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Author interview: Harri Roberts, Day Walks on the Pembrokeshire Coast

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Based in Newport, Harri Roberts has authored a number of Welsh walking guides, including Day Walks in the Pembrokeshire Coast, published earlier this month by Vertebrate. The routes featured are 6.5. miles to 13 miles in length and include a meander alongside the limestone valleys of Bosherston Lakes and the 650-million-year-old cliffs of St Brides.

Following publication, we spoke to Harri about the book’s historic and scenic trails, where his love of walking comes from, his advice for first-time hillwalkers, and which routes to try if you’re a seasoned rambler. 

Which is your favourite Pembrokeshire route, and why?

It’s hard to pick out one walk as my favourite. The different landscapes of the Pembrokeshire coastline are all breathtaking in their own way and each route has something different to appeal to walkers.

If pushed, the walk from St Davids Head on the north coast (Route 11) is one I particularly enjoyed. The route begins at sea level from Whitesands Bay and climbs gradually to Carn Llidi, the most westerly of a line of rocky hills stretching along the coastline. From the top, walkers are treated to a bird’s-eye view of the surrounding area, including the St Davids Peninsula and Ramsey Island.

The historic nature of this landscape is also fascinating and there is evidence of human habitation stretching all the way back to the Neolithic.

You’ve written a range of different walking guides for various areas in Wales. What makes the area of Pembrokeshire special to you?

I think Pembrokeshire is special to everyone who knows west Wales, particularly those who enjoy outdoor activities and water sports. The spectacular coastal scenery just pulls people back, time and time again, me included.

I remember one childhood holiday in Pembrokeshire when I tried to row to Caldey Island in my inflatable dinghy. Fortunately, my father swam out and turned me around or I might not be here to tell the story.

My partner Tracy and I walked the Pembrokeshire Coast Path during our first year together too – so, yes, Pembrokeshire is a place that holds many happy memories for me. It’s perfect for walkers who want to explore a variety of landscapes in a short space of time. On the north coast, there are rugged cliffs, wild, unspoilt beaches, estuaries and high cairns, while further south the landscape is more varied with wooded valleys, artificial lagoons, sandy coves, tiny harbours, and popular seaside resorts like Tenby and Saundersfoot.

The fact that the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park is the only specifically coastal national park in Britain speaks volumes for its natural beauty.

Have you always enjoyed hill walking? How did you become passionate about it?

It was my childhood love of maps. There were lots of old OS maps in our home and I desperately wanted to follow the squiggly lines on them. My love of walking developed hand in hand with this early love of maps.

On family holidays, I constantly frustrated my parents by dragging everyone out for as long a walk as I could get away with. As a fifteen-year-old in Austria, I pretended I didn’t fully understand the contour lines on the map so I could feign surprise when our route turned out to be far steeper than they’d anticipated. 

When I was eighteen, I picked up a copy of Tony Drake’s The Cambrian Way in a Cardiff bookshop and, from that point on, it became my ambition to walk across Wales. I walked most of the Cambrian Way a few years ago, an experience which inspired me to create my own Wales end-to-end which I called ‘O Fôn i Fynwy’ (‘From Anglesey [Ynys Môn] to Monmouthshire’) after the traditional Welsh expression meaning the whole of Wales. I’ve self-published a guidebook in ebook format detailing the 364-mile (578-km) route if anyone is interested in following it.

What is the number one piece of advice that you would give to a first-time hill walker?

Don’t be too ambitious – and know your limits. Start off by exploring your local area. Many of our own walks start from our garden gate and, even after eleven years in Rhiwderyn, we are still discovering new footpaths and pretty places within a few miles of our home. As your physical fitness and confidence grows, you can work up to longer walks. 

If you’re not a confident map reader, it can help to join a local walking group. When people first get into hiking there is a tendency to head straight to the iconic (generally highest) peaks. On a fine day in Wales, mountains like Snowdon and Cadair Idris in the north, and Pen y Fan in the south, are jam-packed with hikers. I’d encourage new hikers to avoid these tourist hotspots and to explore some of the lesser-known but equally spectacular areas of our national parks. 

Do you prefer walking alone, in a pair, or in a large group?

I’d better be careful how I answer that question as I usually walk with Tracy, who supplied some of the photographs for this book. She’s generally good company but she tends to be a fair-weather walker and isn’t too keen on rain and mud.  
I do enjoy the solitude of walking on my own sometimes. It’s a very different experience and I tend to cover the miles more quickly as I stop less frequently on route. 

I’ve never really been into walking in groups, mainly because your pace is restricted to the speed of the slowest walker. Walking in large groups also seems to me to destroy the reasons for being in the countryside/wilderness in the first place, which is to enjoy the solitude and peace. That said, we often encounter walking groups when we’re out hiking, and we generally stop for a few minutes to chat and share notes about the route and walking conditions.

Which is the most challenging walk in the guide, and why?

If you look at the total height gain, the toughest walks are the longer ones on the north Pembrokeshire coast. 

I recall Pen Caer (Route 14) and Cemaes Head & Ceibwr Bay (Route 17) being particularly tough; the undulating nature of the coastline means the walker must climb from sea level to high cliffs.

The walks in the Preseli Hills can be quite tough if the weather is bad because the ground can become very boggy, especially in the valleys. 

Where have you always wanted to walk, but have not yet had the chance?

It seems almost every day I stumble upon fantastic new hiking destinations and routes. There’s a whole world out there waiting to be explored, but realistically it comes down to time and money. I’m self-employed and so a two- or three-week hike is the longest I can really consider right now.  

In recent years, we’ve mostly hiked on the Iberian Peninsula. We have walked the Via Algarviana and a section of the GR92 from the France–Spain border to Barcelona. We’d really like to walk the Andalucia Coast to Coast Walk and perhaps do some coastal hiking on Galicia’s ‘coast of death’.

Heading slightly farther east, I also like the look of the Alpe-Adria Trail between Grossglockner and Trieste as well as Slovenia and some of the Greek islands. Closer to home, I’ve never been to Scotland – but I think it might be a bit wet and muddy for Tracy!

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