its zenith as a genteel holiday location for the Georgian middle classes in the mid to late 19th century – when much of the pastel-colored town was built. It now wobbles somewhere between a bucket-and-spade family holiday location, stag-do theme park and a whimsical bohemian escape for sea-loving artists.
For most of the year, the simplistically named “South Beach” lies calm and suitable for tippy-toed holiday paddling. But during winter, with a big southerly swell wrapping itself around Giltar point, arrive whumping “A” frame beach breaks that hollow out and spit rubberized people from inside their belly just yards from the shore into waist-deep water. Even though this is very much a sand-bottomed break, I have seen many, many broken boards here, but if you happen to hit the South Beach when it’s properly “on”, you will leave with a massive smile.
When it comes to whumping hollow beach breaks, Broadhaven South sets the standard for this part of the UK. Set in an incredibly picturesque bay, facing southeast, it favors a more southerly swell and enjoys offshore conditions with the prevailing wind. This is where you are most likely to get barreled in Pembrokeshire, and is the spot where I popped my tube riding cherry (was a much better experience than losing my actual virginity, and lasted slightly longer). The wave doesn’t typically give you much time to make the drop, but if you do the chances are you will be desperately trying not to claim by the time you kick out.
Newgale, as a wide, open west-facing bay, hoovers up the same swell that hits Freshwater west. A good spot for beginners on smaller days, but can be prone to a 100-yard closeout when the swell direction is running straight at the beach.
Whitesands is the closest break to the Cathedral City of St. Davids – the smallest city in the UK (and would give Vatican City a run for its money for the title of smallest city in the world). A pilgrimage to St. Davids, given its location at the end of nowhere, was considered in the 12th century by Pope Calixtus II to be almost as good as going to Rome to kiss the Papal toes (and if you made the trip here three times you could legitimately claim to be as devoted as someone who had schlepped all the way to Jerusalem). St. Davids today, although still quite difficult to get to, is an incredibly beautiful corner of the UK – and well worth the visit in its own right, whether you are religious or not.
Whitesands, for those who worship at the altar of the reeling right-hander, is worth its own pilgrimage. The beach has something for everyone from beginner through to pro, with different spots along the mile-long bay providing different characteristics. The north end of the beach does a half-decent impression of a more humble version of Jeffrey’s bay when it’s on, farther south the waves mellow out, as does the competition for priority. If you have made it here, it is worth a trip to local legend Ma Simes surf hut – an early pioneer in Pembrokeshire surfing history.
Aberreiddy is today best known as the birthplace of coasteering, and home to a stop of the Red Bull Cliff diving world tour. I have spent many days testing my mettle by hucking into the blue lagoon (a disused quarry which offers a range of cliff jumping options, all the way from a couple of seconds’ hang time to full-blown shit your pants / probable death if you mess it up). It also has a decent surf break, which will give you a selection of lefts and rights that break over the unusual jet black sand in the west-facing bay. Whilst no-one would claim that Abereiddy is world-class, when combined with a genuinely world-class cliff-jumping setup, it definitely merits a visit for the adrenaline hunters.
There are many, many more spots across Pembrokeshire that the locals will keep to themselves, which typically light up during the big winter swells. There are myriad sheltered coves that become home to some genuinely incredible waves when the buoy readings are hitting 10 feet at 15seconds-plus. Some of those spots are more easily identified than others – for example, the all-too-rare wave that breaks by the Lifeboat slip on Tenby North Beach can be seen from the local café – but it is probably fair to say that anyone with a working understanding of Google maps could unearth some less obvious treasure with the right levels of commitment.
Everything is mellow in Pembrokeshire. I have never seen anything resembling localism in the thirty years I have been surfing here, and even mild grumpiness is frowned on in the lineup. There is a solid crew of old-timers who can hark back to the seventies, and a glut of middle-aged men and women clinging onto their youth on ever fatter boards. If anything, my fear for Pembrokeshire is that there isn’t enough fresh blood coming through the ranks, with surfing being just another outdoor pursuit that finds itself competing with the lure of the games console or Netflix box set binge. So it can get crowded at certain spots at certain times of the tide, particularly if the swell arrives at the weekend, but on the whole, Pembrokeshire is not somewhere where you need to fight too hard for your waves.
Whilst we may not have the raw power of a Mullaghmore, the consistency of an Anchor Point, the adversity of Lofoten and we certainly don’t have the topless beaches of the Basque coast in France, we do have a beautiful, ancient coastline that can satiate the demands of all but the most exacting of surf travelers. Bring a smile, a big board and a little board, and you will definitely leave happy.