January Light And The Ever-Changing Earth

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We have just returned from a week away in the tiny coastal village of Aberffraw on the North Wales island of Anglesey. It was two years since we were last on Ynys Môn, the island’s Welsh name, and we had all missed it. It is a special place, not least because it is a land rich in ancient remains. In the past, too, it was rich in other ways – at times its wealth of farm produce making it the bread basket of Britain.

From the time the Romans left Britain to the early Middle Ages when England’s Edward I set about hammering the Welsh by means of obsessive-compulsive-castle-building, Aberffraw was a major seat of Welsh power. For eight centuries (from AD 450 to AD 1282) it was here that the kings of Gwynedd held their royal court and ruled North Wales. They saw off Viking raiders and Norman interlopers. They had their glory days under Llywelyn ap Iorwerth (AD 1173 – 1240), who was recognised as ruler of all Wales. This period of prosperity appears to have coincided with the Medieval warm period, a time of clement weather and of good harvests. This was all to change in the next century (1314-1317) when a period of prolonged winters and high-storm weather began, and brought with it the Great Famine.

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It’s a stark lesson – how fortunes rise and fall and entire communities, landscapes and weather patterns transform, the cycles of change we humans often find hard to accept or credit. When Edward invaded Anglesey, he dismantled the palace at Aberffraw and repurposed the stone and timber in his own strongholds. And then in 1331 came ‘the great storm’ that blew up monumental quantities of sand that covered the inland fields and began the silting of the River Ffraw, which action reduced the once vibrant port to a backwater. Gone was the busy fishing harbour. Gone the trade with the great sailing ships that once put in there to take on local produce.

In 1949 Aberffraw was reckoned amongst the poorest places in Wales. Today there are just over 600 residents; less than three quarters of whom are native Welsh speakers. Many of the old cottages are holiday lets. (We six stayed in the upper floor of a converted Methodist chapel). There is one small shop cum post office. And now, under new management by covid and staff shortage, the once popular pub is shut indefinitely, or so the notice in its front window told us.

Yet despite the signs of economic shrinkage,  Aberffraw is still a place of magnificent resort. Every day we were there, and in the face of blistering gales, families, lovers and dog walkers trekked along the little estuary and across the rolling duneland to the beach that centuries of silting have created. And oh, the wonder. Oh, the ravens buffeting on the tempest; the roar of surf; bristling marram grass, that light; that misty mainland spine of Snowdonia across the Menai Strait.

And oh, the wind that knifed through every poorly padded body part…

But never mind the shivers. Here are some of the holiday snaps:

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The centuries of sand invasion have also had creative effects. The dunes themselves are now sites of special scientific interest, harbouring uncommon plants and birds. Also the inland streams dammed up behind the dunes have created pools and lakes and areas of marshland rich in wildlife of all kinds, especially birds native and migrant.  It was of course far too cold and windy for birdwatching, but we did see large airborne flocks of starlings and common plovers, both absent or declining species in parts of the UK.

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Lake Maelog, site of special scientific interest  behind the dunes at Rhosneigr, just north of Aberffraw.

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We also saw some hefty signs of coastal erosion. Something of an environmental irony, I thought to myself: the sea taking back what waves and wind had begun depositing there some 800 years ago.

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But now for a peaceful scene: the seventeenth century packhorse bridge across the estuary at Aberffraw.

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And just above the bridge, the chapel where we stayed:

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43 thoughts on “January Light And The Ever-Changing Earth

    1. We’ve been going there for years, but only scratched the surface. That more isn’t widely known about Anglesey in particular, or Wales in general is doubltess because most of our received history is so London-centric. And at one time, in the not so distant past, HMG went out of its way to disinvent Welsh culture. At least kids get to learn Welsh in Wales now.

  1. This makes me ache for being there, and going on holiday right after Christmas is one of my favorite times of the year to get away…so jealous! And anyone who can see off the Vikings as you say has my undying respect. What a terror they must have been, pulling up on one’s shore…happy new year Tish! Thanks for sharing these treats from your time away.

    1. Happy to share, Bill. And believe me, I did think of you a few times while we were away, and also as I wrote this post. I knew it was a place you would like to be, as well as raising spirits from your UK travels. Tx

      1. So cool! I started reading a coffee table book featuring historic sites from the UK today, lots on the Picts for example, so that coincides with your trip. Very cool…

      2. The Picts are a fascinating people, though I only know them from their carved stones. I guess more has been learned of their origins since I last thought about them – presumably Celts or their relations. I came across them when I lived in Aberdeenshire aeons ago. The locals there attributed much of their more interesting vocabularly to the Picts.

      3. I’m reading now how some of these island-type people built structures with no mortar, no timber, just stone and the soil they scraped from between the rocks…seaweed, and so on. Just remarkable, the tenacity! And then to have to deal with those damned Vikings seems so intensely unfair ha ha!

      4. Skara Brae was one such astonishing place. And now I think of island living, I wonder how many traces of prehistoric or even more recent coastal communities have been lost to the sea. When I was in Aberdeen they started finding medieval villages hidden under massive sand dunes much like the Welsh ones. Which means the rising storminess was going on on both sides of the British Isles.

      5. Right! We were lucky enough to see Skara Brae on a long weekend to the Orkneys once in November. And got off the island in the nick of time with a storm blowing in; you can imagine the water blowing over the causeways hurrying out of there! Amazing stuff, nice you’re interested in it and I’m just reading a book a friend gave me on it at the same time. We have an “Aberdeen” just a couple hours west of us too, near the Washington coast.

  2. A very interesting look into how fortunes, lifestyles and whole countries can be totally changed by the whim of Mother Nature. As we are experiencing now. A very interesting look at an area I know nothing about Tish. Stunning, atmospheric photos. They made me shiver as I sit here with the fan on trying to cool down.

    1. Happy to provide a bit of cooling, Pauline. And yes, the planet is always up to something. After the early medieval warm period, things started shifting towards the Little Ice Age of circa 17th century and all those astonishing winter frost fairs on the River Thames.

      1. I often wonder how radical this present climate change will be before it swings back the other way again. I think the one thing we can be sure of is that it will change eventually. Possibly/hopefully not in our lifetime…

      2. Yes, change we can be sure of. I remind myself of this when I catch sight of the fossils in our fireplace stonework. Once those critters would have been in a shallow sea off the Comoros Islands, thousands of miles south of their present location.

    1. It was a much needed break, Jo. The chapel does look a bit chilly, but it was fantastic inside, apart from the wind doing a bit of night-time shrieking through our bedroom’s secondary glazing. Resolved with the judicious placement of a large sea rock.

  3. What a fabulous escape in deep winter, Tish. A terrible confession – despite the proximity in my Cheshire days and, several childhood holidays in north Wales, I have never been. This fine post and images should inspire me to change that.

    1. The Druids’ last stand against the Romans happened here. There are Neolithic and Bronze Age chamber tombs and barrows. Also the covert enclaves of early Welsh saints. It could be Alan Garner land – if ever he came here. Talking of which, have you discovered his latest magic-mysterious little book, Treacle Walker?

  4. Brrrrr. I’m freezing just thinking about the winds, but I loved the history lesson. Those kinds of changes puts things into perspective. We humans want things to stay the same so that we can kid ourselves that we have some control, but they never do.
    I think I’d enjoy this place in the summer 😁
    Alison

  5. Beautiful and bracing. I feel full of fresh sea air after reading this post – the history lesson adds so much to your holiday snaps – especially poignant is the inlet where once great ships came to port.

    1. Yes, looking at the beach today, it’s almost impossible to believe that sailing ships came in there. The phenomenal power of natural forces is often hard for most of us to grasp.

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