Welsh islands

Tuesday 4 May 2010, 10:10

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice

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Barry Island is now a popular holiday destination but before David Davies built his docks in the area it was an actual island, only being connected with the mainland by a causeway after 1884. Even before that date it was popular with visitors.

In 1876, for example, over 12,000 visitors made their way out to the island, either by boat or, at low water, by carefully negotiating a series of stepping-stones.

Most visitors to the Mumbles, outside Swansea, take a walk along the pier. But they give little thought to the two small islets a few hundred yards to the west that give the area its name.

Always a dangerous place for shipping, a lighthouse was built on one of the islets and in 1883 the daughters of the lighthouse keeper rescued two lifeboat men who had been thrown into the sea. The girls simply knotted their shawls together, waded into the raging waters and used them as a lifeline - a rescue that, in its own way, was as worthy as anything the famous Grace Darling ever achieved.

Many islands guard the county of Pembrokeshire. Several of them have Viking names as Norse raiders visited and pillaged the region on many occasions.

Caldey is perhaps the most famous of these islands, having been inhabited by monks since the 6th century. The island has always been a farming community and these days about sixty people still live there. Yet most visitors fail to realise that Caldey is actually made up of two islands, Caldey itself and, off its western tip, St Margaret's, now home to thousands of breeding cormorants.

Grassholm is Wales' most distant island, lying seven miles west of Skomer. These days it is famous as a gannetry and visitors are not allowed. However, you can visit some of the other Pembrokeshire islands, places such as Skomer, Skokholm and Ramsey. St Justinian, always the most intractable of Welsh saints, supposedly met his end on Ramsey when he accused his followers of idleness. They cut off his head.

Bardsey lies two miles off the Llyn and, according to Arthurian legend, was once the home of the magician Merlin. The remains of a 13th century abbey can be found on the island and, it is said, 20,000 saints were buried there. In the Middle Ages this was an important place of pilgrimage, three visits here equalling one to Rome.

You rarely associate the Menai Straits with islands but in factthere are many of them sitting in the waterway. Perhaps the most interesting is Ynys Gorad Goch, sometimes known as Whitebait Island.

The Maddoc Jones family lived on the island from the 1820s until the 1920s, selling visitors who rowed or sailed out from Bangor or Menai Bridge "Whitebait Teas" for a shilling.

Ynys Mon, or Anglesey to give the place its anglicised name, is the largest Welsh island. It used to be the granary of Wales and was known as Mon, Mam Cymru (Anglesey, Mother of Wales). But these days it is perhaps better known for the ferry port of Holyhead - located on Holy Island at the northwest tip of Ynys Mon - and for the village of Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyndrobwll-llantysiliogogogoch. A name made up to entice and beguile tourists, it remains the one place that every visitor to Wales has heard about.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    An interesting article on the islands of Wales but I'd never have thought there were so many. So I sat with my OS maps and counted and you're right. Some, I suppose, are just lumps of rock but others are substantial places.
    Could you answer one question for me? Off South Beach in Tenby is St Catherine's Island and on the top is a fort. Or I presume it's a fort. Who built it and why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    The fort on St Catherine's Island was built between 1868 and 1875. It was one of Palmerston's Follies, forts built around the coast of Britain to defend the country against the French - by the time they were built the possibility of war with the French was long over. Hence the name "follies." St Catherine's fort was part of the defensive structure around Pembroke Dockyard - there are many other forts around the Milford Haven area. The Tenby fort had 11 guns, none of them ever fired in anger. Hope that helps.


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