Over hill, over dale,
Thorough bush, thorough brier,
Over park, over pale,
Thorough flood, thorough fire,
I do wander every where,
Swifter than the moon’s sphere;
And I serve the fairy queen,
To dew her orbs upon the green:
The cowslips tall her pensioners be;
In their gold coats spots you see;
Those be rubies, fairy favours,
In those freckles live their savours:
I must go seek some dew-drops here
And hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear.
Farewell, thou lob of spirits: I’ll be gone;
Our queen and all her elves come here anon.
– William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act II, Scene I
It was more than we might have hoped for. After two weeks of dry, warm and sunny weather we set off for a week’s holiday on Anglesey under a a sky of clearest blue, and with the forecast predicting days of warm sun to come. We arrived at the cottage near Newborough in the early evening and set out immediately to walk the trail down through the forest to the shore at Llanddwyn beach.
The marram grass sculpture at Newborough Warren
The path begins just a few yards from the cottage where we’re staying this week. There’s a car park with a bright yellow steel sculpture representing marram grass. A plaque explains that the sculpture depicts three gafrods of marram grass, harvested and drying in the sun. Newborough residents used to harvest the grass from the sand dunes every two years and leave it to dry from its green colour to a golden yellow. Gafrod was a local term for the bundles of marram standing on end, gathered and tied at the top with a plaited cord of marram.
The sculpture is a reminder of the importance of marram grass for the area. The dried marram grass supported a local industry from which locals gained a major source of income, making mats, nets, baskets and rope. At the same time the marram grass protected the village from being encroached upon by the advancing dunes. In 1331, sand from the dunes was blown over the village of Newborough, burying fields and houses. In the 16th century the government of Elizabeth I ordered that marram grass be planted to stabilise the dunes and halt any further advance. Uprooting the grass became a punishable offence.
Newborough itself has an interesting history, being established as a village by people from Llanmaes in eastern Anglesey who were evicted by Edward I in 1294 in order to create the new port of Beaumaris and the huge castle he had ordered to be built there. The new settlement was, literally, a ‘new borough’ and gained its charter in 1303. In the 16th century, Newborough was the county town of Anglesey.
Late evening sun falls on the track to the sea
We follow the track as it skirts the edge of Newborough Forest on our right, a 2000-acre area of pine woodland that is a designated nature reserve in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. To the left are the sandy wastes of Newborough Warren, a wilderness of sand dunes and slacks which we will explore later in the week. The largest area of sand dunes in the British Isles, its sand dunes, grassland, and damp hollows (or ‘slacks’) are crucial for species such as skylark, dune pansies and marsh orchids. For centuries rabbits have grazed here (hence the term ‘Warren’), helping to maintain a species-rich habitat. In the 1950s myxomatosis drastically reduced their numbers leaving the dunes in a vulnerable condition, no longer able to support plants and animals. However, rabbit numbers are slowly increasing, and they now graze side by side with cattle and ponies, helping to keep the dunes healthy by controlling unwanted vegetation.
At the summer solstice, the sun was still high above the western horizon as we followed the path onwards. Shafts of golden sunlight slanted through the pines to our right, the air was balmy and filled with the liquid sound of skylark song which seems, in the words of Mark Cocker, ‘to shower down from the very ether itself’. That well describes the ‘disembodied music’ of birds that mostly stay well hidden, with only the occasional one being visible as a hovering speck. Or, as Shelley wrote:
All the earth and air
With thy voice is loud,
As when night is bare,
From one lonely cloud
The moon rains out her beams, and heaven is overflow’d.
At the beginning of the 20th century, WH Hudson described skylark song as ‘sunshine translated into sound’. Hearing the anthemic song of a multitude of larks as we walked along the edge of Newborough Warren we treasured a rare and precious experience. For this song of sunlight is going out all across these isles as the number of larks has fallen by nearly 90 percent in the past thirty years, primarily as a result of intensive farming methods and the use of pesticides.
Finally we arrived on the beach beneath the mountains. On Llanddwyn beach the air was clear and the views breathtaking. We first discovered this place last autumn and knew we had to return. From the great sweep of golden sand the mountain peaks of Snowdonia and the Leyn across the water were crisply defined in the clear evening air. Behind us, the rays of the sinking sun had bathed the shoreline in gold.
The spirit of this place is captured in lines from RS Thomas’s poem ‘Retirement’. Thomas lived across the water, in Aberdaron at the far tip of the Leyn, so he knew this landscape well (and the Phantom jets that sometimes scream across the sky, heading for their base at RAF Valley further up the island):
I have crawled out at last
far as I dare on to a bough
of country that is suspended
between sky and sea.
From what was I escaping?
There is a rare peace here,
though the aeroplanes buzz me.
reminders of that abyss,
deeper than sea or sky, civilisation
could fall into.