Our writer, Paul Miles, makes the rocky crossing to car-free Bardsey Island, just off the Llŷn peninsula, to enjoy some birdwatching and local folklore
“People used to believe that if they died on Bardsey Island, they went straight to heaven, missing out on purgatory,” says Colin Evans as we stand on the shore of this tiny holy island, known in Welsh as Ynys Enlli. He has just skippered us on a 20-minute crossing through waters swirling with fierce currents from a bay on the Llŷn peninsula. Pilgrims used to brave this two mile stretch of water in rowing boats but we have zipped across, dodging spray, in a boat with two 135Hp engines: not exactly environmentally sound, it has to be said, but it’s the only way for holidaymakers to reach this car-free speck, population eight.
Colin tells us more of the history: how there was a population of 92 at its peak and how archaeologists have found no remains of the first, 6th century, abbey (although fragments of the 13th century one still stand) and that the cemetery, where legend says 20,000 early Christians (or ‘saints’) are buried, is “many skeletons deep and sometimes you might find, say, a hip bone coming to the surface.”
Whereas once there were nine farms on the 0.7 square mile island, now there’s just one. Sheep and cattle graze and feed crops are grown. The island is half flat, fertile plain and half hill, that the residents call a ‘mountain’. In profile, from the mainland, it looks like a baseball cap.
As well as oats and barley for the cattle, there are wildflower meadows for conservation. The island, now owned by a charitable trust, is financially supported by the RSPB and there is a bird observatory. Volunteers assist paid staff to monitor the bird life. Rare, red-billed choughs live here as well as a few puffins and, on the ‘mountain’ two pairs of peregrines nest but it is the population of thousands of Manx shearwaters that birders most associate with Bardsey. These strange, burrowing seabirds have a call that sounds like fighting alley cats. Noisy Atlantic grey seals also make their home here, some 200 of them.
But only eight humans, all year round. In the summer, this increases as there are nine holiday homes to rent – the former vicarage and farm cottages, with no mains electricity and water from a spring. The houses straggle along an unpaved track at the foot of the ‘mountain’, facing meadows and fields to a square-sided lighthouse and the sea.
Winding up his introductory talk, Colin points ahead of him and says: “If you haven’t been here before, I’d suggest you walk up this track here, have a tea or coffee at Jo and Steve’s house – they also sell water – and then carry on walking.”
So that’s exactly what we did.
Jo Porter has lived on the island for seven years. “I used to come here on holidays,” she says, as she serves us a cafetiere of coffee at picnic tables outside her house. “I fell in love with the place.” Two nanny goats wander among the tables and Jo shoos them away from her customers. When there aren’t visitors to sell teas and coffees to, she makes felt purses and weaves baskets. “It keeps me busy in the winter,” she says. Her handicrafts are on sale in a small stone-built outhouse.
Following sheep tracks among bracken, between lichen-covered rocks, we hiked to the top of the ‘mountain’, that must be all of 300ft high, and paused to admire the view of farmhouse and paddocks in one direction and, in the other, a near vertical drop to the foaming ocean, above which fulmars soared.
A little wood mouse peeped out from sweet-smelling bracken and I thought I heard the strange calls of shearwaters in the distance. Then, around some rocks on the spine of the hill, came a troupe of half a dozen children and four adults. They were dressed in cheesecloth shirts, sandals, stripy leggings and floppy hats. One of the women carried a small bucket that was full of clumps of lichen and shells. “We’re going to make a model of the island,” explained a little blonde girl excitedly. “And we’re going to use raisins as the cow poo!” she continued, to giggles.
“Which house are you staying in?” asked a man, peering over his designer sunglasses. “We’re not,” we said, “we’re just day-trippers.” But what a perfectly old-fashioned holiday it would be.
If you needed inspiration for rainy day activities, there’s a resident artist, in summer anyway. Carole Shearman runs art sessions using recycled and found materials. She showed us prints made from mushroom spores and a dangling mobile made from limpet shells.
Near Carole’s studio, past gardens bursting with colourful fuchsias and hebes, along a track, edged with yellow lady’s bedstraw, is the bird observatory. It has a small exhibition on the flora and fauna of the island. You can learn how to distinguish a guillemot from a razorbill and learn why people used to dislike choughs. (“They were once thought to steal lighted candles and use them to set fire to homes,” says a display board.) The bird observatory offers good value accommodation for those who don’t want to rent a whole house. Here, you share kitchen, toilet and washing facilities with others but have your own bedroom. There’s also a library chock-full of books on flora, fauna, geography and history and the chance to assist the warden monitor the island’s birds, whether that’s setting net traps or weighing fluffy shearwater chicks. If you feel inspired by the fact that the Welsh language is very much alive and well here, you can even partake in many Welsh language and bilingual activities and learning courses at Nant Gwrtheyrn.
We peered through the windows of an empty holiday home – simple, period furniture, wooden worktops in the kitchen and a Belfast sink. It all looked lovely. We sat quietly in the chapel for a few minutes and then continued walking towards the lighthouse. Oyster catchers piped frantically from rocks and a ringed plover darted ahead of us. But the wildlife highlight was the seal colony. As we sat above the beach, we watched and listened to dozens of Atlantic grey seals resting on seaweed-covered rocks. They snorted, moaned and roared while slumbering, wobbling and occasionally squabbling. “They’re like badly behaved Brits abroad,” said my friend.
Our four hours on the island were over too soon. On the crossing back, Colin skippered the boat below the cliffs. Guillemots flapped madly past us and we spotted puffins by their bright bills. Shags dived below the surface. The sea around the island, as around most of the Llŷn peninsula, is part of one of the largest ‘Special Areas of Conservation’ in the UK, thanks to its diverse habitats and plentiful marine life.
That evening we dined on some of it – crab caught by local fishermen and served up in a delicious salad in the very good restaurant of the Ship Hotel in nearby Aberdaron, the setting off point for Bardsey pilgrims for generations. For today’s pilgrims, getting to and from the ‘island of the saints’ is no longer a hardship, it’s a holiday.
This article was written by Paul Miles.