Jamie's Blog: The Menai Strait
Jamie Owen walks the length of the Wales coastal path in his new series on Radio Wales (Saturdays at 1 PM, repeated Sundays 5 PM). In his blogs he shares his experiences along the way, and tells us what we can expect to hear in the programme.
Here’s a good Trivial Pursuit question for you. Where in Wales can you walk in a circle and remain on the coast? The answer is on the Menai Strait. Either side of the Strait is on the coast path – and if you’re map reading skills are a bit dodgy – this is the perfect perambulation - just keep turning left - or right - depending on your direction - and you’ll return to where you started - so long as you begin in between the two bridges. Use this in your next pub quiz...
I’ve sailed up the Menai Strait in an old sailing boat. If you’re a novice sailor it’s an un-nerving experience, the waters around the North Wales coast and in particular along the Menai Strait demand total respect. The roll call of wrecks over centuries is testament to that. But if you sail here you’ll be too busy watching whirling currents and washing machine -like eddies to soak up the scenery. You won’t be enjoying the landscape passing by because you’ll be too busy trying not to put the boat on the rocks. So I thought I’d return to the Menai Strait on foot this time, to have the chance of stopping and looking and enjoying some of the most glorious scenery Britain has to offer.
I’ve been walking the Wales coast path for an eight part BBC Radio Wales series, Jamie Owen’s Wales. So this time I’ll get to enjoy the Strait slowly rather than pass through - eyes fixed dead ahead - praying for open sea.
In morning rush hour, on the mainland side of the Strait, a taxi dropped me off beside the Britannia Bridge. It’s an odd feeling walking away from the road and into the shadow under a bridge - particularly one so busy with a constant throb of trains, lorries and cars. Everyone else is travelling at fifty miles and hour except for me. This is not one of those quiet walks in remote countryside far from the noise and din of everyday life. Twenty first century Wales can be heard on every stretch of this journey. In the playing fields beside the bridge a teenager is practicing his casting with a fishing rod. You see some peculiar sights walking the coast path – all human life is here.
In many other parts of Wales that I’ve already walked you can travel for miles on the coast path and not see a soul or come across much beyond glorious landscape and seas – but along the Menai Strait you won’t get far before getting out the guide book and diverting to explore something of interest. Every square mile is crammed with something of historical or scientific interest.
Treborth Botanical Gardens clings to the side of the Strait. These days its Eden-like paradise of woodland and birdlife is home to Bangor University students carrying out their research. Far beyond the library in Bangor, its laptops and text books, this is the most glorious open air classroom for field work. Its not just students wandering the woods either, around the waterfall its home too - at least when I walked through - to a reception class of Infants school children who’ve come to learn about trees and worms and listening to the birds. I’ve never seen a more enthralled bunch of kids. It wasn’t always a place of learning, Brittannia Park as it was once known, was planted in the 1850’s by Joseph Paxton the great landscape gardener. The plan was to design a destination for visitors coming on holiday to escape the industrial grime of Manchester. They came on days out to Bangor by railway. In those times, the trees were small and beginning their lives. After decades, the view that they framed became overgrown and obscured. The Coast Path takes you through a tunnel of green in Treborth with occasional glimpses of the view of the Strait that those travellers came to see. The Coast Path is opening up this well kept secret garden.
I could have happily stayed all day at Treborth, the little haven of countryside. Perched on the slope, home to Nigel Brown the dedicated curator, Gerry the volunteer digging out a stump and Rosie the squirrel expert, my visit was one of those life-affirming mornings that assures you that all will be well with the world so long as people like them are on it. They disappeared back into the woods.
It’s a tight squeeze driving across the Menai Suspension Bridge. You can forgive drivers and passengers for not looking beneath as they breathe in to squeeze through the twin pillars at either end of the span. Its part of the landscape now but just imagine the impact it had as construction began on the world’s first large iron suspension bridge. Walking across the bridge for the first time is a treat, in the slipstream of passing cars and buses. But its only as a pedestrian you can really understand the engineering skill of the men who built this North Wales icon and the formidable obstacle that the Strait presented to so many travellers who wished to cross it over a thousand years. Almost all of the technology used in building the bridge was untried in 1826, its testament to Telford and his men that it feels as solid as the day it was opened. And that’s a comforting feeling as you walk a hundred feet above the water.
One of the things I’ve tried to do whilst walking the Coast Path around Wales is to try and stick to locally produced food wherever I’m visiting. It’s not as easy as you might think. Some Welsh pubs and B & B’s fail to showcase the amazing welsh produce and recipes available on the doorstep. I’m losing count of the amount of times I’ve been offered full English Breakfast or Scottish Beef in a pub. But you can’t criticize the hostelry at the end of the Bridge. If you fancy a dish of Menai Mussels that haven’t travelled much further than a mile, the Bridge Inn will offer a welcome to weary walkers on this route.
As in the way of communities across Wales it’s a short walk from the pub to the church, sin and salvation always close at hand. St Tysilio’s must be one of the most idyllically positioned places of worship in Britain, an island in the stream of the Menai Strait, shadowed beneath the bridge and the perfect place to sit and watch the boats sail up and down. They hold services here by candlelight, and in this ancient place it’s not difficult to imagine the monk who gave his name to the church walking back through its gnarled door ready for Evensong.
Jamie Owen’s Wales - BBC Radio Wales Saturday 1 PM, repeated Sunday 5 PM & online after for seven days