What: Wales Coast Path (WCP) and other trails.
Where: Wales, United Kingdom.
When: July 25 – September 7, 2018 (43 days).
Distance: about 828 miles.
Highlights: easy walking and logistics; great weather; miles of scenic coast; huge tidal swings and dynamic intertidal zones.
The WCP official website provides all the necessary information including a downloadable gpx file.
Saturday Walkers Club also offers a gpx file that differs somewhat from those on the official website.
There are WCP guidebooks available from Cicerone Press and St. David’s Press. Northern Eye Books publishes a series of six officially sanctioned detailed guidebooks. We did not carry a book and found that a guide was completely unnecessary for staying on the path. The main value of these books is natural, cultural, and historical information. They are also a way to acquire printed maps without buying the highly detailed but unwieldy and expensive Ordnance Survey maps.
As for all our trips, we used our two favorite mapping tools: CalTopo.com to prepare gpx data and printed maps, and Gaia GPS while hiking. We use WeatherSpark.com‘s excellent climate summaries to choose the best months to visit a region.
Why we went
Over the years, we have taken seven long hiking trips in the UK and while we have liked them all, we found that coastal hiking there was extremely enjoyable. The scenery is aesthetically pleasing; there is a surprising amount of diversity with rocky shorelines, vast sandy beaches, huge estuaries rich in birdlife, coastal cliffs with crashing waves, charming seaside villages, interesting historical sites, and open fields and woodlands adjacent to the coast. And there is the sea itself, constantly in motion, sometimes calm, sometimes stormy, with an ever-changing play of light and shadow on its surface.
We thru-hiked the Welsh Pembrokeshire Coast Path (PCP) in 2003, our second long hike in the UK. We thoroughly enjoyed that trip and imagined what it might be like to walk more of the coastline, but at that time there was not another established long path along the Welsh coast.
In 2006 Wales began a national project to develop a coastal walk around its entire coastline. The work was mostly completed by 2012 when the WCP was officially dedicated. The Welsh claim that they are the only country in the world with a path along its entire coast, although there is a walkable roughly 4 mile route that hugs the coast of the tiny country of Monaco.
We returned from our trip to Japan in May of 2018 without another trip in the queue; we quickly began reviewing the options. We were looking for a trip that would be viable in July/August, easy to plan and execute, and fit in our preferred trip duration of four to six weeks. We have a large file of trip ideas, and the WCP was a good fit.
As we had already hiked the PCP section of the WCP we decided not to thru-hike the entire WCP in one go, but instead add an interior walk across the base of the Pembroke peninsula. We thus connected the two portions of the WCP we had not previously walked to the already hiked PCP. This reduced the length of the route by a bit more than a week, giving us an itinerary that would fit in our preferred trip duration.
The WCP touches both ends of the Offa’s Dyke Path National Trail, making it possible to circumambulate the entire country. On our 2009 hike in Wales we had hiked Offa’s Dyke, and so over the course of three different trips we would do just that.
I thoroughly enjoyed this hike.
I always love hiking along coasts, and this route met my high expectations. Unlike the Southwest Coast Path, one of my Top Ten trips, which is primarily cliffy and rocky, this trip included many miles of beautiful sandy beaches. The area has very large tidal swings, and during our trip the tidal swing was between 5 meters and 11 meters in any given day. When the tide is out some beaches are 3 miles long and nearly a half mile wide. The tide rises at a rate of up to an inch per minute and in places you can literally watch it advance up the beach and across the mudflats. The dynamic shoreline was always thrilling.
I liked the mix of big exposed sandflats and mudflats, rocky reefs, exposed shoreline with crashing waves and calm bays. There were always birds to entertain us, and occasionally dolphins and seals too.
We were there in the peak of the summer holiday season so the caravan parks were full and the beaches were full of happy families having a great deal of fun. It is uplifting to see so much joy.
The only downside of this route is that the coastal villages are quite dull. There is nothing quaint and beautiful like so many of the villages on the Southwest Coast Path. As such, I’d rate this a five-star trip for nature and scenery, but the cultural aspects were neutral, not bad, but also not particularly interesting.
This was our first long walk where I started to feel my age, so I must admit sometimes I was a bit distracted from the day to day walking routine. The walk provided so much to enjoy: a relatively easy track; amazingly good weather considering it was in Wales; nice scenery; and fascinating tidal swings alternately covering and exposing huge sandy beaches and mudflats. The WCP was a low-stress experience and fine walk that I kept disconnecting from due to this or that problem.
Anyway, I did enjoy the experience and found it very satisfying as a walking trip and as an odd accomplishment: we have never walked the perimeter of an entire country before and with our previous walk of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path and Offa’s Dyke Path, this trip completed that task; I found it very gratifying to do so. There was much more diversity than I expected, which helped to keep me interested during the long journey. I did not find the walk quite a fine as the nearby Southwest Coast Path in Cornwall and Devon, but I’m recalling a walk that we did a number of years ago so my memories may be clouded by time. Or we may have done so many of these walks now that I have become too persnickety.
I would certainly recommend the route without hesitation. It was an excellent trip in a lovely place with much to delight in. In particular I remember crossing the fabulous Newport Transporter, walking the vast sandy beach at Pembrey when the tide was out, the fabulous Roald Dahl Plass Water Tower in Cardiff, visiting with a couple of the slightly anachronistic but very British National Coastwatch folks, and enjoying the constant parade of gulls and their antics. It is always deeply satisfying to walk beside the constantly changing sea and the WCP provided so much of that. This walk is a winner.
Notes for Potential Hikers
Wales is a country of about 3 million people and is part of the United Kingdom, that also includes England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Both English and Welsh are spoken and are official languages. Most public signage is bilingual.
The vast majority of the Welsh countryside is devoted to agriculture, primarily grazing. Along the coast, tourism is the primary economic activity. Coal mining used to be the predominant industry, but little remains today.
We did not carry detailed paper maps and navigated via the on-the-ground waymarks and Gaia GPS on our iPhone. Staying on route was not a problem.
Paper or electronic access to the high quality British OS hiking maps is quite expensive. However, Gaia GPS provides the OS “UK Streets 1:10K” maps at no charge, and this proved more than sufficient for our purposes. Using Gaia, we carried the downloaded tracks and grocery store locations we had prepared at home, satellite imagery of the route, and a couple other map sources.
Prior to the trip, James spent time working with the various GPX tracks we had downloaded from the web. Using GoogleEarth and Caltopo he mapped the options where the files differed and added our own options where it appeared the route could be improved.
The WCP is waymarked throughout its length with reasonably consistent signage. The waymarking is usually adequate although occasionally the waymarks were confusing. The route is being improved over time as access to previously private lands is obtained. In some cases waymarking had not yet been installed on the new routing. In other places, waymarks were present but the arrows ambiguously pointed between two options. Occasionally waymarks were vandalized or entirely missing. Finally, other trails along the route have waymarks that are remarkably similar to those on the WCP, so you have to pay attention to which ones are for you.
This was the easiest trip we have taken in a long time. The trail was never covered in roots or rocks. There were no areas that required thrashing through brush. Thorny blackberry is abundant, but it had been cut back in most places and only rarely required deliberately avoiding vines. The only other problematic plant is stinging nettle, which is common and easy to blunder into.
Wet grass is a nuisance when the route traverses a pasture. If the grass is long due to lack of recent grazing, soaking wet shoes are the rapid and inevitable result. Even without rain, the early morning dew can turn a grassy field into a sponge. Unless you stay divert to pavement to walk around these fields, there is no way to avoid this problem.
Most of the beach walking was on relative firm sand. Only a few areas had loose and tedious sand and by moving up or down toward the waterline, we could nearly always find walkable sand. Some beaches were rocky shingle, often consisting of beautifully rounded and size-sorted cobbles. These cobble beaches were easier to walk on than we expected. Occasionally steep headlands blocked the ends of a beach, but there was always a trail that led around these obstacles. There are some places with impassable muddy slop alongside tidal estuaries, but the route never requires crossing these areas.
On some segments, there are modest altitude gains and losses, but they are neither steep nor difficult. Overall, the WCP averages a modest gain of about 60 feet per mile.
There is some road walking, particularly when passing through villages, towns, and the rare city. Cars drive on the left, which challenges our North American instincts. British drivers give no quarter to pedestrians. In fact, British drivers are more aggressive than those we have encountered anywhere else in our travels; there appears to be absolutely no culture of yielding to pedestrians, something we found shocking and disconcerting. Even when walking on a sidewalk, cars turning into or out of a driveway or parking lot would cut us off without hesitation.
High hedgerows on country lanes make sight lines extremely short and cars come barreling down these curvy roads at surprising rates of speed.
The WCP passes next to or through a large number of caravan parks. These are permanent emplacements of manufactured vacation homes or caravans. While somewhat unsightly, they concentrate holiday housing in discrete places instead of it sprawling over the entire coastline. Some of these parks have hundreds of units all packed together. Coastal villages tended to be very contained with clear boundaries between the developed areas and surrounding open lands.
The track in the Caltopo file is our route. It differs from the official WPC route in numerous places. Some of these differences are where we went off track to resupply or find campsites. In many other places we deliberately left the WPC to improve the walking experience. In particular, we walked miles of beaches where the official WPC went inland. The official route is designed to be passable at the highest tides and often goes inland or stays on roads to avoid beaches that are inundated at high tide. As the tide only reaches its maximum twice a day, most beaches are passable most of the time. Since maximum high tides only occur a few times each year, even at average high tides, beaches were often walkable. Whenever we had the opportunity, we walked the beaches instead of staying on the posted route.
The WCP also goes inland to the first bridge crossing to avoid any section of beach where a creek or small river crosses the sand to reach the sea. We easily waded many of these creeks and this allowed us to significantly extend our beach walking. Unless recent rains or high tides increase the flow of these creeks, they are all safely crossable. It was clearly obvious to us which creeks could be safely waded and which were unsafe to cross. We were never more than knee deep, and in most cases there was little current when we crossed.
Prior to our hike, using the British Ordinance Survey maps James was able to map a few trail alternates to segments of WCP road walking.
We elected to walk from north to south. The guidebooks we have seen are written this way. However, there is no reason to favor either direction. Both endpoints, Chester and Chepstow, have frequent rail and bus connections to the rest of Britain. For our interior segment connecting the Cardigan and Amroth endpoints of the PCP, we used OS maps and OpenStreetMap to create a route using footpaths. This mostly worked satisfactorily, but in a few places our mapped paths were so overgrown that they were functionally impassible. We improvised routes around these areas, sometimes on roads and sometimes by crossing fields. The southern third of our interior route followed the Landsker Borderlands Trail, a waymarked and maintained path that was entirely passable.
Reaching Chepstow a few days prior to our scheduled flight home, we elected to continue along the coast by following the shore of the Severn River further inland. We crossed the Severn from Chepstow to its south bank and walked a portion of the partially waymarked and mostly maintained Severn Way to Glouchester. It was interesting to see the enormous Bristol Channel narrow down to the tidal Severn which by Glouchester had become just a narrow free flowing river.
Obtaining food and water was easy. The longest stretch without easy access to stores or cafes was about 30 miles. Stores range from tiny Post Office shops with minimal supplies to enormous Tesco superstores. Most stores have curtailed hours on Sundays. Our Caltopo map includes a folder with many store locations as of 2018.
By far the best cafes bargain is the English Breakfast. These are enormous meals consisting of some combination of eggs, sausages, ham, beans, mushrooms, potatoes, tomatoes, and toast. The full version of these meals usually cost between £5.50 and £7.00. They are usually served all morning and are sometimes available all day. Substitutions of one item for another were always available.
Most pubs only serve food between about noon and 2:00 and again after 6:00, although you can get beer or tea most of the day.
We wild camped most nights on this trip. In order to take showers and do laundry, we spent three nights in private campgrounds and four nights in Airbnb accommodations.
Finding campsites was never difficult and we had issues with people objecting to our presence only once. Ironically, we had asked for and been granted permission by a farmer to stay on his land, but inadvertently were setting up on a neighbor’s pasture; they happened by and asked us to leave. We crossed a fence to the proper field and all was well. As is usual, we practiced our stealth camping techniques to minimize the chances of annoying anybody.
We camped in pastures, in the dunes above beaches, in woodlots, on headlands, on levees just above the high tide line, in public parks, and once in a golf course shelter. Most sites were quiet, comfortable, and with privacy and views. A few sites were exquisite.
We met one person thru-hiking the WCP and a half dozen people on week long inn-to-inn hikes. We passed one or two tents set up in areas outside of formal public or private campgrounds. There were a lot of people on the trail, especially near caravan parks, villages or trailhead parking lots, most of whom appeared to be on short walks with their dogs and/or children.
Few people we spoke with seemed to be aware that there was a footpath around the entire coast of Wales.
Big sandy beaches near caravan parks and villages were very popular and busy with holiday merry-makers having fun. The ocean is cool, around 16˚C, but people were in the water in large numbers, often wearing wet suits. Although we never saw large waves, we saw boogie boarders at many beaches and surfers at a few beaches. Small sailboats were abundant in the calm bays. We also saw kite-boarding on a few occasions, practiced with what appeared to us with a very high level of skill.
The weather during our trip was amazingly good. We only had a single half-day of heavy and prolonged rain, which we sat out in a cafe. While the first few days of the trip were a bit warm, temperatures during the remainder were nearly always 55˚ to 70˚ F; perfect walking weather. We had some sunny days, although overcast or partly cloudy skies were more common. There were some drizzly spells, but other than our single rainy day precipitation was never heavy or long-lasting.
This contrasts with our 2009 Wales trip in which we had many days of substantial rain and wind. Rainfall is heavier in the mountains than on the coast, none-the-less the summer of 2018 was abnormally hot and dry in most of the UK.
Land birds were less common than we expected. Perhaps it was because we were in the post-breeding season when passerines are molting and quiet. We were fortunate to see 125 species, which is higher than our other UK hikes. One of our favorite birds, the Eurasian Oystercatcher, was abundant along the entire coast; we once saw a group of well over a thousand of them at a high tide evening roost.
We saw one possible new life bird: a Bar-headed Goose. This very attractive bird has uncertain status in the UK; it may have been a true vagrant, a species undergoing range expansion from the continent, or there may be a tiny established population stemming from escaped birds from collections.
Pet dogs are abundant on beaches and on trails. Thankfully, it is the social norm for owners to collect and dispose of the poop. Unfortunately, it is the social norm for dogs to run loose and a significant percentage of these animals are not trained to behave in public; many owners have no control over their animals at all. We have had more unpleasant dog encounters in the UK than anywhere else we have walked.
Biting insects were not a significant issue.