I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky, and all I need is a neoprene wetsuit, an inflatable kayak, a telescopic fishing rod, a body board, a power kite, a slimline collapsible barbecue, two moon chairs, a windbreak, and several large dry bags jammed with other essential gadgets. How did I ever manage in the past? When I was 10 years old I went to Pembrokeshire and had a fabulous time on those miraculous beaches with no more than a pair of swimming trunks. Now I was taking my daughter Maddy, also 10, and we had a classic VW campervan filled with everything the outdoor sports megastore can offer. We were on the hunt for the perfect beach, and we had the modern armoury to enjoy that spot to the utmost.
Now, I don't know if you have ever considered what makes the perfect beach, but clearly it is not sand so hot it burns your feet, disease-laden tropical sandflies, shark attacks and head-splitting falling coconuts. No. Any search for sandy coastal perfection should be contained within the limits of Tenby in the south and Cardigan in the north – the Pembrokeshire coast. It's a stretch that has at least 243 beaches of unparalleled beauty, and the kind of limpid aquamarine saltwater that has sent poets into raptures.
Before arriving I got out the two Ordnance Explorer maps of the county and went along the coast marking every beach, then read every online and published comment I could find. There are whole forums out there where people trade favourite spots. There is also Daniel Start's book, Wild Swimming Coast, which is particularly strong on Pembrokeshire. In addition, we had the Cicerone guide to the coastal path, which is practical and informative. From all this information, a few names shone out, demanding a visit. We had a list. We had a mission.
As we headed towards St Davids at a stately 30mph, Maddy entertained me with a tailback count: "Three cars behind us. Four. Five." And so on. Those classic VW vans – ours was a 1980 production called Daisy – just trail admirers everywhere they go. Our first campsite was at Caerfai Bay which I had telephoned just one day ahead. It was the height of the season but this one-day-in-advance strategy never let us down. Caerfai came with numerous recommendations. It was one of our top potential spots.
Pulling up to the cliff edge, we donned wetsuits, grabbed body boards and ran down to the cove. High tide. No beach at all. Just some big rocks and a load of smashed plastic mixed with seaweed. Pounding surf. Far too dangerous. Caerfai is one of those Pembrokeshire beaches that only has sand below high tide. So we changed our clothes and had a walk along the cliff. In the evening, I studied the tide table that I'd printed out. If you are planning any kind of swimming, boating or perfect beach searching in Pembrokeshire, it is pretty much essential to keep up with the tides: your beach may not exist for more than a few hours a day.
Next afternoon we were back down at Caerfai at a better time, with several dozen others. This beach's proximity to large campsites and St Davids does make it busy. I scored it seven out of 10; Maddy gave it zero – but her opinion was influenced by the fact that the powerful breakers had stolen one of her new flippers. She was so upset, in fact, that I got out of bed in the night, at low tide, and searched the base of the cliffs with a torch, finding nothing except lots of other plastic rubbish and the uncomfortable truth that we were as guilty as anyone in adding to it.
The tides roll clockwise around Britain so the flipper had probably moved northwards to Whitesands Bay, one of Pembrokeshire's most popular surfing beaches and our first stop next morning. With St Davids close at hand as well as a big campsite, this is also a busy place, but it's very well organised and large enough to absorb a crowd. We rated it nine.
The following day was blustery but not actually raining. We examined all the beaches that line the curve of St Brides Bay, starting with Solva, which is really a long creek dotted with boats. It's not for swimming, but is lovely and boasts a great cafe (Thirty Five Cafe, right at the end of the creek). Newgale (rated a seven again) was broad and big fun, though not as pretty as most. Surfers love it as you can camp close enough to hear the waves and there are lifeguards. Further down the coast were Druidston (eight) and Broad Haven (seven) and the charming cove of Little Haven (eight).
Now we were approaching our destination: West Hook Farm on the Marloes peninsula. This proved to be the best campsite we visited: basic but clean facilities, loads of space, and a glorious clifftop panorama. We jumped into wetsuits and ran 500m along the cliff path to reach Martin's Haven. This is a tiny stony cove best suited to snorkelling and rock-pool exploration. We swam out along the east side and were rewarded by a view of a big edible crab scuttling between the kelp. He evaded our hungry fingers.
Returning to the camp, I left Maddy and explored further along the coast to Musselwick, a marvellous clifftop walk. The air was light with butterflies and the sea roared far below. Unfortunately, the tide had just beaten me to the sand. A regular visitor, fishing for sea bass from the rocks, told me this beach is accessible only two hours either side of low water. It looked like it would be worth the wait.
After stocking up at the small shop in Marloes village next morning, we set out for Marloes Sands, which is about a mile from the last road. This keeps the hordes away but not Hollywood – they love it. The latest in a long line of films to use this location was 2012's Snow White and the Huntsman. It's a fabulous spot: a great sweep of clean sand backed by cave-riddled cliffs. After a few hours' bodyboarding and breakfast, we hunted in the huge mysterious rock pools, catching tiny flatfish in a bucket. An entire day passed in blissful beach activity before we awarded it a 10 and trekked back to the van.
Next day was gloomy and rain-splattered, perfect for driving past the Milford Haven oil refineries. Looking at this petrochemical monstrosity now, it's hard to imagine how it ever got past the planning department in the late 1950s. Back then, however, there was the Suez Crisis and fears about petrol supplies. We stopped at Pembroke Castle to while away a little more of the drizzle, wondering if this massive crenellated fortification from the 12th century was also, in its day, considered a monstrous carbuncle.
The sun made a watery appearance as we rolled back into idyllic countryside, then through the village of Boshington to Trefalen Farm, another amazing clifftop campsite, though without much in the way of facilities. There was just time to don wetsuits and take a swim between the two sandy coves below the cliff. Maddy and I both awarded it eights for having such great caves and archways to explore.
Next day we wandered inland through Boshington's famous lily ponds, spotting the otters that live there, then walked down to Stackpole Quay, Pembrokeshire's smallest harbour and a real gem. Apparently the sea wall is a favourite base for extravagant jumps into the water, but not at low tide. Fortunately the National Trust cafe there is not governed by the sun and moon: we filled up before turning west along the coast to Barafundle Bay. This beautiful broad stretch of sand has been voted Britain's best beach many times and it is easy to see why: a lovely hinterland of woods and pastures, clean water and sand, plus a walk long enough to deter the crowds. We swam out to the famous three arches then I carried on alone back across the bay to explore the caves on the other side. Barafundle received the same 10 as Marloes Sands, but I'd say if you add in the lily ponds, cliffs and Stackpole cafe, it just about squeezes in as top beach.
Our week over, we strolled back along the cliffs. We'd found some great beaches but these had only whetted our appetites. After Stackpole Head Maddy spotted a gorgeous stretch of sand: there was no path down but we could see a line of footprints in the sand. How had they got there? A marathon swim? Kayak? Above the high-tide mark was a pile of driftwood.
"Plenty for a fire" she pointed out, "We could swim around and camp out for the night."
Our search for beach perfection was, I could see, only just beginning.
Way to go
The trip was provided by Visit Wales (visitwales.com). Pembrokeshire Classic Campers (01348 837227, pembrokeshireclassiccampers.co.uk) hires vans sleeping four from £275 for a weekend or from £375 a week