Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Holyhead, Wales--Ancient Outpost

For over 4,000 years humans have been making the voyage from Ireland to Britain and landing their boats at the natural harbor on northwest tip of the Isle of Anglesey, just off the Welsh mainland.
The Welsh name for the area is Caergybi. Caer, meaning fort, for the fort the Romans built here in the 4th century, and Gybi from Cybi, the name of the Cornish monk who in 540 founded a monastery here, incorporating the walls of the Roman fort into the structure. Cybi was given the land by Maelgwn the Great, the "dragon" of my Dragon of the Island series.
The English name for the town and area, Holyhead, also combines two words. "Head" for headland and "Holy" because of Cybi's monastery.

The walls of the fort are still standing. It is one of only three known three-walled Roman forts in Europe.
The church of St. Cybi was sacked by the Vikings in the 10th century, damaged by Henry IV's army in the 15th century in an assault on the holdings of the Welsh prince Owain Glydwr and much of the interior destroyed by Cromwell's army in the 17th century. Despite this, most of the church remain intact.
Rather incongruously, the ancient Roman walls and church are right in the center of the town, not far from a bridal shop and other modern stores and businesses.
But nearby there is also an old graveyard where headstones from the 1700's and 1800's mourn wives, husbands and children.  
Along with the fort, the Romans built a watchtower on nearby Holyhead Mountain.
Today the coast is guarded by the picturesque Southstack Lighthouse, built in 1809, and Elin's Tower, built in the mid-1800's as a summer home for a local family.

Elin's Tower is now used as a visitors center for the nearby nature reserve. Forty different bird species were sighted here this last season, including puffins, like this one on closed caption TV in the visitors center.
The Southstack coastline is very rugged and dramatic, rivaling the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland. Although the harsh lines are softened by the lush vegetation and jewel-like flowers.
 Until recently the voyage across the Irish Sea might have been made in a coracle, a hide and wicker boat like this one. The journey probably would have taken two days.   
On modern ferry you can make the from Dublin to Holyhead in an hour and a half.
But it can still be a rough voyage, as the Irish Sea is frequently turbulent. On my first trip from Dublin to Holyhead, I spent most of the time down in the lower deck bathroom. My husband, however, Irish-Viking soul that he is, endured the trip on very windy outer deck, visiting with one of the locals.
Because of this regular contact with Ireland, Holyhead has a strong Celtic flavor, even more so than the rest of Wales.
Although like the British, they love their gardens. And the maritime climate makes the summers here cool and the winters mild, ideal for growing flowers.
The influence of the sea is ever present in Holyhead, timeless, restless and wild.