THE last weekend in July witnessed my return to Rhosneigr, alighting from a train in the late morning to discover, if not sunshine, then at least that the promised rain was holding off. For now, at least.
I made my way back to the centre of the village and took the time to enjoy a leisurely late breakfast. Eventually, fully fuelled with coffee and bacon and coffee — oh, and some more coffee — I was ready to go.
Coffee does have that effect.
A few minutes later I was ready to actually start walking and not before time. And once again an Anglesey village kept me informed as to what that time was by handily providing a clock in the form of a war memorial.
Rhosneigr Clock was constructed in 1922 to commemorate those from the village (and surrounding parish) who lost their lives in the Great War. A plaque added in 1945 relates to the Second World War.
It is, I find, all too easy to take for granted the presence of such memorials and pay them little heed. After all, practically every British town or village has one. But a moment’s thought leads to the conclusion that their very ubiquity betrays the near-incomprehensible scale of the slaughter involved in two world wars; people died in their thousands in defence of their countries and ideals. This year, being of course the centenary of the start of the First World War, I am endeavouring to (at the very least) take proper notice of these reminders of the fallen.
Rhosneigr Clock sits beside a crossroads and one of the roads leading from it was Beach Road, leading down to… well, you can guess. Looking down Beach Road, I could see the sea and the sand but what I could not see was the coast path.
When I found it, it headed down a different road, leading me a little further inland before branching off to snake sandily through a stretch of low dunes which separated the airbase of RAF Valley from the beach of Traeth Crigyll. Separating me from most of the dunes was a narrow river, the Afon Crigyll, which meandered almost drunkenly as it headed for the sea.
I crossed the Crigyll by means of a low, wooden bridge and threaded my way between the dunes. On my right, RAF Valley seemed empty and deserted while, somewhere to my left, I knew there was a beach.
The beach and I soon found ourselves united as the airbase extended itself to the coastline, forcing the coast path to take to tidal sands. This made for somewhat easier going than the dunes (not that they had been at all difficult) and I fairly bombed along, growing ever closer to Holy Island. Here the beach was Traeth Cymyran, the long, straight shoreline of Cymyran Bay. The path led directly ahead with no confusing turns.
The rocky, tidal islet of Ynys Feurig is known in English as Starvation Island, presumably because there’s nothing there to eat apart from terns. Unfortunately terns are actually pretty damn tasty if you happen to be a rat, which has led to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) having to install rat-proof nest boxes.
While rats are pretty much endemic to everywhere, being nature’s great survivors, one traditional source of rats is a sinking ship, from which they flee (rats are prodigious swimmers). One such ship was the clipper Norman Court, constructed in Glasgow in 1869.
In 1883, she was driven ashore in a storm and wrecked in Cymyran Bay. All but two of the crew were saved by the Holyhead lifeboat.
In 1926, her captain, Andrew Shewan, published a book about his experiences titled Great Days of Sail: Reminiscences of a Tea Clipper Captain. By then, he could claim to be the last surviving clipper captain although, since he died the following year, he couldn’t claim it for long.
Cymyran Beach ended at the house of Plas Cymyran, which sits at the mouth of the strait separating Anglesey from Holy Island. The Cymyran Strait doesn’t look much but, thanks to the same tidal weirdness that makes the Menai Strait so dangerous, it can experience currents of up to eight knots (over nine miles per hour). Coupled with steep shingle beaches at Plas Cymyran, this makes for dangerous bathing.
Holy Island is ‘Anglesey’s own Anglesey‘ in that it is a smaller island off the coast of a larger one. Its English name reflects the large number of ancient mounds, cairns and monuments to be found across its small area. Its Welsh name is Ynys Gybi, meaning ‘St Cybi’s Island’.
St Cybi was a sixth century Cornish saint and prince who, after many travels, settled in Gwynedd, where King Maelgwyn gave him the old Roman fort at Holyhead, which he turned into a large and important monastery.
A Plethora of Ponies
From Plas Cymyran, an access track led inland, where it soon joined up with a road. I followed this narrow country lane for a while, sticking with it even after the footpath veered away though a field. It wasn’t so much that the field was muddy (though it was) but that it contained several ponies who seemed just a bit too excited when I appeared at the gate.
Since I had absolutely no desire to be ‘that English townie who let all the ponies out’ and the shortcut across the field hardly saved any distance, I simply kept going on the tarmac.
A little further on, I encountered a smaller group of equines. In every sense:
Llanfair NB Village
The road skirted past the village of Llanfair-yn-Neubwll, also known as ‘Llanfair NB’. Despite the Welshness of its name, it is Anglesey’s most Anglicised community on account of its proximity (and hence strong links) to the airbase. Since I never actually entered the village, I have no idea what it is like.
Soon enough the path met up with the road again and then almost immediately left it. This time I went with it, crossing a field full of hay bales and rejoining the shore of the channel between the two islands. The path ran alongside the edges of fields as they followed the Cymyran Strait. A creek, jutting inland, added to the distance although a rocky ford across its mouth promised a possible shortcut.
The coast path eschewed the lure of the ford and I opted to heed its council. The field-edge path led me down to the end of the creek, where an unmade track and a marshy morass seemed unable to agree which one was which. Having avoided the worst of the foul-smelling mud, I expected to return to more open field edges.
While the path was most definitely running along the edge of a field, it was flanked by high vegetation on both sides for quite a way. The proximity of the hedgerows varied from ‘cosy’ to ‘inappropriate touching’ and I tried not to notice the number of cobwebs strung right across the path.
A Speedy Sexagenarian
When the path opened back out again I was surprised to be overtaken by someone who had come up behind me. A walker in his sixties, his pace quickly put me to shame as he charged off ahead. Since I had a pleasant view down the channel I decided that it was time to pause for a rest and consume a bottle of ginger beer that I had stowed in my bag.
The path onwards was not the best I have been on, being poorly waymarked and overgrown in places. Once or twice I relied on a glimpse of the Speedy Sexagenarian to reassure me that I was still heading the right way.
Up ahead was what I first took to be another tidal creek but was instead the Afon Cleifiog’s estuary. The tide being low, this appeared mostly to be mud. Fortunately I could go over it rather than around it, thanks to the provision of a cob or embankment, fitted with tidal doors. A handy information sign explained that the embankment was constructed in 1776 with the gates added in the 1830s, allowing the reclamation of tidal land.
Cows of Concealment
About a half mile further on, having endured some more haphazard path marking, I found the Speedy Sexagenarian looking somewhat lost as he tried to find the next waymark. This would have been tricky enough as it was but the game turned out to be contested, the opposing team being a herd of cattle who were doing their best to conceal both waymark and path.
For several minutes, the cows were most definitely winning, but then I consulted my OS map and by dint of determined searching, I spotted the waymark for the path. Naturally the way forwards was right through the middle of the herd.
The cows were completely unfazed by our infiltrating their midst; they had doubtless seen it all before.
Moments later, the Speedy Sexagenarian and I were standing on the side of the B4545 and preparing to cross to Holy Island. He too had started at Rhosneigr and I vaguely recalled him alighting there from the same train. But he was intending to go all the way to Holyhead, while I would be stopping at Trearddur and then walking back to Valley, where I was staying.
Four Mile Bridge
We crossed the water by means of Four Mile Bridge, so named because it is four miles from Holyhead by the route of the old turnpike road (now the B4545).
The bridge is more of an embankment with a single narrow arch penetrating it halfway across. To be honest, the bridge isn’t much to look at but prior to 1823, when the Stanley Embankment was constructed further north, it was the only land route over the Cymyran Strait.
As we crossed, a group of lads in their late teens were leaping from the side of it and allowing the mad rush of current — it reaches eight knots, remember, even before you constrict it under an arch — to propel them at speed down the channel, like some sort of horizontal flume.
Four Mile Bridge is also the English name of a village, which exists at either end of the bridge for which it is named. Its Welsh name is the rather confusing Pontrhydybont (pont rhyd y bont, ‘Ford Bridge of the bridge’).
Four Mile Bridge is fairly small but it did have a café, where I could stop and get a nice cup of tea. The Speedy Sexagenarian, who only completed two walks a year but liked to set himself a challenging goal, kept walking: if he was going to reach Holyhead in time for the last train he would need to maintain a gruelling pace.
I sipped my tea at leisure.
The Other Shore
The Holy Island shore of the Cymyran Strait turned out to be salt marsh, which threatened to be squelchy underfoot. Fortunately the footpath here more than made up for its haziness on the Anglesey side and there was pretty much no chance of my venturing off it.
After a while the board walk diverted inland and briefly became a woodland path and then a farm track before spitting me out onto a country lane. It was late afternoon now and the road, though easy going, was hot and dusty and dull. It was also a little busier than I had expected as it led towards the beaches on Holy Island’s southern tip.
Thus it was that when I saw signage for an alternative permissive path, open only in the summer, I didn’t need to be persuaded. The permissive path started off amid wetlands but soon turned into something of a woodland ramble, all cool air and greenery and birds wittering amid the trees. There may even have been some red squirrels but if so I failed to spot them.
Eventually, of course, my woodland adventure ended and I found myself back on a public road. This road was much narrower and quieter than the last one even before it turned into a mere farm track. The track ended at a farmhouse — Bryn-y-bar — but the path kept going, much to the vocal consternation of the farm’s excitable dog.
Another glorious woodland amble followed, this time through a small conifer plantation, before the path terminated at the tree line directly above a beach.
The beach was Silver Bay (Traeth Llydan): delightful, sandy and sufficiently isolated that it is pretty difficult to get to unless you are on the coast path or staying at the nearby holiday village.
Thanks to the strange ways of coastal walking, I was now just half a mile west of Plas Cymyran, where I had been over three hours earlier. Since the bay faces southwards, I could see the hills of the Llŷn Peninsula as indistinct shapes on the horizon.
When I finally chose to leave Silver Bay, I found that the coast of Holy Island had become considerably rockier. The vegetation was now western (dwarf) gorse and other hardy cliff top species. Such terrain typifies Britain’s most westerly coastlines and I welcomed it with warmth born of deep familiarity, despite never having been there before.
Avoiding a wrong turn that would have deposited me in the holiday village (for which read ‘a caravan park’), I sped along the low cliffs, peering over into rocky crevasses and dodging the occasional dog-walker. One such person, a young woman clad in flip-flops and hot pants, was clearly regretting her choices in view of the challenge presented by knee-high gorse overgrowing the path. Her dog, on the other hand, appeared to be actively choosing the spikiest routes it could find…
Heading west, I soon came to Borthwen (‘white bay’), an enclosed sandy bay due south of the village of Rhoscolyn (‘column moor’, referring to a Roman boundary marker).
The beach was attractive enough but the peaceful-looking sea belied its treacherous nature.
Between 1830 and 1929, a lifeboat was stationed in Borthwen and in 1920 it launched to aid a small coaster, Timbo, which was drifting due to storm damage. The heavy seas made launching the lifeboat difficult and then, when this was accomplished, they prevented her getting a line across to Timbo despite repeated attempts.
Eventually, the cox was forced to concede that they could not help the coaster and ordered the lifeboat back to port. She capsized en route and five out of thirteen crewmen were lost at sea. Aboard the stricken Timbo a further four men died.
Today Borthwen holds no lifeboat but a navigational beacon is sited on the Ynysoedd Gwylanod (‘gulls’ islands’), south-west of the entrance to the bay.
On my way into Borthwen I had noticed a few bright orange-red flowers. On my way out I saw a lot more of them. They certainly added a splash of colour to a day that was getting greyer by the minute — the promised rain was clearly on its way — but I didn’t recognise them at all. I quickly began to suspect that it was an introduced species that had escaped.
The plant in question is, I have since learned, crocosmia (Crocosmia sp.) also known in the UK as montbretia. Here, it is a garden plant, introduced for its glorious colour and the ease from which you can grow it from its corms.
It is, I must admit, quite beautiful and I can’t pretend that it didn’t add splendour to my walk. But Holy Island is a long way from its home in South Africa, where it grows wild in the Cape. I would see a lot of it growing on the coast of Holy Island, no doubt the consequence of its escape from someone’s garden. But it was not necessarily a recent escape…
It turns out that the montbretia hybrid of crocosmia was first introduced to the UK in 1880 as an ornamental garden plant. It had escaped into the wild as early as 1911 and proceeded to spread rapidly, with a tendency to dominate its habitat to the detriment of native species. Listed in Schedule 9 of the Countryside Act 1981, it is a criminal offence to plant or otherwise cause it to grow in the wild.
One man, definitely not planting crocosmia or anything else in his garden was a bloke whose house lay on the extreme southern end of Rhoscolyn, next to the path. Indeed, he was taking the opposite tack and had set fire to an immense bonfire of unwanted vegetation piled up beside his fence.
I could hardly avoid noticing this as the wind direction blew the smoke directly down the footpath so that one moment I was photographing the crocosmia above and the next I was blinking, teary-eyed in the centre of a cloud of smoke, watching little bits of ash drift past.
To his credit, the Garden Arsonist apologised immediately when he saw me stumble, choking, into view. He had been waiting all day for the wind to change so as not to blow the fire into the side of his house and was now desperately trying to burn all the debris before the skies opened and put his fire out.
We talked for a bit about walking while I got my breath back — well he talked, I gasped and spluttered — and when he heard that I would be heading onto Holyhead the next day, he assured me that the RSPB café at South Stack was excellent. I duly took note.
With the Garden Arsonist’s good luck wishes ringing in my ears, I now set off through a field full of sheep, heading for Rhoscolyn Head. If the craggy coast had brought on a feeling of familiarity before, the combination of rock, moor and misty drizzle that I now experienced brought full on déjà vu.
‘Oi reckon it’s gone proper West Country,’ I declared to the world in general in something almost completely unlike a convincing West Country accent.
St Gwenfaen’s Well
As I crested Rhoscolyn Head, I could see… well, very little to be honest. Dull grey cloud was creeping southward and the rain dropping out of it was hiding Holyhead Mountain from view. As I watched, my destination of Trearddur similarly disappeared. The next couple of miles promised to be miserable, rainy-weather, head-down bog-marching. I checked my progress to see how I was doing. I was doing…
Actually, I was doing well. And I looked back up from the clock on my phone in time to avoid plunging into the waters shown above.
Traditionally, St Gwenfaen’s Well is said to cure mental problems; one has to make an offering of two white quartz pebbles.
St Gwenfaen was the daughter of Pawl Hen (‘Old Paul’), a Manx-born bishop in the fifth and sixth centuries. Gwenfaen followed her father into the Church, establishing a cloister at Rhoscolyn and supposedly healing the mental illnesses of pilgrims.
Her legend says that druids drove her from her cloister and she took refuge on a rock stack but the tide came in and angels carried her away (i.e. she drowned). In 630, a church was built at Rhoscolyn and dedicated to her and for centuries the village bore her name as Llanwenfaen.
The Rain Arrives
The next couple of miles were, as expected cold and wet as the skies liberally opened but I stubbornly refused to be miserable. For one thing, I don’t mind the rain and I love that sort of terrain. For another, if the sheep could take it in their stride then so could I.
I passed small pebbly beaches and a natural rock arch and marvelled at some of the colours present in the rocks, which must look properly spectacular in the sunshine.
It occurred to me that my friend the Lemming could probably have told me much about those rocks but he of course was not with me. A timely text told me that he was in Holyhead and making his way to Valley, for he would be joining me on my walk the next day.
The rain intensified and then eased right off before finally stopping just as the coast path joined a public road. I was approaching a headland named Raven’s Point and would soon be in Trearddur.
A cluster of houses graced the headland, most built on the site of an old hotel, demolished in 1966. The hotel, which had previously been a USAAF billet in WW2 and a girl’s school in the late 1930s, had originally been built in 1918 for the shipbuilder Sir Henry Grayson (1865-1951).
A Cagoule-Clad Figure
As the end of my day’s walk drew near, I quickened my pace, overtaking a cagoule-clad figure who called out to me as I passed. It was the Speedy Sexagenarian, who had somewhat forfeited his adjective on account of distractions and rain. We walked together into Trearddur, where I stopped and he continued, taking the direct route along the B4545 in the increasingly vain hope of making his train.
Tywyn y Capel
Trearddur was historically known as Tywyn y Capel (‘chapel dunes’) on account of an ancient burial ground located next to the beach. Excavations in 2002-3 revealed that dune encroachment had buried farmland in the sixth century and that bodies had been interred on the site during periods of dune stability, notably 555-885 and 1030-1220.
St Brigit’s Chapel
A chapel dedicated to St Brigit was built atop the dune in the twelfth century and this stood until the late eighteenth century, when its ruins were destroyed by storms. The dune, now much eroded and closer to the sea, is separated from the beach by a concrete promenade.
Modern Trearddur has a rather nice tourist beach, a hotel and two shops. A visit to one of the latter furnished me with a snack and a drink to fuel my final trek of the day.
The Home Stretch
Though my coast walk was over and my ‘official’ mileage frozen, I still had three miles to get to the inn in Valley, where the Lemming was already ensconced.
The following morning, we would walk to Holyhead…
This time: 16½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 1,710½ miles