No less a mariner than Admiral Nelson said of the Menai Straits “one of the most treacherous stretches of sea in the world” and with my sailing experience (GP14s; Rugeley Power Station’s gravel pits; 1980) and maritime qualifications (Rugeley Sea Scouts; Boatswain’s Badge; also 1980) I am unwilling to quibble. To stand at sea level and watch it on a flowing tide is to appreciate the water’s awesome power - even when parts look as still as a millpond you can look at a fixed point and see the speed of the currents and be afraid, despite the fact that you have your feet firmly on dry land. There is a relevance here to the final stage, the final couple of miles of this wonderful circuit of the island, for there is a statue of the great man on the tideline gazing out on those treacherous waters. Without the knowledge of his respectful quote above, you would wonder what on earth he was doing here; with the knowledge it seems utterly appropriate. But I’m getting a few yards ahead of myself already - let’s rewind half a mile and start at the very beginning.
You will recall that the last stage finished at the promontory that is Moel y Don, sticking out into the Straits like a miniature peak of Darien. However, the route along the coast from here is blocked by the grounds of Plas Newydd, the ancestral home of the Marquess of Anglesey, now in the care of the National Trust. Sadly this means a brief gap in the path, with this final stage starting at the roadside a quarter mile from the village of Llanfair PG (I won’t bore you with the full name for a second time in one book). For simplicity’s sake I hopped off the bus at the railway station in the village centre, took a quick photo of the sign and then left this unlovely spot that relies upon a long name and small shopping outlet to bring in the tourist crowds. After that first quarter mile I crossed the A4080 and headed downhill on a quiet lane leading to the local water treatment works - sounds wonderful so far, doesn’t it?
But as soon as the shore was reached things began to look up. A small inlet from the straits sheltered a couple of beautiful houses and one quite stunningly beautiful boat - a cruiser rather than a yacht but one that would not have looked out of place in the poshest marinas in the country. Jealousy is not an attractive trait, though, and I consoled myself that the stench of the seaweed detracted enormously from the idyll it would otherwise have been. This is Pwll Fanogl, the buildings being an old mill and a former factory that made writing slates for schools. A jetty at the end of the inlet allowed deliveries from across the straits at Y Felinheli and now provides a scenic foreground to photos down towards Plas Newydd.
Shortly after comes the Nelson statue that I’ve already mentioned, erected by a son of the first Marquess as an aid to navigation for ships traversing these treacherous waters - as an admiral himself it may well be that there was a degree of self-interest in the decision but it has also no doubt been a boon to many in peril on the seas in the one hundred and forty years since it was built. From the shore it makes for an arresting sight, either with the magnificent Britannia Bridge behind or set against the blue-green of the waters beyond. Despite the tremendous tidal range here the water will only ever reach the bottom inches of the plinth upon which he stands, hand on hip, invisible to all but walkers and sailors.
Above the statue stands the elegant church of St Mary’s, approached through a lovely overgrown churchyard that becomes gradually more tended the closer to the church you actually come. Trees almost meet above the path and this tunnel-effect reveals the church stride by stride - a deferred pleasure that is the final religious building of the circuit (unless you count St Tysilio’s on Church Island that perhaps counts as the true start and finish point if following the logic of starting the moment you arrive on Anglesey.) Once you get to see the whole church it’s attractive enough but lacks the “difference” that the made Llanbadrig, Cribinau and the aforementioned St Tysilio’s so special. Having said which, the carvings to either side of the main door are charming - the one to the left looking almost exactly like one of the ineffectual kings from Disney’s version of Alice in Wonderland.
Soon after the church, the path dives beneath the second of the magnificent bridges linking the island to mainland Wales. Back in the 1970s the Britannia Bridge was the rail gateway to the island, with motor traffic exclusively using Telford’s original a mile to the east. Again, this was an engineering marvel of its day - designed by a William Fairbairn and Robert Stephenson during the 1840s. Fairbairn seems to have been rather ignored by posterity - I have always understood this to be “Stephenson’s Bridge” and as he was the son of George (of “Stephenson’s Rocket” fame) there is an obvious connection for historians to grasp onto and use to tell a tale. Its box-girder design was revolutionary at the time - two large tubes being supported by three masonry towers in an apparently Egyptian style. At either end were two carved stone lions, now sadly only to be seen from the footpath beneath - and then only one of them on the Anglesey side can be easily spotted. I was keen to see this but the truth is that its situation detracts enormously from its attraction these days.
A substantial fire in 1970 caused major damage to the structure and meant that there was no rail access to the island for the next two years. With the original bridge proving less capable of carrying large modern vehicles than the stagecoaches and foot traffic of its early years, the Britannia also provided an alternative way onto the island for motor vehicles from 1980 onwards - a second level carrying cars and lorries above the trains for which it was initially built. The original bridge slipped from favour and the modern A55 ignored the attractions of Bangor and headed straight across without a second glance at the eponymous village below. It may lack some of the romance of the earlier crossing but certainly speeded things up - although the change from dual to single carriageway can still cause tailbacks at peak times.
The path dropped down to sea-level and headed off through light woodland, occasionally revealing yet more beautiful views - including a few of the islands that dot this part of the straits. One of them contains a house still privately occupied - in the distant past it operated as a fishery, catching herring in enormous quantities on the two low tides daily. It’s a hell of a commute every morning I would imagine and must take a special kind of person to live in such privacy but in such a public location. It also must take an enormous amount of upkeep to ensure that the walls remain their normal glistening shade of white.
The last few hundred yards are nothing special but there was one final highlight - the most intimate photo of a butterfly that I’d got in the entire 120 miles. A speckled wood that I could almost hit with the telephoto lens, it let me get that close.
I suppose I thought of Church Island as the true start of my walk rather than the bus stop at the end of the Bridge or the car park behind Waitrose and it was great to see it again - it is really a rather special place and I was delighted to explore in a little more detail this time. The church itself was open - its interior is a simple one, not as austere as the other Church Island outside Aberffraw but still without frills. I liked it like that, not being a great lover of over-decoration. I hadn’t expected so many churches so close to the coast - two Church Islands, a ruin on Llanddwyn Island, Llanbadrig separated from the sea by the width of a narrow path and of course the church of Church Bay. They’ll be one of the first things I think about when remembering The Path; and the second is perhaps even more surprising - I have loved seeing the butterflies. Peacocks. Tortoiseshells, common blues, speckled woods, meadow browns, orange tips, green-veined whites - they’ve been brilliant and something I never expected to be such a prominent part of the journey.
And while we’re looking back on things, Breakwater Park to South Stack was the best bit - helped enormously by the glorious spring sunshine; and Llanfaethlu to Holyhead the worst, partially due to the grey autumnal day. The best days were largely when accompanied by Jan - Beaumaris to Pentraeth, Holyhead to Trearddur; but there were also terrific days on my own - Trearddur to Rhoscolyn, Rhosneigr to Aberffraw. I was disappointed not to see puffins or dolphins; delighted to have seen seals; loved Moelfre; hated Holyhead; coped with the heights (just); and didn’t have to cope with the snakes (and wouldn’t have!)
When I was younger, we undoubtedly did no more than scratch the island’s surface - so much of what I enjoyed now would have bored us then - and it’s great to be able to say that I now know it so much better than I did before. I set off three years ago with memories that were thirty-five years old and these have been updated and added to. Before I began, it was about ten years since I’d holidayed on the coast. Now I find that I must go down to the seas again. So catch me if you can - I’m going back!