Category: Wales

Welsh headlands

I start writing this well wrapped up as I listen to the rain beating against our windows. But although the weather outside is not conducive to putting forth to sea in a small sailing boat, nevertheless we go ahead with plans for the next leg(s) of our journey around Britain. In some strange way we are surprised to find ourselves here, bobbing about off the coast of Wales, as we always thought it more likely that we would sail south on the opposite side of the Irish Sea, down the coast of Ireland. Yet here we are. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way of passage-making, of course, since the elements will always prevail. Even with the most thorough planning it is only hindsight that tells you that your decisions were correct, or not.

In hindsight the decision to sail south from the Isle of Man was a brilliant one as we were able to dig out our brightly coloured spinnaker and watch it expand above Cirrus’ bows like a massive curved bubble, a sail that on a good day can pull us along faster than anything else in our wardrobe. It floated up there with scarcely a wobble for hour after hour and in the end it was the shipping lanes just north of the coast of Anglesey and the need to cross at right angles to the flow, that eventually forced us to bring it down. Not that there were many ships about to see us.

Holyhead marina gave us a safe overnight haven and a place to top up our diesel tank then a little excitement just as we were leaving the next day. Yacht engines rely on sea water being pumped through them to prevent overheating, a cooling system which generally has only one moving part, the impeller. Made of rubber and spending its life tucked away inside the engine, ours had been spinning away happily for months until three of its little arms decided to break off just as we were hurrying to get out of port ahead of the Dublin ferry. How did we know? Well the steam pouring out of our exhaust was a clue. It is a fact of life that events like this will always chose inappropriate moments to occur so while Kate took charge of Cirrus as she drifted slowly across the harbour like a wounded animal, I dived head first into the engine compartment and ten minutes later, a spare had been fitted and we were on our way again, hearts still pounding after such a close shave with serious engine damage.

The light winds gave me an opportunity to do something I have dreamt about for many years. The cliffs on Holyhead were once, over 30 years ago, my playground as a young rock climber with plenty of daring and a solid, reliable climbing partner called Martin. This same cliff is home to a climb called ‘Dream of White Horses’ but when clinging to its tiny handholds, never did I really think that one day I would be sailing so close beneath and looking up.

The cliffs are an impressive spectacle as they drop sheer into the sea and continue far below. The rock strata is twisted and buckled and erosion has formed deep inlets, arches and caves over which many of the climbing routes progress. This is definitely only a place for the young and the brave… or maybe the foolish.

As the day progressed it became hot as the wind fell light. Protection from the sun was important now (although we are both well tanned in parts that are exposed regularly) as we motored southwards across Caernarvon Bay towards the tiny village of Porth Dinllaen where we hoped to find shelter from the next depression.

The summer continued as British summers do, reliably infinitely variable, so when next morning we awoke to rain and wind it was an easy decision to stay huddled inside while it lasted… which was most of the day. It was early on the following day that we set off sailing around the tip of the Lleyn Peninsula, the second of Wales’ three big headlands. Where Holyhead had let us off lightly, calm seas, the Lleyn jostled us about a little more with a patch or two of well disturbed water but having passed through Bardsey Sound we once again set the spinnaker for a run across Cardigan Bay to Aberystwyth.

The marina here scored maximum points for friendliness and we were sad to leave the place behind the next day but a reasonable forecast beckoned us, so off we went again, ever southwards. Unfortunately the promised nice sailing breeze never quite made it so our engine had to pound away for eight hours as we motored on towards Fishguard in Pembrokshire, finally dropping our anchor beside the Seacat terminal. The harbour here is vast and empty, as if waiting for the marina developers to get started. Don’t expect facilities, there are none, but there is shelter and good solid mud came up on the anchor next morning, always a good sign.

One headland to go, St David’s, the biggest and most challenging of the three, was saved till last. As we were soon to find out, this is a place where even in light winds the sea can jump up and bite you. Timing is everything here. Only by pressing on against a three knot current past Strumble Head could we ensure we’d arrive in the notorious Ramsey Sound at the very moment the whole body of water starts to move south. But the change is sudden, like passing over a barrier in the sea or stepping off a kerb into the fast lane, the difference being that such tidal crossroads always generate turbulence, the scale of which is directly proportional to the speed of the current and/or the wind. The Sound spat us out into a wall of near vertical waves, holes in the sea opening up under our hull into which our three and a half tonnes of boat dropped like a stone. As she rose again our decks shrugged off the the green water and we soldiered on. Worse was to come. A few miles further on off Skomer Island the ‘Wild Goose Race’ was waiting and even though we avoided the worst of this, we met waves so steep and confused that we lost almost all control of the boat as were carried through them. This mass of water was moving at over ten knots past the Island’s terrifying cliffs, washing us out towards the Bristol Channel, treating us like flotsam. If quiet weather and light winds can produce such waves, heaven only knows what St David’s must be like to sail through on a bad day.

This last Welsh headland proved to be the worst by a long margin. We need to spend a few more days now in the peace of Milford Haven to restore our sanity and gird our loins before moving on. Chatting to a local yachtsman we are assured that the worst is over, smooth waters lie ahead. We listen and nod sagely.

Viking Man

Our travels around these Isles have repeatedly put us in touch with both the lives of people who share them with us today and with those whose past lives have become our heritage, something we British often revere and respect even more. It has come as something of an unexpected pleasure to find our heritage exposed and on view almost everywhere we have travelled so that we have been able to indulge ourselves in discovering the historical context of the places we have been and the people who previously lived there. We have seen patterns emerging, migrations of people, for example, where we have visited both ends of the trail or else seeing similar influences occurring in different places. And by this time we were beginning to feel that we had much of the history of these Isles just about worked out, a sort of mental timeline in our heads which provides us with a reference point on which to hang new information from another part of the land, or another community.

Take the Vikings, for instance. Like most people we thought we knew about them coming over from Scandinavia with their long ships and their well protected noses, how they beat up the locals wherever they landed, but brought some nice jewellery with them. Then in the end they settled down, became part of us and gave us our red hair but mostly we are indifferent to their legacy and if asked, most of us would probably regard their influence in our culture as no more important than, say, the Romans or the Irish or any other group of incomers.

Then suddenly we come to a part of our land which, despite having the same sets of incomers as elsewhere, has a totally different perspective on history. We find ourselves on an island where the Viking influence predominates above all others and their culture is venerated as if they had arrived only yesterday. And the reason? It is from the Vikings that the Isle of Man gained its governance, a system which has been around longer than anything else in the world and something they are endlessly proud of.

This is a place which is strangely part of Britain yet at the same time it is fiercely separate, a state of mind that begins to rub off on those coming to live here almost from the minute they step ashore. Look around and you’ll see a red letter box outside a Co-op store, cars with steering wheels to the right which stop at zebra crossings, all the trappings of Britishness yet somehow I find myself imagining I am in a foreign country, being almost surprised when I hear English spoken. The confusion is compounded by the police force here which has adopted the British police uniform, but only up as far as the neck (do not be tempted to think, as I did, that the white helmet is fancy dress). Only our mobile phone is certain as to where it is….abroad.

Independence of government, however, does not allow escape from the same weather that has dogged the rest of the northern part of Britain these last few weeks so when Peel Harbour finally provides us with an incredible sunset we once again find ourselves planning to put to sea, finding a narrow window of reasonable winds sandwiched between something much worse. Scotland, Northern Ireland, Isle of Man and finally we make an early morning departure from Port St Mary, which nestles down at the toe of the island, and many hours later, Wales is in sight. We are country hopping and along with us, for reasons best known to themselves, a river of jellyfish wends its way across the Irish Sea. These are mostly a purple coloured variety which have been as plentiful this year as we have ever seen them. At times we have been literally ploughing through solid jellyfish pasture, which makes us wonder where the predators are, whatever creature it is that feeds on these defenceless blobs.

We are moving ever southwards now, no particular timetable in mind, but we are conscious that we’ll eventually be sailing into the crowded waters of the south coast of England, a place many light-years removed from the Western Isles of Scotland where we started this year. We have frequently found ourselves alone on the sea, not another vessel or yacht in sight, but at the brink of the summer holiday period we imagine this is about to end. Soon we’ll be jostling for the last harbour pontoon space like the rest.