Lo here I sit at holy head,
With muddy ale and mouldy bread:
I’m fastened both by wind and tide,
I see the ships at anchor ride.
All Christian vittals stink of fish,
I’m where my enemyes would wish …
On this bleaky shore,
Where loudest winds incessant roar,
Where neither herb nor tree will thrive,
Where Nature hardly seems alive.
Well hang on to your hat because a lot has changed since Jonathon Swift wrote Holyhead, September 25, 1727. And, today, it’s all before you.
A Wales’ Tale
There have been many tales to tell since the first Neanderthal padded through some 230,000 years ago. Over the last 9,000 years, the Welsh area has witnessed a permanent community of settlers who worked hard to carve out their lives here. This was not without strife, as history was written on the shields of Celtic Britons, Romans, the warring Deceangli tribe, Anglo Saxons, and Normans. Ultimately, it was England’s Kind Edward I who conquered Wales in 1282 declaring it an English Principality. It is for this very reason that Prince Charles is known today as the “Prince of Wales” because the next in line to the English throne carries that title. He was invested with this title in 1969 at Caernarfon Castle by the Queen. For the record, there are some Welshmen who bristle at the thought of an Englishman being the Prince of Wales. Open that discussion with a local if you need further, sometimes heated details.
Wales became a full member of the United Kingdom only as recently as 1801. Little more than one decade ago, some official duties were passed to the National Assembly for Wales by the approval of the Welsh citizens.
The heavy hand of industrialization was felt across the Welsh landscape even as early as the closing days of the 18th century. Vast finds of coal and iron ore fueled this growth. Miners and other workers swelled the population, especially in the coal mining area. By 1901, some two million people called Wales home. Occasionally, there was labor unrest and confrontations between these workers and the English owners of the mines. One-quarter of a million people worked in the coal industry in South Wales in the opening days of the 20th century. By 1980, that number had dropped to a mere 30,000. All the while, seaports were built up and railways designed to carry coal away. Yet, it was the oil industry that signaled the death knell for the miners and mining. Over time, it was tourism that breathed life back into this fine land. The locals thank you for your participation.
Everybody Loves A Star
Well, the quintessential Welsh actor would have to be Sir Richard Burton. He wore the look of his homeland … handsome, sculpted, and tousled. Sir Anthony Hopkins was Burton’s equal, many would claim. Another Welshman, he. Famous Welsh women include singer Dame Shirley Bassey, actress Catherine Zeta-Jones CBE, and fashion designer Laura Ashley. Singer “Sir” Tom Jones began his career belting out songs for the workingman in local pubs. Well, just know the list of important Welsh figures is far too long to list here.
Holyhead and Surrounds
Holyhead is about as remote a place as you’ll find in Wales, if you can find it without the Captain’s help. It’s about as far north and as far west as you can get and still be in Wales. In fact, it’s basically the steppingstone to Ireland with Dublin about 70 miles away. Holyhead is perched on an island called Holy Island, a stone’s throw from the island of Anglesey, poking into the Irish Sea. The mainland is 15 miles away from Anglesey across the Menai Strait.
With a population of only 12,000, Holyhead’s citizenry is dwarfed by the two million people who pass through on the ferries every year. Pity they don’t stay around to visit the likes of the South Stack Nature Reserve, home to 4,000 nesting birds. Or Penrhyn Castle or Beaumais Castle, nearby and rich with history. The Ffestiniog Railway is a fine introduction to the area being it’s Wales’ oldest narrow gauge railway. But certainly they’ll have time to pause and pay their respects at St. Cybil’s Church then step into a typical tearoom for a spot of tea and hot buttered sultana teacakes, or into an eatery offering local favorites. Fish and chips, cockles or salmon, roast Welsh lamb, lamb and veggie soup called cawl, Caws Aberteifi cheese, or laverbread. The latter is an acquired taste – it’s oatmeal laced with pureed seaweed served with your standard bacon and eggs. Yum. Remember, when in Wales do as a Welshman does. It’s part of the travelers’ traditions.