As part of our series on the eight Welsh Protected Landscapes, Paul Bloomfield takes a stunning walk full of historical treasures in the Anglesey Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, from the Breakwater Country Park to South Stack
It's hard to tell when a chough is happy. Of all bird calls, the outraged caws of this red-billed crow family sounds least content. But the quartet wheeling above me must be fairly rapt about Holy Island, at Anglesey's western tip – last year a pair nested in Holyhead Breakwater Country Park for the first time. That this bird, whose numbers plummeted to almost nothing across much of Britain, chose to breed here says much about this spot.
I'm learning quite a bit about what makes birds – as well as adders, seals and indeed humans – happy here on a walk with countryside warden Gareth Evans, who's showing me the delights of the Breakwater Country Park and neighbouring South Stack Cliffs reserve. Both are part of the Anglesey Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, designated half a century ago in 1966 and encompassing 85-square miles – about one third of the whole island, and 95% of its coastline. And what a coastline! Punctuated by craggy cliffs, sandy beaches and the wooded shores of the Menai Strait, no wonder it's popular with walkers who trace the Anglesey Coastal Path circum-ambulating the island. Gareth and I will be tackling just a handful of its 124 miles, albeit some of the most dramatic and historic.
Watch our short video about the eight Welsh Protected Landscapes:
We start in the unlikeliest of areas of natural beauty (though beautiful it is): a disused quarry. The country park is based on the site where countless tonnes of rock were hacked away, first to build the base of Holyhead breakwater – at 1.5-miles long, the UK's longest – then, after that was completed in 1873, for silica-rich rocks used by William Wild & Co to make heat-resistant bricks for steelworks.Today the disused crusher building is lined with information boards telling the story of the breakwater and quarry, while a mosaic on its exterior is a mini-timeline of the area, depicting a mammoth (a mandible was found during dredging for the breakwater), a Celtic triskeli, a Roman helmet and a sailing ship, as well as a modern ferry and a family out for a stroll.
Nearby, the now-roofless Brick Shed houses a gallery of vintage photos and paintings of the park's flora and fauna. Some of these photos and paintings were produced by Charles Tunnicliffe, long-time Anglesey resident and renowned nature artist for numerous Ladybird books; his charming pictures of porpoises, cormorants, razorbills, gannets, peregrines, hares and adders show a small selection of the species commonly found on the island. Paintings by the well-to-do Massey sisters show squill, thrift and the endemic (and curiously named) South Stack fleawort – though not, Gareth laughs, the spotted rock rose that is the county flower of Anglesey. "The petals fall off by midday," he says, "but the Masseys were wealthy ladies of leisure, so didn't get up early enough to paint them!"
We set out west, through delightfully hobbity gates created by sculptor Dominic Clare, and past the pale rock faces exposed when the flanks of Holyhead Mountain were chomped away by the quarrymen. From a viewpoint high above the shore, we gaze east past diving cormorants to where Carneddau ponies graze, part of a project to restore heathland.
"They've done a great job," Gareth says. "They're selective grazers, eating grasses and stuff we don't want, allowing heather and other plants to thrive. They've been here for five or six years, and now in spring the area is just carpeted with thrift and squill blooms – lovely."
Gradually we climb rocky steps towards a small stone building that looks like a little chapel, but was in fact a powder magazine for the fog warning station at North Stack, which I could make out at the end of the headland. Up we clamber, passing the clearly discernible remains of an Iron Age hillfort and the Roman watchtower built on it late in the 3rd century. It's easy to see why successive cultures chose this eyrie: from high atop Holyhead Mountain views stretch for dozens of miles out to sea and inland. With Holyhead town hidden behind a headland and no noise save the wind, waves and seabirds, there's a timeless feel to this rugged spot at the very edge of Britain.
Around the corner, the light of South Stack lighthouse flashes from its barren island, facing sheer cliffs where thousands of seabirds nest in summer. Beneath, tucked into the rock, is Parliament House cave – "the racket the birds and breeding seals that inhabit it are like the uproar at Prime Minister's Question Time," Gareth grins. On a clear day, he tells me, from here you can see Ireland's Wicklow and Mourne Mountains, the Isle of Man and Cumbria beyond.
Humans flock to this craggy shore, too. Anglesey is a natural adventure playground, with opportunities for rock-climbing on these daunting cliffs, coasteering off them or kayaking around them. Nearby, thrillseekers whizz down the world's fastest zipline at ZipWorld near Bangor, and there's even an artificial surf lake just to the east.
I'm content to continue on foot, passing the RSPB seabird centre at Ellin's Tower that offers terrific views of the cliffs and lighthouse. We pause at the visitor centre for a reviving tea and cake before exploring the well-preserved hut circles of Ty Mawr – an Iron Age hamlet. It seems an appropriate place to finish our hike through history – natural and otherwise: a stroll into the past, from Victorian industrial heritage to the lives of farmers over two millennia ago.
Download leaflets and audio trails for Holyhead Breakwater Country Park from anglesey.gov.uk or visitanglesey.com. The park has a cafe and a visitor centre with artworks dotted around and lots of information on the area and walking trails.RSPB South Stack Cliffs reserve visitor centre has an excellent cafe and shop, and the seabird centre at Ellin's Tower has binoculars, telescopes and CCTV cameras for watching nesting puffins, razorbills and guillemots nesting on the cliffs, and dolphins, seals and porpoises out at sea. Find details at RSPB.org.uk
This article was written by Paul Bloomfield for our Greentraveller's Guide to Anglesey AONB