Dunes fringing a quiet land where Druids worshipped
At Anglesey’s southern corner the land meets the sea in long beaches and ranks of dunes, with the towering mountains of Snowdonia on the mainland and the spine of the Lleyn Peninsula forming an impressive backdrop. Small villages dotted along the Menai Strait give fine views across to the stately walls and towers of Caernarfon Castle. Bathers should avoid the Menai Strait, because of its strong tide flow and undercurrent.
ST CWYFAN’S CHURCH
This little church, built 1,300 years ago and restored in 1893, has one of the most spectacular settings in Britain. Perched on a rock between two coves, Porth Cwyfan and Porth China, it can be reached by walking outalong a causeway at low water. There is a road from Aberffraw, but cars cannot be driven right down to the coves. As an alternative, the 2 mile clifftop path from Aberffraw provides spectacular views all the way.
This picturesque little village became the capital of the Principality of North Wales in AD 870 under Rhoderic the Great, and remained so until Llywelyn the Last was defeated and killed by the forces of Edward I in the 13th century. No trace remains of the princes’ castle, though a Norman-style arch in the church of St Bueno is said to have come from their palace. There is also an ancient packhorse bridge across the river next to the main road bridge. The beach, Traeth Mawr, is sandy and safe, and backed by miles of open dunes.
Like many of the villages on the west coast of Anglesey, Malltraeth was sacked by Viking raiders in the Dark Ages. Another enemy, the sea, was kept at bay by Malltraeth Cob, an embankment built by the engineer Thomas Telford at the end of the 18th century to reclaim farmland. At one time,
Malltraeth was the centre of Anglesey’s coalmining industry, and its pits supplied the fuel for the copper mines at Parys Mountain, near Amlwch. It is possible to see the remains of one of the mines at Pentre Berw, 5 miles to the north-east, where the A5 crosses the edge of Malltraeth Marsh. The village also had a busy shipbuilding yard in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Downstream from Malltraeth, the north shore of the estuary is private land, but the opposite bank is now a national nature reserve, noted for waders such as redshanks, greenshanks, lapwings and sandpipers which use it as a staging post on their spring and late-summer migrations.
At the end of the estuary, the long sweep of Malltraeth Sands extends all the way to the rocky mass of Llanddwyn Island which, in spite of its name, is joined to the land by a causeway at all stages of the tide.
East of Llanddwyn Island, Llanddwyn Bay is bounded by a 4 mile stretch of sands, with spectacular views across to the mountains of Snowdonia, and backed by a vast stretch of dunes. The best way to reach the beach is to follow the road from Newborough through the Forestry Commission plantations and park in the picnic and parking areas at the end of the road, just a single row of dunes distant from the beach.
Llanddwyn Island is a nature reserve, but in earlier times was best known for the cross of St Dwynwen, who founded a convent there after suffering a heartbreaking end to a love affair. She became the patron saint of Welsh lovers, and pilgrims flocked to the well she built on the north side of the island, and to the church built 1,000 years later on the site of her oratory. Beside the well is a rock which, according to legend, was split in two so that the dying St Dwynwen could use it as a seat from which to watch her last sunset.
More recently, Llanddwyn Island was important to seafarers: a stone tower built in 1800 provided a navigational mark, and a lighthouse was built in 1873 to replace it. Pilot boats were kept there, and the pilots’ cottages are now used to display a traditional interior. Near by is the cannon which was once used to call out the Newborough lifeboat.
The Warren was named after its rabbit population; until the outbreak of myxomatosis in 1954, between 80,000 and 100,000 rabbits were caught there every year. At one time the area was rich agricultural land, but a series of violent storms in the Middle Ages blew so much sand ashore that the farmland was overwhelmed and turned into the biggest area of sand-dunes on the west coast of Britain. Elizabeth I introduced laws to encourage the planting of marram grass, which produced a local industry in mat, rope and basket making which survived until the 1930s.
Today, part of Newborough Warren is a national nature reserve, while another part is occupied by the Forestry Commission plantation of Newborough Forest. There are a series of trails across the wilderness. One of them is open to cars and starts from Newborough Village, passing through the forest to a car park a few yards from the foreshore of Llanddwyn Bay. The plantation consists mainly of Corsican pines and was begun in 1948 to prevent wind-blown sand blocking roads and covering crops.
At the end of a road leading from Dwyran to the edge of the Menai Strait, a group of cottages and a small sea-wall provide limited room for parking and an unexpected view of Caernarfon Castle on the mainland. For more than 400 years, from 1425 until 1849, a ferry ran from this point to the mainland.
For fishermen, the chances of bass and flatfish are good, and there are pleasant walks along the shore. Swimming is dangerous because of fierce currents.
An attractive little pub stands beside the remains of an old pier projecting into the Menai Strait. There is limited parking and a firm sandy strip of beach, though swimming is unsafe. Sea-fishing trips and fishing holidays are organised from the inn, and there are pleasant walks along the foreshore, with good views of the mainland mountains.
East of the village, beside a bend in the lane which leads towards the Menai Strait and then swings back to rejoin the main road, is the ancient church of St Nidan, founded 1,300 years ago. Apart from an annual service the church is unused, but a stone in the rear porch traps water which is supposed to have healing properties.
Older still by some 3,000 years is the Stone Age Bodowyr burial chamber, to the north-west. Four stone uprights sunk securely into the ground form a framework which is crowned with a huge capstone, 8 ft by 6 ft. The builders dragged this capstone into place up a specially constructed earth slope. The entire chamber was originally buried under a vast earth mound.
Another narrow road leading down to the edge of Menai Strait ends at the hamlet of Moel-y-don. There is parking in a field at the end of the road, with good views across the Strait to the mainland. The beach is muddy sand, with a strip of shingle at the high-water mark. At one time Moel-y-don was a thriving shipbuilding port, with a ferry across the Strait to Port Dinorvvic; the timbers of one old ship still stand out of the mud at the harbour’s edge.
Down a track to the east of the village of Llanddaniel Fab lies one of the best preserved Stone Age monuments in North Wales, a vast, chambered burial mound dating back some 4,000 years, crowned by a cairn which was originally 160 ft across. This was a centre of the Druids, whose religion was stamped out by the Roman invasion of Suetonius Paulinus, largely because it involved human sacrifice.
Another local monument, Bryn yr Hen Bobl, ‘Hill of the Old People’, on the other side of the A4080, was fqund to contain human skeletons, and many of the bones showed signs of cannibalism.
On the mainland side of the Menai Strait, Port Dinorwic was built as the outlet for the export trade from the great Dinorwic slate quarries in the mountains of Snowdonia. But the short-lived boom in the slate industry during the 19th century was only a brief episode in the story of a port whose history can be traced back to the 8th century, when Viking raiders used this part of the Strait as a secure anchorage.
Today, the old slate quays provide berths for pleasure craft within easy reach of the open sea beyond Abermenai Point. There are sailing schools, and sizeable yachts which can be chartered with or without skipper and crew, while fishing boats can take anglers within reach of bass and flounders.
At Plas-y-Deri, l1/: miles south-west along the shore of the Menai Strait, the National
Outdoor Pursuits Centre, administered by the Sports Council for Wales, runs residential courses in sailing, sea and surf canoeing, climbing and mountain leadership.