The Beach At Aberffraw ~ January Sunset

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As I may have mentioned, once or several times, the January winds during our recent trip to Anglesey were vicious; not only the fearsome bluster but also the endless fusillade of icy darts that penetrated every ill protected piece of flesh. But they could not be avoided. My sister’s cockapoo needed walks, and coming equipped with built-in woolly suit, she did not give a fig for gales and freezing sea pools. If anything, they spurred her on: much racing and paddling and digging. It was hard not find such energy and all-round canine joy infectious. And then when we reached the beach beyond the dunes and estuary, there were sights like this: Celtic Sea sundowner; next stop Ireland. Tempest or not, how could this be missed. It had been so long since we’d seen and smelled the sea.

We weren’t the only ones to feel excited:

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‘The Little Church In The Sea’

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Or in Welsh: Eglwys bach y môr. Dating from the 12th century, it survives the sea storms only with the help of some robust 19th century defences. Erosion has reduced the peninsula on which it was originally built to a tidal island known as Cribinau. You can find it along the Coastal Path just north of Aberffraw (Anglesey).

The church itself is dedicated to the Irish Saint Cwyfan (Kevin) who lived in the 6th century. Whether he ever visited Anglesey is not known, but the island, once the stronghold of the Celtic Druids until the Roman invasion, was certainly a favoured retreat for early Christian hermit-saints.

You can walk across to the island at low tide and the church is still used for weddings and christenings. Come a bright summer’s day, it would be hard to imagine a more momentous setting for such important family rites.

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Six Word Saturday

Lens-Artists: double dipping

Where A Giantess Emptied Her Apron Full Of Stones

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It sits on the westerly headland above Anglesey’s  Porth Trecastell Bay, a Neolithic passage grave known as Barclodiad y Gawres (the ‘Giantess’s Apronful’). It was built around 5,000 years ago by local farming people whose only tools were made of stone and wood and bone. It comprises a stone passageway more than twenty feet long, and in the centre a once high-domed chamber with apses, cruciform in plan, the whole covered with a mound of turves. Over the millennia the superstructure weathered and, as happened with most prehistoric remains, many of the stones were robbed and repurposed, doubtless still lodging in field walls, gateways, barns and farmsteads.

But recycling episodes apart, archaeologists excavating in the 1950s were able to discover much about the original monument. Their findings in turn informed the reconstruction of both the mound and tomb entrance that visitors see today. You can also go inside, but only so far. An iron gate has been installed to protect the main chamber, the key to it only available in summer from the Spar shop in nearby Llanfaelog.

Not to be thwarted, I took this photo through the bars.

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Bone of frog and shrew and hare and grass snake…

So what did the archaeologists find? First there were the cremated remains of two young males. Then there was the central chamber hearth and within it the bony parts of wrasse (a marine fish), eel, frog, toad, shrew, grass snake, mouse and hare, the lot covered in a layer of limpet shells and pebbles. A potent brew however you look at it. Then there are the carved stones, designs pecked away with a stone chisel: chevrons, spirals and zigzags in a style seen in other Neolithic passage graves across the Celtic Sea in Ireland, or further afield in Brittany and Portugal. Clearly the Neolithic settlers on Anglesey came from voyaging stock.

And then there was the pollen grain evidence discovered beneath the mound. This suggested that far from the largely tree-less landscape we see today, the coastal terrain, when the tomb was built, was well wooded. And so we have a glimpse of another phenomenon: how prehistoric farming folk set about changing the landscape, often dramatically so.

Today, much of Anglesey comprises un-treed arable fields and sheep pasture. The boundary trees and hedges that do survive are blasted into submission by sea-gales, as were we last week when we struggled along the cliff to pay homage to the ancestors.

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P.S. Incidental info: Porth Trecastell beach is also known as Cable Bay. In 1902 it was here that one of the island’s Atlantic telegraphic cables was laid, connecting to Ireland in the first instance, and thence to the United States. Needless to say, the connection has long  been abandoned. The other cable ran from Porth Crugmor and aeons ago as a child, I remember being taken to see it by my parents. They seemed so sure I would find the visit edifying, excited themselves by this piece of historic submarine communication. I only recall the rusting hawser affair running out along the beach and finding its determined westward progression into the sea and beneath the waves very disturbing.

For more photos outside and inside the tomb: http://www.megalithics.com/wales/barclody/barcmp.htm

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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