White water lashes the jagged rocks and a stiff wind whistles through the standing stones. I stand on tip-toe and crane my neck to see a mustard-coloured helicopter hovering over the sands. Prince William is part of Royal Air Force Valley’s Search and Rescue team. Sometimes the future king is called upon to rescue those in peril. This has led to newspaper warnings that pretend emergencies will not be tolerated. It’s a desperate way to glimpse royalty – anyone love-struck enough to spend half an hour in the bitterly cold Irish Sea needs psychiatric treatment, not written warnings. The helicopter banks away over gorse fields and whitewashed cottages. It’s impossible to know if HRH is among the crew.
Anglesey doesn’t feature in the itineraries of travellers who come to Britain in search of Shakespeare, Henry VIII or distant ancestors. This craggy little island, barely 20 miles across, is often barely noticed en route to Dublin, but it is well worth a diversion. Anglesey was once at the centre of the Celtic kingdoms on a sea-superhighway running between Scotland, Ireland, Cornwall and the Isle of Man. Its rugged landscape has witnessed princes, kings, priests and warriors throughout the centuries.
I decide to start where recorded history begins. I grip the handrail as a salty gale stands my hair on end. I try not to look down at the canoeists in miniature shooting through the arches far below and riding the ferocious, funnelled currents of the Menai Straits – the thin strip of sea that divides Anglesey from Wales. High up on the Menai Suspension Bridge (the world’s first iron suspension bridge of its type, completed by Thomas Telford in 1826) the wind is biting and makes me take steady, leaden-footed steps like a deep-sea diver. Joe is seven and fearless. He’s lying on the footpath pressing his face to the stone and peering through drill-holes at the rippling currents far below. I swallow and grip his hand. He smiles. You can’t convince a seven-year-old you’re not scared any more than you can a dog. I find shelter behind an immense pillar and view the rocky shore where Anglesey was reluctantly dragged into the history books. The roman scribe Tacitus wrote that just along this pebbly shoreline in AD60 is the spot where Suetonius landed with his legions and slaughtered the Druids. It was one of the bloodiest chapters in Anglesey’s violent history. When the Romans left sea pirates ravaged the coast. The Irish came to raid and then the Vikings, led by the brilliantly named Magnus Barefoot. I tell Joe about Magnus and he laughs.
‘Not scary,’ he says, ‘he’s just forgotten his shoes.’
After the Vikings the English arrived, led by the feared Edward Longshanks. Edward I knew he needed control of Anglesey and a vantage point to watch the mountains of Snowdonia. Beaumaris Castle lies at the eastern entrance to the Straits. It’s a proper castle with moat and drawbridge and steep, winding steps, rather than a crumbling relic. A granddad in a knitted cardigan acts out his Errol Flynn fantasies with a golf umbrella. Joe scrambles to the top of a tower and gives his battle cry, startling a black-headed gull. The Welsh flag is taut in the breeze. Shouts come from the gift shop as children sprint over a drawbridge, waving plastic swords in mock helmets and chainmail. The castle was never completed, but it is one of the finest examples of the work of Master James of St George. You can grip the thick, cold stones and imagine being a sentry or an archer or a knight.