When sitting in the back of the car as we crossed Anglesey as kids – slowly, because the dual carriageway hadn’t been built yet – we were always searching for the landmarks that meant we were nearly there. There was one point, the crest of a low hill, where the road cut through some rocks beneath a white cottage surrounded by gorse bushes, that we would see through the gap in the front seats and the car windscreen the vista that told us we were close. The Rhoscolyn Coastguard lookout. The reverse cigarette of the Anglesey Aluminium tower. Holyhead Mountain.
A little more than 200m high Holyhead Mountain is easily the highest point on Holy Island, higher than anything on Anglesey, and although that is not particularly tall when compared to the peaks of Snowdonia a few miles away, it is still a striking lump of rock that sits above the port town of Holyhead and falls directly into the sea on two sides. The Romans built a lookout tower there, which gives it its Welsh name of Mynydd Twr… and it appears to have been a place of settlement and human activity for thousands of years. It has had chunks taken out of it as it was quarried for stone and the cliffs below its summit are popular and populated with any number of bird species who share the slabs with rock climbers dreaming of white horses as kayakers ride the waves beneath their feet. We have been coming here for years, mainly to the South Stack Lighthouse and the Ellins Tower RSPB centre, but this time we were going to walk the mountain.
Not up it, but around.
We started at Ellins Tower and followed the track inland, beneath the hut circles and the medieval field boundaries, across a rocky and scorched landscape of muted colours that made the bright red and blue outfits of the climbers on the rocks in front of us all the more striking. Circling beneath the summit we dropped down to quiet lanes and cottages with views across Holyhead and to the port as the path took us to sea level and the Breakwater Park. The site of a former quarry and brickworks, where the stone had been pulled from the mountain to build the breakwater at Holyhead, we picked over the open air exhibition that told some of the stories of this corner of the mountain, the people who worked here and the wildlife that calls the mountain home. We also came across a memorial to the American air crew of the ‘Jigs Up’, a darkly funny name for a plane that crashed on the 22 December 1944 and to take the lives of all who flew in her.
I was taken by one photograph for quite a while; the works crew of men and boys who were tasked with rebuilding South Stack in 1937, the gap between their lives and mine unbridgeable and unimaginable on a 21st century spring morning. And there, on the chimney of the roof-less brickworks, another memorial plaque, that told another tragic story in just a handful of words that read as an unintentional poem:
THOMAS HUGH OWEN
FELL AT NORTH STACK
20TH MAY 1923. AGED 14
AND WHOSE GRAVE
IS THE SEA.
The path from the Breakwater Park led up the cliffs, passed the old dynamite stores on the hillside and above the rocky coastline. The sea was reasonably calm as the ferries to Ireland made their slow progress out towards the horizon, but even on a warm and gentle day it was possible to feel the threat of this landscape, the danger of these heights and the possibility of a misstep. The path was cut through the heather and surrounded by solitary rocks scattered across the hillside that began to shine as the sun broke through the clouds and the cliffs of South Stack fell into soft focus as the waves broke on the rocks below.
We were almost back to where we started now, familiar territory above the lighthouse with a view back along the coast from where we had walked to the enormous walls of rock and the caves they contained, previously below us but out of sight underneath our feet. There was a small crowd of people gathered on the top of the cliffs by Ellins Tower, enjoying the sun when it appeared and the picturesque views along the Welsh shore. And, in the distance, the rescue helicopter hovered. At the end of the walk we looked back down the coast, across the flat expanse of Anglesey to Snowdon and the Carneddau that had appeared, albeit briefly, from the cloak of clouds they had been wearing for most of the day. No, Holyhead Mountain was not as tall, but there were still adventures to be had, on the water or the rocks, or as we had – wandering this hill where the Romans once gazed out across the sea and where the lookouts now scour the cliffs with their binoculars in search of a peregrine’s nest.
Words: Paul Scraton
Pictures: Katrin Schönig