Standing on the cliffs at South Stack my office seems part of another life. The stiff breeze blows away the world of air-conditioned cars, fusty living rooms and heated shop doorways. Surf crashes against jagged, coal-black rocks. Sea-mist smothers the heather and gorse. Waves boom in caverns deep beneath the headland. This is where the tides meet.
The raw power of nature has wrought death and destruction to this coast. In December 1900 the Primrose Hill was broken into matchwood on these rocks in a violent storm. Thirty three men were swept to their deaths by foaming white water in a force 10. Neither her anchors nor her captain’s skill could hold her. There have been far greater losses of life in these waters. In October 1859 the Royal Charter sank off the north coast of Anglesey. Hundreds of men, women and children returning from Australia with their fortunes in gold were lost to the mountainous seas as the steam clipper sank beneath the waves. In 1939 the Royal Navy submarine Thetis was training in Liverpool Bay when she failed to surface.
South Stack attracts visitors all the year round. On rare summer days the Irish coast is a faint blur through the sea-haze, some sixty miles distant. Seagulls hover, spying out trodden burgers or melted cornets. Birdwatchers vie with walkers or bikers for limited parking. Grilling bacon and milky coffee drift from the café and visitors buy postcards of puffins or farmhouse fudge. There is barely a ripple out in the bay. To the east, is a thin, tidal expanse of water; beyond is Church Bay. The sloping coastline is dotted with tents, caravans and cottages. Summer has slipped away and a stiff breeze strokes the coarse headland grass. Weak sunlight has broken through. The waters are rippled like ridged sand and dark as lead.
People have been watching clouds gather at South Stack since the first stone huts were built. The foundation walls of the huts are still here. Ramblers eat cheese and pickle sandwiches where the first fishermen split shellfish over a fire. Anxious locals stood on these cliffs to watch for husbands and fathers and sons returning to shore. Governments watched here, too. Customs men patrolled on horseback and, further up the mountainside, where rock gives way to heather and bog, there are artillery outposts – crumbling, concrete pillboxes built in case Hitler sent forces through Ireland. From these rock outcrops the brilliant-white South Stack lighthouse seems to shift beneath clumps of purple heather. The sea lies far beyond each line of steps on the steep descent to the island lighthouse. There is a metal bridge that sways and tilts even on the calmest days, where the wind and waters are funneled tight between sheer rock faces. Before the bridge was built, lighthouse keepers would climb into a wicker basket to be hauled across the boiling waters by rope and pulley. These brave, solitary men saved hundreds of lives, but not those of the Primrose Hill.
On December 28, 1900, farmers and labourers stood and watched, helpless, as the Primrose Hill was dragged towards the rocks of South Stack. She had lost her tow many miles south, the night previous. The London and North Western Railway passenger ship the SS Hibernia immediately went to assist her, but the Hibernia’s steering gear broke forcing her to abandon the rescue. The attempted rescue had endangered the hundreds of passengers aboard the Hibernia. Those watching from the headland could not understand why the passenger ship had left the scene. At two o’ clock the Primrose Hill struck submerged rock and, despite the steel used in her construction, she was broken into pieces within minutes. The only survivor was the lookout, who scrambled ashore from the upper mast post. Twenty seven bodies were found, but only 12 were ever identified. Six crew members were never found. One of the ship’s apprentices, a lad from Manchester called Brown, was just fifteen years of age.
The Primrose Hill had been bound for Vancouver from Liverpool with a cargo of bricks, but had barely turned the north Wales coast when fate caught up with her.