We’re speeding along a Welsh country lane when we turn a corner to see a woman standing in the middle of the road holding up her hand to stop the traffic.
‘Oh no, what now?’ says the man driving our minibus as we pull to a stop just before a crossroads. It looks as though it might be something serious. There are quite a few people in the road. Some are wearing high-visibility jackets. All are looking officious. I wonder if there has been an accident, or if a VIP is about to be rushed through with a police escort – although that seems unlikely out in the far northwest of Wales – but, no, the reason for all the semaphore and car choreography is revealed when a herd of rusty-brown cows charge in from the lane on the left, jostling for position like a crowd of teenage gig-goers rushing to get to the front of the stage.
It’s 8.30am and this is peak traffic time in the Llyˆn Peninsula Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). We’re heading to Bardsey Island and, apparently, so are the cows. The island is a just-over-one-square-kilometre crumb of rock at the end of the Llyˆn Peninsula, a famously unspoiled piece of Welsh landscape that hangs off the mainland like a baby’s arm reaching into the Irish Sea just below Anglesey.
It takes almost a day to get here by public transport from the Midlands. And Aberdaron (the arm’s fingers), where the boat leaves for Bardsey, feels a long, long way from anywhere. ‘I have crawled out at last far as I dare on to a bough of country that is suspended between sea and sky,’ wrote the Welsh cleric and poet RS Thomas, who became the ‘vicar of large things in a small parish’ when he moved to the former fishing village in 1967.
Over the past few decades, many English second-homers have followed his example, but the area remains a stronghold of Welsh culture. The Romans never made it this far, and although the English king Edward I held his 1284 ‘I’ve conquered the Welsh’ party at Nefyn (the old herring-fishing town that sits on the north coast of the peninsula, nudging up against the AONB boundary), this remains one of the most Welsh places in the whole of Wales. Seventy per cent of the population still use Welsh as their first language; lessons are taught in Welsh at the local primary schools; and many people born here choose to stay or return later in life.
‘I can’t imagine living my life outside of the Welsh language,’ says AONB officer Bleddyn Jones. Together, we climb up to the Tre’r Ceiri (‘Town of the Giants’) hill fort and look out over the surrounding countryside: a wild mix of heathland and extinct volcanoes that sweeps down to the sea. The peninsula has been protected from development by its remote location. Ships remained the favoured form of long-distance transport right up to the 20th century (an old map in the temporarily closed Nefyn maritime museum has so many black crosses marking shipwrecks off the Llyˆn Peninsula that it looks as though an army of ants is crawling around the coast).
During the 1800s, there was talk of installing the main Irish ferry terminal at Porthdinllaen, near Nefyn, but Holyhead was eventually chosen instead. Today, although roads do wind their way to the very tip of the peninsula, they’re often single track – and occasionally blocked by farm animals – and the train only goes as far as Pwllheli, more than 25 kilometres from the end of the Llyˆn arm.
‘It’s an area full of survivals,’ says Peter Hewlett, an Englishman who studied history at Cambridge and ran a timber business before moving to Llyˆn and setting up sustainable-tourism company Edge of Wales. ‘The old things have lasted longest here,’ he continues, discussing the profusion of ancient burial chambers, standing stones and Iron Age settlements that are scattered around the region’s fields and on volcano tops. ‘They’ve survived because of the lack of development. In other places, their stones would have been reused in other buildings. It was poverty that saved this place initially.’
But despite its lack of bankable riches, the peninsula has always lured visitors. Since medieval times, pilgrims have streamed across the landscape, believing that anyone who died on Bardsey Island – or on their way there – would go straight to heaven. The island itself, known as ‘the island of 20,000 saints’, had a monastery from the sixth to the 16th century.
Medieval visitors apparently often remarked on the number of healthy old monks there, supposedly the result of a pact that St Lleuddad made with the angel of death, who promised, among other things, that residents would only die in succession, when they were ‘like a shock of corn ripe for the sickle’. Even a pope recognised that there was something special about the island, declaring that, spiritually, three trips to Bardsey equalled one trip to Rome.
Many of the medieval pilgrims travelling to Bardsey were hoping for a miracle cure – in the church in Pistyll, there’s an arrow-slit by the altar that allowed lepers to catch a glimpse of the sacrament without contaminating the interior congregation. And there are deserted holy healing wells throughout the peninsula. ‘We’ve completed a survey and we think there are about 50 in the AONB,’ says Jones as we climb down into one that the AONB team has restored – Ffynnon Fyw (‘Well of Life’), a surprisingly large sunken stone structure, more like a bath than a traditional well, with the interior divided into two sections: one for drinking and one for bathing.
Christians still make the pilgrimage to Bardsey Island, but these days they’re not the only ones – on the boat across Bardsey Sound with me are a mix of birdwatchers and artists, among others. We enjoy a smooth ride, but that isn’t always the case. The island’s Welsh name, Ynys Enlli, means ‘Isle in the Currents’, and sometimes the population (which hovers around 12) can be cut off for weeks.
When we arrive, via the noisy seal colony, local poet Christine Evans comes down to meet me on her quad bike. The mother of the ferryman, she was drawn to Llyˆn in 1967 when her half-Welsh father died and she decided to discover her Welsh roots. After taking a job as an English teacher, she fell in love with a Bardsey fisherman and moved with him to the island. It wasn’t an easy life: no running water, no electricity and very few neighbours. But her mother-in-law taught her all of the practical details – how to clean wells and how to keep clothes crease-free without an iron or tumble dryer – while her father-in-law taught her about the island’s history and spirituality. ‘It’s still a place of pilgrimage,’ says Evans. ‘There’s an ancient peace here, like stored-up prayer.’
Birds are also drawn to the island. The full-time observatory keeps a record of the breeders (choughs and Manx shearwaters among others) and the migrants (from chiffchaffs to Richard’s pipits). Recently, the island became a holiday home for the world’s oldest wild bird – a Manx originally ringed on Bardsey in 1957 and recaptured in 2008. ‘They usually only last for 30 or 31 years and this one was probably nearer 60, because they don’t breed until they’re six or eight years old,’ explains Steven Stansfield, the island’s resident bird warden, who says the bird –‘We didn’t name it, we’re not Springwatch’– had probably made the winter journey to the Latin American coast more than 50 times.
Before we leave, there’s just time to visit the island’s church, make a quick stop at the island’s only public toilet – a bucket with mown grass for loo paper – and watch a mother seal hauling herself across the sharp rocks to feed her hungry white pup. Then, our time is up and we have to catch the boat back to the mainland. We leave, much quieter than we were on the way out, and all promising that we’ll be back.
When to see migrating birds
‘April and October are good times to see migrating birds – especially if there’s a new moon. Then it’s a lot darker and, because the birds use the stars and moon as navigation aids, they will drop down onto the island rather than flying over the Irish Sea in the dark.’
Steven Stansfield, warden at Bardsey Bird and Field Observatory
Where to learn Welsh
‘Nant Gwrtheyrn, the Welsh Language and Heritage Centre. Most people sign up for the five-day residential course, but we also run four or five taster weekends throughout the year. People come from all over the world – often their family originated in Wales.’
Lois Elis, business and marketing manager, Nant Gwrtheyrn
The best walk in the area
‘The Llŷn Coastal Path. It’s 150 kilometres long and takes around seven days to complete. The scenery is very dramatic and there’s a lot of variety: sandy beaches, low cliffs, moorland, coastal heathland, river valleys. The farther west you go, the better it gets. I would recommend the section between Nefyn and Abersoch.’
Peter Hewlett, Edge of Wales (www.edgeofwaleswalk.co.uk)
The tastiest local produce
‘The rocky coastline of Pen Llŷn abounds with succulent lobster and crab. Carefully monitored and sustainably pot-caught by small boats, only prime lobsters are landed, providing the very best eating. Lots of local shops and cafés offer fresh dressed crab. Inland, small herds of Welsh Black cattle and Llŷn sheep are traditionally tended, providing fabulous lamb and beef.’
Chris Chown, head chef and co-owner of Plas Bodegroes restaurant with rooms (www.bodegroes.co.uk)
For more information about visiting the Llyˆn Peninsula or about the conservation projects around the AONB, visit www.ahne-llyn-aonb.org
First published February 2010