Anglesey: Wales' largest island

by frankbeswick

Anglesey is a large island off the coast of North Wales, separated from the mainland by the fast flowing Menai Straits. Once sacred to the Druids it has a lovely character.

Anglesey is in fact two islands: Mona, the larger of the two, and Holy Island, once sacred to Druids, an island off an island. Holy Island is at present a tidal isle, only sundered from Mona at high tide. Most people now hardly distinguish the two apart. The ferries to Ireland sail from Holyhead on Holy Island. The whole isle is a rich agricultural area and is a place where history is never far away. There are good beaches at places and it is a fine site for walking.

Image courtesy of Gail Johnson. The cross shows Llandwyn island's monastic past.

A Historic Island

Visitors to Anglesey seem to love it, and it is a popular place to live. The approach is by one of two bridges across the Menai Straits. These are a narrow geological fissure flooded by the sea, through which fast flowing currents surge, and these are especially strong in the narrowest part between the two bridges, far too strong for swimming. At the north eastern end of the straits the surge loses energy as its waters meet up with the Irish Sea, and they drop their sediment on the wide Lafan Sands, where there is a thriving mussel farm. In the Straits there are two small islets, where there are houses. These flood occasionally at high tide, and used to be a tourist attraction in Victorian times. 

Strangely, the name Anglesey is misleading, as some think it connects the island with the Angles, the English. It doesn't and the strongly Welsh population would not be pleased with the mis-identification. The name derives from the Celtic tribe who once lived there, the Deceangli. This was a Latinization of a local pronunciation which may have been something like dchangli, but we cannot be certain. We do know that Latin transformed words that it absorbed. The suffix sey is a Norse word denoting an island. Many coastal names in the British Isles have a Norse derivation. 

Before the Romans the Druids made it their sacred isle, and, as they were fierce opponents of the Roman conquest of southern Britain, the Romans decided to destroy them once and for all. Suetonius Paulinus, who seems to have been a brutal thug, brought the ninth legion to the island, where after a ferocious struggle they overcame the Druids and destroyed their sacred groves. However, while Druidry was seriously damaged in Britain it carried on in Ireland and Scotland and as Jo Harrington's articles claim it enjoyed a rebirth for a while in North Wales after the Romans left. Suetonius was called from his massacres on Anglesey by the revolt of Queen Boudicca, which he put down with his usual severity. 

After the massacres Anglesey served as the grain growing area for the Roman legions, in an economy that eventually became overdependent on the military, a condition that ruined Celtic Britain when the legions were withdrawn and contributed to the chaos that brought the Anglo-Saxons. 

In the nineteenth century there was a major development, the discovery of vast resources of copper, which made a great mining industry at Parys mountain and the resulting vast quarry. The small port of Amlwch developed to service the copper mining industry, and it still operates, even now the mine has closed, though as a tourist site. 

It is now famed for Anglesey sea salt, distilled from the pure waters that surge past the isle.This salt is a favourite of many people who enjoy high quality cooking and with gourmet chefs. 


But you will be wanting to walk with me as I pass through the isle. I would love to do the Anglesey coast path, but it takes three days and currently I have no time, so you must be content with a shorter walk for now.

Maureen and I love Newborough. This is a popular area in the south east corner just at the beginning of the Straits. You drive down to a well made car park in the forest/plantation and then you can begin one of a variety of walks. We walk down along the forest edge along a good path. At times through the trees you can see the view of the Welsh mainland with Snowdonia, the Welsh mountain range, staring down at you from a distance, sometimes cloudy, common for Wales, but other times crystal clear in its clarity, which is the case after rain. Anglesey is not the rainiest part of Wales, as the moisture-laden winds from the Irish Sea skim over the relatively flat landscape to drop their load onto the mountains on the mainland. 

As you walk through the forest you are aware of the deep silence that characterizes such places, only punctuated by the cawing of crows, the soughing of the wind through the branches and the distant rumble of waves on the beach. The native red squirrels make no sound and you see them but rarely. 

Eventually you cross the edge of the dune system and reach the sandy beach, which is a haven for walkers. You see families at play, but also middle aged or elderly people such as ourselves who have come for the  tranquility. Turning west with the dunes on your right you head for LLandwyn  island, which is a tidal isle accessible on foot at low tide. This repays a visit. There are a  few cottages now inhabited by the seasonal wardens of this nature reserve, but they used to be the lighthouse keepers' cottages from the wonderful days when Britain still had lighthouse keepers, before the days of automation. But beyond them is the remains of the monastery, destroyed at the Reformation by the king's brutal commissioners bent on looting the church. As a gardener I wander in the ruined church and see nettles growing there, in what my gardener's mind recognizes as  rich soil, where once monks sang. My eye also picks up Silverweed. This was widely grown in the Celtic regions of the British Isles before the introduction of the potato, as its starchy root, which thrives in moist/wet soil, was able to provide  rich source of carbohydrate. I realize that I am seeing the descendants of the plants grown in the monastery garden.

Llandwyn is dedicated to a Celtic female saint who serves as Wales' equivalent of Saint Valentine, and in mediaeval times young lovers visited her chapel to seek her support and intercession in their wooing. 

A tip though! If walking on that beach ensure that you pick a landmark for walking back. It is easy to get lost, and remember which path to take in the quietness of the forest. 


Llandwn Island
Llandwn Island
Image courtesy of Gail Johnson

Other attractions

North of Newborough there is the muddy bay of Maltraeth, which is at the end of a low lying stretch of the isle. A muddy wetland may not be everybody's dream, unless you are a bird watcher, that's British parlance for birder. The mudflats are havens for a rich variety of sea birds and thus attract birdwatchers from across the country. 

Around the coast the complex Geology has given rise to some small sandy bays popular with families. The rugged coast allows small children to scramble on rocks. and it was where I taught my daughter the rudiments of rock climbing and found that she was as good as her brothers were. She now lives in Anglesey, but does not climb, she likes more urban attractions and gets them in her home town of Menai Bridge, near the Straits, which is a very pleasant place to live.There are serious sea cliffs near the port of Holyhead on Holy Island, from which ferries run to and from Ireland. These sea cliffs are not for scrambling, for they offer some of Britain's toughest rock climbs of a high level of difficulty. 

While swimming is possible off the beaches, you need to pay serious heed to warning signs, as some of Anglesey's waters are dangerous. The Menai Straits are, as I said, fast flowing and beyond human swimmers' capacity. But I went once on a fishing trip off North Anglesey off Amlwch and met the roughest water conditions I have ever met outside a storm [and that's saying something, as I have also fished in Sligo Bay, where the Atlantic swells crash into Ireland. The heavily shattered Geology of the coastal shelf off the north shore makes for rough waters, and in certain tidal conditions there is at one point an overfall. This is where the sea turns turbulent, and we were stuck out at sea for an extra hour before we could reach port again. So if you want to sail there, heed the coastal conditions and take charts. 

For more urbane pursuits, there is Plas Newydd Gardens, which sits on the edge of the Menai Straits. This consists of an old country home in its own parkland now given over to the National Trust. There is a rich set of gardens that repay the visitor with a pleasant walk. We, that's Maureen, my daughter Helen and I, walked through them recently, passing through the rhododendron gardens and the woodland above the water's edge, and we finished with tea and cakes in the cafe. As I said in my Great Orme article my daughter thinks that walks should conclude with cakes or ice cream, which are the walk's main purpose. Some things about a person never change. 


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I love Anglesey, and now that my daughter and her husband are settled there on a permanent basis, we have extra reasons to visit it. It is a hundred miles for me [one way] but the A55 which runs through North Wales is a fine, well-constructed road that makes for easy travel. Yet the main road through the isle is the A5 which winds through Wales, more scenic than the A55, but slower, and it culminates in the ferry port of Holyhead where the ships to Dublin set off and land. 

There is much to enjoy in Anglesey: historic and prehistoric remains, coast and countryside, and pleasant resorts, especially in the small bays that occur at places on the coast. If you are visiting Britain, spare a thought for Britain outside London. A visit to North Wales is worth making. If you fly into the North of England, planes land at Manchester or Liverpool Airports; and Manchester in particular is well-served with transport links all over the North.A tram takes you to Manchester centre, where you can catch trains anywhere in Britain. 

Updated: 05/29/2015, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 01/18/2024

Mona was sacred, but Holy Island was the Holy of Holies.

DerdriuMarriner on 01/17/2024

The first sentence in your introduction considers that "Anglesey is in fact two islands: Mona, the larger of the two, and Holy Island, once sacred to Druids, an island off an island."

Why was Mona not deemed sacred as well?

frankbeswick on 03/22/2023

Mainly it is used by people who are foraging on their own land, as UK law forbids you to dig up a plant by its roots except on your own land or with landowner's permission.

DerdriuMarriner on 03/22/2023

The fourth paragraph to your second subheading, Newborough, considers silverweed as a starchy-rooted source for carbohydrates.

Is silverweed used nowadays culinarily, cultivationally or medicinally?

frankbeswick on 05/12/2016

I am delighted that you liked the article. I am going to be visiting the island a few times in the coming months as our daughter on Anglesey is presenting us with a grandchild in November.

MBC on 05/12/2016

I'm Manx by heritage (live in America), but went to Wales, but only on the Mainland. Enjoyed reading this article!

Veronica on 09/19/2015

As a child my family often visited North Wales in summer. I loved it there and still do.

Anglesey is a lovely island, beautiful villages, lighthouses, bays by the edge of the sea, old pubs.

Ty for posting this great article.

frankbeswick on 06/01/2015

It is not for nothing that the first settlers called parts of the US east coast New England, and we can extend the comparison to Wales.

AngelaJohnson on 06/01/2015

What a beautiful place! It reminds me of photos I've seen of the east coast in the U.S. I've never visited that part of the country, but maybe someday......

CruiseReady on 05/30/2015

How nice! It's always lovely to be thought of by someone who is writing a positive piece!

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