Filling in the Gaps: More Secrets of the Beddmanach Bay Area

Part Two: Antiquity & Enigma

Once more unto the ‘beach’, dear friends, once more…

In my first blog about the Inland Sea, I talked about the southern half of the Strait; basically the area between the Embankment, including Four-mile-Bridge, down to where it reaches the open sea – between the shores of Cymyran (on Anglesey) and the SW tip of Ynys Cybi/Holy Island. I also promised to discuss the Beddmanarch Bay side of the channel at a later date – and indeed, this was partially achieved in my last-but-one blog (Part One: Ideas), in which I detail what to do and where, as well as the interesting flora, fauna, and fascinating features to look out for on the northern end.

So, if you want to remind yourself of these delights, just click on the links above. However, in this –  Part Two of the piece – I want to study the history and mystery surrounding the Beddmanarch Bay area instead – as well as take a look at the territory’s Welsh names and their possible significance. Yes, today we’re going to look in more detail at the area’s tales of yesteryear, links to the past – and its (uncertain) future too!

Reading Between the Lines…

Just to remind ourselves, the Beddmanarch Bay, or northern end of the Strait, encompasses the foreshore and tidal areas between Holyhead (on Holy Island), right around to the Penrhyn Promontory (close to Llanfwrog) on ‘mainland’ Anglesey. However, as I said last time, I’ll leave its outermost reaches (i.e. Penrhos Beach – as well as Holyhead itself – and Traeth Penrhyn) for another day – concentrating instead on:

  1. The Penrhos Coastal Park (on the western banks of Beddmanarch Bay) – including The Penrhos Headland also known as Gorsedd y Penrhyn.
  2. The Stanley Embankment that links the Coastal Park (on Holy Island, near Holyhead) to Valley (on ‘mainland’ Anglesey).
  3. Traeth y Gribin (on the eastern banks of the Bay) – including Traeth Gorad (near Valley), as well as the area’s sandbanks, mudflats, heathland, and dunes.
  4. The southern shores of the Afon Alaw Estuary – all the way up to, and including, the footbridge near Llanfachraeth.

High & Dry…

  1. Gorsedd y Penrhyn

Otherwise known as the Penrhos Headland, ‘Gorsedd’ is the Welsh word for a ‘community (or meeting) of modern-day bards’, but originates from the word for ‘throne’- with ‘Penrhyn’ translating as ‘Headland’. Whether named after its resemblance to a royal seat in terms of its hoisted geographical nature, or its actual connection to kings – I’ve still to properly discover…and you’ll soon see why!

The English name (the Penrhos Headland) therefore, is surely rather redundant – or at least in part – because I believe ‘pen’ can mean ‘head’, or ‘top’ – and ‘rhos’ can mean ‘moor’ or ‘heathland’ –  which, if true, means we’re saying more-or-less the equivalent of ‘headland-headland’. Dear Welsh speakers, apologies if I’m right – we’re utter wallies when it comes to your beautiful language – but we’re trying!  Nonetheless, whatever it’s known as, it’s upon this headland, which definitely dominates the park’s coastline (if not the entire Bay) that the ‘modern’ story of the Coastal Park, and the area in general, really begins!

A Natural High…

Nowadays, the headland area (shown above) is managed as a traditional hay meadow, with an annual cut in mid-to-late August. This style of ‘farming’ allows a wide-range of wonderful wildflowers to flourish which, along with the lush grass, make it a great place to see several species of bee, hoverfly, and butterfly too; keep your eyes peeled for the Common Blue, Meadow Brown, Gatekeeper, Red Admiral, Painted Lady, and Comma varieties!

There are various footpaths to follow once upon it, plus viewing and seating areas. Whilst the scrub areas make ideal habitat for birds such as Skylark, Stonechat, Goldfinch and Whitethroat, Kestrels can often be seen hovering and hunting above the grassier tracts. For more flora and fauna spotting ideas in the area, as well as walking tips – go to Part One!

Between a Rock and a Hard Place…

Furthermore, for the more topographically ‘inclined’, you’ll be interested to note that Gorsedd-y-Penrhyn (shown above – with Valley in the distance to the left) has been designated as a ‘Regionally Important Geological and Geomorphological Site’ (UKRIGS) by the Geoconservation Association. To find out why, you only need take a look at it close-up from the beach below – where it’s possible to see the exposed sediments and internal structure of this 20-metre high promontory.

Comprised of boulder clay (clay containing lots of large stones and boulders, formed by deposition from melting glaciers and ice sheets) the headland is a great example of ‘sectioned drumlin’ (an elongated humpbacked hill formed by glacial action). Geologists have worked out that it was established when an ice-sheet (measuring approximately 520 meters) moved across the land during the Late Devensian ice age (the planet’s most recent glacial period) around 20,000 years ago. The headland’s shape even shows the direction the ice-sheet was travelling (i.e. NE to SW), with the rounded end facing into the glacial movement. `

But what about the social history of the headland (shown from a distance below), and why did it become such an important local landmark – eventually developing into part of a well-loved nature reserve? And what about the origins of its Welsh name – is it just about the geography, or is there a real royal connection? I’ll let you decide…

See Change…

Soph’s ‘Bedmanarch’ History-Mystery Moment #1

It was during the reign of Edward VI (1547 – 1553) that an area known as ‘Penrhos’ was granted by ‘the crown’ to local-lad, John-ap-Owen (also known as John Derwas). At the time it was gifted the land consisted primarily of the headland area, and it was upon this promontory (Gorsedd y Penrhyn) that John went on to build a property he named Tudor House (subsequently known as Penrhos House*) – which is where the tale gets interesting!

*NB Not to be confused with the cottage now close to the Coastal Park’s ‘pet cemetery’ (shown below – from a distance) which is also called Penrhos House – as this was a later edition.

Treehouse…

Born to Henry VIII and Jane Seymour (wife number 3 – shown with her husband and son below), Edward VI was his father’s sole ‘legitimate’ male heir. Crowned at age 9, he was England’s first ruler to be raised a Protestant – but he died aged only 15 before reaching his majority. He was also Henry VII’s grandson (AKA Henry Tudor –  the 1st Tudor monarch); making Edward the 3rd in this important royal line, with his half-sisters (Mary I and Elizabeth I) succeeding him as the 4th and 5th. Henry VIII died thinking he’d left the crown safe in the hands of his long-awaited son – but, as we all know, it was actually Elizabeth, his second child – a ‘lowly’ daughter, who actually left her mark on British History!

As Edward only reigned for 6 years and was so young when he died, it’s unlikely he ever met Jon-ap-Owen or even understood what he was signing over – nonetheless, someone close to him (with political clout) thought it useful to keep John’s family ‘on side’. For his part, John must have done something to impress the top guys too…however, there’s more to this gift than first meets the eye…

3rd Time Lucky…?

Although I can’t find any reference to exactly why it was gifted, John’s family, the Owens – were a powerful Anglesey household during this period, who also happened to be descended (although distantly) from the famed Welsh warrior, Ednyfed Fychan (1170 – 1246); who had blood-ties to Welsh royalty. Not only this, the Owens were also related (more recently) to ‘The Tudors of Penmynydd; also descendants of Ednyfed – and I believe it’s this link  – between John and his King- that’s the key to the whole thing!

Incidentally, Ednyfed had a son called ‘Tudur’ – which is where what became the famous family surname originated. Initially a Welsh forename – which in Old Welsh would have been ‘Tutir’ – it’s a variation of name ‘Theodore’ – from the Greek (Theódoros) – meaning “God-given”…which is pretty apt really!

Princes of Wales…

Over the centuries, as I’m sure you know, the Tudur/Tudor clan established themselves as an influential household within the realms of Welsh – and later, English court politics – resulting in one particular member, Henry, emerging as the victor on Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485! In the process of beating his predecessor, King Richard III, not only did he become King Henry VII (shown below), but also (as mentioned earlier) the first of the 5 Tudor monarchs. However, how the son of a Welsh squire (a ‘commoner’) ended up as King of England – along with its Irish and Welsh realms – is a tale for another day! But it’s true, the royal House of Tudur/Tudor originated on none other than Anglesey! Therefore, John-ap-Owen (of Penrhos fame) was part of the wider Tudor clan – which means he would have been (very distantly) related to King Edward VI, as well as his successors (and half-sisters) Mary 1 and Elizabeth I!

Fortunes of War…

As we can see, not only was John was part of a proud line of Anglesey patriots but connected to both Welsh and English Royalty besides – which makes the name he chose for his new home make a lot more sense. Not only was he honouring his benefactor (and King) with the name ‘Tudor House’, he was also making reference to his own famous (Welsh) ancestry! From the day it was gifted onwards, the Penrhos Estate became the seat of one of the leading land and property owners on Holy Island (and Anglesey) and stayed as such for over 400 years…

Family Tree

However, following the marriage of Margaret Owen (John’s great-granddaughter) to Sir John Thomas Stanley (in 1763) it passed from the Owens into the hands of her husband’s family  – who, as I touched on in Part ONE, had risen to become an important local family in their own right – and it remained as such until the outbreak of World War 2. It was only after this that things started to go wrong for the estate – at least in terms of full private ownership. Before that though, the Stanley’s had made many changes including: adding buildings (think of the follies), planting huge swathes of woodland, remodeling the main house, demolishing some of the estate’s older properties…and facilitating the coming of the railway to Holyhead – by allowing parts of the route to be built on their land – more of which later.

Window to the Past…

The evacuation of the Stanley’s from the main house during of the war, and its subsequent occupation by troops though, heralded the beginning of the end for this once great house. Without the family there to oversee things it was no longer looked-after properly  – which soon resulted in its rapid decline. The spiral of neglect and disrepair continued until the war ended – when, not long after, the existing tenants were given the chance to buy their properties, and the remaining estate (still covering thousands of acres) was sold off publicly.  

Interestingly, the main residence (the one originally called Tudor House) was bought by Sir Patrick Abercrombie, with a plan to restore and renovate it – but disappointingly (due in part to his busy life, and death in 1957) this never came to pass. Sir Patrick, for those that don’t know, was one of Britain’s most influential architects and town planners, as well as a leading light in terms of instigating national protection for areas of outstanding natural beauty. He also designed, built, and resided in what later became my own family’s Rhoscolyn property, Borth Arian. If you want to find out more about this brilliant man, or indeed, the house he built in Rhoscolyn, click on the links above!  Sadly though, instead of the planned renewal, the remnants of the Penrhos ‘mansion’ (shown below) were pillaged and plundered – until things got so bad that sadly there was nothing for it but to knock it down!

Bringing the House Down…

The accompanying farm, however, was purchased by the estate’s last land agent, Captain Nigel Conant, who continued to work its 500 acres until 1969 – when he sold it on to ‘Anglesey Aluminium’. A joint venture between the Rio Tinto Group and Kaiser Aluminum, Anglesey Aluminium went on to build a smelting plant on part of the plot, which produced aluminium from 1971 until its closure in 2009.

Although a huge shame in terms of the natural beauty of the area, it became one of the largest employers in North Wales. You can still see the site’s imposing chimney from many parts of the island.  Considered a landmark by some, a carbuncle by many (myself included) it’s been a prominent part of the skyline here for over 40 years. Indeed, lots of seafarers use it as a reference point – but I just think it looks like a huge (ugly) cigarette!

Blot on the Landscape…

2. The Embankment

Being separated from the other side of the channel by the Stanley Embankment (known colloquially as the ‘Cob’) has helped the Beddmanarch Bay aspect of the Strait form a personality all of its own. The original construction of the causeway (begun in 1822 – and completed only a year later) was designed and overseen by a very organised Thomas Telford!

However, it’s named after the Stanley’s; the wealthy, and politically influential local family mentioned earlier, and big benefactors to the area during the period besides. As I’ve mentioned, most of the ‘follies’ in the Park are down to them, and a lot of the tree planting too. However, it was their agreement to allow parts of the Embankment to be built on their land that changed things for the Holyhead area completely – and they were involved in the development of the port area too. Facilitating the coming of the railway, and investment in the town and port generally, brought a great change in local fortunes – and made a huge difference in terms of Britain’s trading (and personal) relationship with Ireland as well!

Luck of the Irish…

Telford’s task was to provide a faster and more direct route for the all-important mail coaches that travelled between London and Holyhead – and Ireland too. Indeed, he managed to shorten it by almost 4 miles (6 km). To begin with, road users paid a toll in a turnpike also designed by Telford (one of the 5 ‘Telford Toll Houses on Anglesey, and one of the last trunk roads in Britain to be subject to a private toll). This was situated at the western (Holy Island) end – and you can still see it there today, as well as its original gate. But, not in their original spot  – because, during the late 1960s, it was moved and rebuilt (brick-for-brick) 100 yards away!

Land Ahoy!

The reason? Well, Anglesey’s County Council needed to lay a water main (along the Embankment) and the Toll House was in the way! This compromise meant the council got what they wanted, but Telford’s historic building was preserved as well! Apparently, every stone was numbered in sequence, and each side of the house painted in 2 different colours – in order to make the reconstruction easier! The gate, however, was found later (in the 70s) – when the site was being cleared for its reincarnation into the Nature Reserve we know and love today. It’s now a tearoom – details of which you’ll find in Part One.

Built to Last…

Much of the raw material used in the Embankments construction was excavated from the Anglesey side which, unsurprisingly, left quite a hole in the process; and it was around this artificial gap that a makeshift settlement for the workers sprang-up. Interestingly, as the camp became a more permanent – eventually becoming a stable community –  this dip, or man-made ‘valley’, got filled-in…however, the name the workers gave to the place remains!

Happy Valley…

When I learnt about this I was thrilled; at last, the name Valley/Y Fali made sense! I’ve been pootling through the village for years, wondering how somewhere as-flat-as-a-pancake came to have such a geographically contradictory handle! Recently, with all the winter rain, I’ve been wondering if the field to the right of the road as you approach the Cob from the Valley end (the one that’s often flooded) is part of the original hole…answers on a postcard, please! NB The Anglesey Coastal Path crosses the Embankment, and there are proper foot and cycle paths, with a barrier between them and the A5.

Road to Riches…

Later, during the 1840s, the Embankment was chosen to carry the newly planned train line across to Holyhead. However, to achieve this, significant structural changes were required; especially in regards to its width. With the adjustments completed by 1848, the enlarged causeway not only had a new rail line, but sported a tall dividing wall between it and the existing road route as well. Built specifically so that the trains wouldn’t startle the horses, this wall can still be seen today!

This narrow two-lane crossing, along with the railway, remained the major routes from Anglesey over to Holy Island until 2001, when the A55 North Wales Expressway was built. This dual-carriageway required its own stone-built causeway to be constructed across the strait and, although the Expressway bypasses Valley to the south, both the (new) A55 and (old) A5 arteries cross the channel at almost exactly the same point – running parallel, with only the rail-line between them. Therefore, I believe Telford’s planning and vision has merely been added to and improved upon – not ignored!

Notwithstanding the fact that it’s a brilliant piece of engineering, the Stanley Embankment (other than the stone wall) is ugly and utilitarian in style – and nowhere near as elegant as Telford’s stunning Menai Suspension Bridge (shown below). The first dry route from mainland Wales over to Anglesey, this beautiful bridge is only about 20 miles away from Penrhos and Holyhead. Click the link for marvellous Menai Bridge holiday cottages!

Better by Design…

Likewise, although still a joy to drive across because of the panoramic views over Beddmanarch Bay, the Embankment isn’t half as pretty as the original crossing onto Holy Island. Just over a mile away to the south of ‘the Cob’ (in the village of Four-mile-Bridge) you’ll find the first (dry) access between the two islands. This sweet stone bridge was the only dry route onto Holy Island until 1823! Also similar to the situation found at Four-mile-Bridge, culverts, or large drains, have been built under the embankment, which allows seawater to flow from one side to the other – and the result is the same too – with the water causing through on tide-changes having a much narrower range than the sea beyond – and therefore, loads more power! To find out more about this – go to the Watersports section of Part One and/or my earlier Inland Sea blog!

3. Penrhos Nature Reserve

As many of you may know, we’re looking after my parents’ Jack-Russell (the infamous Tiggy) while they’re away – and, although I love having this extra excuse for a daily stroll, and we often enjoy wet, windy walks together too – it can be a little challenging when the cold and blowy winter weather goes on for days! If this happens, we head to the trees! Not counting the plantation behind Silver Bay, it’s the closest woodland to Rhoscolyn with enough space for Tiggy to run and play; and only 15 minutes drive away! Around its perimeter runs a nature trail, which takes in the seashore, and there are lots of walks through the centre of the wood as well.

If you haven’t already visited, is a great place to shelter from inclement climates – whilst still having a lovely outdoor adventure! However, if the sun comes out, you can soon escape its leafy sanctuary for a saunter along its foreshore, a picnic on its sands, or a grassy wander behind (or above) its pretty banks and bays. Perfect then, for a family-friendly promenade – including an Eastertide amble! The woodland alone attracts 100,000 visitors every year – but never fear, I’ve not once found it overly busy – it’s too big!

Under the Greenwood Tree…

Although it seems as though the reserve has been there forever, it wasn’t until the early 1970’s, whilst still under the ownership of Anglesey Aluminium, that public access was finally granted to (certain parts) of the Penrhos Estate. Officially opened by H.R.H. Prince Charles in 1971, it was Ken Williams (shown below – on the left), the reserves first director, who persuaded Anglesey Aluminium to do dedicate the land to the project in the first place; later earning himself an MBE for his amazing work.

Not only a local policeman, but an amateur naturalist as well, it was his vision and enthusiasm, along with a platoon of passionate volunteers, that began the work of making it into the lovely Coastal Park and Nature Reserve we enjoy today! Ken and his team even ran an animal hospital in (the second) Penrhos House – which you’ll find standing close to the pet cemetery – although, sadly, it’s neither a clinic nor open to the public anymore. Both wild specimens, as well as pets, were once treated here – with some of the recovering birds kept in enormous aviaries in the woods!

A Hero’s Welcome…

Also whilst under the directorship of Ken Williams, the reserve was separated into two distinct areas. With the divide dictated naturally by the A5 and railway line (at the point at which they cross the Strait), the northern half became the portion still open to the public; basically what we know as the Penrhos Coastal Park. This part of the estate is still, as Williams put it himself, “managed for both people and plants and animals”. However, the land to the south of the embankment (comprising of 100 acres of salt-marsh and scrub) was dedicated to specialist conservation.

Because of its sheltered geography (behind the Embankment, and to the south of the A5/A55), it’s the ideal sphere for Terns to gather! Still devoted to the important work of helping to foster these colonies, its tiny islands, with their splendid concealed positions, now make the perfect home for over 500 pairs of this nesting species, including: the Common, Roseate, Arctic and Sandwich varieties. And you won’t just see Terns here – indeed, there are over 150 bird-breeds to look out for! Although it continues to be accessible (usually to ornithologists) only with the director’s permission, this is not too hard to obtain; just click this link for the warden’s contact info. There are also public footpaths between Valley and Four-mile- Bridge that let you explore small portions of it – and which overlook some of it too.

Nest Egg…

Now owned in part by the Orthios Group, development on their section of the original estate (where the aluminium plant once operated – across the road from the reserve) has already been turned into a ‘combined biomass’ heat and power plant, with more elements of this project still to come. With its energy derived from forestry residue and agricultural by-products – as well as meeting strict sustainability criteria – it’s vision is to address “the global demand for solutions to energy, food security, waste management, and meaningful employment”. Yes, not only an environmentally friendly venture, it’s hoped this new project will generate much-needed jobs in the area again! The fate of the infamous chimney, though, is still to be decided – but plans for the finished plant show it as having been removed – however, setbacks in funding means this is probably still some way off.  

Logging Off…

More controversially, after the departure of Anglesey Aluminium the segment hitherto designated as a nature reserve was brought by ‘Land & Lakes’ – with a view to making it into a (and I quote) “a world-class holiday destination” – basically, a gated leisure village with up to 50 holiday lodges. Not only this, the plans include a 75-acre residential housing scheme – half of which will be designated as affordable housing for local people. They state their development has the potential to be, “transformative for local communities, generating hundreds of sustainable new jobs and training opportunities” and they also say they want “to create a legacy development that will rejuvenate local communities and promote economic viability for generations to come”.

A Daunting Prospect…

Hundreds of locals (as well as people further afield) sent letters objecting to these proposals, and thousands signed petitions too. The reasons for the protest is clear – as there’s no doubt that a large portion of the nature reserve will be affected. Indeed, in order to build the holiday park (which will include 487 buildings and new access roads) local wildlife will be certainly disturbed, and public access will be restricted. Although designated as a Regionally Important and Geomorphological Site in 2009, and part of Anglesey’s status as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (which calls for “the unique landscape, natural beauty and special qualities of the Isle of Anglesey to be conserved and enhanced for the benefit of present and future generations”) the planning permission was still granted. Many people are still furious – and I can see why!

Crossing Paths…

Furthermore, although nothing whatsoever to do with the Wylfa power station development (15 miles away on ‘mainland’ Anglesey), the Penrhos project can’t begin without their support. The reason for this resides in the initial Planning permission details, which requires the ‘Penrhos Leisure Village’ to be occupied by the new power station’s construction workers before it can be used for tourism.  However, with both projects hampered by financial setbacks, as well as political wrangling, very little has happened in terms of the Penrhos development thus far – but, just in case, get out there and enjoy it before everything changes!

Not Out of the Woods Yet…

Land and Lakes have promised that should the project go ahead, 73 acres of woodland, beaches, headland and pathways will remain open to the public. Plus, if/when the new ‘Bathing House Restaurant’ opens, it too (along with Visitors Centre) will be open to all as well. In fact, they go as far as to state that the coastal path part of the reserve (already a designated ‘Public Right of Way’) will be actually be improved upon.

Like many people, I’m in two minds about the plans. As always on Anglesey, especially in the most beautiful/rural areas, I want everything to stay the same…but I’m also aware of the island’s employment problems, and the importance of promoting tourism. I just hope, if/when it does go ahead, Land & Lakes will be true to their word in terms of public access, as well as handling the environmental issues VERY sensitively. I still have many concerns, but all we can do at this stage is keep our fingers crossed…

A Fond Farewell…

4. Afon Alaw Estuary

‘Afon’ obviously means ‘river’, and ‘Alaw’ is said to mean something like ‘melodious’ – but it’s also a Welsh girl’s name – inspired directly from this exact river rather than the other way around – or so I’ve been told! Rising near Llanerch-y-medd, and from there flowing northwards, this pretty watercourse first empties into the Llyn Alaw Reservoir, before carrying on in a southwestwardly direction until reaching Llanfachraeth. From here on in it becomes an estuary, meandering seaward – before finally meeting Anglesey’s western coastline; where it empties out into Beddmanarch Bay. Like much of the Cymyran Strait, its shallow, meandering waters produce the perfect habitat for hundreds of feeding birds. Beware, it’s lower reaches are obviously tidal- as well as boggy – with most of it too wet to walk up almost all of the year! Follow the Coastal Path that hems it instead -you’ll still get many marvellous bird-watching moments!

Slippery When Wet…

‘Gribin’, on-the-other-hand, can mean ‘rugged and/or ‘ridge’’, and ‘Treath’ – as you know – can mean ‘beach’, ‘shore’, or ‘sands’ – so, translates as something akin to (and appropriately as) ‘Rugged Shore’. Interestingly, ‘Beddmanarch’, translates as ‘Monk’s Grave’ – presumably because, on the Gorad (or Vally) side, there’s a rock formation that looks like a monk lying down in a death-like position – plus, there’s a pool here known locally as the ‘Monk’s Pool’ as well! However, there’s also an ancient burial cairn called ‘Bedd Branwen’ not far from the head of the estuary – so perhaps it’s connected to that. If anyone knows more about the original inspiration for the Bay’s name, please get in touch!

Rough Around the Edges…

Soph’s ‘Bedmanarch’ History-Mystery Moment #2

Bedd Branwen translates as Branwen’s Grave and, indeed, legend has it that it’s where the ‘mythical character’ of Princess Branwen who figures in the Mabinogion is buried. Compiled in Middle Welsh during the 12th – 13th centuries, the Mabinogion is a collection of stories primarily concerned with the lives of various ancient Welsh royal families, figureheads, and fighters – at least on the surface. In actual fact, the tales they tell derive from much earlier oral traditions, with its characters believed by many to be based on the gods and fables of an older mythological order – mixed in (here and there) with remnants of real events.

History in the Making…

So, as with many myths and legends, the stories become embellished and added to over time – as well as twisted and tuned in order to make them fit with Christian beliefs, and moulded to fit the contemporary tastes; including more recent events, and important people of the day. All in all, this makes working out what was once true or not almost impossible! In any event, this important book is Britain’s earliest example of written ‘prose’, and considered to be the country’s first proper ‘published’ literature; providing the basis for much of European and world writing to come! Yes, folks, fantasy-fiction isn’t a new genre at all – it’s been around as long as storytelling has…which is basically forever in terms of the history of humankind!

To cut a long story short, in the tale we’re interested in, Princess Branwen, daughter of King Llŷr (the previous High King of the Island of Britain) is given away by her brother , Bendigeidfran/Bran the Blessed (the new High King), as wife to the Irish king, Matholwch. However, an insult to her husband by her half-brother, Efnisien, means the couple begin to argue – resulting in Branwen being mistreated. When King Bran hears about this he’s both incensed and insulted, so much so that he declares war on Ireland – but is subsequently killed in battle. His head, however, is sent home…but that’s another story! Anyway, although Branwen finally manages to escape, and make her way back to her beloved Anglesey, she sadly dies of a broken heart!

Brothers in Arms…

Although allegedly buried beneath the Beddmanarch Bay cairn that now bears her name, in reality, it predates her by a few thousand years – at least as far as the Mabinogian ‘dates’ go. Debate still rages about whether King Llŷr and his progeny were ever based on real people at all though – with most thinking, if they were, that their original stories have been poached and replaced to such an extent over the centuries, that barely a hint of truth remains. Others think the Llŷr character originated as a deity (probably derived from the Irish word ‘Ler’ – meaning the ‘Sea’). With so little to go on, their true identity (whether fact or fiction) remains unknowable – or obscure at best.

The same can be said of many of the book’s other ‘characters’, including the duo who morphed into those known as King Arthur and his ‘wizard’ Merlin. Incidentally, in the Mabinogian Arthur and Branwen are related. The nearby Trearddur Bay/Bae Trearddur translates as Arthur’s Bay – because, as legend has it, he once landed here! King Arthur, therefore, is a more famous example of where history and myth become so entwined as to make it impossible to work out whether such a person ever actually existed! Is he an amalgamation of a number of British heroes, a fabulous literary fantasy, or a bit of both? And the same goes for Branwen and the rest of her clan.  

Even at the Turning of the Tide…

Although now in ruins, the ancient grave still retains one plump, cracked standing stone –  but there’s barely anything to be seen of the mound that once covered it, with only a vague shape still visible. A handful of smaller stones still adorn the edges though, and there are others close-by which ‘might’ be associated with the monument too.  It was first excavated in 1800, and again in the 1960s – when several Bronze-Age (i.e. 2,000 BC) urns with human ashes were found; apparently female – which both added to and quashed the Branwen myth at the same time! Whoever’s grave it is, it’s still a fascinating tale, and there’s no doubt that the ‘woman’ buried there (whoever she was) was someone important!

Break With Tradition…

Thinking about it, perhaps the ‘real’ woman was called Alaw…the name of the river near here – from whence the Welsh girl’s name is said to derive! Perhaps it’s wrong to think the name of the river came first, and the name second…or am I just getting carried away now?

Incidentally, Shakespeare’s character King Lear (from the play of the same name) is based on material taken secondhand (through another writer called Holinshed) from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s mythical ‘King Leir’, but is often connected, to the Welsh Llŷr from the Mabinogian too – however, this is also hotly debated! Well, as hotly debated as something people interested in ancient literature can be! I’m not knocking it – in another life, it’d be right up my (geeky little) street!

Anyway, keep your eye out for the burial site whilst walking up the estuary – it’s quite close to the west bank – in a field towards the head – near to the hamlet of Glanalaw. However, it’s not easy to see from the footpath; only really visible if you have a zoom lens or binoculars with you!

Keeping it Vague…

Although on private land (Os grid reference: SH 3611 8498) you can get permission off the farmer to go and visit – but it’s almost impossible to get there via the Coastal path because of the (very secure) fencing in the area! I’d drive to Glanalaw and ask at the closest farm (shown below) if you’re interested in getting up close and personal! By-the-by, I think ‘glan’ can mean ‘clean’, but also ‘bank’ – so I guess the hamlet’s named after its proximity to the river rather than it’s purity, but it works either way – as it really is a freshwater haven!

Line of Sight…

‘Gorad’, by the way, probably comes from the old Irish/Celtic word ‘cora’ used to denote a fish-weir. This makes sense because fish still sweep up and down the channel, especially on tide-changes when they’re chasing smaller species – and become easier to catch because of being compacted in the fast-flowing, but narrow watercourse!

Over the years we’ve done a fair bit of fishing in Strait ourselves, and it’s amazing what an array you can hook – with everything from bass and salmon, to flounders, mullet, and more! It’s also great for crabbing and prawning. Incidentally, if you go back to PART ONE, to the photo I’ve entitled ‘Wet Weekend’, you’ll see what look like large stones and boulders arranged very much in the style of a traditional fish-weir. Although on the other side of the Bay, on the Penrhos, not the Gorad or Traeth y Gribin foreshore, it’s a clue worth looking into! I’ve not actually come across any reference to it being one so far, but I’d be interested to see what you think. There’s a super example of a weir to the right of Lligwy Bay (on the NW Anglesey coast, not far from Moelfre) – the curved C-shape of which is quite obvious at low-tide there!

Go With the Flow…

I hope this has given you a bit of insight into the Bedmanarch Bay area, and ‘wetted’ your appetite to get out there and get exploring!

For nearby Holiday Cottages on Holy Island, and Anglesey too – go to:

www.menaiholidays.co.uk/anglesey-cottages