This week the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park - the only coastal national park in the United Kingdom - will be 60 years old. National Geographic Magazine recently voted the park second best coastal destination anywhere in the world and there is no doubt that the area thoroughly deserves the accolade.

Stack Rock, Pembrokeshire Coast National Park (Photo from ynysforgan_jack)

The coastal park covers approximately 240 square miles and consists of soaring cliffs, long stretches of glorious sandy beach and, slightly inland, rolling hills and deep, mysterious woodlands. It has scenery, history and legend enough to capture the imagination of even the most discerning visitor or local.

The Pembrokeshire Coast Park was originally designated at the end of February 1952, one of three national parks in Wales. The others are the Brecon Beacons and Snowdonia.

In order to be best appreciated the park should be viewed as a whole, as a complete entity. However, for those wishing to visit the area for a short time, it can be broken down into a number of sections or stretches which can offer an effective way of looking at one of the world's most spectacular stretches of coastline.

Firstly there is the southern coast, running from Amroth on the Pembrokeshire/Carmarthenshire border to the tip of the Angle Peninsula. This section obviously includes tourist destinations like Tenby and Caldey Island.

Next comes the Milford Haven Estuary, running from St Ann's Head up river towards Haverfordwest and including quiet backwaters that have probably not changed very much since the early twentieth century.

St Brides Bay (Photo from janjo 195)

Thirdly there is St Brides Bay, the broad sweep of coast that faces the roaring west winds of winter and includes beaches such as Newgale and Broadhaven (north). Then comes the rugged northern coast, from Strumble Head to Poppit Sands. And finally - but certainly not least - is the inland splendour of the Preseli Hills.

Each of the sections is different, offering different experiences and a range of sights that vary from isolated rock stacks to echoing caves and natural arches. The sea cliffs are magnificent, particularly on the southern coast and on St David's Head to the north. In winter, when the full force of the sea and wind can be felt, the cliffs of Pembrokeshire are particularly atmospheric.

The park includes the islands of Pembrokeshire, some of which can be visited. These include places like Caldey, Ramsey and Skomer. In contrast, the area around Castlemartin on the south coast is often closed as it incorporates military firing ranges but when open it offers even more magnificent scenery and wild life. Sea birds such as razorbills and guillemots abound, even rare red-legged choughs.

Pentre Ifan

However impressive the coast might be, there is very little that can compare to the mysterious sense of ancient history that you find at places such as Cromlech Pentre Ifan in the foothills of the Preseli Mountains.

Stand here at dusk, as the sun sets over the western sea, and only the most insensitive of visitors can fail to feel the hairs rise up on the backs of their necks - a sure way of getting in touch with our ancient ancestors. Remember, the famous Blue Stones of Stonehenge came from nearby Carn Menyn and the whole of the Gwaun Valley, east of Fishguard, was once reputed to be full of witches. In some parts of the valley New Year's Day is still celebrated on 13th January, a tradition dating back to 1752 when the Julian calendar was replaced by the Gregorian one.

History is everywhere in the Pembrokeshire Coast Park. From the old dockyard at Pembroke Dock, a place that once built royal yachts for Queen Victoria, to the site of the last invasion of Britain outside Fishguard, there is something here for everyone, no matter what their interest. Over a dozen ancient castles, palaces for Bishops and beaches where smugglers once reigned supreme - the area is suffused with points of fascinating history.

Lying almost totally within the National Park is the Pembrokeshire Coast Path. Now designated as a National Trail, it runs for over 180 miles around the coast from Amroth to St Dogmaels before linking up with the Ceredigion Path to the north. It will be an essential part of the Welsh Coast Path, due to open fully this year. Most of the Pembrokeshire Path runs at cliff top level, the highest point being 574 feet above the sea, the lowest (at Sandy Haven) just a few feet.

The Coast Path was originally conceived back in 1953 when the Pembrokeshire-based writer and naturalist Ronald Lockley surveyed a route around the coast and reported his findings to the Countryside Commission.

It took some years and many delicate negotiations with land owners before the path could be made fully operational and it was only formally opened, by Wynford Vaughan-Thomas, on 16 May 1970. No visit to the Pembrokeshire area would ever be complete without walking at least a few hundred yards along the Coast Path.

The Pembrokeshire Coast National Park remains a jewel in the crown of Wales, something that every visitor to the country should experience at least once.

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