No boats, no surfboards, no kayaks—you just swim, scramble and jump to explore these rocky coastlines. Kerry Christiani heads to the birthplace of coasteering on Wales’ craggy coast and dives right in.
I didn’t intend to throw myself off a cliff. It just kind of happened.
I am standing on a rocky ledge, looking out onto the thrashing Atlantic. It is glinting an astonishing shade of turquoise in the pale June light. But there is little time to absorb the beauty of my surrounds. It’s crunch time.
Our guide Megan gives me a little nod and an encouraging smile. I hesitate. The cliff is only 10 meters high—which sounds like a doddle—but 10 meters might as well be 100 meters when you’re hurling yourself into the void, with nothing but you and the swirling torrent far below.
“I’m not sure I can do it,” I waver, as I inch slowly and shakily towards the precipice, holding back the expletives. “Ah, sure you can,” says my guide Megan, brimming with enthusiasm. “Keep your arms flat to your chest and face the horizon. “No,” I say. “I’ll wait a while and watch the others.”
A guy from Sri Lanka, Ronnie, who hasn’t swum in the ocean since he was a small boy, fills his lungs with air as if they were gills, and thrusts out his chest like a pufferfish. He takes a confident step off the bluff and jumps into the water as straight as a pencil. Such grace. His girlfriend falters then starts to clamber back down the rocks the same way she has come.
It’s now or never. The group is egging me on, but I’m acutely aware that only I can make the decision. Suddenly a flashback. I’m back on the highest diving board at school, and I realize that I haven’t felt this sense of child-like wonder and fear for quite some time.
This is the British coast at its rawest, wildest best; a fine place to pit yourself against the brute force of the ocean.
A tiny voice inside me whispers, “Do it.” My heart thumps inside my chest like a hollow drum: duh duh, duh duh. I take a deep breath and exhale slowly, then I summon courage—from some hidden compartment labelled ‘foolish’—and leap off the edge. It’s over in a flash and I smack the surface of the water hard, gulping seawater as I go down, spitting it out as I resurface.
I let out an involuntary whoop of joy at the sheer buzz of it all, not to mention the exhilarating shock of the freezing cold water as it begins to seep through my neoprene wetsuit. Again, again … I think. And up and over the crags we climb to do it all over again, but not before we’ve experienced a little more of what coasteering is about.
In the northern crook of St. Brides Bay in Pembrokeshire National Park on Wales’ west coast is the headland of St Non’s, named after the chapel ruins where Wales’ patron saint David was said to be born in the sixth century. A few steps down from the chapel, barnacle-encrusted cliffs rise tall and rugged above the pebble coves, eerie sea caves, fortress-like rock stacks and the foaming Atlantic. This is the British coast at its rawest, wildest best; a fine place to pit yourself against the brute force of the ocean.
Back in 1988, Sophie and Nick Hurst took one look at this coast and decided to figure out a way to discover all its enticing nooks and crannies. They adopted the pioneering sport of ‘coasteering’, blazing new trails close to their eco-lodge, in a remote corner of northern Pembrokeshire. Their aim, Sophie tells me, was to get that bit closer to nature with a “workout in the wild”.
“Coasteering is such a great way to explore the unspoilt Pembrokeshire coastline,” enthuses Sophie. “It’s the closest thing most people get to a real wilderness experience—out there on the edge of the land where rocky coast meets the wild ocean. It’s truly breathtaking.”
She’s a true convert to her creation. “I love the sense of freedom and adventure,” she tells me “One minute you’re being swished around as if in a giant washing machine; the next, you’re swimming through to an isolated cove or clambering up to a promontory. The cliffs are high, but you don’t have to jump unless you want to.”
Beyond the quick rush of adrenaline, coasteering is a very in-depth exploration of the coast, taking you right down to sea level and revealing all the bits you wouldn’t ordinarily see.
It stands to reason that the wildlife-watching is going to be good on such a remote stretch of coast, much of which belongs to the National Trust. “Oh yes,” agrees Sophie. “It’s very special in that sense. We once saw dolphins a little way out to sea and that was incredible, and the seals are very inquisitive and come over to check you out before continuing on their way.”
“The best thing about this coast is it’s always changing at high and low tide,” she continues. “Depending on times and conditions, we use different coasteering spots. Any time of year is fine, but autumn is particularly great as the sea is at its warmest.”
Beyond the obvious quick rush of adrenaline, coasteering is actually a very in-depth exploration of the coast, taking you right down to sea level and revealing all the bits you wouldn’t ordinarily get to see. Looking for grippy rocks and splashing around in caves is so wholly absorbing, it seems like the ultimate mindful activity—a means of totally unplugging from your day-to-day life and tuning into nature.
As I pick my way along the craggy shoreline with the others, I realize I’m starting to notice things I’d otherwise overlook. My gaze is drawn to the minutiae of the coast: samphire sprouting from rocks, limpets that we prise from the rocks with a startling kick, the many shades and varieties of seaweed.
“Did you know that barnacles have the longest penises proportionate to their size of any living creature?” asks Megan with a wry grin. “They are eight times their body length so they can reach one another. They are also hermaphrodites.” I shake my head in amazement. Megan, it turns out, has an inexhaustible stash of fascinating facts.
Day is starting to fade swiftly, and our drenched bodies are now casting long shadows as we walk. The sea is receding in the golden glow of a summer afternoon. I’m cold to my core, bedraggled. Every muscle in my body aches, yet I can’t quite wipe the smile off my face: rarely have I felt so alive.
Preseli Venture arranges half-day coasteering courses from its eco-lodge base, plus weekend and adventure holiday packages with bed and board. All activities include experienced guides and full equipment (wetsuits, helmets, neoprene socks and flotation jackets); bring your own swimsuit and towel.
Kerry Christiani is an award-winning travel writer, photographer, prolific Lonely Planet guidebook author, and the Telegraph’s expert for Wales where she's based. An adventure addict, she loves mountains, cold places and wilderness.