Holyhead before the ferry

This is the view looking across Anglesey from South Stack towards the distant mountains of Snowdonia.  While waiting to pick up R from the ferry after an Irish ancestry expedition, I took a walk along the cliffs in the South Stack RSPB reserve above Holyhead on an afternoon of hot sun and glorious views.

It’s a breathtaking place. The sheer cliffs are home to thousands of nesting seabirds in summer, and there were plenty of birdwatchers about, armed with formidable telescopes and binoculars. High on the cliffs is Ellin’s Tower (below), built in 1868 as a summer-house and restored in the 1980s as an RSPB visitor centre where birdwatchers come to see puffins, fulmars, guillemots and razorbills.

Further along, 400 steps lead down to South Stacks lighthouse, and though its a steep climb back up, it’s worth making the descent for two reasons.  Firstly, because you can look back at the cliffs it provides superb bird watching opportunities: at every turn of the stairs there were men and women with telescopes focussed on the birds nesting  on the cliff ledges opposite.  One was kind enough to let me take a look: I saw razorbills, guillemots and gulls feeding their young, but, disappointingly, no puffins.

The razorbills spend winter out in the Irish Sea and come to the cliffs in May to  lay eggs.  They are smart looking black and white birds with a distinctive white stripe on their beak.   They stay here until mid July rearing their chicks, and then, even though they can’t yet fly, the chicks  jump off the cliffs at dusk and land in the sea. Their parents escort them out to sea where their wings will grow, and where they will be taught how to dive for fish. Guillemots are similar to razorbills, and like the razorbills, they winter are out at sea and then return in spring to nest. They only have one egg, and take it in turns to go out to sea to catch food. Guillemots mainly eat sand eels, and are fantastic at diving.

The second reason for descending the steps to South Stack lighthouse is to see the remarkable folding in the cliff face. These cliffs contain some of the oldest rocks in Wales, dating back nearly 600 million years to the Precambrian period. The extensive folds in the cliff face are evidence of the gigantic earth movements and forces that have shaped Wales. The layering of different materials making up the rocks is clearly visible (below). The sandstone (brown-orange) and mudstone (lighter grey) layers have acted differently as they’ve been folded.

South Stack lighthouse has warned passing ships of the treacherous rocks below since its completion in 1809. It was designed to allow safe passage for ships on the treacherous Dublin-Holyhead-Liverpool sea route. It provides the first beacon along the north coast of Anglesey for east-bound ships.

I walked further along the coast path – passing a radio station, an old look-out and a series of freshwater pools – before looping back to the RSPB’s South Stack cafe for a mug of tea.  Walking in this direction, the views towards the peaks of Snowdonia were stunning.

Afterwards, dropping down into Holyhead to wait for the ferry, I wondered what this place had been like before the ferry crossing to Ireland was established.  I imagined that, before Thomas Telford’s post road and the railway arrived in the 19th century there had been no settlement here.  In fact, there has been a settlement here for millenia.  The Romans built a watchtower at the top of Holyhead Mountain.  But they weren’t the first here.  They built their watchtower inside Mynydd y Twr, a prehistoric hillfort. And there is archaeological evidence that people have been sailing between Holyhead and Ireland for 4,000 years.

Today, the Port of Holyhead is still a busy ferry port handling more than 2 million passengers each year. Stena Line, Europe’s biggest ferry company, operates from the port which remains the principal link for surface transport from central England and Wales to Ireland.

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