Island Hopping in North Wales

When people talk about Island hopping you probably conjure up images of sailing around the islands of Greece or even the Caribbean.  And while we can’t compete with Greece having 6,000 islands or 7,000 in the Caribbean, you might be surprised to know there are 50 islands in Wales, and 26 of them are in North Wales.

The largest of Wales’ islands is Anglesey.  It has 125 miles of spectacular coastline within an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and is connected to the North Wales coast by two bridges which are a feat of engineering – the Menai Suspension Bridge was designed by Thomas Telford and completed in 1826, while the Britannia Bridge which takes the A55 on to the island was designed and built by Robert Stephenson in 1850, although it was rebuilt in 1970 following a fire.  The island came in to prominence when Prince William was based at RAF Valley as well as being the place he and Catherine started their married life, and offers plenty for visitors to see and do.  Watersport lovers will find a host of activities from surfing and coasteering to enjoying a pleasure cruise or diving one of the 1,200 shipwrecks.  The Coastal Path follows much of the island’s coastline and although it primarily caters for walkers in parts it’s suitable for cyclists and horse riders.  Visitors will also find a wealth of history and heritage including the village with the longest name in Europe – Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwlllantysiliogogogoch, a gaol which has the only working tread wheel in Britain and a “state of the art” medieval castle.

Your island hopping doesn’t need to stop there as there are a further six islands connected to Anglesey that are worth exploring.  The first is Llanddwyn Island which is accessible, except at high tide, along a mile long stretch of beautiful sandy beach which is part of the National Nature Reserve of Newborough Warren.  It’s the home of St Dwywen, the Welsh patron saint of lovers who founded a convent on the island and the remains of Dwynwen’s church can still be seen today.  If you’re a film buff you might be interested to know that in 2004 it was used as a location for Demi Moore’s romantic thriller Half Light and in 2009 for a scene for the Hollywood blockbuster Clash of the Titans.

The second island is Holy Island, which has a high concentration of standing stones, burial chambers and other religious sites. Holy Island is connected to Anglesey by two road links with one carrying the A55 direct to the port of Holyhead for the passenger ferries to Ireland.  On Holy Island you’ll also find the villages of Trearddur Bay, Rhoscolyn and Four Mile Bridge as well as a breakwater that was 28 years in the making, and three further islands – South Stack, North Stack and Salt Island.

South Stack is the location of one of Wales’ most spectacular lighthouses which is accessed via 400 stone steps and a suspension bridge.  The cliffs are part of the RSPB South Stack Cliffs bird reserve with a visitor centre and bird hide where you can see Choughs, Peregrine falcon, Puffins and Kestrels, as well as marine mammals including Harbour porpoise, Grey seal, Risso’s dolphin and Bottlenose dolphin.

Your next stop is North Stack which is the site of a redundant fog warning station including Trinity House Magazine which was built in 1861 for the storage of shells for the warning cannon. These buildings now house a bird watching observatory giving a spectacular view of South Stack lighthouse across Gogarth Bay.  The island also provides some of the best known rock climbs in Britain.

Salt Island is named after an 18th Century factory that used to process sea water to extract sea salt.  As a natural provider of shelter for the town’s old harbour it is now part of the Port of Holyhead for the ferries to Dublin.

The sixth island connected to Anglesey is Church Island. This small island in the Menai Strait is reached by a short causeway on foot from the Belgian Promenade in Menai Bridge.  The island is home to the 15th Century St Tysilio’s church and a memorial to the local men who died during the two World Wars.  This is worth a visit but make sure you take your camera as it has the best views of the Menai Strait and the two famous bridges.

There are a further 14 smaller islands around Anglesey – some are accessible on foot but only at low tide while others are best seen by boat:

Cribinau is near the village of Aberffraw and can be reached by foot at low tide.  It is notable for the 13th-century Church in Wales church of St Cwyfan known as “the little church in the sea”.

Ynys Feurig is three small inter-connected rocky islets north of Rhosneigr which are accessible from the mainland at mid to low tide, and are an important tern colony.

The Skerries are a group of rocky islets offshore from Carmel Head at the northwest corner of Anglesey. The islands can be visited by charter boat from Holyhead and at low tide you can walk amongst them.  They’ve been designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and are a breeding site for seabirds including Arctic Terns and it’s popular with divers.

The next three islands worth visiting are East Mouse, Middle Mouse and West Mouse.  This chain of islands are all uninhabited but are popular with wildlife watchers and also divers.  East Mouse is the site of the wreck of the SS Dakota which sunk off the island in 1877 with all 218 lives saved; Middle Mouse is the northernmost point of Wales and is a favoured place for cormorants, guillemots and razorbills, while West Mouse is located in an area of notoriously strong tides so there are at least three shipwrecks attracting divers.

Heading around the North East of Anglesey you’ll find Ynys Dulas, a small island within Dulas Bay which is home to seals as well as a cylindrical building that was built in 1821 for food storage and to provide shelter for shipwrecked seamen. Further to the south is Ynys Moelfre which can be accessed at low tide walking through the sound although you might be waist-deep in water!

At the eastern tip of Anglesey is the uninhabited Puffin Island which was home to a hermitage in the 6th Century and has the remains of a 12th Century monastery.  The island is a Special Protection Area for wildlife with Atlantic Puffins, Guillemot, Razorbill, Cormorants, Kittiwakes and Seals which can be viewed from one of the pleasure cruises from Beaumaris.

The Menai Strait has a further five islands to Church Island – Ynys Castell, Ynys Faelog, Ynys Gaint, Ynys Gored Goch and Ynys y Big but only Ynys Gaint and Ynys Gored Goch are accessible to the public.

Ynys Gaint is connected to Menai Bridge by a causeway, and between 1942 and 1944 it housed a Royal Air Force air-sea rescue unit with a small part still occupied by the MOD.  Ynys Gored Goch used to have a smoke house for locally caught fish.  Accessed only by boat its close proximity to the bridges means it’s another popular site with photographers.

Away from Anglesey there are a further four islands off mainland Wales:

Bardsey Island, found off the Lleyn Peninsula is the fourth largest island in Wales.  Known as the legendary “Island of 20,000 Saints” it is an important religious site as it was a major centre of pilgrimage to the monastery that was built in 516, and although the buildings were demolished by Henry VIII the island remains an attraction for pilgrims as it marks the end point of the North Wales Pilgrims Way.  It is also famous for its wildlife including Manx shearwaters and choughs and is one of the best places to see seals, dolphins and porpoises.  Legend also has it that it’s the burial site of King Arthur.

St Tudwal’s Island is a small archipelago lying south of Abersoch consisting of St Tudwal’s Island East and St Tudwal’s Island West.  The East island which has the remains of a priory was owned by author Carla Lane until her death in May 2016 and the West island with St Tudwal’s Lighthouse is owned by adventurer Bear Grylls who has converted it into a holiday home. The islands are known for their seal population and pleasure cruises can be enjoyed from Abersoch.

Ynys Gifftan, near Portmeirion is an island accessible via a public footpath across the estuary at low tide and although it has been uninhabited since the mid-1960s it is currently available to rent if you fancy living the dream of island life!

The final island for hopping onto in North Wales is Cei Ballast.  This is a man-made island which was created when ships had to dump their ship’s ballast before entering Porthmadog to load up with slate.  The ballast though was more often than not rocks from wherever the ship had previously unloaded its cargo of slate so for anyone interested in geology you will find rocks from all over the world on the island.