WHILE I may have avoided walking in August, on account of hot weather and everywhere being booked solid, September is an entirely different prospect. And this is good because if August is optional then the start of September is almost compulsory for walking: I started my coastal perambulations on the third of September 2010, which means that as September rolled around again I was into my fifth year of walking.
Which goes some way to explain why the first weekend of September saw me awake bright and early to a view over Holyhead Marina. And why I then strolled back to St Cybi’s Church and Holyhead Station while eyeing the lowering clouds with a suspicion almost as dark as the sky. The forecast was for glorious sunshine, following overnight rain. The rain, it appeared, was running behind schedule. But sadly not so late as to be cancelled. It was now a question of when the clouds would drop water on my head.
The rather magnificent Whitchurch Clock at Holyhead Station has stood there since 1880. Manufactured by Joyce of Whitchurch, it commemorates the extension of Holyhead Harbour, which was opened by the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) in June of that year.
Originally, it stood in front of the equally grand-looking Station Hotel, built at the same time for the London & North Western Railway. The clock occupied a small square plinth in the main circulating area between the hotel and the quayside.
The 75-room hotel became suddenly obsolete in 1948 when the ferries to Ireland started to boast dining and sleeping facilities; it closed down in 1951 and housed railway and ferry offices until its demolition in 1979.
Today, the clock tops a mini-roundabout in a rather drab car park, with station buildings on two sides and a very 1980s red brick office block — Stena House — occupying the site of the old hotel. It looks somewhat incongruous — sufficiently so that my first thought was ‘why would you put it here?’ The better question, it turns out, is ‘why put here around it?’
The Repertoire of Rain
I bought a tiny and overpriced coffee at the station — and if someone from London thinks your coffee is overpriced, that is not insignificant — and sheltered from the rain for several minutes. It was versatile rain, I’ll give it that, and having shown up late it was keen to make up for it by demonstrating its entire repertoire.
There was fine, misty rain of the sort that blows sideways (completely invalidating any cover that you might be standing under). There was intermittent rain, with brief rests to try to lure you out from under your ineffectual shelter. There were two types of heavy rain: heavy by weight with slow, fat raindrops that were more like miniature water bombs, and heavy by volume, with much smaller drops falling in a sudden, shocking torrent.
I wasn’t impressed.
When I eventually decided that I was already wet enough that standing directly under the rain would hardly make any difference, I emerged from shelter and set off. Despite an appalling lack of coast path signage I somehow managed to find the right direction and headed down a street sandwiched between the ferry port and a low hill. Atop the hill a plain, stone obelisk pointed up into the sky. I looked up to see what it was and caught some rain with my eyeballs.
The obelisk was actually a monument to John Skinner, who was Holyhead’s Senior Captain of Mail Packets from 1789 until his death in 1832, when he was washed overboard by a huge wave along with his first mate. Skinner rated an obelisk because of his generosity of spirit; he was an important local benefactor and his kitchen helped feed many of the town’s poor.
Skinner was no stranger in adversity himself, having lost an arm in the American War of Independence: born in New Jersey, the son of the province’s Attorney General, he had joined the Royal Navy at sixteen to fight for King George III while his father personally raised a regiment of loyalist militia. At the end of the war, missing a limb and with his family decidedly out of favour with the new United States, he and his parents fled back to Great Britain, where he built himself a steady naval career.
Having seen his obelisk I decided to emulate Captain Skinner by having a ‘career’ although mine was in the sense of ‘changing direction wildly with no apparent sense of control’. Or to put it another way, I got a bit lost. I realised this when I ended up on a dead-end quayside, looking back across Holyhead Harbour. In the rain.
The correct path, when I found it, conveyed me past houses and industrial units onto a wide, open playing field and then down towards the bay of Traeth Penrhos. Ahead, another structure pointed up into the sky but this one was altogether more industrial.
The chimney belonged to the aluminium smelter of Anglesey Aluminium Metals Ltd, one of the largest employers in North Wales. Its annual output of 142k tonnes of aluminium required it to become the single biggest consumer of electricity in the UK with its own special power supply contract; almost all of its power came directly from the nearby Wylfa Nuclear Power Station. The site cast a long shadow over Anglesey both figuratively, as an important employer, and literally — Anglesey being so flat, you can see the chimney for miles.
Sadly, this all came to an end in 2009 when the power supply contract ended and Anglesey Aluminium were unable to negotiate a new one. Without guaranteed power at an acceptable rate the plant could no longer operate and was shut down and mothballed; a terrible blow to the community.
As I approached Anglesey Aluminium, the rain eased off and then finally stopped. I slowly began to dry out as I ambled along a surfaced path beside Traeth Penrhos.
The Old Road
Something about this path — the way that a road met it end-on (terminating in a car park) and the fact that the council had felt the need to post signs prohibiting motor vehicles at the start of this obvious footpath — led me to wonder if perhaps this might be the old road, replaced by the busy A5 just a stone’s throw to the right. A similar arrangement at the far end cemented my conviction and a quick squint at the map pretty much sealed it.
Why do I bother to mention this? Because I find it fascinating when roads move alignment and become disused or, in this case, repurposed. Like disused railways, there is something melancholy about them. This is of course a ridiculous sentiment, since it makes a disused road into a romantic relic, when while open it was just a boring road.
The coast path seemed to share this sentimental nonsense since no sooner had the footpath resumed being an actual road than the coast path immediately diverged from it. Not content with the historic echoes provided by an old road and a mothballed aluminium plant, it shifted up a gear and conveyed me to the D-shaped walls of a Napoleonic-era battery, facing out across Holyhead Bay (Bae Caergybi).
That distant headland on the horizon is Carmel Head (Trwyn y Gader). I would be standing on that later.
The path wound past the battery and along and slightly above the shoreline, passing the equally forlorn ruins of an old stone boathouse before ending at an access road to a lovely sandy cove. The path now delved through some delightful leafy woodland before breaking back out into an open field and the excellent vantage point of Gorsedd-y-Penrhyn. There. a raised seat allowed views in all directions and I sought out a bit of bench that had dried out at least as much as I had.
Looking the other way from the viewpoint of Gorsedd-y-Penrhyn, I got a view down towards the Stanley Embankment, the northern causeway that links Holy Island and Anglesey together. I followed the path down and it quickly reverted to frightfully leafy woodland. And I mean frightfully. This was no place for a teddy bear’s picnic. There were things of terror in those woods…
As if an animal-zombifying burial ground might not be disturbing enough, there were also shades of other authors’ for those with the
over-active imagination wit to see them. For instance, I could not help but detect hints of English author Alan Garner in some flowers left for one of the dead pets…
Whistling nonchalantly to show no fear, I soon emerged blinking into the sunshine where a flagpole and memorial commemorated a soldier who died in the Falklands War.
David Williams Memorial
David Williams, who was a former assistant warden at the Penrhos Coastal Park, served in the Welsh Guards during the Falklands War. He was one of 48 soldiers and sailors who lost their lives aboard the landing ship RFA Sir Galahad when she was bombed by the Argentine Air Force. He was only 21.
The increasingly bright, if intermittent, sunshine was hardly conducive to melancholy thoughts and my pace quickened as I strolled along a rather pleasant promenade and then through the car park of the Penrhos Coastal Park.
A sharp turn to the left now took me across the Stanley Embankment (also known locally — and inevitably — as ‘the Cob’).
Completed in 1823 to create a faster route to Holyhead than the old road via Four Mile Bridge, it now carries both road and rail in addition to the foot and cycle path. The railway was added in 1848 along with a high dividing wall to prevent passing trains from startling the horses.
Despite its name the embankment wasn’t built by anyone named Stanley, although the Stanley family were sufficiently locally significant to have it named after them. It was actually designed (and its construction overseen) by the noted Scottish engineer Thomas Telford, whose road and bridge-building was so prolific that he was jocularly nicknamed ‘the Colossus of Roads’.
The causeway isn’t a complete barrier as a tunnel halfway along it allows water to pass through into the strait between Holy Island and Anglesey. This tunnel is quite narrow, though, and the height differential at high tide is considerable.
I passed over the embankment about an hour after high tide and the speed the flow was reaching, as it poured down towards the submerged entrance, was frankly terrifying. Far more so than trains; horses are idiots.
At the far end, there was a choice of two routes: a tidal beach route and an alternative inland one. I pretty much missed the latter and promptly found the former hard going as most of the beach was underwater, while what was not submerged was stone and shingle. I stomped unsteadily along this for a while before concluding that I was more idiotic even than horses and quickly took the first available exit up into the streets of Newlands Park.
Newlands Park is a village of modern housing developments and I passed a temporary sign proudly pointing towards ‘new waterfront homes’. While the houses seemed pleasant enough, I wasn’t too upset when this suburban interlude gave up and dropped me back on the beach, where the tide had considerably receded.
An amble along the stony beach conveyed me past a cottage and on towards another house (Penrhyn Bach), which was essentially in the middle of nowhere. This seemed like an excellent spot to stop and eat a ham sandwich that was originally going to be lunch but had now become elevenses.
The path continued behind the house, a winding, fenced-in trail flanked on both sides by brambles. Since the brambles were fruiting and covered in juicy sweet blackberries, their presence was only a problem insofar as I like eating blackberries and don’t know when to stop.
Unless that’s when they’re all gone. Is that right? Is that when you stop? That would have taken me weeks.
The path had now turned away from the coast and was instead heading inland alongside the Afon Alaw. The marshy estuary of this stream would have made difficult crossing and thus I was heading towards the first bridge.
On the way, a flash of something shiny caught my eye and I knelt to discover hundreds of tiny metallic green dock beetles crawling over the lacelike remains of what had once been a dock leaf. Pretty much all that was left of the leaf was its veins; the beetles clearly have about as much restraint with dock leaves as I do where blackberries are concerned. Speaking of which…
Distracted by a sudden mouthful of blackberries — they forced their way in there, I swear — I left the beetles to it and continued my search for a bridge.
Across the Alaw
On the far side of the Alaw, the path led back across fields and warrens. It also lined up perfectly with Holyhead and the Anglesey Aluminium chimney, making it abundantly clear that I was heading in the ‘wrong’ direction. A ferry ahead appeared to be sailing through a field.
Traeth y Gribin
Then, suddenly, I was at the beach of Traeth y Gribin and, now that I could see the sea, the ferries were very clearly on it. The next mile or so would be another stony beach trek.
Llanfaethlu & Llanrhyddlad
After a while I ran out of beach and the path became a farm track passing by a campsite. Bays, roads, footpaths and campsites would alternate for some distance now as I made my way up the western coast of Anglesey. A shop at one of the holiday sites furnished me with a drink and some crisps, which I ate on a surprisingly sandy beach.
A series of sinuous paths above rocky shorelines followed. It was probably glorious. I say ‘probably’ because I’m pretty sure I enjoyed it. I’m also pretty sure I ‘zoned out’ and did part of it on autopilot while my thoughts were on other things. At any rate, before long I was a couple of miles further up the coast and approaching the village of Church Bay (Porth Swtan).
Church Bay gets its English name from sailors simply picking the most obvious landmark they could see. Its Welsh name comes from ‘swtan’, meaning ‘whiting’, as in the fish.
A café provided me with a much-needed cup of tea and a ham salad baguette and I immediately proved to myself that, even by the handful, blackberries had not been sufficient sustenance because I ate the whole baguette including the tomato. I’m not a fan of tomato.
Swtan Folk Museum
The rest in Church Bay did me a power of good. I vaguely contemplated spending some time in the Swtan Folk Museum, a 16th century cottage restored to how it was in about 1910, but it was extremely busy and I wanted to press on.
From here until Carmel Head, the going would be rather more up-and-down as the coastline became altogether craggier.
The path climbed steeply up a hill and then veered off across the clifftops, undulating in two planes. Overhead, a flock of choughs — there must have been about thirty — wheeled and turned, calling out their distinctive ‘phasers on stun’ sound.
I passed over a number of sea caves, but of course didn’t see them as they were somewhere beneath me, and navigated some places where the path felt a little precarious. It was by far my favourite part of the day and this stretch was at once both new and yet oddly familiar, reminiscent of West Pembrokeshire or Cornwall.
Ynys y Fydlyn
The last descent before Carmel Head itself was the mouth of a forested valley, at which stood the tidal islet of Ynys y Fydlyn, the site of an Iron Age hill fort. Appropriately enough, since the tide was out at that moment, Ynys y Fydlyn was more a hill than an island.
A bit of a climb now awaited me, as I needed to scale Carmel Head. But before I could do that a sign warned me that the path was permissive and seasonal: outside of the summer it is closed for pheasant shooting. Fortunately, the path would stay open for another week or so and so I was safe to ascend.
Once on top, I found that the path had essentially disappeared despite the occasional notice asking me to keep to it. I guessed where the path was as best as I could but as the head was covered with short, scrubby grass, wandering off the invisible path didn’t look like it would do any damage.
In the distance, I could see the rocky islets called the Skerries (Ynysoedd y Moelrhoniaid) topped by the Skerrie Lighthouse. The lighthouse was built in 1716 and rebuilt in 1759. Its takeover by Trinity House in 1836 was fiercely protested by its owners, who were in receipt of shipping dues.
From where I was standing, the Skerries were little more than a dark line in the distance, with the lighthouse a pale blob. But if I wanted tall, sticky-up structures — if Skinner’s Monument and Anglesey Aluminium’s chimney had kicked off some kind of collecting obsession — then Carmel Head would hardly disappoint.
Carmel Head Mine Chimney
The chimney is that of Carmel Head Mine, a copper mine opened around 1839 to exploit a mining lease issued in 1756. The Gaddair Copper Mining Company issued a prospectus with extravagant claims about the site’s potential, none of which bore out. The mine was sold in the 1860s and closed soon thereafter.
Three White Ladies
In the distance behind the chimney is Wylfa Nuclear Power Station, while the weird triangular structure to the left is one of Three White Ladies. Which is to say, it is one of the Coal Rock Beacons, three navigation markers erected in the 1860s by the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board, in an effort to stop ships bound to or from Liverpool from wrecking themselves on the shallowly submerged Coal Rock.
The beacons are big triangular things painted white, two on the headland and one of the islet of West Mouse (Maen y Bugail). If they line up then you’re heading for a swim.
The wonderfully named West Mouse takes its English name from its small, rounded shape and is the westernmost of three murine-themed islands, the others being Middle Mouse and East Mouse. The Welsh name, Maen y Bugail, means ‘Shepherd’s Stone’ and derives from local tale about a shepherd who found a stone in his shoe and threw it out to sea in irritation. Where it landed, West Mouse sprang up. Allegedly.
The next couple of miles were pretty easy going, following the gentle grassy slope of the land down from Carmel Head to the beach at Hen Borth (‘old bay/port’). When I got there, I sat on the beach for a while, taking a rest before continuing.
Passing up and over Trwyn Cenlyn brought me around to Cemlyn Bay (Bae Cemlyn). On the way I passed a monument to the island’s first lifeboat (launched 1826) and a derelict cottage. Neither of these were the bay’s distinguishing feature though.
The bay’s distinguishing feature is actually its lagoon. The beach forms a massive shingle barrier, behind which is a freshwater lagoon, which was created from natural tidal salt marsh in the 1930s, following the construction of a weir.
With water on both sides, the beach appears to be a shingle ridge cutting its way through the water. Or at least it would if you could walk on it. Seasonal restrictions to protect nesting birds force you to stick to the sea’s edge, at which point it looks like any shingle beach anywhere.
In consequence of these restrictions, which are fine in themselves — I don’t want to carve a swathe of nest destruction — I never really got to see the lagoon. Oh, it was visible enough at the far end when I had come off the shingle but that meant looking west directly into the late afternoon sun. So as far as I can tell the lagoon and its thriving population of grey mullet look like blobs of green and purple floating right across my retinas.
Porth y Pistill
Semi-blinded by my attempt to gaze upon the lagoon, I staggered around the rocky shoreline to the stony beach of Porth y Pistill (‘waterfall bay’) in which I completely failed to see a waterfall too. From there, an extensive inland detour would follow, routing me round the site of the nuclear power station.
Wylfa Nuclear Power Station
Construction on Wylfa Nuclear Power Station began in 1963 and, following the closure of Trawsfynydd in 1991, it is the only nuclear power plant in Wales.
The plant is home to two Magnox reactors, one of which (Reactor 2) was retired in 2012. The other (Reactor 1) will continue to function until 2015, when it too will be retired, but work is planned to begin on a replacement plant, Wylfa Newydd, despite local opposition.
Until then, Wylfa is the last remaining operational Magnox reactor anywhere in the world, although North Korea has a small, experimental reactor at Yongbyon the design of which is mostly copied from declassified Magnox blueprints and which it operates intermittently.
The diversion around Wylfa Nuclear Power Station itself was subject to a diversion, which added no distance but directed me along a quiet country road. I ambled along this until its end, when the path led me through a small wood and out onto Wylfa Head (Trwyn yr Wylfa), which is a nature reserve.
I joined the headland at about the same time as a holidaying family, which included two people not-quite arguing and a teenager who didn’t want to be there.
Fascinating as this self-destructing scenario might be, I was in no mind to listen to it and thus accelerated away from them, along the grassy low-lying cliffs that overlook Cemaes Bay. By now late afternoon had shaded into evening and I was glad to get my first sight of Cemaes.
The family having stopped to have a meltdown in the thematically appropriate location of the shadow of a nuclear power station, I rapidly left them behind and peace and quiet resumed. One open field gave way for another and then, suddenly, I reached the road into Cemaes.
Cemaes is the most northerly village in Wales and has gone through a number of names. Originally Castell Iowerth, it later became known as Cemais, meaning ‘bend’ or ‘meander’. The modern name Cemaes, which sounds very similar in Welsh, is apparently derived from Cei Maes (‘quay site’) but has elided to converge with the old name.
Formerly a fishing and shipbuilding village, today Cemaes relies mostly on tourism and the nuclear power plant.
After twenty-six miles I was vaguely wishing that I was nuclear powered. As it was, a visit to a fish and chip shop and a swift rum at the Stag (the most northerly pub in Wales) set me up for a final half-mile to my hotel, where a hot bath awaited.
That evening I sat in the bar with a whisky and
talked with listened to a Scottish biker and his mate, who had strong views on the independence referendum. They were very much against it.
This time: 26 miles
Total since Gravesend: 1,748 miles