Friday, 21 February 2014

Day 13 - Llanfair PG to Menai Bridge

No less a mariner than Admiral Nelson said of the Menai Straits “one of the most treacherous stretches of sea in the world” and with my sailing experience (GP14s; Rugeley Power Station’s gravel pits; 1980) and maritime qualifications (Rugeley Sea Scouts; Boatswain’s Badge; also 1980) I am unwilling to quibble. To stand at sea level and watch it on a flowing tide is to appreciate the water’s awesome power - even when parts look as still as a millpond you can look at a fixed point and see the speed of the currents and be afraid, despite the fact that you have your feet firmly on dry land. There is a relevance here to the final stage, the final couple of miles of this wonderful circuit of the island, for there is a statue of the great man on the tideline gazing out on those treacherous waters. Without the knowledge of his respectful quote above, you would wonder what on earth he was doing here; with the knowledge it seems utterly appropriate. But I’m getting a few yards ahead of myself already - let’s rewind half a mile and start at the very beginning.

You will recall that the last stage finished at the promontory that is Moel y Don, sticking out into the Straits like a miniature peak of Darien. However, the route along the coast from here is blocked by the grounds of Plas Newydd, the ancestral home of the Marquess of Anglesey, now in the care of the National Trust. Sadly this means a brief gap in the path, with this final stage starting at the roadside a quarter mile from the village of Llanfair PG (I won’t bore you with the full name for a second time in one book). For simplicity’s sake I hopped off the bus at the railway station in the village centre, took a quick photo of the sign and then left this unlovely spot that relies upon a long name and small shopping outlet to bring in the tourist crowds. After that first quarter mile I crossed the A4080 and headed downhill on a quiet lane leading to the local water treatment works - sounds wonderful so far, doesn’t it?

But as soon as the shore was reached things began to look up. A small inlet from the straits sheltered a couple of beautiful houses and one quite stunningly beautiful boat - a cruiser rather than a yacht but one that would not have looked out of place in the poshest marinas in the country. Jealousy is not an attractive trait, though, and I consoled myself that the stench of the seaweed detracted enormously from the idyll it would otherwise have been. This is Pwll Fanogl, the buildings being an old mill and a former factory that made writing slates for schools. A jetty at the end of the inlet allowed deliveries from across the straits at Y Felinheli and now provides a scenic foreground to photos down towards Plas Newydd.

Shortly after comes the Nelson statue that I’ve already mentioned, erected by a son of the first Marquess as an aid to navigation for ships traversing these treacherous waters - as an admiral himself it may well be that there was a degree of self-interest in the decision but it has also no doubt been a boon to many in peril on the seas in the one hundred and forty years since it was built. From the shore it makes for an arresting sight, either with the magnificent Britannia Bridge behind or set against the blue-green of the waters beyond. Despite the tremendous tidal range here the water will only ever reach the bottom inches of the plinth upon which he stands, hand on hip, invisible to all but walkers and sailors.

Above the statue stands the elegant church of St Mary’s, approached through a lovely overgrown churchyard that becomes gradually more tended the closer to the church you actually come. Trees almost meet above the path and this tunnel-effect reveals the church stride by stride - a deferred pleasure that is the final religious building of the circuit (unless you count St Tysilio’s on Church Island that perhaps counts as the true start and finish point if following the logic of starting the moment you arrive on Anglesey.) Once you get to see the whole church it’s attractive enough but lacks the “difference” that the made Llanbadrig, Cribinau and the aforementioned St Tysilio’s so special. Having said which, the carvings to either side of the main door are charming - the one to the left looking almost exactly like one of the ineffectual kings from Disney’s version of Alice in Wonderland.

Soon after the church, the path dives beneath the second of the magnificent bridges linking the island to mainland Wales. Back in the 1970s the Britannia Bridge was the rail gateway to the island, with motor traffic exclusively using Telford’s original a mile to the east. Again, this was an engineering marvel of its day - designed by a William Fairbairn and Robert Stephenson during the 1840s. Fairbairn seems to have been rather ignored by posterity - I have always understood this to be “Stephenson’s Bridge” and as he was the son of George (of “Stephenson’s Rocket” fame) there is an obvious connection for historians to grasp onto and use to tell a tale. Its box-girder design was revolutionary at the time - two large tubes being supported by three masonry towers in an apparently Egyptian style. At either end were two carved stone lions, now sadly only to be seen from the footpath beneath - and then only one of them on the Anglesey side can be easily spotted. I was keen to see this but the truth is that its situation detracts enormously from its attraction these days.

A substantial fire in 1970 caused major damage to the structure and meant that there was no rail access to the island for the next two years. With the original bridge proving less capable of carrying large modern vehicles than the stagecoaches and foot traffic of its early years, the Britannia also provided an alternative way onto the island for motor vehicles from 1980 onwards - a second level carrying cars and lorries above the trains for which it was initially built. The original bridge slipped from favour and the modern A55 ignored the attractions of Bangor and headed straight across without a second glance at the eponymous village below. It may lack some of the romance of the earlier crossing but certainly speeded things up - although the change from dual to single carriageway can still cause tailbacks at peak times.

The path dropped down to sea-level and headed off through light woodland, occasionally revealing yet more beautiful views - including a few of the islands that dot this part of the straits. One of them contains a house still privately occupied - in the distant past it operated as a fishery, catching herring in enormous quantities on the two low tides daily. It’s a hell of a commute every morning I would imagine and must take a special kind of person to live in such privacy but in such a public location. It also must take an enormous amount of upkeep to ensure that the walls remain their normal glistening shade of white.

The last few hundred yards are nothing special but there was one final highlight - the most intimate photo of a butterfly that I’d got in the entire 120 miles. A speckled wood that I could almost hit with the telephoto lens, it let me get that close.

I suppose I thought of Church Island as the true start of my walk rather than the bus stop at the end of the Bridge or the car park behind Waitrose and it was great to see it again - it is really a rather special place and I was delighted to explore in a little more detail this time. The church itself was open - its interior is a simple one, not as austere as the other Church Island outside Aberffraw but still without frills. I liked it like that, not being a great lover of over-decoration. I hadn’t expected so many churches so close to the coast - two Church Islands, a ruin on Llanddwyn Island, Llanbadrig separated from the sea by the width of a narrow path and of course the church of Church Bay. They’ll be one of the first things I think about when remembering The Path; and the second is perhaps even more surprising - I have loved seeing the butterflies. Peacocks. Tortoiseshells, common blues, speckled woods, meadow browns, orange tips, green-veined whites - they’ve been brilliant and something I never expected to be such a prominent part of the journey.

And while we’re looking back on things, Breakwater Park to South Stack was the best bit - helped enormously by the glorious spring sunshine; and Llanfaethlu to Holyhead the worst, partially due to the grey autumnal day. The best days were largely when accompanied by Jan - Beaumaris to Pentraeth, Holyhead to Trearddur; but there were also terrific days on my own - Trearddur to Rhoscolyn, Rhosneigr to Aberffraw. I was disappointed not to see puffins or dolphins; delighted to have seen seals; loved Moelfre; hated Holyhead; coped with the heights (just); and didn’t have to cope with the snakes (and wouldn’t have!)

When I was younger, we undoubtedly did no more than scratch the island’s surface - so much of what I enjoyed now would have bored us then - and it’s great to be able to say that I now know it so much better than I did before. I set off three years ago with memories that were thirty-five years old and these have been updated and added to. Before I began, it was about ten years since I’d holidayed on the coast. Now I find that I must go down to the seas again. So catch me if you can - I’m going back!

Day 12 - Newborough to Moel y Don

Jan was back on board for this next stage, a short and flat one but not necessarily easy for all that. Although it was the end of March, it had been touch and go whether we’d be able to come or not as the weekend before had seen blizzard conditions across much of the country (Werrington included) and we’d had to rely upon texts to and from a customer of mine with a caravan near Beaumaris and an interest in weather reports and forecasts. Although the mountains of Snowdonia remained under a blanket of snow that gale force winds had shaped and sculpted into deep drifts leading to warnings from National Park rangers to give Snowdon and its outliers a miss over the upcoming Easter weekend. Texts indicated that the island itself remained free of lying snow and conditions underfoot were entirely satisfactory but there was a strong easterly wind and it was - and I quote - “bloody cold.”

We had an early opportunity to enjoy the views of the snow-capped mountains as the tiny car-park at Moel y Don faced across the Menai Straits to the port of Y Felinheli on the mainland and the rounded peaks and craggy summits in the hinterland beyond. Moel y Don itself is a little hamlet, a mile off the main A4080 on a tiny peninsula poking out into the Straits as they begin to reach their narrowest point. It is reached by way of a single-track road that then has to be walked up if you’re catching the bus to the start of the day’s route. We were, so we took advantage of a couple of handily situated benches in the lee of Pilot’s Cottage to shelter from the wind and pull on our boots in unfamiliar comfort. Perhaps this lulled us into a false sense of security, for we didn’t quite realise the chill of the wind at this point although we did ensure that we were well-wrapped up with hats, gloves and waterproofs before locking the car and setting off uphill. It’s a quiet lane and yet we were forced to hug the drystone walls and hawthorn hedges as three or four cars passed us by in quick succession - leading us to wonder exactly where they had appeared from given the paucity of accommodation options. Inside a few minutes we arrived at the entrance to Plac Coch Holiday Park, which advertises itself as “the only truly exclusive holiday home park in North Wales” and certainly looks a lovely spot if the website is to be believed. The main building dates from the sixteenth century and can be seen from the lane - at least at this time of the year when branches remain bare of leaves - and it’s a lovely-looking property, although it’s clear from the website that there is a spectacular modern addition hidden away out of sight. Of all the holiday parks that we’ve seen on the island, this one could persuade me that a purchase could be a good idea.

We reached the main road and the bus stop with about twenty minutes to spare before them next bus - pretty much perfect timing considering they pass by only every ninety minutes or so. The bus pulled up at 10:34 on the dot - we’ve rarely had to wait more than four or five minutes beyond the advertised time - and cheerily dropped us off at the bus-stop in Newborough. He did have to ask which of the six stops in the village we wanted - it’s remarkable to think that there could be so many in such a short space - and kindly pointed us in the right direction before pulling away to that all-important fourth stop. As the first mile was re-treading steps I had taken the previous May I was well aware of the route but it was a friendly gesture and appreciated as such by the two of us. We’d probably also have appreciated a cup of coffee or pot of tea but there wasn’t a cafĂ© on our way out of the village so we went dry on this occasion.

The route took us past the Rhosyr excavations and along the tarmac track that had seemed much longer at the end of the fourteen miles from Aberffraw than it did today. Within minutes we had reached the sandy path that led down to the beach with wide-ranging views over Newborough Warren to the hills and mountains beyond. It was a splendid sight today, with shafts of sunlight poking though the clouds to pick out individual summits and corries for our delectation. The previous year these peaks had been snow-flecked, today they were absolutely coated in the white stuff and it added to their beauty. Jan was keen to know which one was Snowdon - as she had been from Beaumaris Pier on her first day on the walk - and I could only point to what I thought looked a possible contender. We’d had a great day there a few years earlier but this week Mountain Rescue had been advising walkers to stay away after an ill-equipped mother and son had to be rescued from the mountain having been caught in a blizzard. There were numerous other call-outs - including a death on Glyder Fawr - in the days either side of our expedition and Llanberis Pass remained closed days later, testimony to the harshest early spring weather the country had seen in many a long year. We’d all grown tired of the grip that winter held over us but it remained undoubtedly beautiful when seen from this distance.

We finally dragged our eyes away from the mountains and followed the path to our left, initially sandy, occasionally muddy as it wended its way between stunted trees that were utterly festooned with lichens of grey, green and bright, bright yellow. The presence of these strange organisms is a pretty good indicator of air quality and to see just how prolific they were here tends to suggest a very clean environment - something that we’d have pretty much guessed anyway but in seeing them in such volume you see a beauty that you’ve perhaps never noticed previously. The wind was whistling through the branches as I paused to take a photo - it didn’t do the lichens justice so you’re unlikely to see it here - and it cut like a knife, so the camera was quickly back in its bag and we pushed on. To our right the dunes system was kept grazed by a combination of ponies and cattle, which helps with the rare flora to be found here. Beyond the grassy dunes lies the sandy spit of Abermenai Point, the south-westerly tip of the island and the entrance to the Straits - a dangerous place to walk because of the tides and marked as such on the OS map, although a public right of way does exist there. No doubt it was these perils - along with difficulty of fitting it in to a coherent route - that kept it off the official path but to see it disappear behind us showed that we had turned another corner - perhaps the final one given the shape of the island.

Soon enough we saw what appeared to be three yellow wigwams in the car park ahead. I’d known about this in
advance - they’re actually three steel sculptures representing the marram grass used to stabilise the dune systems we had just left behind but they still look like wigwams from a distance. The car park is situated here partly because of the tiny lake Llyn Rhos-Ddu that gives its name - also, no doubt, to allow the walk down to the beach that we had just completed in reverse. There’s a small bird hide overlooking the lake itself and we decided to take the opportunity of shelter that it provided to sneak a crafty cup of warming coffee. It wasn’t the most palatial of hides - “There’s probably rats” was Jan’s first impression - and little in the way of birdlife to be seen - mallards, coots, a couple of distant swans - but in this instance we weren’t unduly bothered, it was just a relief to get out of the wind for a moment or two. Jan had brought along a brioche each for just such an occasion and we made some pretence at looking for ornithological interest but the truth is that it was a coffee break and nothing more.

Refreshment taken, we reloaded our rucksacks and strolled down the car park’s access road to the A4080 which we followed for a couple of hundred yards before turning right along a farm access road. There was a sign asking us to go slowly as there could be children playing, a message that was reinforced by a couple of speed-bumps. Clearly word had got around about how quickly we walked when we set our minds to it. After a few yards the buildings to either side were left behind and instead replaced by flat farm-land, still held in the grip of the permafrost that had enveloped the country throughout March. Tiny new-born lambs shivered against the wind, even their fleeces being powerless in the teeth of the wind that now drove snow into our left cheeks. Despite this, we both continued to wear our sunglasses - it remained fairly bright and the snow was of the stinging variety so it gave a little added protection . With bobble hats and fleeces along with waterproofs pulled as high as possible, there was precious little flesh exposed to the elements.

The snow didn’t last for long - by the time we reached the end of the track it had gone without any trace of its presence remaining - and as we passed through a gate into open country it felt like the walk proper was now beginning. Ahead lay the tidal Afon Braint with the stepping stones standing extremely proud of the water. The guide mentions that they may be submerged at high tide - today they were a good two feet away from such a fate and care had to be taken because a slip would have resulted in a potentially nasty fall, as well as a good soaking. Beyond, the path took a sharp left and followed the course of the river for a few minutes. Those were the exceptional minutes that proved the rule about the ground being firm underfoot everywhere except the beaches, for here it was marshy at best and occasionally reminiscent of the peat-bog inland of Carmel Head that had so nearly claimed me as a victim. We picked our way carefully from firm ground to firm ground, dancing as lightly across the surface as we possibly could - something that Jan found a great deal easier than I did, at least until we passed over a stile and into a second field that was still muddier than the first. Our way ahead seemed blocked by impenetrable marsh, the only realistic option it seemed being to clamber over the barbed wire fence that separated field from river and seek out the firmer ground to be found there - untrampled by the feet of cattle. But the fence was freshly erected, the wire clean and taut and frankly it would be a braver, more nimble man than I who tried to cross it from such an unstable footing as the field provided. Instead I kept as close to the fence as possible, started slowly and carefully to put one foot in front of the other and once I was fully committed sped up to leave my feet in contact with ground for as little time as possible. I can’t say that I was confident that I’d make it but the alternative was to retrace our steps ignominiously and instead walk along the (admittedly quiet) main road and I really couldn’t face that. Once I’d regained solid (well, fairly solid) ground I turned to watch Jan make her more careful way, stepping into my footprints wherever possible on the theory that if it held my weight it would certainly hold hers, a good plan as it turned out and she was soon alongside me wondering where we should head next.

The answer, happily, was away from the river which took a sharp turn to the left as the path turns away to the right. It’s still a little muddy underfoot but nothing that you wouldn’t expect for Wales in March. After a few minutes the path diverts into a front garden, where we surprised the owner with our cheery “Good morning” as he unpacked the shopping from his Landrover. Minutes later we were admiring the conversion of a number of outbuildings into holiday accommodation as we strolled down their drive - although at least this time we were a little more distant from the house itself.

Now if all of this sounds a little land-locked for what it is a coastal path, that is exactly what we were thinking but at least now we could see that we were heading in the right direction as we could see the Straits beckoning us onwards. It was field walking again but at least the ground was form underfoot and the views were wider ranging than they had been down by the river, again taking in the mountains on the mainland. It was frustrating to turn left and again walk parallel to the coast, especially when it started to snow again, heavier this time with big, fluffy flakes that the wind insisted on once more driving into our faces.

We passed by a magnificent house, speculating that this may be the home of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge who reputedly live in the Brynsiencyn area. The views it would give from the large sun lounge to the rear would be utterly spectacular but because of the slope it is unlikely that you could be seen by any of us mere ramblers passing by some fifty or sixty yards away. The high wall surrounding the property would also be useful when it came to providing security. It’s unlikely that this actually is a Royal household but it’s a lovely house in a stunning spot - another one for the elusive lottery win. The path now follows a farm track parallel to the coast and we were beginning to wonder if we would ever actually get to smell the salt water. The snow continued to fall, never settling but getting heavier all the time. I pulled out the guide book to make sure that we were still on track and pushed it quickly back into my pocket once I’d done so - it still had some work to do and I didn’t want it to get soggy. It did its job, though, for we could see that our route now lay downhill across two fields and we would hit the beach. A stile in the corner of the first field was fairly obvious and once we crossed that, so was the one in the second field. A steep final slope - the ground obviously subject to frequent landslips - and shingle was beneath our feet rather than grass.

Opposite us lay the town of Caernarfon, another UNESCO site, like Beaumaris fortified by Edward I, its magnificent castle drawing the eye even through the slightly murky light. Seen from here it is obvious that this was a castle to control the sea rather than the land, that it would command the western entrance to the Straits as Beaumaris did the eastern end. Again we speculated on that marvellous house we had so recently passed - could it be that William looks out from his bedroom window and sees the castle where his father’s investiture as Prince of Wales took place?

The shingle wasn’t easy walking and it was past one o’clock by now so Jan decided it would be a good time to pause for lunch. I hadn’t realised the time and was happy to agree - the sky above was now a glorious blue overhead, although clouds were banked up beyond to indicate that this state of affairs might not last. We sat in the shelter of a tiny outcrop, away from that bitter wind, took the weight off our feet and enjoyed the view. In front of us were a number of vertical wooden posts, as though they were the ribs of the hull of a ship long-since run aground on the beach, or the posts to a jetty or breakwater. I took a photo or two, then noticed that the
weathering process had given some of the posts the impression of containing faces, not dissimilar to Munch’s “Scream”. Once I’d seen it an pointed it out to Jan, it was impossible to look at a post and not see a face. And so it was with much laughter that we headed off once more, keen to be off the shingle and on to the tarmac.

Immediately we left the shingle behind, hitting tarmac for a half mile or so as it ran tight to the shoreline. To our left was the building that previously housed The Mermaid Inn, a pub no doubt utilised by people waiting for and arriving on the ferry that used to ply its trade between here at Tal Y Foel and Caernarfon. The Boathouse just below is a holiday cottage part-owned by one of Dave’s customers at work and when we visited on one occasion he told us a possibly apocryphal story that in the days of “dry” Sunday’s in Wales such hell-raisers as Richard Burton, Richard Harris and Oliver Reed would catch the ferry across and take a few drinks, secure in the knowledge that the pub was too far from any centre of population to be raided and hence their reputation as fine upstanding, law-abiding pillars of establishment would remain unsullied. I have my doubts about the story and have been unable to find any other reference to it but it’s a decent tale and deserves re-telling for that fact alone. The ferry operated for around five hundred years until its final crossing in 1952. In the days before tarmac it would have been much easier for locals to visit the market town across the Straits than it would to have travelled the difficult country roads to Llangefni - the market town at the island’s heart. The ferry would also have come in handy for those islanders who worked in the slate mines of Dinorwic during the week, coming home on a Saturday afternoon for a day of chapel and family before returning on Monday morning for another week’s hard slog.

The Boathouse is one of two properties alongside the Mermaid, the other being Pilot’s Cottage, the former home of the ferryman and also a holiday cottage these days. Funnily enough this quiet and remote corner of the island, only accessible by narrow single track roads, has two or three tourist attractions within a few hundred yards - Foel Farm, Anglesey Sea Zoo and a farm shop are all situated to the landward side of the shore road. Oystercatchers and sandpipers pottered about the shoreline, possibly poaching from the commercial mussel farming operation that is sited just offshore. Although the views across the Straits remained good, the tarmac following hard on the shingle was hard on the feet and we yearned for something a little more forgiving beneath our boots.

Within a quarter of a mile we could drop off the road onto the beach once more, although this time the shingle didn’t last long and we skipped up a bank and through a kissing gate into yet another field. Like all of the others today, the grass here was close-cropped by the numerous sheep and lambs dotted around; the lambs as cute as ever, their mothers nowhere near being cute but keeping a watchful eye on their offspring as the two of passed by. Also plentiful were the ubiquitous mussel shells, empty obviously, and we wondered just how so many of them came to be found so high above the beach itself. We could only surmise that they had been dropped by birds or animals that had considered them the very definition of takeaway food - after eating they had abandoned the shell in much the same way that so many teenagers abandon their McDonalds wrappers once they’ve eaten the burger within. Yet the sheer numbers of the shells made us wonder - could they possibly be being used as a fertiliser, or similar? Searching on the internet it appears that the idea is not as foolish as we initially thought - there are a number of sites that indicate that they can increase a soil’s alkalinity in the same way as lime does - although most mention that they are best crushed first. I mentioned this to Mike, another walking/work friend, and he mentioned a third (and very persuasive) alternative - that the field had been fertilised through an application of seaweed and the mussels had been caught up with that. Obviously, the seaweed being organic would have broken down over time, leaving the shells high and dry.

We pottered on, through fields of grass and along the margins of ploughed red earth, newly fenced in shiny new barbed wire and stout wooden posts. Navigation was easy, the signposts as excellent as we had become accustomed to and the route as clear on the ground as it was in the guidebook. Eventually we came to a lane and turned right, the aroma of wild garlic immediately assaulting my nose. Jan professed herself unable to smell anything, which I found remarkable, but I think by now her whole face had been numbed by the cold and her nasal passages were shutting down in sympathy. The plants - ramsons as they are alternatively known - are a pretty good indication of ancient woodland, although this is not infallible. There were no flowers yet, they would be a month or so away, but the pungent smell was present in spades - Sarah would have hated it as she finds the smell offensive but to me it says that spring is close, if not already here, and that bluebells will not be far away.

Two or three hundred yards later we came across the wall behind which hid the house of Plas Llanidan and the church of Saint Nidan. Sadly, neither was visible from the lane and it rather felt as though they were hiding away from the modern world behind ivy-covered walls like a princess in a mid-European fairy tale. I can’t say that I took to the place really and wasn’t too sad to move away. We had the choice here to return to the beach and a route along the shore or to continue along the lane for a while. I knew which my preference would be - the guidebook mentioned more shingle and I had had enough of that for the day, as I had the relentless battle with the ferocious headwind - but was gentleman enough to give Jan the choice, knowing that she would make the same decision. She did so and we carried on along the lane, beneath an avenue of trees separating us from still more ploughed fields. It all felt a little similar to the Dulas estate in the north-east of the island - diametrically opposite geographically but alike in spirit, like the twentieth century has passed it by (and maybe the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries too).

Eventually this lane becomes a track becomes a path and the afternoon drifted away. There was little of note to see, little of note to talk about but it was pleasant enough. Eventually we came to the buildings at Plas Porthamel - some of them clearly still a working farm, some with the appearance of holiday cottages - where the route wriggles right, then left and becomes a lane once more. The snow now returned with a vengeance but not before we had been treated to a view down to the right of the Moel Y Don peninsula sticking out into the Straits. Like Tal Y Foel, there was once a ferry running from here to the mainland and the way it protrudes from the land around it gave this spot a bit of a head start. Boats ran from here to Port Dinorwic/Y Felinheli opposite, again taking miners to and from their week’s work in the slate mines around Llanberis. Before the snow took it from view we were able to clearly see the cottages where the pilots would once have lived and the car sheltered in behind. Having seen how close we were, and with large flakes now falling, we abandoned any thought of turning back uphill to explore Llanedwen Church and instead turned downhill, bemoaning the fact that it was further than it looked to the car. Finally, a little wearily, we reached the shelter of my trusty Skoda just as the snow came to a halt. It had been a pleasant day, nothing more; there was little in the way of magic - maybe due to the time of year, maybe because there was so little “coast” - but a pleasant day’s walking is a damn sight better than a day at work and we were both glad to have come. We would save the better weather for some of the more spectacular sections of the path that remained.

Day 11 - Aberffraw to Newborough

It was the last day of April when I pulled up in the car park in Newborough village. The month had already been officially named as the wettest April on record, even before the torrential downpour of the previous couple of days. March had come in like a lamb and left like a lion and things had only got worse since. Nonetheless the country was almost entirely officially “in drought” as a result of the lower than average rainfall in thirty three of the preceding thirty six months. Neither home nor Anglesey was yet subject to the hosepipe ban that the south and south-east had seen imposed in late March but there was no guarantee that this could be held off indefinitely. Of course, the rain had led to headlines about the “wettest drought on record” but water levels were undeniably low and the ground was firmer underfoot than would normally be the case this early in the year. 

The main drought year in recent memory was of course 1976 and I well remember the cracked, parched ground, dried-up ponds and browned grass from our August holiday of that year. And it’s gone down in family lore that Martin had woken having heard a van’s loudspeaker advising that water would be cut-off during the morning (as it was elsewhere in the country, with standpipes much in evidence). As a result Gwen filled every saucepan in the kitchen, along with the bath upstairs, and their use was strictly rationed. It later became apparent that Martin had actually dreamed the loudspeaker and we needn’t have worried unduly, beyond taking the care and precautions that we had grown accustomed to over the course of the long, hot summer.

Unlike 1976, the morning in Newborough was by no means hot and by no means summer but it was dry and the forecast for the day was stable so rising early to drive the hundred and twenty miles was a risk worth taking. The Aberffraw to Newborough stage wasn’t the next if you were ticking the route off in order but I hadn’t done so to date and with the sheer volume of water that had fallen the day before I thought it best to avoid the cliff tops on this occasion.

Newborough village is far from attractive, being another example of the Welsh pebbledash vernacular architecture and I was glad to have timed things so well (or cut things so fine, delete as appropriate) that I had no more than two or three minutes to wait for the bus that would take me north on the A4080 to Aberffraw. The journey takes no more than eight minutes so it is a little galling to see that the return journey on foot is thirteen miles, albeit thirteen fairly flat miles. Strangely for a “coastal” path, there’s not a great deal of coast either - there are two estuaries cutting deep into the island’s interior that must be negotiated, along with the trees of Newborough Forest, before the final delayed gratification of Llanddwyn Island and beach.

Disembarking in Aberffraw it is hard to believe that this small village laid out around a little square was once the seat of the kings of the ancient Welsh nation of Gwynedd . Whilst there is no trace of the palace remaining (it was almost certainly wooden which made its destruction substantially easier) there is a modern Heritage Centre at the village’s edge. It was too early for this to be open though so I strode downhill to the attractive single-arch bridge over the river.

Many of the houses overlooking the estuary have lovely views but so few of them are attractive in themselves and I find it hard to understand why so few of the island’s buildings add to the undoubted beauty of the scenery. The bridge on the other hand is pretty and elegant and although it no longer carries the main road is still perfectly capable of carrying foot traffic across the River Ffraw, from which the village takes its name. Not bad for something built almost three hundred years ago in 1731 - the modern bridge that carries the road these days was first built in 1932 and has already been rebuilt on at least one occasion.

The estuary is tidal here and it was obvious that the tide was low from the number of boats lying high and dry on the far bank. This meant that I was able to saunter along the wet sand, feeling the differing textures beneath my boots - here it’s firm enough for a game of beach cricket; there it is slightly softer; and a few yards further - and closer to the water - you sink up to your ankles in a sudden quagmire. The water ran shallow and surprisingly clear - the ripples in the sand of the river bed could be easily made out - and a couple of oystercatchers were certainly enjoying its taste as they paddled in the margins. To the left of the sands were dunes and scrubland and marram grass but it was the view ahead that commanded the attention - a wide expanse of beach with an aquamarine sea beyond and the mountains of the Lleyn Peninsula away in the distance. The light seemed to have a luminosity to it that you don’t see inland and the sea appeared almost Mediterranean or Caribbean as a result. I didn’t put it to the test but I feel sure that its temperature would have been closer to the Arctic however, for there was a keen edge to the wind that sent little flurries skittering down the beach and ensured that sunglasses remained in place to keep your eyes clear.

As the beach opened out the path climbed left through the marram grass and turned inland across Aberffraw Common, and its mix of short grass cropped tight by sheep and rabbits with tall dunes and intervening hollows. Stunted hawthorn trees have been moulded by the wind to clearly illustrate its prevailing direction and ground-nesting birds take to the air to distract you from nests that you weren’t threatening in the first place. The song of skylarks was a clear sign that summer was coming, an impression confirmed when the first two swifts of the year came scything past, preceding the first flypast of the day courtesy of RAF Valley’s fighter pilots. It wasn’t spectacular scenery and the wildlife was nothing out of the ordinary but it was springtime and the sun was shining and I lingered long enough to enjoy it. This wasn’t a day for rushing it seemed to me.

At the edge of the common a signpost indicated the way ahead. A spider’s web hung from the fingerpost and as I watched its owner scuttled out to reel in a fly caught in its sticky embrace. I had never seen this in such close detail before and was fascinated by the way the fly was parcelled up and carried back to the spider’s larder in a knothole in the wooden sign. As I said, not a day for rushing - had I been in a hurry I would not have had the immense pleasure this little cameo moment gave to me, if not to the fly!

It is often these intimate little glimpses that are the most memorable on a walk and I was to enjoy another such moment having crossed two or three fields to a little farmhouse on the skyline. As the path turned left along a firm track I caught sight of a pied wagtail on the barbed wire fence ahead. I already had my camera handy and as quietly as I could raised it to my eye and took a shot. The bird didn’t seem to mind so I took a step closer and got off another shot; another step, another photo; and then another. I was amazed at how calm and unflustered the bird was but decided I was near enough - it seemed a pity to spook him when he had been good enough to let me approach so close. For a bird which has the most basic of palettes from which to work - black, white and grey - the pied wagtail is both beautiful and incredibly endearing, perhaps even more than their grey and yellow cousins. (Incidentally, the grey wagtail is largely yellow, which can cause confusion; the yellow wagtail is brighter still.)

I pushed on, glad that the cattle in the fields ahead seemed happy to ignore me - recently I had seemed to attract them to me like moths to a flame and although they are merely inquisitive rather than threatening, they can undoubtedly be intimidating given their sheer bulk. Jan finds them particularly stressful, to the extent that she hates being in the same field as cows, but strangely finds no comfort in my presence alongside her. It is true that there have been reports of them trampling ramblers - even fatally - over the last year or two but these remain very much the exception rather than the rule. Nonetheless, it makes sense to avoid confrontation wherever possible.

Beyond a slightly swollen stream and its muddy banks the path passes in front of the abandoned farmhouse of Bont-faen. The building itself is grey and ugly with health and safety notices warning of the dangers of climbing upon the fragile roof would not be worthy of comment but for the presence of a huge pile of what appear to be oyster shells to the left of the path. I would have passed by without having noticed them but for the noise made by a rabbit scrabbling up them, startled by my approach and seeking to escape what he could not have known were my entirely peaceful intentions. Once I had noticed, though, I was intrigued. They had obviously been dumped here - oysters are scarcely known for being creatures of scrubby farmland, nor are they drawn to mythical landlocked graveyards as elephants were once supposed to be - but the farm is a mile from any road (ideal for tipping perhaps) and where do you get this amount of shells from? There must be ten of thousands of them, maybe more, and you just don’t suddenly find that number that need tidying up. And how do you transport that many anyway? There’s a mystery here but I can find nothing on the internet to suggest an explanation - just photos to prove that I’m not imagining what I saw. The best answer that I can come up with is that they are from a seafood restaurant and dumped a few at a time but this hardly explains anything - in fact it makes it still more odd, for if they were dumped a few at a time, why could they not be disposed of in a more conventional manner. Very strange.

I had the chance to muse on things as the path headed across a number of grassy fields to the main A4080. The final field contained a small flock of sheep, five of whom were lying at the foot of the stile leading over the dry stone wall and onto the footpath. Loath though I was to disturb them, there was no other way of exiting the field and I apologised profusely as they dragged themselves to their feet and reluctantly vacated their comfy spot and moved away, however briefly. Across the road and down a quiet lane lay the church of St Cadwaladr, a burial ground for at least one King of Gwynnedd, Cadfan, who died in the early seventh century. I was particularly taken with the gargoyles in the stonework but also with the deep purple flowers of the honesty growing in the grassy verges on the approach to the church.

After a half mile of plodding alongside the A road - albeit a very quiet A road - a quiet side road led downhill and back towards the sea. Bluebells - pink, white and the traditional colour - lined the banks and butterflies were busy enjoying the nectar. Orange tips were especially prevalent and easily identifiable, having as they do an orange tip to their wings. Having read Patrick Barkham’s lovely book “The Butterfly Isles” the previous year, I was taking a greater interest in these beautiful creatures this spring and was ridiculously pleased to be able to identify even such an obvious species. A greater spotted woodpecker flew overhead, its “bouncing” flight making it one of the easier birds to identify in flight. Moments later I was to hear it drumming on a nearby tree - or at the very least, another woodpecker. It’s a sight I’d love to see but for the time being I’ve only seen them in flight or silhouetted stationary on a tree trunk, never “in action” as it were.

Lifting my head up to watch the woodpecker, my breath was taken away by the view across to the hills and mountains of Snowdonia. The highest summits still held a light covering of snow and I was taken aback by just how big they looked, and how close. Below me lay the Malltraeth Sands and the estuary of the Afon Cefni and I was greatly looking forward to seeing the sands and the variety of bird life that they support. Sadly, the path turns away left just before the estuary and takes a rather disappointing route through an area of marshland and scrub, the path overhung by small trees and hedging. It’s like being routed away to the tradesman’s entrance rather than enjoying the majestic views.

When the path finally does emerge onto the estuary it is a question of whether the views ahead or the properties to either side are the more impressive. These houses are far from the normal slate or pebbledashed cottages we have seen elsewhere in island villages; they are designed to make the most of the views across the sands to the mountains and the length of the gardens is in direct proportion to the width of the views. It’s not long before we again drop out of sight of the sands, tall dunes blocking any views away to the south and that marshy scrubland to the left. Here were butterflies and wildflowers to look at but they were no substitute for those wide-ranging vistas we’d left behind. Eventually the path reached the main street of the village beside the Royal Oak pub, turned right and made its way down to the river, the start of the sands and a little paved picnic area where I decided to take lunch.

Malltraeth is well regarded as one of the best bird watching sites on an island full of them and it was here that one of the best-known wildlife artists of the twentieth century came in 1947 to live and work. Charles Tunnicliffe and his wife Winifred had bought Shorelands, one of those spectacular properties overlooking the estuary seen earlier and moved here from their home in Cheshire. Charles had been born in the village of Langley, a few miles out of Macclesfield, in 1901 - the GPO tower above the village being visible from common at the end of my road. His family soon moved from their two-up-two-down terraced house to the tenancy farm of Sutton Lane Ends a mile or two distant, where his artistic talents began to be noticed. In 1916 he started at Macclesfield School of Art, moving on to the Royal College of Art in London where he met Winifred. After graduation they settled back in Macclesfield and he began teaching at Manchester Grammar School, supplementing his income with work as a commercial artist. Amongst his other work was providing illustrations for Tarka the Otter by Henry Williamson and he gradually became known for his wildlife paintings, drawings and woodblocks.

After moving to Shorelands following many years of visiting the island for holidays he continued to find work both as an illustrator and also as an author, including “A Shorelands Summer Diary” detailing the life and times of birds and other wildlife as viewed from his studio window. It is, though, his commercial work that my generation would recognise - his illustrations for Ladybird books and Brooke Bond picture cards.  Brooke Bond had been putting picture cards in their packs of teabags since 1954 - one of their two examples of marketing genius from that decade; the other being the PG Tips chimps. The first album “The Frances Pitt Series of British Birds” was priced at 3d with twenty cards of a variety of species including such (modern) rarities as bittern, nightjar and turtle dove. So successful was the promotion that a second printing was required to meet demand. Later wildlife-based series included bird portraits. Wild flowers, African and Asian wildlife, tropical birds and wild birds in Britain, all illustrated by (and some “described by”) Charles Tunnicliffe. An internet search brings up many of the album covers of the series and brings on a rush of nostalgia at the sight of those albums I strove to fill as a young lad at primary school - “The Race For Space”, “Adventurers and Explorers” , “The Sea - Our Other World” and “Inventors and Inventions”.

Even before I had become aware of tea cards, though, I had known Ladybird books. First printed during the first world war, the books’ popularity increased enormously during and after the second world war when a standardised fifty-six page format was hit upon - the left hand page for words, the right for pictures and each of them with the ladybird logo on the front cover. Again Tunnicliffe was much in demand for his illustrative abilities, including a series on “What To See In …” for each of the four seasons. In hindsight, he may even be partially responsible for my fear of snakes as I vividly recall Nana and Grandad having to glue two pages of one of my books together to avoid my turning over and being frightened by a two-dimensional adder. Forty years later I am a little better but still find it hard to look at photos, although I think I can just about cope with drawings of them these days.

I suppose it is also possible that I have Tunnicliffe to thank for my love of non-reptilian wildlife. It is undoubtedly true that birds and animals have given me enormous pleasure over the years and that my spirits are easily raised on the worst of days at work if I should see a heron or buzzard whilst driving between appointments. And so it was that I was delighted within a few short minutes of striding out once more.

The Afon Cefni rises near the market town of Llangefni and is these days canalised for a large part of its journey to the sea. At Malltraeth it is released from this straitjacket and flows freely for its final couple of miles to the Irish Sea. In the past the river was tidal almost as far inland as Llangefni and the sands and mudflats extended significantly further than they do today. Since the canalisation the land has largely been reclaimed, a process aided by the building of “The Cob”, an embankment that was built during the 1800s as a flood defence. The path runs along the Cob with views out to the estuary on the right and the Cob Pool immediately to the left. This freshwater pond is one of three sizeable pools in the immediate vicinity and is a beacon for birdlife locally. A couple of seemingly wild ponies initially caught my eye but I was soon drawn to the far bank and a heron stalking a meal with great concentration and a slow high-stepping grace. Although I had only just started off again, I removed my rucksack to retrieve my binoculars and sat down for another ten minutes entertainment before a stab of the beak brought the hunt to a seemingly successful conclusion and what seemed like a largish frog that would no doubt have cost a pretty penny in a French restaurant.

Beyond the embankment the path plunges into Newborough Forest. The forest was largely planted during and immediately after the second world war, primarily to stabilise the shifting sand dunes. Over the years it has become home to one of the largest raven roosts in the country, if not the world, with about 2000 residents at one time, albeit now down to around 800. It has also been the site of a successful programme to reintroduce red squirrels to the area.

Sadly, neither squirrel nor raven were making their presence felt today but the long forest rides were perfect for the butterflies that had so enchanted me earlier. I took forever to walk a mile, stopping every few yards to try and get a decent photo of small white, peacock, orange tip and speckled wood. By the standards of those I’ve seen on the internet, I didn’t come close but I was ridiculously pleased with my efforts - eventually. I came fairly late to digital photography but now that I am a convert I see so much time disappear in the search of a half-decent photograph of whatever might attract my attention. Sarah rolls her eyes at me the moment I take my camera out on a walk as she knows she will be hanging around waiting for me to catch up, distracted as I will have been by flora, fauna or landscape. I will still be distracted without a camera but the need to record the distraction will, I fear, over-ride my sense of time.

Navigation through the forest was now dictated by the numbered posts at each junction - of which there were many. At junction number 17 I had to turn right to the edge of the woods and the estuarine salt marshes. I was reminded of the story Pat has often told of the day we visited Newborough. We’d picked up a nature trail leaflet of the kind that tells you to look out for a crossbill at point seven - because one had been seen there once a couple of years earlier. Anyway, Mum as the schoolteacher was given responsibility for reading the information out as we reached the appropriate numbered stakes. We all dutifully lined up to hear her describe the formation of the dune system, the geology of the volcanic rocks, the orchids and helleborines and so on. As we listened intently at one particular point it dawned upon us that her audience had grown somewhat - another family had attached itself to our own and were paying at least as much attention to her “lecture” as the Lee-Whelan clan. As we moved away to the next post the father politely approached her. “Would it be all right if we joined in the tour?” he asked, clearly under the impression that this was an “official” guided tour and that Mum knew what she was talking about. Somehow she managed to dissuade him from this opinion but thirty five years later it is still a favourite tale at family gatherings.

Back in the present day I managed to locate the correct path and was glad to emerge from the conifers and to find a delightful path running between forest to my left and salt marsh to my right. Another heron stood stock still at the edge of the reedbed but on this occasion too far away for me to get even a half-decent photo. Instead I found my attention drawn to the thrift at my feet. It’s a lovely little flower but I love the different names it has acquired over the years - sea pink is the most obvious but it is also known as rock rose, our ladies cushion, and Mary’s pillow. Anyway in this instance I think I got a decent shot or two and moved cheerfully on, a spring in my step despite the mileage already in my legs.

Unfortunately I made a small navigational error here and took the path that led back into the forest rather than crossing the dunes to the beach. Obviously I soon realised the error of my ways (it isn’t hard to tell the difference between sand and trees) but a glance at the map told me I could push on and still come out onto the beach alongside Llanddwyn Island. After twenty minutes of walking what seemed to be the same two hundred yards over and over again I was starting to regret that decision. The scenery was totally unchanging - at one point I took a photo of the path ahead, then turned to take one of the path already taken; it was impossible to tell them apart. I was hot and a little footsore; there was nothing to see other than conifers; there was little in the way of birdsong; and if truth be told, it was a little boring. Another twenty minutes went by. No change. Ten more passed and a path appeared leading away westwards. Within yards came the sight of pine trees, with a shining, shimmering sea and - so close, it seems, that you could touch them - the mountains of the Lleyn Peninsula beyond. It was such a beautiful sight and seemed all the better for the deferred gratification of the previous three quarters of an hour wishing I had taken the other path. I almost ran down to the beach and was delighted to see the anticipated island no more than two hundred yards away across the golden sands.

Llanddwyn Island is undoubtedly one of the highlights of the path. How we had never visited it before, I have no idea. Only at high tides does it become a true island but the fact remains that it is an island that you can walk to and be stranded upon and as such a tremendously romantic idea. I hurried across the sands and eagerly scrambled up the sandy path that led between marram grass up onto the island itself. A path side interpretation board tells the story of how the island got its name. Back in the mists of time Dwynwen, daughter of the King of Wales, was rejected by a suitor names Maelor at which time the Gods got involved and produced a potion with which Dwynwen turned Maelor to ice. Devastated at the turn events had taken, she then retired to the island and lived the rest of her life as a hermit. After her death she was sanctified and is now the Welsh equivalent of Saint Valentine. Llanddwyn means “the church of Saint Dwynwen” - the ruins of which can still be visited.

A decent path makes its way along the north-western side of the island, climbing up above the rocky shore to reach a large cross at what is close to its highest point. The view ahead is of the old lighthouse, modelled on the design of most Anglesey windmills (without the sails of course). This lighthouse replaced the original version in 1845 but has recently ceded responsibility back to the slightly older version - albeit with a much more recent light added to the top of the older building. The larger windmill style is an infinitely more attractive property, whitewashed and standing proudly on its promontory at the very tip of the island.

The way back to the beach passes by the Pilots’ Cottages, a row of single-storey cottages that contains an exhibition area, a cottage laid out as it would have been at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the accommodation for the wardens who spend their summers here. In years past they were occupied by the pilots who guided ships into and out of the Menai Straits on their way to and from Caernarfon harbour to collect and deliver slate from the mines in and around Llanberis. As we have seen all around the island, these are dangerous waters and so the job of pilot was an important one - important enough to be supported by a lifeboat that was based here up until 1907. A cannon that was used to summon its crew is to be found in front of the cottages and made for a decent photo with the whitewashed cottages behind.

Next on the path is a large Celtic cross, again on a rocky outcrop, dedicated to the memory of St Dwynwen. A few yards further on are the ruins of her former church, little more than a couple of walls these days and with grass close-grazed by the resident island ponies. These are kept on the island to assist in the management of the land for the resident wildlife - by keeping the turf close-cropped it allows wild flowers to flourish and also benefits ground nesting birds such as lapwing. This is appropriate as Llanddwyn was site of the first RSPB action in Wales, an attempt to safeguard a roseate tern colony threatened by egg thieves. Sadly, they are no longer here in any real numbers but at least the effort was made and cormorants, ringed plovers and grasshopper warblers thrive instead.

Of more immediate interest were the mountains clearly visible on the mainland - the Lleyn Peninsula and the snow-capped outliers of the Snowdon massif. The beach is a popular one, even though access to it is primarily by way of a toll road from just outside Newborough village itself, and even in midweek there were plenty of walkers enjoying the mid-afternoon blue sky and sunshine. I drifted over to the seashore, where the waves lapped against the beach and left a series of ridges in the sand that replicated the ebbing of the tide.

I pottered happily along, my feet sinking a half inch into the sand with every step that I took so that I could turn and review my progress if I so desired. I was more interested with the way ahead now, though, and in particular with spotting the path through the dunes to the car park at the end of the toll road. With no real signposting it was a little bit of educated guesswork but I soon saw what I thought was the right spot and was reassured to see one of the little blue signs to confirm my impression. The track then turned away to the right and made its way to the edge of the forest before a left turn along a sandy path with views over the vast expanse of dunes that is Newborough Warren Nature reserve. The area was apparently formed over 700 years ago when a great storm blew in and drove the sand hundreds of yards inland. Marram grass was used to stabilise the dune system but it is an ephemeral landscape at best and the dunes grew to the extent that the village itself felt threatened - hence the planting of the forest during the 1940s to halt the inland advance. This brought its own problems - water levels dropped and water-loving plants began to disappear - so a re-think has resulted in some thinning out of the trees, especially on the edge here.

Before long a tarmac track appeared and my route diverged from the official path, taking the tarmac as it led back to the village of Newborough where I had left my car. It was a pleasant enough path and the bluebells and other flowers were again home to a number of butterflies that always add a little interest. Right at the edge of the village is a plain looking church that is visible from a quarter of a mile or so distant but before I reached it I came across the remains of Llys Rhosyr - one of the courts of Welsh princes back in the 1200s. Covered in sand for many hundreds of years - perhaps that same storm that created the Warren - it was only discovered in 1992 and over the past twenty years has been excavated to the extent that it is now 25% complete. Only the foundations and a couple of courses of brickwork are visible but it’s clear that this was a place of some importance - which cannot be said about the village these days, despite the presence of a prince and princess nearby.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Day 10 - Rhosneigr to Aberffraw

It had been a last-minute decision to walk a little more of the coastal path today, the last of a fortnight away from work that had seen a golfing weekend cancelled due to the course flooding, a day at Worcester watching cricket curtailed by heavy rain and various other expeditions abandoned or marred by torrential storms. In short, the weather for the entire fortnight had been horrendous. But looking at the forecast on the red button the night before it had appeared that there was a chance of good weather in North Wales and I decided there and then to wake early and go. With rain predicted for late afternoon I decided on a shortish day and Rhosneigr to Aberffraw seemed a pretty good route.

With blue sky visible for the first time in what seemed like weeks, a rucksack on my back and boots on my feet I was feeling pretty cheerful already but my mood was raised still further when I got my first glimpse of the sea. It was a view north and to my right which surprised me a little - but I hadn’t looked at the map or guidebook in any great detail and hadn’t realised that Rhosneigr is on a headland between the two beaches of Traeth Crigyll and Traeth Lydan. It was the former that I could see to the north, the rocky islet of Ynys Feirig creating a haven for small boats safe from the storms of the Irish Sea. It made for a lovely view but my way led to the south and I dragged myself away and passed between some very nice properties before leaving the road and dropping onto the sandy acres of Traeth Lydan.

Despite the dark and threatening clouds children were playing on the beach, making sandcastles, throwing a ball around and generally just having a good time. It was lovely to see their enjoyment in being out in the open air; mums sitting on tartan travel rugs in the shelter of a striped windbreak. For a moment or two it was as though the last thirty five years hadn’t happened and I was back in the mid seventies and then a mobile phone rang and the spell was broken but it was clear that beaches are timeless things that reach out to each generation as places to have fun in relative safety.

And yet a solitary kayaker visible a hundred yards out to sea was a reminder of the danger that lurks so close to shore. Less than two years earlier - on August Bank Holiday Sunday 2010, just days after Jan and I had walked from Beaumaris to Pentraeth - an experienced kayaker named Elizabeth Ashbee had been kayaking with four friends from Shrewsbury Canoe Club. They had started from nearby Rhoscolyn but the weather had been poor and her four colleagues had “rafted up” after one of the party had capsized and lost a paddle. A north wind had driven them southwards towards Rhosneigr and the islet of Ynys Feirig that I admired earlier. Elizabeth had become separated from the others in the poor weather and was last seen at about 2:30 on the Sunday afternoon. Sadly her companions were washed onto shore away from any habitation and had to scramble up a cliff before hitching a lift back to Rhoscolyn where they raised the alarm - some four hours after she was last seen. Despite a wide-ranging search involving the RNLI, RAF and coastguard services it would be the Tuesday before any sign of her was found, some twenty miles further south off the Lleyn peninsula and then it was initially only her kayak, followed three hours later by her dead body. Whilst the coroner criticised the group’s lack of any means of communication it isn’t clear that an earlier raising of the alarm would have saved her life.

A second inquest on the same day also recorded a verdict of “accidental death” in the drowning of a Simon Sait in April 2010. He had been kayaking off Traeth Mawr - my destination today - taking photos of seals in the company of his girlfriend. Both boats capsized but whilst his girlfriend was able to reach shore and raise the alarm, Simon wasn’t so fortunate and despite being airlifted to hospital in Bangor was pronounced dead upon arrival. In this instance the coroner criticised the lack of a buoyancy aid which could have saved his life.  Both of these sad tales had a certain resonance for bookending today’s route and they undeniably seem sadder for being so recent - there have been many stories of death all the way around the coast but those from the nineteenth century seem ancient history whereas the deaths of Ashbee and Sait just seem tragic.

The beach was a glorious and sandy one but also speckled with seashells and flattish stones that looked idealfor skimming.  Grandad Pope would always take me and Steve to one side before our holidays, press a fifty pence piece into our hands and tell us to buy ourselves an ice-cream and then ask us to “throw a stone in the sea for me”. It’s a tradition that we have both taken on board and no-one at work is allowed to go away without me telling them the same thing (although I draw the line at buying them an ice-cream). And now that I have a little nephew nothing will stop me from pressing a coin into his palm and telling him to throw a stone in the sea - but these days it’s me he will be throwing it in for. So when I picked up a stone and tried to skim it across the waves, it was Grandad Pope who was in my thoughts. It may have been the fault of the stone - not flat enough, maybe; it may have been the waves - too close together, perhaps; it may just be that I have lost the knack of skimming stones but I could get them to bounce no more than three or four times, depending on how generous you are with counting. I really don’t think that Grandad would mind, though. I think he’d just be pleased that I still remembered him when I did it.

Slowly I made my way along the beach, stopping to pick up a couple of shells along the way - a silly little present for Sarah - and to “admire” the dead sponges, crabs and seaweed cast up on the strandline. I don’t find this part of the beach attractive - it smells and is full of flies - but I suppose it’s an intrinsic part of the coast. Also unattractive are the hay bales wrapped in black plastic as the path climbs off the beach and starts to make its way around the headland of Mynydd Mawr. Take off the black plastic and there is nothing more redolent of summertime than a row of circular bales of hay beneath a blue sky; the plastic just makes the field a little more urban and strips away all of its charm. Happily, it wasn’t more than a couple of minutes before I left the field behind and turned my eyes seawards once more.

Almost immediately a flash of white drew my attention to a little egret flying overhead, a lovely sight that took my eyes away from the path for a moment or two. When I did drag myself back to the way ahead I was surprised to see an obviously artificial mound with a wide stone-clad entrance facing me from a hundred yards away. I clambered up to that entrance - very modern looking and artificial - and was pleasantly surprised to find that inside was a perfectly authentic prehistoric tomb, albeit one that has been badly maltreated over the last few thousand years and is now protected by an artificial concrete roof as well as that B&Q style entrance. Safe behind metal bars is a cruciform passage containing a number of standing stones and a capstone, many of them decorated with carvings of zigzag designs, spirals and lozenges that apparently set Barclodiad y Gawres apart from other tombs in mainland Britain as they bear a strong resemblance to Irish rock art. The artificiality is partly explained by site’s rediscovery in 1952 having been used as a stone quarry during the 1700s which will clearly have impacted massively upon its structure. I’m unsure if I altogether approve of the building work, although I appreciate the need for protection but it’s a strange mish-mash of the Neolithic and Disneyland and on the whole I’d rather have something authentic if damaged than this historical hybrid .

Cable Bay, a few minutes beyond the tomb, is an idyllic cove straight out of a Famous Five book. It’s not big and with three family groups in occupation would not have taken many more people before it began to appear crowded but there was ample room for the three groups without impinging on each other’s private space. Kids paddled in the sea, squealing at the cold and running back to mum and dad before running straight back in and doing it all
over again. It was obvious that the sea was extremely cold - a dad and his two sons swimming across the bay from south to north were dressed fully in wetsuits and looked as though they needed them - but everyone here was having a good time. Three young girls had spotted a tiny cave and were poised at the entrance, plucking up the courage to go in and explore more fully. The sea lapped around their ankles as they did so, the eldest deliberately splashing the other two with little kicks of her flip-flopped feet to the obvious delight of her sisters who probably saw this as preferable to the thought of what lurked within the cave. And yet for all the family-friendly appearance this bay was the scene of yet another August tragedy, this time in 2011, when two young students drowned after a night-fishing expedition went badly wrong - some witnesses suggesting that one of them went swimming and the other went to help when he got into difficulties, although there were also suggestions that they had jumped into the water from the cliffs. Details are patchy but it again serves to highlight Tom Russell’s lyric that “Man has tamed and shamed the land, he’ll never tame the sea.”

Oxeye daisies proliferated the cliff edges beyond Cable Bay and were a delightful addition to the views but it was not too long before the path turned left and abandoned the coast for a short stretch. Cattle occupied the first field and were inquisitive enough to wander across and have a closer look at this man with a big rucksack tramping along the edge of their grassy home. Indeed, they were inquisitive enough to wander up and almost surround this man with a big rucksack, to the extent that he had to shout and wave his arms around to clear a path through to the stile that exited the field.

A short detour on a stony farm track led to a track below the Anglesey Motor Racing Circuit - a purpose-built track for both amateur and professional events, including corporate entertainment days and the like. It’s not something that holds any real appeal for me but I do know how popular this sort of facility can be. My only concern was how noisy the vehicles would be and would they impinge upon my enjoyment of the next couple of miles. Sadly, the first sign that I had arrived at the track was the roar of what I took to be a motorcycle engine hurtling past. A photographer was situated at the top of the bank, as captivated by the noisy beasts as I was by the plants and flowers that lined the path for the whole day.

The track led back to the shore but the noise from the engines was making me a little grumpy, the problem being that the vehicles went past with enough regularity to be annoying but enough irregularity that you never quite got to the stage of being used to it. I found myself starting to speed up - something that I am loath to do on a day out, as I like a walk to find its own natural pace rather than have one forced upon it. And just when I was starting to think that my day would be spoiled I spied the church of St Cwfans - the “Church in the Sea”, so-called because it is reached by a causeway that is under water at all but low tide, and the tide was low and ebbing lower even as I approached. It’s a rocky path out across the bay to the island of Cribinau, an island that is only just large enough for the tiny whitewashed church and a few yards of grass surrounding it. Old maps apparently show it as being a part of mainland Anglesey but erosion has done its work and the building is all the more romantic for its isolated situation. The building itself is a bit of a hotch-potch, dating from 12th, 13th. 14th, 16th and 19th centuries, depending upon which part of the building you’re looking at but if you were unaware of this - as I was - it just seems the epitome of a simple parish church and its beauty lies in its simplicity. The island itself is protected by a nineteenth century stone wall to prevent further erosion and this in itself is a work of art, not because of any particular aesthetic qualities but because it does the job it is designed for without being showy or spectacular - I just found the whole thing utterly lovely. As I crossed the causeway I noticed that the engine noise had suddenly disappeared. It was a temporary respite but the peace was perfectly timed and absolutely appropriate.

I clambered up the staircase built into the wall, gripping the rather rickety handrail as I did so. There is a notice that warns of the need for care when the steps are wet - and as the waves will lap up against it for 50% of every day, that is surely the majority of the time. I certainly watched my footing rather gingerly as I reached the top and trod onto the grass that surrounds the church itself. Behind me three workmen crossed the causeway, picked up a couple of plastic containers and disappeared back to their van parked above the beach. They had, it appeared, just finished whitewashing the exterior walls, something that had apparently caused some controversy when it was first undertaken back in 2005. I liked the way it looked now but could understand the feelings of locals who had grown up with its well-weathered appearance. The “whitewash” - actually a lime render - is both historically accurate and one of the better forms of weather-proofing. My initial feeling was that they had done a pretty good job of it but as I wandered around I noticed that the bench on the rear wall had obviously not been moved at all and the gleaming new white finish had a couple of gaps as a result.

I tried the door but wasn’t surprised to find it locked. Even out here, miles from any civilisation and cut off twice a day, it seemed that the threat of theft and/or vandalism was still a live issue - just as it had been at Llanbadrig, the last time I had wanted to view the inside of a church in the approach to Cemaes Bay. It seems an enormous pity that the actions of a few deprives so many of the pleasure of seeing the interior, whether they are religious or merely looking to enjoy the architecture or the peace and quiet. I looked into the windows and although the glass appears thick (as it probably must be to withstand the elements) and distorts the view, I was pleased to see decorations of rocks, pebbles and shells lying upon the windowsills. This was a church in touch its surroundings, I thought.

Having noticed the bench at the gable end, I thought that the time had come for a cup of coffee and a spot of lunch so removed my rucksack and settled down to enjoy a few minutes break. Every so often the engine noise would subside and the sudden quiet would allow the lapping of the waves and the piping of the oystercatchers to make themselves heard - a much pleasanter sound to my ears than the racket emanating from the race circuit but it would seem wrong to be sitting outside a church without having a “live and let live” attitude to the pastimes of others.

It was getting bit chilly just sitting there so I decided it best to pack up and move on, lovely thought the island was. It was very noticeable just how much the tide had ebbed away even in the short time I’d been resting - when I’d crossed the causeway earlier there had still been pools of standing water, by now they had drained away almost completely. Back on the beach I turned to my right and pottered along the sand, both surprising and being surprised by a flock of waders that was so perfectly camouflaged against the rockpools situated between the salt water and the sea strand on which I walked. Despite the fact that it had been less than ten minutes since I had last sat down, I picked out a convenient rock and parked myself once again, keen to see the lovely birds at (fairly) close quarters. I was unsure at first what exactly they were - one of knot, sanderling or dunlin I was almost certain but which? After a few minutes I was fairly confident they were dunlin but I am no expert and wouldn’t be 100% - which was a pity as an elderly couple tiptoed up to me, afraid of scaring the birds, and asked what they were. I pointed out my lack of expertise but the husband then reached into his wife’s rucksack and pulled out a field guide, looked up dunlin and was happy to agree with my identification. I felt pretty pleased about this but even if I’d been wrong, they were lovely to look at as they probed the wet sand for worms, molluscs and crustaceans. In this way I managed to while away another half hour without even being aware of it passing - which is one of the reasons that I so love walking.

Eventually I dragged myself away and made the short climb up onto the next headland. The last hour, since the first sight of St Cwfan’s, had been absolutely magical so maybe I was in the right frame of mind to be delighted but I was just walking from one special moment to another and everything that I saw, I saw with excited eyes. And this headland was special, full of wild flowers and birdlife, enough to keep me going for yet another half hour. Stone “hedges” were alive with thrift, ferns, daisies, foxgloves and meadowsweet; a flock of oystercatchers flew up as one; cormorants preened and displayed in the bay below; swallows swooped low above the long grass, taking insects out of the air in a display of aerobatics that was magnificent but not the best of the day, as we shall see. In the distance, across the wide expanse of Malltraeth Sands, Llanddwyn Island was silhouetted - something for another day but still magical. And then came the seals… Three of them on this occasion, what
appeared to be a family group given that one appeared to be substantially smaller than the other two. If I understand these things correctly, the likelihood is therefore that these were common seals, rather than grey - which don’t tend to remain in such family groups. But again, as with the dunlins, it really doesn’t matter what the species is - they are just such special creatures to see in the wild.

The final ornithological delight of the day came with the appearance of a stonechat, initially on a gorse bush but moving on to one fencepost after another, warbling as he did. Its song is allegedly meant to resemble two stones being tapped together but it’s much more than that - it starts off like that but then goes off on a little jazz-like improvisation that is much more attractive. But forget the song, this is a charming little bird about the size of a robin but with an orangey breast rather than a red one and like the robin it is impossible to see without bringing a smile to your face. This one seemed - like the robin in our back garden - to actively enjoy my company; not enough to remain on the nearest fencepost so that I could get a really good photo but enough to stay within six or seven yards before hopping to the next post down as I got too close.

All day I had been distracted by the abundant flora, regularly dropping to my knees to take what were no doubt distinctly average photos. Most were later discarded - the beauty of digital cameras - but some I were pretty pleased with, although I still struggled to identify all of them. Selfheal was one, a tiny member of the dead-nettle family with both purple and blue flowers that seemed to attract more than its fair share of bees; sheep’s-bit scabious was another, a delicate blue flower that was popular with butterflies, something else that had taken an inordinate amount of time trying to photograph.

Over the last couple of years I have noticed and appreciated both wildflowers and butterflies more than I have in the past. As with so many of my enthusiasms, it is through books that I have been drawn in - in this instance Patrick Barkham’s “The Butterfly Isles” and Sarah Raven’s “Wild Flowers”; the latter primarily down to the sheer beauty of the photographs (taken by Jonathan Buckley, who deserves much more than a credit on the front cover that is substantially smaller font than that of the already well-known Ms Raven). Today’s lepidoptery highlight was possibly a meadow brown - a brown butterfly that I spotted in a meadow, hence my tentative ID. So for the third time, it doesn’t matter if I got the name wrong, it was still lovely. “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Surprisingly, though, for all my love of the natural world, it was something completely unexpected that provided the next bit of magic. Thirty five years ago both the Lees and the Whelans had attended an open day at RAF Valley, a memorable day for a number of reasons. Steve would have been six or seven and had set his heart on one of the helium balloons being sold. Unfortunately he failed to keep a tight enough grip on the string and watched it fly away into the distance with tears pouring down his face and it was here that my biggest piece of fraternal love ever took over and I offered to buy him another one with some of my holiday money. It wasn’t an offer I had to come through on but was heartfelt for all that - for all of the squabbling that we engaged him, I didn’t want to see my little brother upset. Happily, he was soon smiling again, sat as he was in the cockpit of one of the Red Arrows Hawker Siddeley Gnats. For some reason, and so many years later I have no idea why, I either declined the opportunity or opted for an alternative (an ice-cream maybe). Their plane of choice is a BAE Hawk nowadays and it was these that flew overhead as I dropped into a last shingly inlet. Immediately I was ten years old again and watching them in open-mouthed delight as I had done in 1976.

It is appropriate that it was here on Anglesey that I had seen the team on both occasions, for it was from RAF Valley that Flight Lieutenant Lee Jones was posted to lead the newly formed Arrows at RAF Fairford in 1965. Since then they have flown over 4,000 displays and delighted hundreds of thousands of ten year old boys, girls and adults - including this one. Although it seemed like they were on telly every Bank Holiday Monday (as were the Harlem Globetrotters) and are hardwired into the mind of every child of the Seventies, the team remains as active today as it ever was, having survived recent spending reviews, even in these straitened economic times, and highly valued for the public relations benefit that they bring to both recruitment and the defence industry. Long may they fly.

Tearing myself away from my last rocky seat of the day I passed by sea holly and sea lavender to find the path turning inland on the gorgeous sands of Aberffraw Bay, alongside the estuary of the Afon Ffraw. This side of the river is lovely but it is the far side that is truly spectacular. The river is shallow and crystal clear, the sands opposite wide-ranging and golden and the views beyond to the mountains of the Lleyn Peninsula stunning. It’s a pity that in turning inland the views are left behind but as the next stage follows the far bank of the river, it is a treat to be stored up for another day.

Today ends in the little village of Aberffraw; a small village now but the seat of the kings of Gwynned for 800 years during the Middle Ages. Nothing of those years remains visible now, instead there is a central square around which lie terraced cottages and grim-looking chapels. With the exception of some houses overlooking the river it is not a pretty village - there is a lovely single-arched bridge but little else of aesthetic interest - but it does have the enormous benefit of having a heritage centre with excellent public toilets, something that is enormously under-rated as a civic asset. (We always had to look at the make of any bathroom suites because Dad was credit control manager at Armitage Shanks and we felt like we owed him some loyalty - although I never remember crossing my legs because only Twyfords was available!)