Just the two of us today. Valley to Trearddur Bay direct is no more than three miles. Valley to Trearddur Bay via Holyhead Mountain, taking in a circuit of the northern half of Holy Island, is sixteen miles, and that’s our route. We’re lucky to have a day of continuous sun, from start to finish.
The first stretch, three quarters of a mile long, is dead straight, across the Stanley Embankment built by Thomas Telford in 1822-3 to connect the two islands across the Cymyran Strait. A tall wall separates the road and railway tracks, built so that the train engines would not frighten the horses. We stop three quarters of the way across to look at the water shooting through the sluice gate, watched by a gang of gulls. Past the porticoed tollgate house we divert from the road towards the east and enter the coastal woods of the Penrhos estate. The paths, full of dog walkers, are well provided with information boards, about red squirrels, conservation and much else. We pass a pet cemetery (‘Tiggy Puss, tragically killed, gone but not forgotten, rest in peace, little lady’). Emerging from the wood we climb a field to a stone viewing platform with an almost panoramic view, and catch our first sight of an enormous cruise ship moored at Holyhead. The tall cylindrical tower of the defunct aluminium works dominates the sky ahead of us.
Now we’re walking into the town of Holyhead, past grey estates built to house workers in industries now closed down, and the grey obelisk commemorating Captain John McGregor Skinner, who lost an arm while fighting on the losing side in the American War of Independence and then captained Irish packet ships. The town centre holds reminders of its better days, like the many redundant parallel railway lines around the station. The main streets and their shops look tired and worn. In a cafe we stop to buy coffee and sandwiches to eat later. Several cruise ship passengers come in to ask for advice; C hears one of them ask the way to South Stack; another wants to know what a ‘sausage roll’ is. We seek out the official start of the Anglesey Coast Path, St Cybi’s Church. The church, with its wealth of external sculpture, hides behind the tall wall of the late Roman fort. We’re surprised to see large numbers of people, of different nationalities, crowded in and around the church – more refugees from the cruise ship. An elderly American man gatecrashes a coffee morning in the nearby chapel, demands to take a group photo, and requires everyone to smile. The locals comply.
We meet more cruise ship stragglers on the prom near the maritime museum. These too seem to be wondering why they’ve been brought to Holyhead. A Welsh Water caravan looks inviting. I call in to ask if they can give or sell me some water (it’s already getting warm), but I’m told nothing is available except advice on how good Welsh Water is. The road turns into a lane, and the gleaming marina buildings give way to scenes of dereliction: an abandoned, rusty boat, a sign warning divers off exploring the SS Castilan, wrecked on the Skerries in 1943 with a cargo of high explosive, and a burnt-out castellated hotel, the Soldier’s Point, its tall turret overwhelmed by ivy. We meet the last, more adventurous remnants of the cruise ship residents, taking selfies and killing time.
The town’s finally at an end, and now we’re alone. The white stone bulk of Holyhead Mountain lies in front of us. Its eastern face is heavily quarried, leaving tall vertical slabs of stone gleaming in the sun. Much of the stone was carried on a railway to build the breakwater of Holyhead harbour, a mile and a half long and, it’s claimed, Europe’s longest breakwater. Its construction took 28 years. We’re walking through rocky heathland, amid spring squill (seren y gwanwyn) and sea pink, in what’s called the Breakwater Country Park. The Park’s well cared for, with quirkily designed seats, little mosaics of local birds, and skilfully engineered stone paths and steps, designed to avoid erosion. The path climbs gradually to one of the quarries – a tall chimney remains from a former brick factory – and then up again towards the Mountain’s summit. Resting to take breath, we look back on Holyhead and its harbour. One of the white Irish ferries pulls out, turns and disappears into the haze that covers the horizon.
The path falls towards North Stack, and we decide to stop for lunch there. Low buildings, all brightly whitewashed, house an observatory – there used to be a fog warning and signal station here – and an old magazine store, which looks like an early Celtic saint’s sanctuary. We sit in the sun, with our backs to the white surrounding wall. In front of us is a luxuriant carpet of blue squills and pink thrift. A few yards away to our right is a sheer drop into the sea far below, and in the distance, a view of South Stack lighthouse. There’s no one else in sight (only a rough track leads to North Stack). We agree that we’ve never found a more perfect place to have lunch in five years of walking the Coast Path.
Our reverie’s disturbed by the sudden arrival of a couple from the north of England. The man asks accusingly if we haven’t seen the seals below. We haven’t (but he’s right, there are two seals there). Then he edges down the slope, to a few inches of the sheer drop. His partner begs him to move back, but he walks on down the slope. She follows him. We never see them again, and wonder whether the sea has swallowed them both.
South Stack, a mile or two more across the mountain, is different: it has road access. Dozens of tourists are here, admiring the lighthouse (but probably not paying the steep fee to go in), looking at the hundreds of sea birds gathered on the ledges beyond, and eating ice cream. Unlike most of them we descend from the mountain. I skip down rocks the hard way, along with two tough women in their seventies (we see them later, miles ahead of us). One of them asks us if we’ve seen any puffins yet, and doesn’t hide her disappointment in us when we say no.
The way down the west side of the Mountain is gentler, and follows the minor road. We stop to look at Cytiau’r Gwyddelod, hut circles excavated by W.O. Stanley of Penrhos in the 1860s. They form a village of roundhouses on the lower slopes of the Mountain, inhabited from pre-Roman to post-Roman times.
The path leaves the road, and then hugs the rocky coast. Giant clefts open up. Each inlet features slanting flat slabs on the left, jagged vertical rocks on the right. In one of them an arch appears. A coasteering class is in train far below us: children totter on sharp rocks before hurling themselves into the sea. Thrift and sea campion colour the cliff edge. We see few other people, except a group of outward bounders being frogmarched across the heathland, until we get to Porth Dafarch, a perfect sandy cove for family holidays.
We’re beginning to tire by late afternoon, and need more frequent stops, as the path carries on along the clifftops, having to take long deviations to avoid deep inlets in the coastline. Finally we reach the first houses of Trearddur Bay, without realising that the village stretches over several miles of coastlines, fringing a series of coves and bays. The path keeps on leaving the road and diving onto headlands. On the last of these, a narrow path with threatening barbed wire, C loses his footing and collapses sideways into a rose bush. An angry oystercatcher, defending a nest, swoops after a crow, harrying the larger bird and uttering a piercing shriek.
At last we reach the car, exhausted but exhilarated. It’s been, we agree, one of the greatest days of the whole Wales Coast Path.