Lifestyle Travel

My 18-year love affair with Pembrokeshire

Sure, holidays abroad are cool. It’s nice to visit other countries, to take in foreign cultures, to eat new foods, to spend time at Heathrow Terminal 5, a.k.a. one of my favourite places ever. (It is so pleasing how they manage to fit so many shops in such a tiny space, and people-watching those hurrying for holidays and yelling at flight attendants is top-quality entertainment!) Given how most of us are stranded in the UK this summer, let’s use this unfortunate truth as an opportunity to give Great Britain some attention. For those of us currently living here, there are so many incredible locations just a couple of hours from your home. Maybe you should try them out this summer?

My love affair with the British landscape, however, was not brought on by coronavirus. I’ve been holidaying in Pembrokeshire (affectionately known as Pembs) in South Wales every year since I was 9 months old. Always in the same place, always with the same people, always coming back to the same windswept beaches. For me, Pembs has really come to be a home away from home. Of course it has – those windy cliffs have seen me grow up. 

I have found myself thinking a lot about Pembs over the course of these unprecedented times. Since everything has been so chaotic, I’ve often found myself craving the simplicity of life on the Welsh beaches. When there, you just can’t worry about work – because when there is no signal, those stressful emails  don’t arrive and they become another day’s problem. You don’t need to worry about social distancing because you spend so much time outside and there isn’t really anyone around for miles anyway. The most complicated decision you need to make is deciding which beach to spend the day at.  

This article has become my nostalgia fix. I raided the family photo album  (okay, it’s actually my mum’s Facebook page… but I’m still at college, I had to work with what I had!) – to bring you some of my favourite memories. I hope you enjoy; you never know, you might find yourself inspired to give South Wales a chance this summer…

Summer 2009 – aged 7 (my brother is 4)

The story begins here, mainly because this is the first photo my mum put on Facebook (sorry, no ugly baby pictures today!). My favourite thing about this photo is me and my brother’s co-ordinated outfits; probably a desperate attempt by my mum to become more Facebook-famous.

This is a go-to photo spot in the Steadman family. I am sure many people can relate… have you even been on a family holiday if you haven’t been made to pose in front of a random landmark? The landmark here is the stunningly magical Traeth-llyfn Beach (which you can just see in the distance). It is probably one of the most beautiful beaches in the United Kingdom. Being just over a fifteen-minute walk from the nearest car park, it is also unspoiled by tourism, BBQs and ice-cream vans, and that is rare for a British coastal holiday destination. I may be a teeny bit biased, but it really is just spectacular. 

My journey to becoming a pro-surfer

In 2010, I stole my dad’s bodyboard and ran out into the sea. A bodyboard is basically a surfboard for those not good enough to surf, or those too lazy to stand up, but that is exactly why I love bodyboarding (sorry all you hardcore surfers!). What could be better exercise than lying down on an enhanced-polystyrene board as the waves push you to the shore? With such little work involved, it’s fair to say I got pretty hooked on this bodyboarding business. After realising the inadequacies of my dad’s board, I decided that I would spend the next year saving up for my own. In the entire 19 years of my life, I have never been so dedicated to a task. I managed to afford a (relatively) expensive bodyboard on £1 a week pocket money after just a year of saving. University-me clearly needs to learn a lesson from her younger self when it comes to budgeting. 

As the picture shows, it’s safe to say I was pretty chuffed with my purchase.    

But soon bodyboarding became too boring. I wanted to play with the big boys (by that I mean the wavy-blonde-haired beach boys who I fancied a little too much when I was 10!), and if I wanted to do that, I just had to learn how to surf. Of course, my arrogant 10-year-old self thought she was God’s gift to surfing. I was able to progress to advanced-level- standing up in a matter of hours but what I didn’t realise then was that to be a proper surfer you had to surf proper waves – not the baby ones you can see in the photo. After many capsizes in the choppy sea while trying to take surfing to the next level, I gave up and decided to pursue a holiday career in eating my body weight in ice-cream. 

For now, I am going to leave surfing to my brother; he looks much cooler doing it anyway. He really is quite good now. I’m a proud big sister, but my car isn’t looking forward to being covered in surfboard wax this year when  he makes me drive him to different beaches!

Trying out therapy for my fear of heights

As a little one, I used to be absolutely terrified of heights, which is a problem when 99% of the walking you do in Pembrokeshire is near the edge of cliffs. You can probably imagine how my tantrums on family walks quickly became a factor threatening to ruin our holidays. So, my parents decided to tackle my fear of heights head on by booking me onto a coaststeering trip. 

Coaststeering, despite its misleading name, is not driving doom-buggies along the coast path (although that would be fun). Instead, it is an activity which consists of throwing yourself off a cliff into the water under the strict supervision of a qualified adult. For anyone scared of heights, I would paradoxically recommend; it certainly helped cure me. It is actually a fun, cathartic activity – and they give you buoyancy aids, so you don’t have to be a strong swimmer. The first time I went out, my hands were red raw from gripping onto the cliffs for dear life. Now, you can’t keep me on them. I love trying (and failing) to backflip off the edge of rocky ledges. Last year my jumping record was 14m and I even roped my dad and brother in as my support team. Don’t be fooled by my dad’s smile; he was less than pleased to be voluntarily plunging into freezing cold water.

The Exam Years 

Some people skip family holidays when they have exams coming up, or at least move the holidays around a bit. My parents were having none of it. With Vitamin D and all that, they told me the beach would be a great place to study. I guess I should partly dedicate my success in my English coursework to the Sloop Inn at Porthgain and the Beaches Café at Whitesands Beach. Who needs the Bodleian anyway? (To surf or to study, now that is the question!)

Studying outside does have its perks. I was accidentally working in the midst of the Porthgain silent auction one day when I was pleased to get my hands on prosecco in a balloon. It was needed after a day of essay procrastination!

A brief interlude to observe my mum’s failed attempts at getting a serious photo of me, my dad, and my brother. (To be fair, I feel it was mostly our fault…)

Let’s just say that I am MUCH better at taking family photos…

There are so many stories I could tell you about my holidays; memories which mark the moments when I fell utterly in love with the beautiful Welsh countryside. I am sure this is a sensation with which many of you are familiar. We all have those places we’ve been that are more than a holiday destination. I could not imagine my life without Pembs and I am glad that COVID halted my other summer plans because it means I get to go back again this year. I’m just not yet finished with the Welsh beaches. Let’s end where it all began; a photo of me and my brother overlooking the bright blue sea.

Summer 2020 – aged 18 and 15 (yes, I absolutely do resent being the shorter one!)

Jess Steadman (she/her) is the Senior Cultures Editor at The Oxford Blue. She is a second year studying Medieval Literature at Univ and is from (mostly sunny) Essex. If you want to find her, she is probably chopping about on the Isis River.