Thursday, 3 June 2021

North Wales & Border 2021 - Roman & Megalithic Anglesey

Legio XIIII 'Gemina' make an opposed landing on Anglesey, c.60 AD - Angus McBride

Last week, Carolyn and I decided to take advantage of the relaxed travel restrictions ahead of the May Bank Holiday to travel up to Pentre, a little village outside of Shrewsbury where we stayed in a very nice  'air bnb' to base ourselves for a little bit of exploring the delights of North Wales and the border area.

A little stop-off in Hay on Wye during our travel up to Pentre, where I managed to make a few additions to the library.

With six months of lockdown we, like the rest of the country, were eager to get out and about and as this was a part of the UK that we both had places on our list we wanted to see, together with a lockdown habit of enjoying long walks, we planned to combine the two and spend a few days walking and exploring the area.

The Wheatsheaf Inn built in 1792, one of the seventy pubs that were in the County Town of Ludlow in that year, that have since reduced over the intervening centuries, seen here next to the historic gatehouse on the old town wall encompassing five hundred historic listed buildings.

No 'Plastic, Make Believe' interiors here. Imagine if these old walls and timbers could talk! Not having been in a pub for over six months, popping into the Wheatsheaf on our way up to Pentre made a very pleasant detour to our journey 

After driving up on the Sunday afternoon with a stop off in Hay-on-Wye, the book capital of Europe, where Carolyn indulged my curiosity to see what military history additions to my library I might discover, more anon, with some book reviews to follow, and a pleasant pint in the oldest pub in Ludlow only recently reopened for the return of visitors, we got settled in at Pentre; and then on the Monday our first day exploring took us off down the A5, London to Holyhead road, to Anglesey with the picture above by Angus McBride firmly lodged in my mind as I imagined seeing this last refuge of Druidism in Briton, before Seutonius and Agricola changed the history of these islands for ever.

The area of our little post-lockdown expedition, with our base just outside Shrewsbury indicated and the drive along the old A5 to Anglesey with the three areas of interest we planned to visit that day.

The weather on the Sunday and Monday had been rather indifferent with drizzle accompanying our stroll around Hay and Ludlow and a chill-out day to follow, walking locally, which encouraged getting under cover to drink and read books, but for our journey to Anglesey on the Tuesday, God was in his Heaven and the sun shone bright amid azure blue sky as the temperature started to climb.

After crossing the Menai Strait, that separates the island from the mainland we continued on to Holy Island and Holyhead where we planned to check out the remains of Roman occupation and explore the last stop in Wales before reaching Dublin across the Irish Sea with the South Stack Lighthouse marking the last point of land and with a very nice four mile cliff walk thrown in before heading back to the Strait and calling in at an amazing Megolithic burial mound that harks back to the pre-Roman times on Anglesey and Britain as a whole, with Tolkienien descriptions of 'ruins in the landscape' and 'Barrow-wights' springing to mind with monuments like this no doubt inspiring his literature.

Caer Gybi - Holyhead Roman Fort

The 260 square mile island of Anglesey (Ynys Mon in Welsh) is situated off the north-west coast of Wales and is the largest island in Wales and the seventh largest in the British Isles.

It is linked to the mainland over the Menai Strait by the Menai Suspension Bridge designed by Thomas Telford in 1826 and the Britannia Bridge, built in 1850 and replaced in 1980.

The principle town on the island is Holyhead on Holy Island with a ferry port that normally handles over two-million passengers a year travelling too and from Ireland.

The English name for the island is obscure, but it is referenced as such by Viking raiders in the early tenth century and later adopted by the Norman invaders of Gwynedd, however the Welsh name has a much earlier and established heritage, first recorded by the Romans in the Latinised form 'Mona'.

The Roman Conquest of Britain 43-84 AD

It is the Roman and early period of Anglesey that the island is famous for and historically associated with the last stronghold of the Druids in Britain and where their religion and influence was stamped out and crushed by the Romans in two invasions of the island in 60 and 78 AD, and places Druidism alongside Christianity as the two religions that were actively opposed and suppressed by Imperial Rome.

It appears not much of the early Roman occupation of the island is visible with the first century Roman fort at Aberffraw underneath the current village, excavated in the 1970's, revealing a thirteen foot wide  V shaped ditch and earthwork bank, later added to with another similar U shaped ditch some five and a half feet deep with evidence of abandonment and another medieval ditch added at a later date, this together with some Samian pottery shards.

The above ground archaeology harks back to the latter days of Roman occupation as Britannia became the target for raids from Ireland and the Continent, requiring the building of coastal defence strongpoints and watchtowers ready to to repel such incursions, which I looked at in a previous post on a visit to Portchester back in 2017, built to repel raids along the Saxon shore.


The only remains of the Roman 3rd - 4th century fort in Holyhead are the familiar herringbone style stone and mortar walls that surround the church of St Gybi, with one long side of the enclosure overlooking the natural harbour. 

British Campaigns of Agricola 78-84 AD

With walls almost thirteen feet in height and nearly five feet thick in places it makes an imposing footprint on the town with three corner towers, one original, still standing and with easy parking making it a great place to start our day tour.

One corner of the enclosure was made into a remembrance garden and close by was a poignant reminder of Holyhead's link with the sea and the sacrifice made by two Holyhead ferry boats commandeered for war service in World War One. 

A postcard showing the Dublin ferry SS Hibernia leaving Holyhead, later commissioned into the Royal Navy as HMS Tara and sunk off North Africa in 1915

Another Holyhead Steamship, SS Anglia, seen here as a WWI Hospital Ship before her sinking in the Channel after hitting a mine, bringing injured troops back from France in 1915

In Roman and Medieval times the harbour water would have come up much closer to the foot of these old walls, but today's modern harbour facilities lie beyond the main road into town and as you can see the day was set well for our exploring with wall to wall sunshine and blue skies.

Caer y Twr - Iron Age Hillfort/Roman Watch-tower

Just a little way out of the town the road leads to a former quarry that has now been reclaimed as part of a natural park for wildlife that has a visitor centre and carpark that enabled us to grab the walking boots and head out along the cliff paths towards the South Stack lighthouse, the last stop before Dublin, and on the highest ground on the island, above it, the obvious place for a late-Roman watchtower.

On our way out from the carpark we discovered a rather interesting object, that to the untrained eye might have suggested something to do with the former nearby quarry, and with no signs to indicate precisely what it was I started to take a closer look.

The rifling marks on the interior and the breech looking mechanism suggested a naval type of gun and later research shows the remains of gun mountings above the lighthouse so I came to the conclusion that this is one of those former coastal guns.

I could find no references to this piece of military history positioned on the start of the cliff path out to South Stack Lighthouse. It appears to be the barrel of a naval type gun, probably WWI vintage and about four inch calibre with rifling in the barrel and the breech mechanism seen here. There were coastal gun positions overlooking the lighthouse, so perhaps this is one of those guns.

The walk out along the lower cliff path provided stunning views out over the sea, cliffs and back towards Holyhead, but Carolyn was unlucky with her hopes of seeing Puffins that nest in these cliffs.

Irish pirates have been replaced by Irish Ferries, but indicate what an important sea route this remains in modern times.

As we climbed higher the end of the headland came into sight with the lighthouse indicating lands end.

On reaching the end of our first two mile section of our walk the ground suddenly rose still higher and the remains of ancient dry stone walls and more squared off walls with mortar holding things together came into view indicating an area that had once been occupied.

The views back to the town and the fort made this an ideal place to set up a watch point, able to take advantage of an Iron-Age enclosure of dry stone construction to encircle the later buildings with ample opportunity to signal via beacons of any activity on the sea beyond.

Having climbed quite a bit we grabbed a bite of lunch sat enjoying the views and then decided to head back to the car via the higher track that is also used by vehicles supplying the lighthouse.

There is lots of wildlife evident in the area and among the birds spotted on our route back to the car was a very photogenic Stonechat that was very happy to perch close by and have his picture taken.
A male Stonechat or Saxicola torquata - A common resident, perches prominently on tops of bushes. Male has black head with prominent white half collar, back and wings are dark brown, streaked black, breast is orange-red. Habitat is heaths, scrubby hillsides and hedgerows. Voice is a metallic chak-chak and jingling warble. What a treat!

This little chap was certainly not camera shy and obviously photogenic!

A real treat to end our walk along the cliffs

The birds weren't the only ones enjoying the perfect flying weather.

RAF Valley, built in 1941, is nearby and home to the RAF flight training squadron using Hawk T2's and Texan T1's for fast jet and propeller aircraft training, and the day was perfect flying weather for Stonechats and Hawks.

Bryn Celli Ddu - 'The Mound in the Dark Grove'

We were feeling pretty tired by the time we got back to the car, but we still had one more place to visit before heading back to Shrewsbury for a well earned curry that evening.

Given the pre-Roman history of Anglesey we were really keen to see the evidence of those early inhabitants and there was one particularly interesting monument that lay close by our route back on to the mainland.
The UK abounds in pre-historic sights and monuments and Anglesey must have quite a high number per square mile in comparison to the rest of the home nations, if this sign in the car park close to Bryn Celli Ddu is anything to go by.

If you are interested in prehistory and the monuments associated with the megalithic and Neolithic periods then the British islands abound with burial mounds, henges and stone rows that give a glimpse into the lives of these ancient peoples, and you can check out previous posts on the blog that illustrate the many examples to be seen. 

The burial mound at Bryn Celli Ddu is a stunning example of these kind of monuments and with its name meaning 'The mound in the Dark Grove' had other connotations of the Druids and their Sacred Groves that made this a place I wanted to include in our visit.

The Mound in the Dark Grove, a stunning way to end our day in Anglesey.

The mound is thought to have been built around 3,000 BC and would have originally had an outer henge or earthwork and inner ditch with standing stones within, but today only the outer edge of the  ditch survives, with a few of the upright stones standing within it.

A mix of burnt and unburnt human bones were found within the inner passage of the mound together with quartz pieces, arrowheads, seashells and stone beads.

The passage way into the tomb is somewhat unique in that it has been constructed to allow shafts of sunlight from a midsummer solstice to travel the length of it into the inner chamber, suggesting the solstice had a significance to these people and the Neolithic builders.

Standing close to the mound and gazing out towards the mountains on the mainland beyond, through the nearby trees, made this a very special place to visit and one to remember.

Anglesey was a great place to visit on our first opportunity to get back out exploring and enjoying freedom that we used to take for granted, and I'm looking forward to showing some of the other great places we visited on our week away.

Next up: More reinforcements for my Cape St Vincent Spanish fleet , then part two of this series of posts and I will have another War of 1812 book review to do.

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