It was blowing a gale, wind like ice on our faces. But that did not stop us – nor a hundred like-minded souls, all intent on the secular pilgrimage of walking off Christmas Day excesses, giving the family dogs a much needed airing, and heading to Llanddwyn Island while the tide was on the ebb. Anyway the sun was out, the light crystal bright, and the mountains of mainland Wales across Menai Strait looking their dreamy best. So why wouldn’t you head for the sea shore.
Newborough Beach was positively crowded. Not only that, the sands were coming to meet us as we set off to the island. It was the strangest experience, which along with eyes full of wind-tears played havoc with one’s perceptions. It was rather like going backwards on a forward moving pavement.
And so at this point, seeing a chap on a bicycle seemed most surreal. But then why not ride your bike on the beach? So much space. No grouchy motorists on your tail. All that sand for a soft (well soft-ish) landing.
I’ve written about Llanddwyn (roughly pronounced ‘hlanthwin’) Island before. We were here two years ago, on Christmas Day, but then the tide was too high for us to reach the island.
In fact it is not an island at all, but a long, slender peninsula, poking out into the Irish Sea like some dragon’s tongue. And it was here that St Dwynwen, daughter of a Welsh king, withdrew from the world to form a convent. This was in the fifth century, around the time that Roman rule in Britain was coming to an end. You can read her story at the link above, although there are many versions, and they mostly have to do with spurned or thwarted love, and so are used to explain how she came to be the Welsh patron saint of lovers. Her day is celebrated each year on 25th January.
During the Middle Ages, as poets and pilgrims were drawn to Llanddwyn Island, so the accounts of their visits helped grow Dwynwen’s reputation for mystical powers of healing and divination. Even her well was said to be inhabited by sacred eels, and through the cunning reading of their movements, you might predict the future. On the other hand, if the waters boiled up during your visit you could be assured of love and good fortune.
We, however, were not enticed from the path to see this for ourselves. A very pungent odour wafting our way suggested something had died there. Perhaps the sacred eels? Instead we took the cliff path and enjoyed the thrill of stepping out above a stormy sea.
There is anyway much to explore on this small promontory. At every point, as the sea recedes, there are enticing coves – some rocky, some sandy. There are many man-made features too: a Celtic cross of nineteenth century vintage, another marking Dwynwen’s death in 465 C.E. There are the ruins of a Tudor church built on the site of Dwynwen’s own church which she apparently built herself from beach stones, and so doubtless did not stand the test of time and wild Welsh weather. There is also a beacon, a lighthouse and three cottages built for the lighthouse keepers and their families. In the nineteenth century the export of Welsh slate was a thriving industry, and the lighthouse served the slate ships in particular, keeping them off the dangerous Menai Strait sand bars.
On the long walk back up the beach, the wind was behind us. Now we were walking with the moving sand. But it was still a very odd experience.