Ask a railwayman about Holyhead and he’ll know The Globe Chippy. When we stayed in Anglesey as kids the Globe Chippy was orange and it had a big plastic fish sign. It was a stone’s throw from the station. Holyhead was good for chips. Around the corner was Shane’s Chippy. Shane had invested in a neon sign, but the first P in chippy wasn’t quite right so it read Shane’s Chirpy instead. People wondered if the canary had gone in the fryer.
Holyhead has had a bad press over the years. Paul Theroux had little to say that was good in Kingdom of the Sea. He’s a fine writer, but described the accent as a Birmingham ‘neigh’ as only an American could. I’m fond of the town because it’s full of stories and interesting buildings and characters. For thousands of years Holyhead has been a gateway to Ireland. The Irish Mail train would arrive here from Euston and passengers would go in search of beer or food or lodgings. Many Irish in Kilburn or Cricklewood or Digbeth passed through here. But cheap airlines hit the ferry trade and faster trains and boats meant that many didn’t bother to stop. Passing trade fell and the High Street suffered.
Faced with a dilemma the authorities built a bridge from the High Street to the ferry terminal. The theory, presumably, was to get travellers to wander and spend. Holyhead is small enough for such a detour of maybe five minutes on foot, but I’m not sure the bridge has worked. It’s a sparkling, shiny structure with fantastic views of the port, the railway and the town’s ancient seafort. There are nods to the Celts and to the local Saints Cybi and Seiriol, but the bridge stops abruptly and opens out into the High Street. Opposite is Betfred and a store called Bargains Galore. The High Street is pedestrianised but that doesn’t seem to stop cars crawling along it. It seems a wasted opportunity. The High Street has the usual collection of charity shops, bargain stores and estate agents. Property prices vary wildly because Cheshire has second homes here.
The town sits snug on a hill above its ancient harbour. Streets of neat oatmeal pebble-dash terraces shelter from the Irish Sea. There is a chapel – Y Tabernacl – and the old market is boarded up with smashed panes. I bought postcards and coins here as a boy. There are anchors and buoys dredged from the depths and painted matt black. A newsagents is called Boston House. The shamrock flies and pipes drift from a bar called Gilligan’s. Up in the churchyard the graves are well kept. Grass is trimmed nail scissor-neat and slates are scoured by the seasalt.
Lewis Evans, d. 1825
Tho. Williams, d. 1841
St Cybi’s dates from the 4th century. The Romans, the Celts and sea pirates held these walls. A Stena ferry glides out of the harbour. The sun sparkles on the waters, reflecting on the whitewashed cottages of Church Bay. The Skerries blink on the horizon. Outside the magistrates court a youth with tattoos on his neck and a shiny, ill-fitting suit smokes with practised menace. His friend has a snarling pitbull. It’s a scene being played out in towns across Wales and England. Then a Morris Minor 1000 pulls up. An old man with a fuchsia tea cosy on his head gets out. He has a pink shirt and a fading tweed suit with a row of medals. Even without the medals his sprightliness and purpose says Old Soldier. Faith is restored by eccentricity. Click here for more on Anglesey and another eccentric called Captain Skinner….