Exploring Pembrokeshire with kids for great outdoor adventures

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Bell tents at Fforest

We’re approaching the castle by stealth, along the river, paddles dipping soundlessly in the water. A kingfisher skims the surface ahead; above, a buzzard drifts over, harried by a raucous crow. The youngest in our catamaran scouting party is three, a rookie. My son, Alfie, four years older, is armed with a wooden oar, with which he sends a steady flick of water over my trousers.

Suddenly, the battlements are above us, craggy and dark through the yew trees. We turn and let the current drift us back down, bracing ourselves for the rush of white water ahead, and Alfie splutters with excitement as we bump and judder over the miniature rapids. One of our group has canoed down the Himalayas.

You can’t really compare it to that, but for a seven-year-old it’s pretty thrilling. It feels a hundred miles from anywhere, but we’re on the River Teifi in Pembrokeshire, with our campsite just above the river, through a flank of woodland. Cardigan is just a short drive away.

This is a part of west Wales we return to again and again – far enough away from London and every bit as lovely as Penzance, but with fewer tea shops and gridlocked country lanes. It has glorious empty sandy beaches, storybook woods and crumbly castles. It’s easy to find tasty locally sourced food, and arty hangouts. Best of all, there’s a bucketload of things to do outside.

Waterfowl contemplate the pond in St Dogmaels

Fforest is a campsite, but it’s quite unlike any we’ve stayed on. It’s the ever-evolving project of James and Sian, two former art students who escaped from East London to create something magical around an old tumbledown farm, inspired by the outdoor lifestyle they experienced on a trip around New Zealand.

Their rustic fiefdom has been lovingly designed, right down to the handwoven blankets on the beds. Dotted around the woodland and fields are a variety of dwellings: bell tents, campshacks – two tents docked to a kitchen hut – and hybrids that are half-canvas, half-forest cabin.

But our favourites are the domes, which sprout like giant, geometric mushrooms. Each has a stand-alone kitchen shack decorated with wildflowers picked by Sian, and a wooden deck with chunky chairs.

Inside is a cosy bubble of warmth, lit by the glow of the log-burning stove and solar lights set on antler-like branches above the main bed. In the morning, we roll up the canvas blinds for the view across hay-strewn fields, and unzip the awning to spot birds rustle in the hedgerow. One of the big draws here is that no other camping is allowed, so you won’t trip over guy ropes, or queue for the loos, which are set in Scandi-style longhouses.

Everything is spaced out to allow a sense of seclusion. It’s almost a surprise to encounter other guests, but they emerge slowly from the woods for a breakfast of boiled eggs and sourdough toast at the lodge. This is the main social HQ, where you can flop with a book and meet other families, while the camp dog, Arrow, tangles around outside with visiting canines.

Alfie dons his own tunic and prepares for battle

Fresh pizza is prepared at the camp lodge

There’s a roster for the sauna – a wooden barrel in a glade – and a chalkboard with the day’s events on: archery, films, art with a wildlife illustrator. Fforest draws an interesting bunch: during our stays here we’ve met everyone from locavore chefs to special-effects producers.

Once a week, there’s a barbecue of spatchcocked chicken, and salads of heritage tomatoes and leaves from the allotment. Evenings wind up in the stone-walled pub, with James holding court over a glass of Penderyn whisky, telling ghost stories while flames flicker in the grate and children play rounds of Uno.

One afternoon, we become the sole survivors of a plane crash, on a bushcraft survival course in the woods. Our leader, Patrick, sends us to find jettisoned bags of food and tools hidden in the undergrowth. We spark fire from a battery and steel wool, and coil dough around branches to bake over the embers.

As a skilled trap-maker himself – mostly laid for me to trip over on my return from work – Alfie is impressed by Patrick’s dead-drop sprung trap, made from a young sapling, which he triggers with a bag of flour, sending it flying upwards. ‘Now,’ says Patrick, ‘like any primitive civilisation, we need a woodland deity to worship.’

Alfie, seven, admires the giant throne at cardigan castle

So I rootle around for a few short branches and tie them with twine to make a rough figure, slightly sinister in a Blair Witch fashion – though my son thinks it resembles Stick Man. We place him in a tree for any foraging anthropologists. Then, in the faint hope of alerting rescuers, we toss ferns onto the fire to make smoke signals. The fortress we crept up on in our canoes is Cilgerran Castle, which is properly Horrible Histories medieval, with a moat and drawbridge and spiral staircases that children race down while their vertig0-afflicted parents tiptoe more gingerly.

A burly knight made of cane guards the lawn below. Staying the night here hasn’t been an option since the 17th century, but Cardigan Castle has recently reopened its doors. Its thick Norman walls have been attacked by the Vikings and the Welsh, and besieged by the Roundheads. Don’t expect suits of armour in the bedrooms, which are bright, contemporary spaces – best for families is the attic room, big and beamed, with plenty of tumbling-around space.

The high street is just outside, and after our full Welsh breakfast we have the grounds to ourselves: our own private park with a playground and pathways around the ramparts – for incredible views over the river, and for taking aim with imaginary crossbows at the cars below. The stronghold of feisty warrior lord Rhys ap Gruffydd, it was the first venue for the Eisteddfod in 1176 – the original Welsh X-Factor for wouldbe bards and harpists – and has a giant replica throne and interactive exhibition. I hadn’t yet read my son the Welsh epic The Mabinogion, with its tales of a queen made from flowers, and Arthurian quests.

But we created our own stories from exploits around Cardigan, stirring rockpools and building fortresses at Poppit Sands, and finding coves further along the coast. At Penbryn, there’s a spooky cave below a dragon-green cliff. And at Mwnt, we tripped down rough steps below a hillside church and raced across a gloriously empty beach. Out at sea, swimmers braved the waves in wetsuits. And our son had put on his fancy-dress knight’s costume, and was preparing to do battle with the incoming waves.

A cane knight stands guard at Cilgerran Castle

The lowdown: Pembrokeshire

Where to stay

Fforest has become a year-round experience, with hygge breaks in the winter, Easter stays, pumpkincarving in October, movie night and s’mores round the firepit, and a two-week Gather festival in summer (from 23 July) with everything from screen-printing to wild swimming. Two nights from £150 (staying in a kata cabin).

Cardigan is one of the best places in the UK to get wet,with coasteering, sea-kayaking and paddleboarding. Cardigan Castle The Y Copa family room is £140 per night. Oriel Milgi, St Dogmaels B&B with mid-century design touches in a former sea captain’s house. Doubles from £95. Oak Tree Cottage This white-walled cottage in the nature reserve puts you right in the thick of it, with only owls for neighbours. From £215 for four nights.

Where to eat/stock up

Ferry Inn Perched on wooden stilts above the Teifi estuary, with wooden decks to watch for cormorants and fishing boats. St Dogmaels Abbey The café here is quite the community hub, with a deli that stocks local chutneys and craft ales. Pizza Tipi Set on Cardigan’s quayside, this is open all day in the summer for wood-fired dough and Eton mess.

What else to do

Welsh Wildlife Centre The focal point for the Teifi Marshes Nature Reserve. Pick up adventure backpacks for the kids and embark on geocaching or nature trails over the boardwalks, keeping eyes peeled for grass snakes, water buffalo and otters. Heritage Canoes is based here and will arrange family expeditions through the Cilgerran Gorge on the River Teifi.

Fforest Summer Camp is a small festival held over two weeks in August, mixing bushcraft, foraging and wild swimming with live music, DJs, creative writing and local food.

Cardigan River and Food Festival is an August event celebrating local food, with coracle and boat races, and abseiling down the castle walls.

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