Family fun and coasteering in Tenby, Wales


‘I’ll go first,” says my eight-year-old son, the youngest of our small group, manoeuvring himself past adults and bigger children on to a slab of overhanging rock, five metres above the churning sea. He looks over the edge, starts to wobble a little, then clenches a fist and jumps. He shoots up seconds later, all smiles, his helmet-clad head bobbing just above the surface, as he moves towards the guide waiting for him in the water.

His 10-year-old brother has no choice but to follow suit, as does the rest of our party, until it gets to the child before me, who is wavering. “You don’t have to jump if you’re not sure. You’re here to have fun,” says our guide, Tom Heaton. The child opts for a slightly lower jump, and it’s all the excuse I need to join him, despite knowing I’ll get a huge amount of grief from my sons once I’m in the water.

I’ve never liked heights much, but I do love scrambling over rocks, swimming and jumping off smaller cliffs into the sea, so I’m very much enjoying the rest of this coasteering experience. Especially knowing we’re with an expert who has checked the water depths for safety and can read the conditions; today the waves look choppy and dramatic but actually don’t have much power.

Geronimo! Coasteering near Tenby

We’re on holiday in Tenby, and the messages from friends and family have been coming in all week, asking if we’re OK. A storm big enough to have a name has been battering the country, and Pembrokeshire has been bearing the brunt of it. Pictures of flooding and felled trees around the county are all over the internet.

Except that hasn’t been our experience at all. It’s been windy when we’ve walked along Tenby’s South Beach, but in town the medieval walls mostly block out the gusts just as they once kept out invaders (Henry VII famously sought refuge here during the Wars of the Roses). And the North Beach has been sheltered from the wind, so we’ve been swimming and the kids have been bodyboarding between the red and yellow lifeguard flags most days.

Tenby’s location on the western side of Carmarthen Bay helps it dodge some of the wilder weather coming in off the Atlantic too. We haven’t even seen rain – until today, that is, our last day, when it’s tipping it down. But, as I keep telling my slightly sceptical children as we walk past pretty pastel-coloured townhouses to the harbour meeting point for our coasteering adventure, it doesn’t matter because we’re spending the day getting wet anyway.

The writer and her sons ready for action

Coasteering is one of the few outdoor activities where the fun is not diminished by constant rain; if anything, it adds to the atmosphere. And if you do it in Wales, where up to 30 people can take part in outdoor activities, it’s perfectly legal. Our group are all first-timers, a mix of parents and children, and while we get kitted up in thick winter wetsuits, helmets and lifejackets (plus our own old trainers to help us grip on the rock), Tom, who works for local outfit Tenby Coasteering, gives us some background on the sport.

Invented by climbers as a way of training for technical mountain ascents (the sea presumably providing a softer cushion than rock), and popular with surfers as something to do when there were no waves, coasteering essentially means exploring a rocky coastline by climbing, jumping, swimming and moving through sea caves. An experienced climber himself, Tom grew up here and says the area’s pocked limestone cliffs are especially suited to the sport, as they provide plenty of handholds to grab on to.

The guides choose the best spot according to the conditions, sometimes taking groups to Barafundle Bay, Broadhaven or Freshwater West, but today we’re lucky enough to be coasteering on St Catherine’s Island, the photogenic tidal outcrop on the town’s main Castle Beach – once a Napoleonic fortress. At low tide you can walk to the island, but at high tide it’s surrounded by sea.

Looking towards Tenby beach

We’re out at mid-tide with the sea pushing in, so some of the caves we climb through on our way out are filled with water when we come back around the island. Tom teases the kids by wondering aloud if the final cave we have to swim through will be passable on our return, which adds an exciting race-against-time dimension to proceedings. It’s also a good way of keeping them moving so they don’t get cold or flag.

I can sense the younger one tiring towards the end – not surprising given that swimming in a wetsuit, life jacket and trainers in the sea is very different from doing lengths at the local pool. The currents aren’t strong enough to pull us anywherebut the waves are lively, especially when they crash on to you when you’re trying to get up on to the rock, so we’re glad of those limestone handholds.

It’s hard to believe we’re barely a few hundred metres from a bustling seaside town. For much of the session we can’t even see Tenby, as we’re facing the open sea or the picturesque outline of Caldey Island in the distance. We spot cormorants, while barnacles, mussels and strains of seaweed I’ve never seen before carpet the rocks. We climb through small gaps and into caves few people outside of these coasteering groups have ever been in; it’s certainly not a trip I’d consider bringing the kids on without a guide.

‘Coasteering is one of the few outdoor activities where the fun is not diminished by the rain; if anything, it adds to the atmosphere’

In one cave, we sit in complete darkness, waves crashing up to our waists, while Tom explains to the kids how waves form, and then regales them with stories of how smugglers used these caves to store contraband in days of yore.

Just before we finish, we do a series of final jumps of varying heights and difficulty, including a designated freestyle rock, where I try to redeem myself in the eyes of my sons with some rudimentary somersaults. They nod sympathetically, then continue to make their way up to the highest jump.

A half-day session with Tenby Coasteering is £45 for adults and £35 for kids aged eight and over, who are capable of swimming 50 metres. Sessions run until November. For accommodation, FBM Holidays has properties in Tenby which sleep a family of four from £310 a week