Across the Menai Strait to a fortress and priory on Anglesey
The turbulent waters of the Menai Strait and the wide sweep of Conwy Bay separate two very different landscapes: the low-lying hills and meadows of the isle of Anglesey, and the mighty mountains of the mainland of Wales. Old quarries and crumbling buildings bear witness to the industrial past, while brightly coloured sails and the white wakes of powerboats scarring the blue waters point to the tourist trade which has replaced it.
RED WHARF BAY
When the tide recedes from this deep, curved bite into Anglesey’s rugged coast, it leaves behind a vast expanse of sand, 2 1/2 miles wide and Wi miles across. The hamlet of Red Wharf Bay itself is at the western end of the cove. A row of cottages protected by a sea-wall marks all that is left of a once-prosperous shipbuilding settlement which made cargo vessels for the Anglesey copper-exporting trade.
There is a pleasant walk to the north, past the vast limestone bulk of Castellmawr (’Great Castle’), named after the ancient fort built on its summit, and round the headland. Southwards, too, walkers can follow the long, curving boundary between the sands and the low dunes inland. But the tide ebbs and flows quickly, and walkers who take a short cut across the often soft sands risk being cut off by the fast-rising waters. Swimmers need to beware of the strong outgoing tide.
The tiny hamlet stands above the more remote, eastern end of Red Wharf Bay, at the end of the road from the village of Lland-dona. The beach can be reached down either of two, steep, narrow lanes which lead to opposite ends of a short, beachside track with a car park. Parking is prohibited on the beach and dunes.
The island, off the easternmost tip of Anglesey, owes its Welsh name of Ynys Seiriol to the saint who established a monastic settlement there 14 centuries ago; some of its ruins can still be seen. St Seiriol also had a chapel on the mainland, at Penmaenmawr, 5VS miles away across the waters of Conwy Bay, and was supposed to know a secret route across now-vanished sandbanks which connected the two places at low tide. The island’s English name comes from the colonies of puffins which breed here, survivors of much larger groups decimated over the centuries by rats, and by the local inhabitants, who once thought pickled puffin to be the tastiest of delicacies. Separated from Anglesey by a narrow channel, the island is private land; permission to land is obtainable from the Baron Hill Estate Office in Beaumaris.
Penmon’s ruined priory was the successor to a religious settlement founded in the 6th century by relatives of St Seiriol, who lived on nearby Puffin Island. The church was rebuilt in the 12th century, and some of the splendid Norman architecture still survives, while the other monastery buildings date from the 13th and 16th centuries. Among them are the ruins of a dormitory, the refectory, and the house of the prior.
A footpath leads to a hermit’s cell and to a well said to have been used by St Seiriol for baptising pilgrims to Penmon. A toll road, which is free to pedestrians, leads to Black Point (Trwyn Du), with its old lifeboat station and castellated lighthouse; a mournfully tolling bell warns shipping away from the rocks which stud the channel between the point and nearby Puffin Island. There are spectacular views across the Strait to the mountains of Snowdonia, but the beaches are pebbly, with rock pools and strips of sand exposed at low tide, and the strong currents make bathing dangerous. There is limited parking,
This elegant little town owes its name not to the Welsh, but to the Norman-French of Edward I, who built there the last castle in his chain of fortresses designed to control the turbulent Welsh. On the beau marais, or ‘beautiful marsh’, his engineers designed a magnificent fortress with concentric rings of defensive walls inside a deep moat, with a jetty which allowed the castle to be supplied from the sea. In the town is the Museum of Childhood, with collections of toys and games, which is open daily in summer.
The beach is mainly shingle, with stretches of sand exposed at low tide. Bathing is reasonably safe while the tide is coming in, but at other times strong currents make it dangerous. There is fishing from the pier for codling, whiting, pollack and bass.
The town starts at the Anglesey end of Thomas Telford’s magnificent suspension bridge, built in 1826 to carry his Holyhead Road over the swirling, treacherous waters of the Menai Strait. Fully rigged sailing ships could pass under the bridge’s 100 ft high central span. The town is one of the centres of the Menai Strait regatta fortnight each August, and also host to the Ffair y Borth, one of the largest local fairs in Wales, which has been held each Octoberfor some400 years.
For a spectacular view of the bridge – and the Strait – follow the promenade beneath the bridge along the Belgian Walk, built by refugees during the First World War. Near by is the handsome little 14th-century church of St Tysilio on Church Island, which can be reached by walking along a causeway exposed at low water. The Tegfryn Art Gallery shows work by local and national artists.
There is good sea-fishing from the shore or from hired boats for bass, conger eel, codling, pollack, flatfish and whiting.
Probably the only village in Britain to qualify as a tourist attraction on its name alone, Llanfair P.G. owes its tongue-twisting title to a decision taken in late Victorian times to blend the names of two neighbouring hamlets (in full: Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerych-wyrndrobwll – ‘The church of St Mary by the white hazel over the whirlpool’ – and Llan-tysiliogogogoch, or ‘The church of St Tysilio close to the red cave’.
The magic still works: in 1973, in response to public demand, British Rail reopened the village’s railway station, earlier closed as part of the Beeching cuts, and it still issues the largest platform tickets in Britain. There is a model railway exhibition, and there are links with an earlier form of travel in the old tollhouse, with its list of charges varying from fourpence for each horse pulling a carriage, to three-halfpence for a horse pulling a load of lime to be burned for fertiliser.
This splendid house was built by James Wy-att for the Paget family, later the Marquesses of Anglesey. The first Marquess was second-in-command to Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo, but was wounded by a French cannon-ball which shattered his right leg. The limb was amputated and replaced by an artificial substitute made of wood, leather and metal, which was known as the Anglesey Leg. The Marquess lived for another 39 years, joking that for all that time he was a man ‘with one foot in the grave’. He is commemorated by a 100 ft column of Anglesey marble on the nearby hill of Craig-y-Dinas. Those energetic enough to climb all 115 steps of the spiral staircase inside the column can find at the top the Marquess’s statue and a stupendous view of Snowdonia and the Strait. The house is owned by the National Trust and has relics of the Marquess and of Waterloo, together with a collection of military uniforms, some beautiful gardens, and splendid views.
Nearby is Britannia Bridge, built in 1850 by Robert Stephenson to carry two railway tracks, each one enclosed in an iron tube. In 1970 the tubes were damaged by fire and the bridge had to be closed. Eventually the tubes were removed and the bridge was reopened with the railway tracks supported on new arches between the original columns; above was added a new road deck to relieve the congestion on Telford’s Menai Bridge.
The university and cathedral city on the Menai Strait dates back to the foundation of a cathedral by St Deiniol in AD 548, 81 years before the founding of Canterbury. Near the cathedral is the Gardd yr Esgob, or Bishop’s Garden, notable for its collection of every plant mentioned in the Bible which has been able to stand up to the Welsh climate; these range from the fig tree of the Garden of Eden to a Judas tree, named because it was said to be the tree from which the betrayer of Jesus hanged himself.
Another section of Bishop’s Garden has trees and shrubs associated with the festivals and saints of the medieval church, such as the Glastonbury Thorn and the Royal Fern of St Matthias.
The Museum of Welsh Antiquities covers the development of North Wales from prehistoric times to the present day. Bangor also has an art gallery, a theatre and a heated indoor swimming pool.
This vast and elaborate 19th-century idea of what a medieval castle ought to look like was built by the architect Thomas Hopper for the Pennant family, and paid for by profits from the West Indies sugar trade and the wealth created by the family’s slate quarries around Bethesda in North Wales.
Appropriately, the castle contains a slate Grand Staircase, a slate-floored Great Hall, a slate billiard table, several slate fireplaces and a slate bed. There is also a doll museum with more than 1,000 dolls, and a collection of industrial locomotives, some of them from the quarries which made the building of the castle possible.