5th – 11th December 2021
Beaumaris – Benllech
16 miles/1819 ft total ascent
Grassy paths took me away from Beaumaris in the early light; the daunting slumber of the mountains across the strait a crooked, high silhouette. Where the sky was blue over there, but for the morning clouds that yawned up on the peaks, inland a dark grey mass of rain was brewing overhead, getting darker and darker like a mug of hot water holding a forgotten teabag. The early orange of the sunrise giving the ominousness a golden edge and the foreboding sky glowed as if blessed.
By the time I had made my way around the beaches and up a path to the ruins of Penmon Priory, the sky had broken and the rain started to pour down and I took shelter within the stone walls which was only a partially good idea as the ruins had no roof.
I finally realised this plan wasn’t achieving anything and continued up the winding path to Penmon, the tiny settlement up on the eastern tip of the island, and the view of its lighthouse. Whilst many visit here to look out to the lighthouse, visit the café, and perhaps take a boat trip out to Puffin Island, former resident Akira the Don, a pop and hip hop musician, blamed the eternally bleak and depressing nature of living on the promontory for him being a ‘moody little bugger’.
The café was shut. It wasn’t normally; in fact it boasted of being open all year round, but it took me hanging around for far too long after its supposed opening time to eventually find a Facebook post saying it would be closed today. I don’t even remember the reason, I just remember being really angry that the only notice of this was on stupid Facebook, which I don’t even have, and I had been really looking forward to some cake. What if I had just come up here in the rain purely to visit the café? That would have been substantially more devastating.
Nonetheless, the wait had not been entirely unpleasant. With the rain reducing to just a firm drizzle, the hump of Puffin Island poked above the water out at sea. The Welsh name for Puffin Island is Ynys Lannog which, according to two different online dictionaries, either means ‘Clean Island’ or ‘Lazy Island’ and I’m not sure either is correct.
This little corner of Anglesey is linked extensively to St. Seiriol, who was also responsible for the priory I had taken shelter in (though the ruins are of a 13th Century rebuilding after the Vikings ransacked the original). He was the son of the ruler of Gwynedd and his brother, Einion Frenin, was also a saint. Can you imagine the sibling rivalry? Seiriol eventually went off to do what all of the saints of that time seemed to do and went to live as a hermit, setting up his hermitage on the island. Clearly introverts should not attempt the evangelical life; it seems to really burn them out.
As for the puffins of Puffin Island; once there was once a huge colony of over 2,000 birds but after the brown rat was accidentally introduced to the island in the late 19th century the numbers dwindled extensively. In desperation the Countryside Council for Wales started poisoning the rats in 1998 and now the puffins are starting to return but, as yet, only number around 300. There is a huge colony of great cormorants though, numbering over 750 and making up about 10% of the entire national population. But, let’s face it, you don’t really visit a Puffin Island to see cormorants.
On finally realising the café wasn’t going to open, I continued on with a mutter and a tut. A farmland trek avoided the limestone quarries, which was not the muddy, moody sludge I normally associate with farmland walking, but a vivid green of clifftop fields with only the occasional sheep looking out over the sea as the sky slowly brightened.
The afternoon progressed into a lovely walk, coming down through gorse paths to the shingle and marsh that progressed the one side of the crook of the land; Red Wharf Bay and Benllech visible on the other side. A few other walkers stopped to chat. I’ll admit that, self consciousness had me somewhat avoidant at this point of mentioning that I was doing the whole of the the Wales Coast Path at this time of year – I had barely just begun and that stupid dream wherein I became a national laughing stock was clearly picking up on a nervous thought that maybe this was completely stupid and there was a reason no guide to any hike ever recommended winter walking. I would just say I was going around Anglesey and people seemed delighted enough to discuss it. I would pet their dogs and everyone would be happy.
It was around this point that I started to hear two things. The first was “Have you read The Salt Path?”. ‘The Salt Path’ seems to have been everyone’s lockdown reading of choice and has definitely now overtaken Cheryl Strayed’s ‘Wild’ in the public consciousness. I haven’t read it. Not because I have anything against it, it certainly comes highly recommended, but Raynor Winn’s journey along the South West Coast with her terminally ill husband after becoming homeless just seemed too heartbreakingly tragic for me to put myself through. At least ‘Wild’, whilst Strayed never finished the PCT, has a happy ending.
The second was whether I knew Emma. I was indeed aware of Emma Shroeder. She was walking clockwise around the UK, having started back in June in Southampton. She seemed to be keeping herself under the radar, possibly intentionally (likely due to a similar self-consciousness), but a Reddit post several weeks ago in which she had asked for tent recommendations after finding her shelter unsuitable had alerted me to her presence, especially since I had worked out that we would cross paths. We were indeed in contact. As it was, she had altered from her clockwise course on entering Anglesey and was a few days ahead of me and, thus, was very recent in the thoughts of those that had come across her.
For the entirety of my journey, if I was given a pound for every time someone asked me about ‘The Salt Path’ or mentioned Emma, I am sure I would have doubled my fundraising takings.
A wandering in the woods before a final descent to the creaking, gently rocking boats parked up in the bay. At low tide, the fine sand here extends over ten miles, but I seemed to have dropped down at the midway waters.
I made my way on to Benllech, finding a small and hidden spot inland just after the buildings ended. I was aware the storm warnings were in for the next day, but right now it seemed deceptively peaceful.
Benllech – Cemaes
23 (16) miles/3545 ft total ascent
Oh yes, Storm Barra was now making her presence known. The blast of morning wind had me re-considering today’s route and after only a brief foray onto the coast I decided that it had to be inland. The winds knocked me back in seconds and the strength needed to constantly resist them was going to really add up. The water flustered furiously and absolutely everything bowed and shook with the howling wind screaming over, above and into absolutely everything in its path.
I was not pleased with this decision. This section was meant to be amazing and many people I would speak to later would proclaim it was their favourite part of the Anglesey Path. Apparently the clifftop ventures of the previous day continued, bedecked with ruins and lighthouses galore; rugged and extraordinary. I tried to search for a more informative report to give to you, but even the normally verbose Charles Hawes didn’t say much on this section as, he too, ended up walking it in bad weather and his writing definitely reflects the sour mood of his experience.
Yet even among the hedged up lanes, the electricity pylons bent dramatically in the slamming winds to the point I started to get ever so slightly alarmed. Arwen had knocked out electricity throughout Northumberland, and it didn’t seem too ridiculous a concern that my death might not come from falling off a cliff, or a dramatic drowning, or hypothermia, but from electrocution.
Absolutely bursting for a wee, I eventually tried to have a quick wilderwee in a sheepfield and ended up toppled over by the wind, my bag holding me down and legs flailing as I was judged by a bunch of sheep. Bear Grylls I am not.
Any time the hedges were lower or a gap appeared where a gate would be, I would have to be quick to steady myself. This inland route to Amlwch took me through the hills that once held all the ore that lead to Anglesey’s own ‘copper rush’ and lead to branding Amlwch as the ‘Copper Kingdom’. In fact, mining was going on here for a long time before then; Parys Mountain had been mined for 3,500 years since the Bronze Age, but with the Industrial Revolution demand shot up, and the mountain became the world’s largest copper mine. Amlwch’s population shot up to 10,000 making it, at the time, the second largest town in Wales. Even after the decline of the copper mining industry, other ores were found in the mountain to plunder. I’m somehow amazed after so many thousands of years of extensive extraction that there’s anything left of Parys Mountain. It’s actually become so bare and deformed by all the invasive activity that its ravaged appearance has been used as a backdrop for science fiction and dystopic films.
Not only that, but the soil is so contaminated that basically nothing grows there. However, due to the high chemical content of the water, the submerged areas are home to many appealingly named ‘snottites’. These are microbial mats made up of single celled bacteria that thrive only in the most extreme environments and hang like fragile stalactites. As the name suggests, they have the consistency of snot.
If you found my description of Parys Mountain appealing, it has its own trail.
I came into Amlwch and visited the Co-op to restock. I still wasn’t sure what I was going to do, but decided to press on to Cemaes while I was deciding. I still held a glimmer of hope that maybe I could camp down at the Porth Wen brickworks tonight. Retrospectively this is incredibly laughable.
When I reached Cemaes, I went further out to the bay, re-entering the barrage of winds to find out. The brickworks lay in their own, tall-walled and tight cove and down there absolutely nothing was shifting – it was completely protected from the wind. The more alarming issue was the way down, done only on a narrow, overgrown and precarious path which I immediately knew was not going to be a clever idea for me to attempt in the wind, fully laden (and somewhat dyspraxic).
Utterly dejected, I fought my way back to Cemaes. Technically access to the brickworks isn’t permitted, but the owners certainly don’t seem to be doing anything with it and I absolutely would not have been the first wildcamper there. These ochre coloured structures were established in the Victorian era to produce the silica based fire bricks used to line steel-making furnaces. A few tall towers remained, as did squat small, windowed kilns that appeared to bulge out in the middle. A rare example of industrial loveliness, even amongst the drama of the coast.
At Cemaes I flopped into a café where I was given a seat by the fire. The café owner asked where I’d come from today, and I told him Benllech. He proceeded to announce to all subsequent visitors that I, this girl, had come all the way from Benllech today. I interrupted him a few times to repeatedly confess that it had not been the 23 miles that it would have been via the coast, but rather only 16 miles or so on the inland way but, after a while, my embarrassment turned to an inkling of pride and by the end of my visit I think my ego had grown about ten times bigger.
With wildcamping out of the question, I booked a room at a nearby inn. I still didn’t know what I was going to do tomorrow. Coastal gusts of up to 70mph were forecasted and, as it would turn out, Gwynedd would get its highest gusts on record and buildings across Wales would lose their roofs, whilst floods and felled trees would also cause extensive damage. Power cuts would be rampant and the few ferries still running would end up stranded off of Holyhead as the high, violent waves made their approach impossible.
But at that time, I was still slightly hopeful that maybe things would be OK.
Day 8 – 10
I had to accept that there was going to be a pause. To continue walking along the coastpath would be incredibly stupid and dangerous and if I had to call out rescue services whilst raising money for rescue services it would not be a good look. Carrying on inland was also not a great option; it would be dull and, frankly, was unnecessary when the third option was to take shelter in the hostel in Holyhead and return to Cemaes to carry on when all this blew over.
I took the bus to Holyhead which, in itself, felt incredibly unstable as everything outside bent and bucked with the screaming of Barra’s winds and the bus itself was rocking. I took the opportunity to restock at the Holyhead Morrisons, but at the check out realised with a stomach plunging wrench that I had left my bank card on the bus. Having lived in cities for much of my adult life, I held absolutely no personal hope of the card being returned but made an emotional call to the bus operator anyway. As I waited to hear back I was mostly expecting the hike to be over; if I cancelled the card the replacement would be sent to my local bank back home, and how would I even get home if I had to cancel the hike? By the time the operator called back I had frothed myself up into a frenzy of devastating resignation and was completely shocked when she told me that not only had my card been found, but the bus driver would just drop it off with me when he came by the Morrisons bus stop in half an hour or so.
It was like the world stopped and a giant, golden ray of angelic light came down from the storm-scattered skies when the driver turned up and handed my card over to me.
I would spend the next couple days in a pod at the hostel. The days were not eventful. I made friends with a tail-less cat that had made the laundry room of the hostel her home and made a very brief visit into Holyhead itself. I say brief because I had not expected Holyhead to be quite so utterly grim. Whilst port towns are not known to be pretty, most have some sort of vibrancy with the constant influx and movement of all sorts of people, but somehow despite being the largest town in Anglesey and having such a busy ferry port Holyhead was just run down and sad. On the high street, maybe only one out of four shops were actually operating with all the rest closed down. The saddest Christmas lights swung shoddily across the street.
Before I had seen Holyhead, I really wasn’t expecting the statistics to put it among the most deprived areas in Wales. This genuinely surprised me for an area where there is constant new footfall passing through, and a huge port for employment. Its socio-economic status was apparently already down before the pandemic, now it seems to be struggling to not be out.
While the me that is being written about sits static, my present self will attempt a brief history of Anglesey.
The name is assumed to come from the Old Norse Ǫngullsey (‘Hook Island’) which is surprising as it would be an easy guess to believe it refers to the ‘Isle of the Angles’ after the Norman Conquest but there is no evidence for that, and the name was already in use by the Viking raiders. The Welsh name Ynys Mon seems also to have lost its true etymology to time.
Anglesey has certainly been inhabited for as long as Wales has, despite the challenges of the Menai Strait, and Neolithic and Megalithic remains are not unusual with 28 cromlechs found over the island. However, its association with Druidry is far more prevalent. The Roman General Gaius Suetonius Paulinus began his conquest of Anglesey in 60AD, determined to breach their power. Druids were not the monk-like, semi-supernatural stereotype that various fictions would have us think; most were upper class Celts and their duties were only partly religious. They were also known for their legal authority, medical knowledge, political logistics and for their faithful record keeping of local lore. They had a diverse range of knowledge and held a lot of influence. The attack that General Paulinus had to eventually plan to conquer Anglesey had to come as a surprise from an amphibious assault. He failed to finish the conquest when he was called off to go deal with some troublemaking woman called Boudicca, and it wasn’t until 18 years later that the Romans finally held Anglesey.
Irish pirates came in after the Romans left and this, in turn, attracted the Scots who saw that if the Irish took Anglesey, it would be a lot easier for them to start on Scotland. The defensive position of Anglesey made it a prime area to fight over. After the Irish were beaten off, the Vikings came, and then the Saxons, and then the Normans, before finally falling to Edward I of England in 1283.
It’s a lot more peaceful these days. If you’re not including storms.
Cemaes – Church Bay
11 miles/1303 ft total ascent
The wind had died down and it was finally time to carry on. I took the bus back to Cemaes and the bus driver refused to give me a single. He charged me for a single, but gave me a return because he was concerned that me venturing out this soon after Barra in the winter would not bode well. It wasn’t needed, but the concern was not unappreciated.
I can’t claim that walking around the decommissioned power plant at Wylfa Head was the best start after the pause, but at least I was walking again. It’s a strange place; no longer in use, the plant sits amongst curated woodland and grassland and attracts plenty of twitchers. The path was oddly confusing for something that seemed so straightforward to navigate and yet it seemed I was not the only person that felt that. Other write ups also declare that the common sense direction is often incorrect and the clearest path was rarely the one to take.
Maybe all this confusion is actually the work of the Ghost of Wylfa Head? She was first seen by Irish construction workers assembling tunnels for the, then, new power plant. Whilst suggestions have been made that the sighting might have been the local Welsh workers playing a trick on their more superstitious colleagues, the ballgown-clad woman continued to be seen amongst the construction and out on the cliffs. Often she could be heard singing, but would vanish if approached.
It has been proposed that she is the ghost of a New-Zealand opera singer called Rosina Buckman who had bought and lived in a house on Wylfa Head in the1930s. If this is the case then she is an odd case of a ghost haunting a place that brought her happiness, and not a vengeful or cruel spirit. I think more ghosts should do this. We all have unfinished business, but moaning and chucking things around in a posthumous strop isn’t the greatest show of mindfulness and maybe they would feel a lot better if they went back to happily haunt places of better memories.
After Wylfa faded from view I crossed the shingle bar at Cemlyn Bay in the grey drizzle. Bryn Aber, the house on the far side, had unusually high walls but, it seems, these were built not because the inhabitant, aviator Vivian Hewitt, was trying to be yet another saintly hermit, but to keep cats out. I don’t think he and me would have got on.
The coast got more and more remote in feel, enhanced by the solitude of my walking and the greyness of the skies. The large ‘White Ladies’; huge painted navigational obelisks, rose up in a field of cows making the cows look like tiny ants from afar. I have become notoriously afraid of cows, but these cows, like me, just looked too weather worn to care about me so I decided it was fine to not be bothered about them either.
I was looking forward to seeing the tidal island of Ynys Llanddwyn and perhaps take a brief shelter in the cove, but I came across a sign ordering a detour around the area. It didn’t state a reason, but the dates mentioned were between September and February so I could only assume it was for hunting. This detour sounded annoying. I couldn’t imagine who the hell would be out hunting today so decided to chance it figuring there were only so many ways they could keep me out.
Turns out they kept me out with a lengthy and robust string of electrified wire fencing. On reflection, this was probably a smart move as I expect far more hikers than not make the decision I made, and now it meant I got my just deserts with a trudge through very muddy farmland where the ankle deep mud on the tracks was more than likely not just mud and made up of a fair percentage of cowpoo.
In this case, the rain turned out to be no bad thing, as on emerging from the pooey sludge it was all quickly washed away. An excellent thing on many levels as I might not have been let into the Church Bay Inn in that state by the time I’d crawled up to it.
The landlady encouraged me to change and hang up the sopping wet clothes in front of various radiators and the fire. She also said I could camp up outside in the sheltered ‘boat garden’ that night. As the evening punters came in, a few tried to encourage me to take up the Landlady’s vacant chef position, and enthused about how great a place Church Bay was to live. I didn’t doubt them but mentioning that I don’t drive put a spanner in their plans for me because, like in many non-city places, driving is sort of a big deal.
I was informed by many of them that this amazing girl, Emma, had been through just before the storm, before turning inland to go to Holyhead the day before I gave up as well and left Cemaes. I got to hear all over again how brave and amazing she was.
I texted Emma, moaning that her visiting all these places first means I kept being told how bloody ‘brave and amazing’ she was and no one was telling me that I was brave and amazing as well. She told me that I was definitely ‘brave and amazing’. She also hasn’t read ‘The Salt Path’.
I eventually bade the room goodnight as I made my way to my tent out in the boat garden (which was a beer garden with a boat in the middle of it), to eat my evening noodles and mash, leaving the pub crowd to carry on their Saturday evening in front of the fire where my thermal pants dangled, slowly drying.