Exploring Anglesey

Exploring Anglesey

A week spent at Henllys (particularly if you play golf!) is hardly enough to do justice to the fabulous island which the Welsh know as Ynys Môn. Disregarding for the moment the attractions of the adjacent part of the mainland and Snowdonia, there is so much to see and do, both natural and man-made, that a short stay will barely scratch the surface.

The history which has shaped what we now see is deep and complex. Anglesey has the aura of an ancient place, with waves of incoming settlers over the centuries leaving plentiful evidence of their occupation. Unlike many other more highly populated and developed areas, on Anglesey much of that evidence is still apparent.

First came Neolithic travellers from the Iberian Peninsula; small, dark people whose arrival coincided with the transition from hunter-gatherers to the first primitive farmers. These people built megaliths, many of which still survive, contributing to the special ambience of the island.

There is also a particularly fine burial chamber by the side of the lane leading from Llanalgo to Treath Lligwy, close to the pretty village of Moelfre. And there are others too at Trefignath, one mile south-east of Holyhead, near Rhosneigr and at Bryn Celli Dhu (close to Plas Newydd but not easy to locate, grid reference 507702).

Next, in the 6th and 7th Centuries BC, came the Celts, at the culmination of a long-drawn-out series of moves from origins in central Asia.

Then, the Iron Age: the era of defensive hill forts, often built close to the coast. Well worth a visit is the signposted settlement at Dan Lligwy, a little further along the same lane as the burial chamber mentioned earlier.

The Druids, prominent on Anglesey, were the priesthood of the Celts. Their rites included human sacrifice and other practices which even the Romans, not noted for their squeamishness, felt obliged to abolish when they arrived in the early centuries AD.

The Romans were followed by the early Christian missionaries. In common with the rest of Wales, Anglesey was prime territory for the conversion of the heathen tribes. Although any actual buildings used for religious purposes in these early times have long gone, many sites have had successive use throughout the centuries.

A good example is Penmon Priory, quite close to Henllys, a 7th-Century monastic site but with some structures dating from the 13th Century and a dovecote of about 1600.

Some apparently oddly sited churches are likewise on holy sites with ancient origins, further reminders of the continuity of this early Christianity.

Gateway

Anglesey seems to have been spared most of the conflict which arose when the English King Edward I, antagonised by Llewelyn II, decided to subjugate Wales, building his huge castles along the mainland coast.

Edward also constructed Beaumaris Castle in 1295. The town was founded at the same time, to settle English immigrants.

The development of Holyhead port as a gateway to Ireland brought even more activity to this quiet backwater. Thomas Telford’s great suspension bridge at Menai opened to traffic in 1826 as the critical link in his great highway.

This was followed by Stephenson’s nearby tubular bridge across the strait, carrying the main railway line from London Euston to Holyhead. After damage by fire in recent times, this has been rebuilt as a road and railway bridge.

Stately homes, so numerous in England, are very rare in Wales. Anglesey does, however, have Plas Newydd, southwest of the Menai bridges. Owned by the National Trust, this impressive and beautifully sited 18th-Century house was designed by James Wyatt. Surrounded by extensive gardens it faces Snowdonia across the water.

Coastline

For an altogether different holiday experience, the 100 mile-plus coastline offers an abundance of beautiful sandy beaches, which are seldom crowded. There are far too many to list: but, not far from Henllys, Red Wharf Bay is splendid, as are Traeth Benllech and Traeth Lligwy, near Moelfre.

On the other side of the island is the huge beach at Newborough, accessed only by a toll road, but with adequate car parking and other facilities. Much of the extensive sand dune area of Newborough Warren has long been covered by Forestry Commission planting.

This car park is also the starting point for a gentle walk to Llanddwyn Island, now rarely fully separated from the mainland. In its small compass this island encapsulates much of what is so characteristic of Anglesey; legends of 5th-Century St Dwynwen, patron saint of lovers, ancient sea-girt rocks, a pilgrimage site, lighthouse and old pilot cottages.

On a different scale is Holy Island, with the port of Holyhead and its own mountain. Only 700 feet in height, Holyhead Mountain dominates the western side of Anglesey. There are plenty of relatively easy paths for ascent, well worth the effort for the marvellous views and for the profusion of ancient forts, hut circles and other evidence that this was a favoured place for early occupation.

The cliffs of North Stack have long been renowned for the rich variety of sea bird life, while at South Stack the lighthouse thrusts boldly into the sea. (The Romans also came to Holy Island, building their fort by the side of what is now the harbour.)

Another great place for sea bird life is the North Wales Wildlife Trust Nature Reserve at Cemaes Bay, arguably the most remote part of the island, with a sea lagoon and a car park which is the starting place for a fine coastal walk.

Lunar

Apart from admiring the Menai bridges, few visitors will come to Anglesey intending to spend time exploring its industrial past. There is, however, Parys Mountain, an area of striking desolation; a lunar landscape which yielded vast quantities of copper ore in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Nearby Amlwch became a boom town, a great ‘copper port’, with a new parish church in 1800, paid for by the mining company. For visitors, the Amlwch Copper Kingdom has retained some striking remains of this once great industry.

Obviously, on Anglesey, the natural features are paramount, but there are visitor attractions which do little to disturb the overall tranquillity. No Disney World, no Alton Towers. But Beaumaris Castle and Plas Newydd have long been popular visits.

In the middle of the island, Llyn Alaw is a huge reservoir with all the characteristics of a natural lake, with a low-key visitor centre, fishing, birdwatching and walking possibilities. Despite its size, finding the lake can pose a navigational challenge, with a maze of country lanes and complex signposting.

Other attractions which are worth investigation, particularly for visitors with young families, include Anglesey Sea Zoo, Foel Farm Park and the Model Village, all situated at the southern end of the island, beyond Plas Newydd. Pili Palas is a nature world, close by at Menai Bridge, whilst Parc Henblas Park at Bodorgan, on the west side, is yet another family-orientated attraction. Of probably greater appeal to parents is James Pringle Weavers at Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch (the village whose name is usually – and unsurprisingly – abbreviated to Llanfair).

All this, and the North Wales mainland and the Snowdonia National Park – which is overflowing with wonderful features, and only a short drive across the water – hasn’t even been mentioned.

We can save that for another day.

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