Random notes on the travels of a Welshman who has been allowed out to play after finishing his chores. OK so I don't travel with my Aunt, but I am usually under the adult supervision of my long suffering wife.
On the 17th August, 1831 the steamer Rothsay Castle left Liverpool at 11am on her regular journey to the Menai Straights. However, the rough weather made the sailing difficult and she made very little headway. The passengers became worried and asked the Captain to turn back, but he refused. By midnight he had still no made land, and an hour later the Rothsay Castle struck Dutchman Bank, then out of control struck a sand bank off Penmon. Of the 150 passengers on board, 130 lost their lives. This hastened the decision by Trinity House to build a lighthouse to guide ships on the Eastern tip of Angelsey. Work commenced in 1837 to build the black and white stone tower on a reef between Trwyn Du and Puffin Island. The light was lit in 1838.
Originally manned by two keepers, it was automated in 1922 and the keepers were withdrawn. In 1996 the light was converted to solar power. As we were walking around the shore we heard a bell being tolled on a regular basis. But I couldn’t see why or decide exactly where the ringing was coming from. The explanation comes from a further modification carried out in 1996 when a unique mechanism was installed to sound a 178 Kg bell every sixty seconds to act as a fog signal.
As well as the reef marked by the lighthouse, the small strait between Trwyn Du and Puffin Island has another rocky outcrop dangerous to shipping. This is marked by a large red beacon.
Puffin Island or Ynys Seiriol, refers to Saint Seriol. The son of Owain Ddantgwyn, a 5th-century ruler of the Kingdom of Gwynedd, and the brother of Saint Einion Frenin, a 5th- or 6th-century king in the Llŷn Peninsula, Seiriol founded and governed a clas (ecclesiastical settlement) at Penmon on the Anglesey. In later life, he abandoned his responsibilities there to establish a hermitage on the nearby island, where his remains are thought to rest.
King Cadwallon ap Cadfan of Gwynedd is said to have sheltered here in around 630 when fleeing an invasion from the Kingdom of Northumbria. A monastery existed on the island in the late 12th century and was mentioned by Gerald of Wales who visited the area in 1188. He claimed that, whenever there was strife within the community of monks, a plague of mice would devour all their food. The ecclesiastical emails still exist on the island. Puffin Island is now privately owned, and has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest and it’s not possible to land unfortunately, so this will have to remain an unattainable island for now.
Ynys Llanddwyn has two lighthouses. Neither of which fit the classical design that we know today. Twr Mawr (Big Tower) is more characteristic of a windmill than a lighthouse, and much can also be said of the smaller tower which now carries the light. The lighthouses cover the westernmost approach to the Menai Strait the narrow but treacherous water between Anglesey and the main land of Wales. The history of the lighthouses on Llandwyn is uncertain, but by 1823 it is certain that the two towers were already built, probably as day markers, but not with lights.
In 1845 alterations were recorded as being made to Twr Mawr, costing £250 7s 6d, and a light was installed in 1846 (1). Twr Mawr is 36 feet (10 m) high and 18 feet (5.5 m) in diameter. It incorporated living quarters, but uniquely the light was shone from a lamp room at ground floor.
South from Twr Mawr is another conical tower, also painted white, known as Twr Fach (Small Tower). This was built between 1800 and 1818 of rubble stone with a domed roof (1). In 1975 the light was moved from Twr Mawr to Twr Fach. This is now a solar powered light, monitored and maintained by Trinity House. The light is visible for 7 miles.
Just across the small beach from Twr Fach is a group of small cottages. These housed pilots who would watch for boats approaching the western end of the Menai Strait. The pilots would then row out to guide them through the reefs and safely into harbour at Caernarvon and other ports along the coast. The cottages now act as offices for the nature reserve.
Ramsey and Skomer Islands were our main wish list items on our week in West Wales, but we had a third island in our sights. Well not quite in our sights, we couldn’t see it from land as it’s a long way out. Aunty has never fancied an 8 mile trip in a small boat to a “rock in the middle of nowhere”. I think that captures her enthusiasm neatly. So it was down to the Two Pauls to become intrepid sailors for the day. But why go there? Well not only is it the most westernmost point in Wales, but it has a huge colony of Gannets. And who can resist a huge colony of screaming, smelly Gannets?
We were booked on the morning trip, but the night before the booking agent phoned us to say that the trip would be delayed as fog was forecast, and would we mind changing our plans. And the forecast was right. We woke up to thick fog which quickly cleared by mid-morning. The morning was spent mooching around a local nature reserve until after after lunch when we made the short trip to St Justinian’s to catch the boat. This also gave the opportunity to have a mooch around the lifeboat station and see the immaculately kept life boat.
The course to Grassholm took us through the Ramsey Sound and South West into the open sea. We quickly lost sight of the cliffs of St Justinian’s and 20 minutes later saw a white speck on the horizon.
As we neared Grassholm we started seeing more birds, Gannets, Razorbills, Guillemots and small rafts or Puffins. Then suddenly we were there under the white slopes of Grassholm. White because the rocks are covered in guano. I was expecting a rather pungent aroma to greet us, but nothing bothered my olfactory nerves. Probably best now that I think about it. A group of gannets has many collective nouns, including a “company”, “gannetry”, and a “plunging” of gannets. Reflecting on the images of Grassholm I think a Company of Gannets is about right.
Grassholm has been owned since 1947 by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and is one of its oldest reserves. It reaches 42 metres (138 feet). It is the third most important site for gannets in the world, after two sites in Scotland; St Kilda and Bass Rock. During the summer is is home and breeding site for 39,000 pairs of the birds, and supports around 10 percent of the world population. Impressive for a small rock 8 miles from the mainland. Even though the sea was calm the small boat still rocked backwards and forwards making photography a real challenge. Many of my shots included tails or blue sky only.
As we sailed around the rock hundreds of Gannets were flying over head, either returning to their nest and leaving to go fishing. Dotted among the serried ranks of Gannet nests were Razorbill and Guillemots, who nest among the noisy confusion as the larger gannets provide protection from predation by Black-backed Gulls.
As you look at the Gannets arranged all over the rock it seems that there must be some organisation as the nests look to be arranged in lines. In fact each nest is just far enough away from it’s neighbour that it can’t be reached while the parents are sitting on the eggs to prevent conflict. But it does seem to give a sense of town planning – but I must avoid anthropomorphising.
The turbulent sea around Grassholm also provides good feeding ground for porpoises and bottlenose dolphins. No dolphins this time, but we did see a Porpoise. The cetaceans are smaller and shyer than Dolphins. The seas today were unusually calm, even Aunty would have enjoyed the trip.
The trip then got even better. A little further out we came across two Minke Whales. they circled the boat for 10 minutes inspecting us closely. Even the guide and boatman were excited.
Grassholm has been identified with Gwales, an island featured in the Mabinogion. In the Second Branch of the Mabinogi, Gwales is the site of a fabulous castle where the severed head of Bran the Blessed is kept miraculously alive for eighty years while his companions feast in blissful forgetfulness. Maybe more on this in another post.
One of the reasons for visit the west Wales coast with Paul was to get to Skomer Island and see the Puffins. Aunty and I went there a couple of years ago, and despite Aunty not being a mad keen bird watcher, the experience has stayed with her in a positive way. But this visit was for Paul, not me. The Island is owned and managed by the South & West Wales Wildlife Trust – successful so it is now a very popular trip for birders and non-birders. In fact it seems to be even more popular now than just a few years ago. I knew we had to be there early to get on the boat across the 2 mile trip. What I didn’t factor in was how early we needed to be. It’s not possible to book in advance, mainly because the tides and weather conditions can make it very difficult if not impossible to land on the island.
We arrived at around 6.30am, which meant getting up at 5am to take into account the 1 hour drive, to find a sizeable queue of people ahead of us. There is a limit of 250 people allowed on the island at any one time and so everyone now gets there early. If you are planing to go this is important to factor into your plans – especially as the booking office doesn’t open until 9am. But the wait was not too onerous, as we quickly built up a humorous conversation with those around us, and time flew past. the gods were smiling on us as the organiser spot on an extra boat that we jumped at the opportunity to get on the island first. So let us not waste any more time but lets get to the wildlife.
Old maps sometimes refer to Skomer as Skalmey. This is of Viking origin, coming from two words “skalm” meaning a short sword, or cleft or cut, and “ey” meaning island. Skalmey or Cleft Island, probably referring to the fact that the island appears almost cut in two. There is evidence of occupation going back 2000 years, and almost certainly longer but there has been very little archeological excavation much is unknown. If you would like to read more then it is possible to download a history of the island produced by the Wildlife Trust.
Skomer is an internationally import nesting site for the mysterious Manx Shearwater. There are an estimated 120,000 breeding pairs on Skomer and a further 45,000 pairs on Skokholm, making the two islands the largest known concentration of this species in the world. This amounts to about 2/3 of the worlds breeding population. We didn’t get an photos of the Shearwaters as they only return to their nests after dark, spending the day out at sea hunting for food. The island though is littered with their bodies as they targeted by the Greater Black-backed Gull. The scientific name of the Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus often causes surprise. In the Middle Ages the plump young Shearwaters, when taken for food, where known as ‘puffins’ or ‘puffings’ from their plump and fatty nature. In 1676 the bird was first described from specimens collected on the Calf of Man and named the ‘Manx Puffin’
Skomer is also home to a unique species of bank vole (Myodes glareolus skomerens), unsurprisingly called the Skomer Vole. The lack of land-based predators on the island means that the bracken habitat is an ideal place for the vole, with the population reaching around 20,000 during the summer months. The voles provide the main source of food for Short-eared Owls during the breeding season. As we walked around the island we saw the old hunting, but unfortunately they were too far away for a decent photo.
The sea cliffs provide nesting sites for Guillements and Razorbills, whilst Lesser and Greater Black-backed Gulls nest inland. Both of these gulls predate not only the Manx Shearwater as they return to their burrows, but also lay ambush to the Puffins as they return with fish and sand eels for their young. We saw this a number of times. As they come into land the Puffins seem to drop and dive into their burrows to avoid the larger gulls.
During the summer the island is home to around 20,000 Puffins, with a further 6,000 on the smaller neighbouring Skokholm Island. The act numer is uncertain, and the polish numbers vary considerably, but however many there are they are numerous. However the recent winter storms in 2014 had a significant impact on the number of returning pairs, but they now seem to the increasing again.
They return to their nesting sites in April, gradually building up in numbers as the egg laying season approaches. They nest under- ground in burrows, not only battling with each other for these, but also with Manx Shearwaters since both species use the same sort of burrows for nesting. Puffins prefer nest sites close to the clifftop since the parent birds can come in quickly and then escape again to sea, giving the predatory gulls the minimum chance to attack them. The Wildlife Trust has published a great pamphlet that you can download here.
The razorbill (Alca torda) is a colonial seabird that only comes to land in order to breed. This agile bird chooses one partner for life; females lay one egg per year. Razorbills nest along coastal cliffs in enclosed or slightly exposed crevices. The parents spend equal amounts of time incubating. Once the chick has hatched, the parents take turns foraging for their young and sometimes fly long distances before finding prey. The oldest known Razorbill was at least 41 years old It was banded as a nestling on Bardsey Island in the United Kingdom in 1968, and was resighted while breeding in 2009.
So leaving Aunty at home, the Pembroke coast became a boys playground for a week. My old mucker Paul, from here on known as Caulkhead (his preference for a moniker in the blog- he comes from The Isle of Wight which explains a lot) took the caravan to St Davids for the week. One of our targets was the fourth largest island off Wales, Ramsey Island, but in Welsh it is known as Ynys Dewi, but more on names later. It lies about 1km off the western tip of the Pembroke peninsula on the northern side of St Brides Bay. It’s not a large island, but Wales is not a large country. Size is not everything.
Not surprisingly with a relatively narrow channel between the mainland and the island the tides and currents can be a challenge to navigate. As the waters rush through the channel as the tides change the turbulence can be witnessed standing on the safety of land. The speed of the water flow can be as high as 3.8m/s – now that’s impressive! So much so that an experimental water turbine installation was planned for a number of years, and finally installed in December 2015. It’s hoped this will generate up to 400 kW when it is finally connected. We landed after the short boat trip from St Justinians with it’s three life boat stations, the first a stone built building dated 1886 through to the brand new station currently being built.
I’m not sure what I was expecting to find on the island, but what we did find was a delight. The island was alive with drifts of flowers, Red Campions, Sea Campions and Thrift painted the landscape with subtly shades of pink and white. The weather was perfect. After landing we were greeted by the wardens and given an introduction to the island, but also the opportunity to buy a cup of coffee – always welcome.
The twin peaks of Carn Ysgubor and Carn Llundain give Ramsey a distinctive outline and we climbed each of them in turn as we wandered around the island. It was a landmark for early seafaring pilgrims on their way to St Davids.
The name Ramsey is thought to come from the Norse personal name Hrafn. But in Welsh the island is Ynys Dewi, which means “St David’s island”. The island served as the hermitage of St Justinian, who was St David’s confessor. He was martyred by three of his servants who had been possessed by demons. The servants were driven mad and refused to obey their master, who was entreating them to work and not to lead an idle life. The servants then threw him to the ground and cut off his head. The murderers of the saint were struck with leprosy, and recognised that this was God’s vengeance on them. They lived by a rock still called “lepers’ rock”, and after loading their bodies with heavy penances were counted worthy of forgiveness through the prayers of St. Justinian. Mind you have to ask how much of a hermitage this was if Justinian had three servants!
The excitement didn’t stop there either. St. Justinian’s decapitated body rose and took the head in its arms and descended to the sea shore. Walking across the water, it came to the port named after the saint, which is today a lifeboat station, and to the church now dedicated in his name: Llanstinian, near Fishguard
By the 13th century Ramsey was owned by the Bishops of St Davids, and for over 600 years the island was farmed with varying degrees of success. Butter, cheese and wool were all produced here and sold on the mainland, and in later years corn and other crops were grown. Ramsey was last farmed in the late 1960s and is now a nature reserve owned by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
This summer may be a good year for Painted Ladies – no not the female kind, but a beautiful orange butterfly that is a migrant from Europe. We saw the first of many of the island this day, as well as a Wall on the summit of Carn Llundain. Again a butterfly version, not a stone wall!