If you are lucky enough to find yourself in the glorious peaks and valleys of north Wales, you would be forgiven for not venturing further than the beautiful, Italianesque Portmeirion, the majestic Llanrhaedr waterfall or Horseshoe Pass, the beaches of Rhyl, Barmouth or Borth or the castles of Harlech, Caernarfon or Conwy. You would be forgiven for never leaving Snowdonia National Park, with its hundreds of square miles of snow topped mountains and cool black lakes and all its wild, raw nature. You could, quite happily, stay there forever.
After all, Anglesey is not much to look at. At least not at a passing glance where it’s wind-battered, pebbledash grey landscape might lead you to wonder if the island and its central A5 road are simply a very long run up to the Holyhead ferry service to Dublin. Anglesey has a touch of the melancholy about it, a barren bleakness that only a seasoned Brit with a predilection for nostalgia and brisk, breezy walks would appreciate.
Yes, there are the impressive Menai and Britannia Bridges as you cross over from the mainland and the pretty Strait-side town of Beaumaris, there’s the sailing and the puffins and the fact that Prince William used to live there, but once you get down to the meat of it, into the wet fields and the soggy livestock and the slightly grumpy locals, you might turn back to those magnificent Snowdonia mountains across the water and wonder if you might have taken a wrong turn somewhere.
That is, of course, unless you spent every childhood summer there, in which case the island holds its own unique magic. It’s beaches, blustery and damp, even on the warmest of summer days, are the beaches of Neverland, of Blyton’s Island of Adventure, of Swallows and Amazons and Robinson Crusoe. Every rock pool held a small, obliging crab or a pirouetting shrimp, every patch of sand a treasure of shells and soft, jewel-toned nuggets of sea-weathered glass. Rows of brightly coloured wind breakers, beach balls and cricket matches on the sand, mint choc chip and pink raspberry ripple and hot fish and chips wrapped in cream coloured paper. Through the filter of a child’s eye, it is all things bright and beautiful.
The story goes that I was conceived there, blended with the sea and the shore, back when my parents were happily married and comfortable enough to own a small flat, about a mile from the beach. There is a photo of me a year or so later, plonked on the sand, blue bonnet protecting against the elements as my brother makes a sandcastle nearby. This is where you would have found me for the next decade or so, on Broad Beach, Rhosneigr, in wool and waterprooofs, determinedly bucket and spading through the summer months while my parents gradually drifted apart.
I only really remember the times we were there was a trio, my mother, brother and I, and the occasional ones when other single parent broods would join us. These were the summers where we were forcefully but happily jollied along, moved with maternal precision from beach activity to beach activity till we fell into our beds, ruddy cheeked and freckle-nosed and far too exhausted to wonder where any fathers might be. This was the very essence of the British seaside holiday, the stuff of dreams really, the getting along with it despite the weather, despite it all, and taking pleasure in the small and simple things. A swim in the sea, a walk in the sand dunes, a bag of penny sweets, memories to be collected and then held tight.
Back then, Rhosneigr town had a bank and a bakery and a post office and the sense of a community outside of all the seasonal visitors. The locals speak Welsh, which seemed exotic and mysterious somehow, and you could buy things like Bara Brith bread and fried seaweed shaped into triangles. The flat was sold in the divorce but the place was in my mother’s veins by then so we rented every summer in the town, a small place owned by a friend with a view of the sea from the top floor window and a black and white television.
By the time I had reached double figures, the television was in colour but the bank had gone, as had the bakery, and if you wanted any groceries you would have to travel to Holyhead. Rhosneigr, like so many British seaside towns, revolved around the six or so weeks of the summer holidays, a short, noisy glitch on the otherwise sedate and humdrum calendar. But tourism matters in these remote parts. For an island where sheep outnumber humans by five to one, the industry is worth a lot to the country.
There were many happy teenage years too, one foot in childhood, the other in the sand dunes with a can of lager, salty first kisses under the stars and chilly night swimming in the phosphorescence. Everyone we knew seem to go to Abersoch, Anglesey’s smarter, southern cousin, hanging out on sailing boats and at yacht clubs while we were still climbing over the rocks, skimming stones into the estuary and trying to sneak into the gloomy local pub, Y Morfa (The Saltmarsh) with the same group of kids we knew from early childhood. Everything was an adventure of one sort or another, that first intoxicating taste of independence and freedom, safety-netted by the glorious remoteness of the place.
My first trip back as an adult was with a university boyfriend, a couple of nights away, out of season, in a bed and breakfast on the town’s main street. The wind howled and rattled the bedroom windows and we huddled under the blanket waiting for the rain to stop so we could get onto the beach. He was the type who holidayed in Cornwall so it was never going to be an easy sell. The café was closed, the pub shut early and we were viewed with deep suspicion by the locals. After battling a biblical tempest on Broad Beach one afternoon, he asked if we could leave early and go home. We silently packed our bags and as we drove back over to the mainland, I wondered if I would ever be back. ‘It’s so much nicer when the sun is out,’ I said cheerily, aware that I might be talking to myself somewhat. ‘So is Auschwitz,’ he replied. We broke up shortly after.
But it was the starkness of the place had become part of its appeal, everything stripped back to its basics, to the absolute necessities. By the time I returned with my husband some ten years later, renting an eco build on the outskirts of town, we were living in London, and the island’s furrowed, unrefined simplicity was a blissful tonic for hectic urban living. It was just the same as it had always been, brisk and rugged and startlingly elemental, but there were restaurants now, gastro pubs and a gift shop that sold wooden seagulls and signs that said ‘Gone to the Beach’. The place was on the up, tourism blossoming healthily.
We had a dog first, and then children, and all those tightly held memories came to sit with me again as precious new ones were created. My own family. They loved it instantly, wholeheartedly, a small bite of the place already knitted into them. There is something particularly magical about taking your own children to your childhood haunts. You get to step back into those old shoes, remember that joyous feeling of catching a shrimp in your net or a cowrie shell in your hand or making the biggest sandcastle on the beach. We explored the coastal paths and the lighthouses, we looked for red squirrels and for puffins, and to see it all again, as a child did, as a dog did, the unbridled joy of running and rolling in the sand and the surf, it felt like being allowed to jump back in time.
But this wasn’t just my place anymore. It was ours.