Anglesey: Church Bay – Y Felinheli

17th – 21st December 2021

Image from the Hiiker app

Day 12

Church Bay – Holyhead

16 miles/941 ft total ascent

I slept like I’d been poisoned and it was so nice to sleep hearing the sounds of the sea again rather than the howling of the wind. The Landlady made me up a brew as I collected my dried clothing and sent me on my way.

I was thoroughly upbeat as I wound my way above the cliffs on this far brighter day. I ambled a lot. I baahed back loudly at indignant sheep and took lots of breaks on beach benches and met a marvellous seventy year old sheep farmer in a marvellous sheep-adorned jumper that had never even heard of Emma.

The long sands of Porth Trwyn gave way to Porth Trefadog and on to other beachy Porths; amber in the cool morning, beset by the markings of tidal pulls in grooves behind the dark rocks.

The geology of Anglesey is oddly complex. The grain of the rocks lies northwest to southeast, grooved and maneuvered by the glacial retreat. The island is comprised of numerous differently aged crusts on the plate that supports it which has lead to many arguments around when various geological occurrences happened.

The area I walked today was mainly Precambrian, with all the types of igneous debris then scattered in the aftermath of all the exploding, splitting, bumping and grinding that formed much of the topography of the UK as we know it today. The darker blocks amid the sand would be the volcanic leftovers, whilst the ash-filled tuffs are a softer and paler stone exhaled after the magma had already mostly been ejected.

The estuary of Afon Alaw had to be navigated next, and whilst the tide was far out, I was still slightly nervous as the high bank behind was tightly fenced at the top and my mind was making an image of a sudden rush of water, pulled by a malicious moon that would come up and swallow me whole. This, of course, did not happen, and once I stopped being silly about it I could enjoy the midday light of a low sun scatter across the sands.

The path lead quickly up a farm track which instantly did not bode well; the ruts of the track were so deep that they were flooded entirely to what looked like knee height and I kept to the centre. A notice at the turn-off gate had stated that permission had been granted for the public path to be diverted so I was already hazarding an intelligent guess that the farmer wasn’t keen on hikers crossing their land and had no intention of making it easy or pleasant.

This could explain why the field that the path indicated into was full of huge bulls. These were not the unbothered and weary cows of yesterday; these were massive, and if the farmer wanted an effective deterrent, then this was it. It’s a rare hiker I know that isn’t slightly nervous around cows after all of us seem to experience one dodgy run in or another. A poll I did on Instagram once indicated that a ‘Bull in Field’ sign will instantly make many of us unquestionably turn around and perform a five mile detour.

The detour I went on was not five miles, but it was unquestionably performed. Back down to the estuary and up to the next path which lead up to the road and wiggled back again and up again and somehow I missed the beautiful bridge that is part of the normal route for those who manage to cross the Bovine Field of Certain Death. but I finally made my way to the embankment the other side of the estuary before the crossing of the embankment, holding back the sea, onto Holyhead Island.

I had ambled too much in the morning and now needed to get a groove on if I wanted to clear Holyhead because, well, I just didn’t want to spend more time than I already had in the town of sadness and grey. I quick marched through the woods and the coves that made up the initial coast before blasting across the busy port itself and through the grounds of St. Cybi’s church to find a camping spot on the other side.

Day 13

Holyhead – Roscolyn

15 miles/2206 ft total ascent

Last night I had headed for what, on the maps, was labelled as ‘ruins’. The ruins turned out to just be some sort of condemned area with numerous pieces of graffiti yelling to ‘CULL THE WEAK’. A tad aggressive; but maybe I’d feel similarly angry at the world if I was an angsty twelve year old growing up in Holyhead.

I had stopped there anyway to camp because I had no reason to think anything in the vicinity of Holyhead could be anything other than grim. I was wrong. If I had just continued a bit further I would have come out at the Holyhead Breakwater Country Park which turned out to be one of the most beautifully maintained nature parks I have ever seen. Paths were clear, not a single gate hung neglected, robust benches sat in perfect spaces, and all around these pedestrian amenities was the most beautiful green space meandering up to Holyhead Mountain as, out to sea, the ferries made their way across the water.

I had only read that the park was situated on the site of an old quarry and had never expected anything this lovely. It would be the start of one of my favourite days.

Holyhead ‘Mountain’ is very small as far as mountains go. At 722 ft it is definitely just a big hill, but as the biggest hill on Anglesey perhaps it deserves that local upgrade. It was certainly a very handsome hill; steep sloped on both sides towards the Irish Sea; the crumpled base sandstones rising up to strata of pure quartzite, pale and slightly shimmering as the light caught it. Eyes more keen than mine might see the rare plants that call the hill home amid the dense pathside scrub. The tiny spotted-rock rose and its yellow and crimson petals flourishes on the thin soil that covers igneous cliffs. It only flowers once, and only for a few hours before dropping its petals. Despite the rarity, it was declared the county flower of Anglesey in 2002.

This all sounds special and lovely, but sometimes things like this prove that evolution is still in progress – of course it’s going to be rare if its so stupidly fickle and flakey about flowering. It sounds like the giant panda of the floral world.

For a big hill, Holyhead Mountain holds a lot more ruins than many actual mountains. A group of Iron Age huts sit on the south west side of the mountain, about twenty of which have been reconstructed. Strangely, all the doors of these and other Iron Age excavations on Holyhead Island look west, disregarding the wind. This lead to local lore than the settlers came from Ireland, and faced their doors to their homeland. This idea is even reflected in the Welsh map monikers – Cytiau’r Gwyddelod, or ‘Irishman’s Huts’ – though it is likely that the settlements predate the arrival of Celts from the neighbouring island.

The huts would have had very thick stone walls and conical roofs and despite originally being built in about 500BC, there’s evidence that a few were lived in as late as the third century AD, which means it was still occupied when the Romans came and built their defenses on the mountain.

The Roman structure was built as a fortified watchtower specifically to look out for Irish pirates, ready to signal to the Classis Britannia warships that would have been stationed down in the Holyhead bay.

Halfway up the mountain, between the Iron Age and the Roman ruins, is a munitions store that held the dynamite for the quarry that the Breakwater Park is built on. It seems perfectly sized to fit in the next holy man that decides to become a hermit.

As I passed North Stack lighthouse, I met a lady with her happy dog and we continued on together. Once she had got through asking if I had read ‘The Salt Path’, she told me a story I had heard from people over and over this past year; that the pandemic had her re-evaluating everything. The recent death of her husband had left her all alone in a large family home in the Wirral with her children all living far away. She had decided to go where she had always been happiest because her life wasn’t over yet, sold up the family home (to the outrage of her children) and moved herself and her dog over here to Anglesey and now lived in a granite bungalow down on Treaddur Bay where she hoped to live happily ever after.

Once we reached South Stack, she made a donation to my page and bounced off merrily to another day of her chosen bliss.

South Stack lighthouse falls into the same category as Durdle Door and the Old Man of Storr; Instagram loves it. It’s highly probably that many visitors, like myself, have already seen a million pictures of the tower pushed out on the island below the cliffs, perfectly positioned to catch the colours of both sunrise and sunset on the white painted walls.

The lighthouse was designed by the architect Daniel Asher Alexander, who was also responsible for lighthouses on Lundy and Farne Islands. His other niche seemed to be prisons with both Dartmoor and Maidstone Prison being works of his. He appears to be an architect known for designing spaces where the inhabitants are kept separate from everyone else; both voluntarily and not so much.

Most of the stone for the lighthouse was taken from the small island on which it stands, Ynys Lawd, with limestone and slate was brought over from Penmon and winched slowly up from boats in the cove, Provisions were sent across in baskets on a pulley system. The pulley system was eventually upgraded so it could also winch workers across, though being dangled in a glorified bread basket does not sound like the most appealing commute. After it opened, the success of the Menai Bridge influenced the construction of a (much smaller) suspension bridge to link the lighthouse to land.

The whole thing, from the initial proposal (and all the rejected ones before) to the suspension bridge to even the amount of oil lamps it held, was pioneered, pushed forward and achieved by the persistence of Captain Hugh Evans. Evans had gone full throttle on this mission after counting up the amount of shipwrecks that had occurred in the area, but, like the cattle drovers with their drowned cows, he had had to wait for the Act of the Union to make anything Anglesey needed relevant.

Ynys Lawd, whilst still a tiny island, was less tiny than other lighthouse islands and keepers benefitted from dwellings built by the tower that they and their families could call home. The keepers of South Stack Lighthouse did not have to be away from their loved ones for weeks at a time and, it seems, there was a fair amount of babies born and raised in the shadow of the tower. In fact, three keepers in a row were all from the same family; when Keeper John Jones died in 1828, the unusual decision was made for his widow, Ann, to take over the role. After almost twenty years their son, Jack, took the reins. Jack would sadly perish in the Great Storm of 1859.

Eventually the light would be automated and all the dwellings of Ynys Lawd made redundant as all human life vacated it. They are still all protected as historical buildings and can be visited, though visitors should be aware that it has been declared one of the spookiest places in Britain. The AA Guide to Haunted Britain gilds the lighthouse with a five star rating as the spectre of Jack Jones himself pound the doors and windows in desperation as he relives the night of his demise. I mean, all that smashing could just be the wind, it is a lighthouse after all, but what do I know.

I visited the RSPB run café and chomped on a slab of Bara Brith before continuing on out of the vicinity of Holyhead Mountain to the rugged coast and the succession of rocky coves. This was the sort of coastal walking I could do all day for years; gently undulating clifftop meadows, embracing exposed and gleaming rocky outcrops, sheer cliffs and contorted stones in arcs and stacks and stubborn little blips. Grasses waving high above the frothing and foaming sea.

Past Treaddur, I continued towards Rhoscolyn before calling an end near the head. For a lass that loves both rocks and ruins, it had been a grand day.

Day 14

Rhoscolyn – Rhosneighr

13 miles/707 ft total ascent

The well of St. Gwenfaen, that I passed early this morning, is said to have particular healing properties and that anyone that throws two white stones into the waters will be cured of any mental illness.

I must say, Gwenfaen’s qualifications are sketchy at best. She was a Manxwoman that came to Wales and set up a church here at Rhoscolyn and ‘was known’ for her healing powers, removing diseases of the mind. There doesn’t seem to be an actual account of this happening. I think its something she just told people; I mean, I can tell people down the pub that I’m a shrink too and no one would have any reason to not believe me.

The part about Gwenfaen that seems to be ignored in favour of this whole shady story, is that she didn’t actually die. She was chased from her holy cell by the invading Romans and, upon reaching the cliffs, two angels swooped down and carried her up to heaven. There’s only one other person this happened to; Mary. Jesus’ mum. Both these ladies were ascended rather than dying and I’m curious what the common denominator was between them that also separates them out from all the saints that had to meet grizzly and gruesome ends in the name of martyrdom.

White stones were easy to come by, seeing as the area is made of quartzite. You never know, so I chucked a couple in just in case.

A coastguard lookout perched further on, above the ragged cliffs leading to the moody, rock strewn waters. Coves cut dramatically into the coastline and pinnacles, points, clusters and crumples of perilous geology spilled between their sides. The Rhoscolyn beacon sat beyond, guiding ships away from this treacherous shore.

It shouldn’t really come as a surprise that ships being wrecked or sinking was not an uncommon occurrence around Anglesey, especially as the placing of lighthouses didn’t seem to be too much of a priority for the government until fairly late in the game. The most significant of all the wrecks occurred during the storm of 1859 that had also claimed Keeper Jack Jones’ life.

The Royal Charter was a steamer returning from Australia heading towards Liverpool with 480 passengers on board, most of whom were gold miners and representatives of the mining companies, when she was caught in the Great Storm. Winds measuring a storm force 10 on the Beaufort scale swelled up the waves to such an extent that the captain could neither continue the journey, and had missed the opportunity to dock for safety at Holyhead. During the night, the winds increased to a hurricane force 12 and changed direction from its easterly blast to come from further north and pushed the ship towards the northeast Anglesey coast.

Two moments of hope were dashed. The ship managed to anchor, but the chain then snapped, before it grounded with minimal damage on a sandbar. However the high tide came in and sealed her fate, dashing the steamer near Moelfre where, upon hitting the rocks, completely broke up. Over 450 of the passengers perished, most from being thrown on the rocks rather than drowning.

Due to the nature of the passengers’ careers, there was a huge cargo of gold in the ship. An amount insured, at the time, for £322,000 was in the hold. This valuation would be close to 43 million today. This was not including the gold that miners held on their person or had placed for safekeeping in the strongroom. Strangely, the villages near the wreck all seemed to become incredibly wealthy overnight.

Suffice to say, the wreck has been thoroughly picked over, scavenged and pillaged since then. Only the barest bones of it are left.

The cliffs and rocks gave way to sandy beaches before an inland stretch took me to the Four Mile Bridge to leave Holyhead Island and get once more onto Anglesey proper. I’m not sure throwing the stones into Gwenfaen’s Well worked. Either that or she was annoyed I had mocked her, because now things were starting to add up. I was a point now where I was always a little bit hungry, always a little bit tired and always a little bit in pain and the accumulation was starting to take a toll.

I found myself slowing after plodding over the bridge and becoming likely far more confused and frustrated than was necessary by the higgled paths that would eventually take me back to the coast for another beach walk until I got into Rhosneigr and plonked myself dramatically on a bench. I just really wanted a nap. And a sports massage.

If I continued to sit I would just get colder and colder. This is the true bane of winter walking; there is no taking breaks, no lazy lunch stops, no naps on grassy banks because whilst I might be warm enough when walking, it doesn’t take much stopping and sitting for the cold to creep in. I rang a friend purely to emotionally complain about all the choices I had made and how I was so tired now, and achy, and everything was clearly rubbish.

He pointed out that I was already due to stay at an inn tomorrow; why didn’t I make that booking two nights, go and have a bath a real bed tonight and leave the bag behind tomorrow? This was an incredibly sensible suggestion and perhaps I would have thought of it myself if I wasn’t being such a whingy, self-absorbed little brat.

I took a bus up to the inn, and looked forward to a bright day walking unencumbered tomorrow.

Day 15

Rhosneigr – Newborough

19 miles/964 ft total ascent

I felt free as a bird. I never really notice the weight of a pack, until it’s not there anymore. Who would have thought that it’s so much more comfortable to be hiking without carrying the weight of a small child on your back?

Parts of today were meant to be incredibly tedious; long stretches of ‘forbidden’ coast driving me on inland routes, and a fair dash of farms and roads. But amongst all that there were also supposed to be nuggets of greatness. The sky was bright and lovely, the sun was a warm gold, and I was ready to knock out some miles.

Back at Rhosneigr, a long sandy beach and sulking coves lead on to the headland of Barclodiad y Gawres. Translated to English, this means ‘Giantess’ Apron’, likely referring to the the crumples of rock that fell like sheer, firm pleats down the face. A restored Neolithic burial chamber was planted on top. Those Neolithics really did seem to choose some pretty good final resting spots.

Another long beach and then a short push inland around the racing track before I came to the coast again and eventually wandered up to Porth Cwyfan.

Porth Cwyfan has become well known for the tiny tidal island that sits out in the waves with just a small church on it. The church wasn’t originally built on a tidal island; in the 12th Century it would have stood on a small peninsula but time and tide ate away at the land until the point on which the church stood became separated from the shore. The relentless chomp of the eroding waves continued and in the 19th Century things started to get a gnarly when graves began falling into the sea. Thankfully a local architect raised the money to prop up the church and what remained of its island on a seawall. So now St Cwyfan’s church sits, still in use, all alone on its small, squat pedestal, only linked to land twice a day when the tide is low.

The church was dedicated to an Irish saint; St. Kevin. Not an awful lot is known about him other than, as a baby, a big holy cow turned up to feed him from her udders. It’s not like he was abandoned, he had noble parents, this isn’t a case of a child left out in the woods and another animal playing mum. Supposedly this was a blessing, but it sounds more like his parents were flexing.

At the end of his life he would go off and, shockingly, live as a hermit. It’s all the stuff in between that is unknown. I don’t think he had many friends. I guess the whole having a bovine wetnurse thing is just too weird to get past.

Easy paths over tumbling shorelines would eventually see me to Abberfraw. Today, Abberfraw is a perfectly nice little village, but in mediaeval Wales was the seat of the Kingdom of Gwynedd…until Edward I had something to say about this, dethroned them, and used the stone of the regal and political buildings to construct Beaumaris Castle; another jewel in his Iron Ring.

Boats rocked lazily on the small estuary that I crossed by bridge and then ended up completely disorientated in the dunes on the other side. It wasn’t for long, but it would be a brief little adventure I would be grateful for as the next plod was an inland one, hacking through farms and along the main road to avoid the Bodorgan Estate and into Malltraeth.

Forest paths now, time for something different. I say forest, but it was really a plantation; identical trees planted at exact distances from each other like a wooden regiment of soldiers. The drizzle was starting and, I admit, I rushed past the picturesque tidal island of Ynys Llanddwyn and its tiny lighthouse to get refuge back among the trees until a final roadwalk took me to Newborough.

I was very happy with being able to march off 19 miles after the mini breakdown yesterday. Aided by the uplift of a (mostly) bright day and the absence of a pack, I was far more encouraged and ready to return to more normal hiking tomorrow.

Day 16

Newborough – Y Felinheli

19 miles/1608 ft total ascent

Whilst I was bright eyed, bushy tailed and completely ready for action, most of today would end up being pretty repetitive with one of the very few exciting moments being right at the start with the stepping stones across the Afon Braint. I say ‘exciting’ but, for me, a person who is afflicted with little balance and even less spatial awareness, stepping stones are just an easy way to end up getting very, very wet.

In the summer months this might have been more busy and I might have felt more hurried to attempt to rush across the stones. Thankfully, in winter, there was no one else around and I was free to squeal, whimper and mildly hyperventilate all I needed as I navigated across all 28 of them.

As much of the final stretch of Anglesey was on farmland, I was inevitably going to come across a cow or two (or thirty). I made up a song to the tune of Hey Jude, in part to soothe the cows and notify them of my presence, and, in part, to soothe myself.

Hey cows

You’re pretty cool

Please don’t eat me

I don’t eat (that much) of you

Maybe one day we can be pals?

I think we’d both like that

Moooooo, Moo, Moo, MooMooMooMoo

It didn’t really work. Sometimes it did. Sometimes the cows would only look up briefly curious to see where the rapturous sound came from (I like to think), some were totally disinterested. Some were very interested. Far more interested that I like. When they start to moo and chuck their heads around as they advance, it’s time for me to get out of their field sharpish.

So I ended up on the road earlier that I would like. There’s only so much Russian Roulette I like to play with cow-shaped bullets.

The main road eventually became the closest part to the coast with the Menai Strait and the mainland back in view. Every year people swim across in the Menai Straits Swim between the Menai Bridge and the Britannia Bridge. I know wildswimming has really taken off but, honestly, it all looks a bit cold.

Another inland route saw me visiting Llanfairpwll, otherwise maybe better known by its full name; Llanfair­pwllgwyngyll­gogery­chwyrn­drobwll­llan­tysilio­gogo­goch, which every British schoolchild knows is the longest place name in Europe (there’s one in New Zealand that takes the golden global spot). I’m sure it surprises no one that this crazy moniker was a publicity stunt devised after the Victorian railways were really taking off, with the idea that a curious place-name would encourage rail passengers to disembark and spend their money.

This is a great idea, problem is that if you’re going to entice people off trains, there had better be something for them to do. I have no idea what it looked like in the Victorian era, but now it is fairly sparse with only a shopping centre that seemed like a weird, rural version of Fenwicks amongst the otherwise ordinary houses and streets. Coachloads of old people were being dropped off outside the rural Fenwicks (I presume in order to shop and not to abandon them) so it clearly has a very distinct demographic.

I wandered inside to the café that sold a mediocre range of sandwiches and took a seat. If I hadn’t already known that I was getting very smelly, the observation that others would sit on the tables next to me and then quickly change to another was proof enough. My last laundry had been in Holyhead. I had attempted sink laundry in the inn last night but it had clearly failed.

After hurrying to finish my sandwich, I carried on until I found myself back at the Menai Bridge. Somehow it felt like I had been on Anglesey ages and ages but, at the same time, me and the island had unfinished business. The stretch that that I had walked inland in the northeast corner would haunt me; not particularly because I missed out on miles, but because I had missed out on a section that so many spoke so highly of. Storm Barra had plenty to answer for.

I crossed Thomas Telford’s suspension bridge again, and at the end turned right. The path would now be eventually leading me on past Caernarfon and onto the Llyn Peninsula, but that wouldn’t be reached today.

I carried on along the bank, quickly onto woody paths and through the Treborth Botanic Garden and Arboretum. Amongst the sycamores and birches are the odd lesser seen rarities; the imposing, coniferous coffin tree and the broad sawtooth oak. Unfortunately Arwen and Barra had caused extensive damage to the arboretum, spelling the demise of an incense cedar and a mighty ash.

As I returned to the water’s edge, the Britannia Bridge rose above the treetops. Whilst not nearly as revered as the Menai Bridge, it was designed by Robert Stephenson, the noted railway engineer, to carry the trains and is decorated by four large limestone lions. These lions were immortalised in verse by the Welsh bard John Evans which, in translation, wondrously declares:

Four fat lions
Without any hair
Two on this side
And two over there

Yes, OK. I know we all feel we could probably have written far better, but Evans was also described as ‘hardly quite sane’, wore a large beaded hat even to the most important meetings, and fabricated a whole correspondence with Queen Victoria wherein he proposed marriage. So for a man who was a few cockles short of a breakfast, he seemed to do alright.

The path turned into plantations which, on my visit, had large areas felled bare leaving quite a sad and somewhat brutal scene where the remaining trees observed their own eventual fate in myriad shorn stumps. A bird hide placed its back to the carnage and looked out to the strait. I briefly considered just setting up in there for the night, but there was still a couple hours to go and so I pressed on across duckboards and small wooden bridges and, instead, settled down before I reached the harbour.

I would dream of big hairless lions swimming and chasing down swimmers in the Menai Strait. It was all pretty grizzly.

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