Rock Around Britain – the headlands and rocks around our coasts - 3

3. The coast of Wales

Crossing the mouth of the Bristol Channel into Wales, the obvious destination is Milford Haven but we should not miss one of the most fascinating headlands in Britain, Worm's Head. Shaped like a giant sea-serpent and historically named Wurm meaning dragon, it marks the most westerly tip of Gower and is technically an island joined to the mainland by a rocky causeway. The island is separated into two halves by a natural rock bridge. As the causeway is only exposed for two and a half hours before and after low tide, it is not surprising that many casualties have been trapped here while waiting for the next low water. The poet Dylan Thomas writes of his terror at being cut off with only his packed lunch to console him. Wreckers abounded in this area in the past, when well laden vessels were lured onto the rocks and the anchor of one of these can still be found on the beach.

Crossing Carmarthen Bay we pass St Govan's and Linney Head where the Crow Rock is considered to be one of the many excellent diving locations in the area because of its deep gullies, ravines and surrounding shipwrecks. Overlooking the entrance to Milford Haven is St Ann's Head with its lighthouse, built to guide vessels around the rocky shoals. Two islands lie off the fishtail-like peninsula between St Ann's Head and Wooltack Point. Skokholm is 2.5 miles long and the fourth largest of Wales' offshore islands. Skomer, further north, is well known for its abundance of wildlife, including the largest colony of Atlantic Puffin in southern Britain and a third of the world population of Manx Shearwaters. It is surrounded by a Marine Nature Reserve and is separated from the mainland by the treacherous waters of Jack Sound. This is a narrow rock-strewn stretch of water, about 500 metres wide, fairly shallow and with a ferocious tidal race at most states of the tide, sometimes reaching 8 knots. There is slack water for about 30 minutes on neap tides and less on springs. A dangerous place to take a boat but highly popular with divers.

North of Skomer is St Brides Bay with its Stack Rocks, about a quarter of a mile from the coast. It was here, in 1977, that some strange and unexplained happenings took place, starting with two silver suited figures that were seen walking on the rocks, by children from a farm on the mainland. This was followed by a series of bizarre accidents to electrical appliances on the farm and cars just refusing to run. Matters came to a head when the farm's cows inexplicably escaped and trampled over a neighbour's crops. For a year people in the area reported unexplained events and sightings of weird lights in the sky, including the appearance of a huge 7ft figure wearing a space suit. Then suddenly the activities stopped and everything returned to normal, though no-one was able to explain the happenings. The area is still referred to by some as the Welsh Bermuda Triangle.

Crossing St Bride's Bay towards St David's and the island of Ramsey we see Smalls Lighthouse, standing on a rock about 32km west of St David's peninsular, the most remote lighthouse operated by Trinity House. Originally constructed using plans drawn up by a musical instrument maker, Henry Whiteside, it stood for 80 years in spite of its unusual design. It was built on nine oak pillars, allowing the sea to pass underneath. During one repair session the builders were stranded on the lighthouse and had to send a message in a bottle to the mainland before they were rescued. A gruesome event happened in 1801 when one of the keepers died in an accident. His colleague, frightened that he might be suspected of murder and terrified of throwing the body into the sea in case it was discovered, built a coffin and strapped it to the outside of the tower. When the coffin was blown apart by the wind, the body shifted and an arm could be seen from the lighthouse window as though it were beckoning. Although the keeper managed to keep the lamp lit by himself, he was in a sorry state when he was eventually relieved from his post. This event resulted in a change in policy; the two keepers being upped to three. The current lighthouse was the first wind-and-solar-powered lighthouse in the UK.

Ramsey Island is 2 miles long and the third largest island in Wales. With its spectacular wild life, tidal race and rocks named The Bitches, it is a popular tourist destination. The sea bed between the mainland and the island changes height dramatically causing a tidal race of up to 7 knots and the rocks constrict the water further to form standing and broken waves (known as stoppers). There is also a large underwater spike named Horse Rock, which creates whirlpools and has caused many boats to come to grief.

Travelling in a north easterly direction is Strumble Head, with its lighthouse on a rocky islet just off the headland. The area is one of the best places to view porpoises and seals.

Next is the huge expanse of Cardigan Bay, beneath which lie three substantial glacial moraines called Sarnau, exposed at low spring tides. They are ridges of rock moved and built up by the action of glaciers and are composed of boulders, pebbles and cobbles mixed with sediment. Sarn Cynfelyn runs for 11km out to sea, from Wallog, between Clarach and Borth and ends in an underwater reef known as The Patches. Sarn Badrig is the longest and most northerly moraine, extending for 29km from Shell Island near Harlech, while Sarn y Bwlch is the central of the three and is close to Tywyn. These three Sarnau together with Borth's sunken forest are thought to be the origin of the legend of the lost land of Cantre'r Gwaelod – the Lowland Hundred, which was said to have been submerged by the sea in a great storm.

North of Cardigan Bay lies the Lleyn Peninsula. Dominating the coast at Pwllheli (half way down the southern side), is Gimlet Rock, a large granite plateau. Here the area was extensively quarried for stone paving sets by the Liverpool and Pwllheli Granite Company. Further along the coast are St Tudwal's Islands with their well developed cave system and off the tip of the peninsula is Bardsey Island (Island of Currents in Welsh). This is the legendary "Island of 20,000 saints", famous for its wildlife and rugged beauty and one of the best places to see seals, dolphins and porpoises. Its lighthouse, celebrated for its square shape, stands on the most southerly tip of the island and guides vessels passing through St George's Channel and the Irish Sea. Sometimes it is impossible to sail between the island and the mainland because of high winds and fierce sea currents and as recently as 2000, seventeen visitors were stranded there for two weeks because of the gales.

Crossing Caernarfon Bay we reach the largest of the Welsh islands, Anglesey. It covers 714 sq miles and is separated from the mainland by the Menai Strait, formed by glacial erosion, which is about 250m wide at its narrowest point. Very strong currents flow in both directions through the strait creating extremely dangerous conditions especially in the area known as the Swellies, between the two bridges. Here rocks near the surface cause whirlpools and overfalls which can force small boats onto the rocks.

Almost the whole coastline of Anglesey is designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The island of South Stack, just off Holy Island on the west coast, has sheer cliff faces which make ideal nesting sites for puffins, razorbills and guillemots and it is famous as the location of one of Wales' most spectacularly placed lighthouses, built to guide vessels on the treacherous Dublin – Holyhead – Liverpool sea route. 3km off Carmel Head at the northwest corner of the island are the Skerries, a group of rocky islets attracting divers, visiting the numerous shipwrecks and tourists, watching the abundance of seabirds. The area between the islands and Anglesey is the proposed site of the planned Skerries Tidal Stream Array, being developed to use wave and tidal stream energy with underwater turbines.

Continuing along the north Wales coast to Llandudno we come to the prominent limestone headland of Great Orme with its smaller cousin Little Orme. Their name may derive from the Old Norse word for sea serpent (urm or orm). On the highest point are the castellated walls of the former lighthouse, now a private house, but once one of the highest navigational lights in Britain. This is the last main headland in Wales as the coastline flattens towards the Dee estuary and the boundary between Wales and England. Our next part of the journey will begin at the Wirral Peninsular.

Author – Dee White

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