Across the Universe to Pembrokeshire

Kevin Rushby is chief travel correspondent at the Guardian, the author of several books on travel and an award-winning documentary filmmaker. In this feature for Best Western Kevin revisits the spot that sparked his love for Britain’s secret beaches.
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I suppose all obsessions have childhood roots, and this one is no different. It had been a golden day of sandcastle construction, swimming and beach cricket, but now it was late afternoon on Pembrokeshire’s Lydstep sands. Dad was happy because England was thrashing New Zealand at The Oval.

“If Underwood gets five wickets,” he announced. “We’ll get ice creams.”

But Underwood got six, so we got flakes too. My love for beaches was sealed. Later we walked along the coastal path and I remember one startling image, seared on my brain, of looking down to a turquoise sea that was boiling and crashing, raging at the dying of the light. And there, under a rock arch, deep in a cleft of savage vertical cliff, with suggestions of unseen caves, was a patch of sand.

Even from over a hundred feet up, it was clear that no human had set foot there. My boyish head set to work on the cliff, calculating how many lengths of washing line would be needed for the descent. There was an almost visceral need to place my naked foot on that sand. There was also a tingling in my extremities and a hollow in my stomach at the thought of dangling on a rope over that height, especially a washing line.

Telescope time forward by four decades and I’m there again, a little further west at Stanhope Head, lying face down with my head over the edge, gazing down at an untrodden patch of sand. I have the same tingles and excitement, but this time is significantly different: I’ve got Henry Castle of Climb Pembroke with me. And Henry knows how to get down there. He is the man to put my foot on that patch of sand. If I am Neil Armstrong, Henry is NASA, the lunar lander, and Buzz Aldrin combined. He is also the man with the sandwiches. We eat them as we contemplate the drop. I don’t seem to have much appetite.

“Forty-three metre abseil,” says Henry. “Then maybe two hours down there before the tide comes in.” Henry goes first and I follow. The last fifteen metres are in free air, spinning and bouncing gently, feeling rather graceful until the ungainly moment when I hit the ground. The Eagle has landed. And the world is different. A few seconds ago we were part of the cliff-top community: dog-walkers, hikers, strollers, a lady on a horse. The National Trust café, with its fruit scones and cappuccinos: “Chocolate sprinkles, sir?”

Now we are Robinson Crusoe.

Henry climbs Becks Direct on Becks Slab at Penally

The feeling is extraordinary: a rapidity of dislocation that only time travellers might match. There are no footprints in that damp sand, not even a Man Friday. If we shouted for help, no one would hear us and there is no phone signal. Our lives depend on our own resources. The joking ends and we go silent, wandering separately for some time, as though needing to savour that moment.

And then we draw together, become a team. We climb over a subterranean rock wall and descend to new caves that lead to other patches of sand, ones that cannot even be seen from above. Echoes of ocean waves drown our whispers as we examine secret grottoes of stalactites. Between the tides? How is that possible? There is wreckage but not much. This place is clean: purified every twelve hours by immersion, emerging each time as something holy and enchanted.

We go back to the sunlit beach and wander through a cathedral of a cave where one great pillar is apparently holding up the entire earth. Then we wade across to a rock shelf that leads us to a suntrap corner where Henry lies down and falls instantly asleep. I lie down too and feel the rock under me thrumming with the energy of the sea.

By late afternoon we have climbed out. We are back among the dog-walkers and hikers. We exchange comments: “Lovely weather.” No one suspects that we are different men to the ones who were seen walking here only hours ago. We have slipped away to the far side of the universe, and returned. We look the same, but we are not.
If I am Neil Armstrong, Henry is NASA, the lunar lander, and Buzz Aldrin combined. This place is clean: purified every twelve hours by immersion, emerging each time as something holy and enchanted.

Search for your secret beach, but please always check tide times at


A true beach-lover’s paradise. You’ll need to climb, swim or kayak to reach the most inaccessible ones, but there are plenty of good alternatives. Four miles west of Tenby is Skrinkle Haven, a magical spot with a beach only accessible through a narrow cave.

STAY Best Western Lamphey Court Hotel & Spa – Lamphey, Pembroke, SA71 5NT – +44 (0) 844 387 6310. A secluded 39-room Georgian mansion with tennis courts and spa, close to Pembroke’s beaches and coves.


Ruined castles and endless dunes offer long walks under vast skies. Bamburgh Castle and its surrounding strands are often the main focus, but Dunstanburgh, the Farne Islands and Lindisfarne are all wonderful too.

STAY Best Western The Sea Hotel, South Shields - Sea Road, South Shields, Tyne & Wear, NE33 2LD – +44 (0) 844 387 6191. A family run favourite enjoying a wonderful location in South Shields, at the mouth of the River Tyne and on one of Britain’s most scenic coastlines.


Best-known would be the island of Gigha but the map reveals a thousand other places rarely touched by humans, such as the remote and largely uninhabited Knoydart peninsula. The ultimate beach is probably Sandwood Bay, only accessible on foot and the furthest north; a matchless strand of epic beauty.

STAY Philipburn Hotel, BW Signature Collection – Linglie Road, Selkirk, Selkirkshire, TD7 5LS – +44 (0) 844 387 6310. A handsome eighteenth-century hotel in private grounds and woods, overlooking Ettrick Water and close to the Tweed river.

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