Home Straits

Yes; I was tired, but not at heart;
No­ – that beats full of sweet content,
For now I have my natural part
Of action with adventure blent;

Charlotte Brontë, ‘The Wood’

I had envisaged today’s walk as something of a ‘processional’ day, like the final day of the Tour de France where the winner is already established and there’s a convention that they’re not challenged. They cycle down the Champs Elysées in the lead, and there’s yellow jerseys and champagne galore. In reality I knew the finish would be solitary – although my brother and his family had promised me a celebratory slap-up Indian takeaway and Prosecco cocktails in the evening – but I was hoping for a relaxed, shortish day so that I could enjoy the grand finish by the statue of Admiral Lord Nelson beyond the Britannia Bridge.

I wasn’t expecting the natural pageantry that awaited me. The absolute, gobsmacking, mindblowing, unbelievable, joy-inducing light effects of sun and cloud on the mountains and trees, the boats and houses… and above all on the water, that transfigured my completion of the Anglesey Coastal Path and elevated it to something genuinely extraordinary and celebratory.

The ‘relaxed’ part of the day started with a prize-winningly slow start: I had the blog to finish from yesterday. Editing and choosing the photographs had been enough for me yesterday, and although I started work on it at 6:30, sustaining myself with the carrot cake I’d bought yesterday from the Pilot Café, it took the best part of four hours to finish and pack away my tent for the very last time. I didn’t leave the campsite until getting on for 11.45.

To access the beach again I needed to do a little road walking.

A tunnel of beautiful mature ash trees, seeming unaffected by the Fraxinella virus, continued past a little bungalow estate on the hillside, with beautiful views out to the mountains and tantalising glimpses of the Straits that I hoped would be a memorable feature of today’s walk.

The road turned into a sunken lane before descending to the shore, and the final section of the Coastal Path. It was an absolutely beautiful day. The reason why Anglesey’s weather is so typically fine was quite clear: the weather front often lies over the Straits, with the mountains of the Snowdonia National Park in cloud, and the island bathed in glorious sunshine.

Considering how poor the forecast had been even the day before I set out on September 5th, I have been remarkably lucky with the weather. I have been vaguely aware that the weather in that first week in the rest of the country was pretty comprehensively awful, but it was only that one day when Frances and I ended up soaked to the skin that it rained. Given the heavenly Indian summer atmosphere, it’s been a surprise to come across reminders of the turning of the year, such as the first conkers, gleaming amongst fallen chestnut leaves.

On arrival at the waterside, the views filled me to overflowing. Even the weeds in the sea wall were beautiful: rock samphire and sea milkwort. Up the coast I could see all the way to the Great Orme; down the coast the curve outwards behind which lay Beaumaris hid much of the mountains and today’s route down the Straits from me.

I fairly strode up the little rise to the north of the town. Looking backwards, the tide had covered the vastness of the Lavan Sands (its 46 sq km a SSSI for its migrating oystercatcher population), turning the sea turquoise between me and the mouth of the Straits at Conwy Bay.

In the other direction, it was almost too bright to look: behind the full spread of the ancient castle of Beaumaris lay the town itself and -oh! I could see all the way to Bangor in the distance on the mainland.

The colours were sharp and glorious and I struck up a conversation with Hazel and Pete from Dorset, walking the Wales Coastal Path in sections (now there’s a challenge: at 1,400km it fairly puts my walk in the shade!). Their delight in my achievement was infectious and I wondered whether I was glowing with happiness as brightly as they were.

Beaumaris was bright not only with the September sun but also with warm memories. Visiting the castle with Ros (nothing beats a castle for a good day out);

a boat trip to Puffin Island from the pier (NEWS FLASH: there are no puffins on Puffin Island – only rats)

a high quality lunch guaranteed in the Coach Kitchen and Garden

followed by a stroll around the busy, bijou shops in the back streets

and along the grand seafront.

Colour everywhere.

But it was the mesmerising water that drew the eye again and again. In every direction it stretched out, now scintillating and glinting,

now reflecting in the calm surface of a sheltered bay,

now surrounding the pier and lapping gently at the beach.

It was hard to leave – it inspired such languor and such a holiday feel that I had to force myself to remember that my business today was walking, not indolence.

So the onward progression of the coastal path up a 14-20% gradient came as a horrid shock, especially following hard on my lunch.

The path climbed up and up to 100m past a golf course and then on through a series of woods and enclosed and overgrown scrubby fields, and then followed the unclassified road parallel to the Straits for more than three km, delaying gratification of my desire for sea views for an hour and a half. There were a few interesting features, such as the glowing, backlit banks of the lime-loving Polypodium cambricum, the Welsh polypody fern, but for the most part it was boring walking and I put on the Robert Galbraith audiobook – which I had not had need to listen to since the Newborough Forest on my first day.

While we wait for me to finish the inland section of today’s walk – a word about the extraordinary Menai Straits.

The strip of water dividing Yoda’s head (look at a map!) from his body with its characteristic pointing finger (the Lleyn) was created by meltwater flooding a linear hollow in bedrock scoured by successive ice sheets in the Pleistocene glaciations. The Straits are about 25km long – but I’d done a chunk of the southern end on Day 1 and another chunk yesterday after turning at Penmon Point. It’s long enough to have a tide differential between the top and bottom ends of the Straits and my understanding is that this pulls the water in two directions at once. I think I saw this effect later on between the two bridges, which is a particularly dangerous stretch known as the ‘Swellies’, mined hazardously with little islands and rocks, shoals and surges, and whirlpools created by these contraflowing currents:

A medieval account describes the phenomenon well: ‘In that arm of the see that departeth between this island Mon and North Wales is a swelowe that draweth to schippes that seileth and sweloweth hem yn, as doth Scylla and Charybdis – therefore we may nouzt seile by this swalowe but slily at the full see.’ Before the construction of the two crossings all access to the islands was by boat (the width of the Straits varies from 8km at the top end to less than 400m in places) and, as is the coast of Anglesey generally, so the Straits are littered with shipwrecks old and new.

One of the glimpses of the Straits that I had from my high-up trudge was of Bangor pier (memories of happy crabbing expeditions with bacon bait, and marine biology students from Bangor university doing family-friendly info sessions) reaching almost, but not quite, to the island.

At last the road fell steeply, another testing gradient this time for my shins, and I switched off the audiobook. I was at Menai at last. The wait was instantly – more than amply – repaid.

All shin pain, all pains and aches of whatsoever kind disappeared in the face of the stunning sight of the water between the shore and the islands of Ynys Gaint and Ynys Castell. I could barely believe my eyes.

The islets are connected to the shore by a number of bridges, leading the eye naturally to the Menai Bridge in the distance, still a curving kilometre and a half away past the jetty where Bangor University’s purpose-built research vessel the Prince Madog was moored.

The water was limpid and clear as a bell, the bladderwrack washing around in the turning tide. I had to increase my pace if I was to get to the statue behind the Britannia Bridge before the tide was once again fully out as it had been when I started. I had another reason to hurry: the battery was running out on my phone.

But it was so hard to hurry. Everywhere I looked was incredibly beautiful – the sight of the Menai bridge, as I approached it, perfectly set off by bright nasturtiums rambling with valerian over the sea wall.

The Menai bridge – not only the first bridge to link the Isle of Anglesey, but also the first major suspension bridge in the world. Designed by guess who just over two hundred years ago, hanging a wooden deck over the turbulent waters by means of iron chains atop its seven massive stone piers, both deck and suspending chains have since been replaced with steel.

It is a beautiful, beautiful structure from a distance as well as close to

and I spent a good long while gazing at it

craning my neck from underneath, awed by the genius of Thomas Telford who created something not only useful but also marvellously, powerfully handsome.

But time, and battery, were a-wasting. On I pressed … oh but round the corner was lovely too, the blazing sun casting spell-binding patterns on the waters of the Swellies. Church Island was directly in the path of the sun – no time to stroll leisurely over the bridge to visit, but time enough to try and capture the impact in a photograph as I walked along the Belgian promenade, built by refugees in 1916 in gratitude for the safe haven offered them by the people of Menai.

At the far end of the Swellies was almost – but not quite – my destination, the Straits’ second crossing, the Britannia road and rail bridge. Hard to focus even on that, confronted with the stunning reflections on the outflowing tide.

I hurried on, pausing to photograph the panoramic view from a brief stretch on the road

descending finally to the woods leading up to the bridge, the final milestone in this long, long walk. But here too were sights to restrain me: a hide for watching the flocks of birds feeding and resting in the sand and mud revealed by the departing tide

and more heart-tugging views framed by autumn foliage.

Duckboards took me through the woods with a smile nothing could remove from my face.

The root-paved path (careful! Don’t slip at the last!), giving view after view to tempt me to stay and gaze,

finally took me up and under the bridge, so much less attractive than Telford’s craftsmanship, but just as massively impressive.

Not your Thomas Telford

And then at last, a lump in my throat, I came out of the archway leading out of the churchyard onto the foreshore. There was my old friend Admiral Lord Nelson, standing tall and solitary, looking out to the mainland where I must look now too.

The thought of seeing him again had kept me company over the last twelve days, as you too have kept me company, following my journey.

It turned out that walking solo had not felt at all solitary: so many meetings, conversations, kindnesses from those I have met fleetingly on the coastal path. So much practical support and emotional encouragement from my brother and his family, from my family and my friends back home. So much comfortable companionship too with myself, walking with the vast and ever-moving sea on my left hand, carrying my shelter on my back.

This is a marvellous island. And the path is beautiful. I would do it all again in a heartbeat.


Video of today’s walk

Day 11: Llanfaes to Menai

11 thoughts on “Home Straits”

  1. aaah Sophie it was sooooo lovely to bump into you – and we walked onwards feeling inspired by YOU! (I just wish I’d had more time to ask you loads of questions about your gear – as a fellow ‘upper – young aged’ backpacker I am becoming a wee bit obsessed with finding the lightest, bestest, most comfortablest of everything….) Congratulations again – you are an amazing lady. Hazel x (of Pete and Hazel from Dorset!)

    Liked by 1 person

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