It was once one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, but today a solitary yacht circles Puffin Island. Mist blurs the distant peaks of Snowdonia and shafts of sunlight fall on rippled waters. It wasn’t always this peaceful or calm. In December 1966 ferocious weather lashed the coastline. White water crashed into the rocks carrying foam and spray miles inland. The wind speed reached 127mph. But somehow the lifeboat put to sea and pounded its way through mountainous waves to a stricken Greek ship and its desperate crew. Despite being over 60, lifeboat coxswain Dick Evans was at the wheel for over 12 hours in extreme conditions until ten men had been rescued. For his determination Dick Evans received his second gold medal from the RNLI. A statue of Evans at his wheel keeps watch from the headland.
In an age where footballers are treated as heroes it’s worth visiting the Seawatch Centre, perched above the Anglesey village of Moelfre, to learn about these brave, selfless crews and the conditions they endured to save dozens of desperate sailors from across the world. The centrepiece is an unsinkable Oakley Class lifeboat, which saved 42 lives in two decades’ service. The boat is a hit with children who are soon queuing for a turn at the wheel. One of the volunteers intervenes and the first epic voyage is limited to ten minutes.
Surrounding the boat are paintings and maps and photographs, as well as pieces dragged from the depths and the stories of the first crews. The first Anglesey lifeboat was established by the Reverend James Williams and his wife who witnessed the loss of 140 lives when the Alert was dragged onto rocks.
A short stride along the coast path, past Evans’ statue, visitors are welcomed to the present-day lifeboat house. The walls are cluttered with signboards bearing records of rescues dating back decades. The chatter of radio and a laptop logged onto a weather website is a reminder of how things have changed. The crew is friendly, happy to take questions.
‘How fast is it?’ a boy says, and ‘How many people have died?’
The skipper has met hundreds of five-year-old visitors. He’s more adept at dealing with direct questions than any politician.
We take a break from the hardships of maritime life and spend the afternoon stretched out on Trearddur Bay pushing toes through the cool, golden sand to escape the heat of the sun. The damp tang of seaweed and grilling sausages drifts on the breeze. It’s a scene that will be missed by tourists who race across the island to catch the ferry to Dublin. They will catch a glimpse of forbidding chapels, dry-stone walls and hawthorns bent by the wind and think they have missed nothing. The A55 has brought the Midlands and North within two to three hours’ drive, but it has also made the island easier to ignore. Those who bother to stop will be rewarded. Anglesey has sandy beaches, lighthouses, ancient monuments, windmills, fishing villages, a fine medieval castles and, of course, a wealth of maritime history. More Dylan Thomas than RS Thomas you might say.
South Stack lighthouse is perched on a rock at the foot of sheer cliffs that are home to nesting seabirds. The path to the lighthouse winds down five hundred or so steps to the jagged, barnacle-riddled rocks. The first light was built in 1809 after years of petitions from British and Irish merchants. It has been saving lives ever since. We make our way up the steps inside the lighthouse, twisting upward through a dizzying seashell spiral to a loft ladder. Up here there is only the glint of sea and a perfect blue sky until the Isle of Man, southern Scotland or the hills of Ireland.
The guides are chatty and full of stories. They tell of the seabird colonies and point to the distant Skerries lighthouse, a rocky outcrop where keepers still live from May to August with 1,000 pairs of Arctic terns for company. In the first years of South Stack there was no bridge and the keepers were hauled across to the rock in a wicker basket. We all shudder at the thought of those needle-sharp rocks and crashing waters far below.
‘Time to go back down,’ the guide says, clapping her hands.
There is hesitation until a woman volunteers to go first. She grips the handrail at the top of the spiral, shudders, and opts to shuffle down on her bottom. Below us is a walled patch of scrub where the lighthouse keepers tried and failed to grow vegetables on the rock many years ago. Their solution was to train a donkey to go shopping for them. Whenever the cupboard was bare they’d pin a shopping list to Tommy who’d make his way up the sheer cliffs and along the road to market. Several hours later an exhausted Tommy would return down all those steps, his baskets packed with provisions. There’s a great old photo of Tommy in the lighthouse and he looks content with life. I like to think he stopped halfway back to the lighthouse and ate all their sticky buns.
The assistant keeper of the lighthouse, Jack Jones, was killed when struck by falling rocks in the Royal Charter Storm of 1859. The ship was returning from Melbourne to Liverpool with 500 people on board when a hurricane struck Britain. Many of the passengers were miners returning with pockets weighed down with gold. Only 40 people survived and Charles Dickens visited to report on the aftermath, writing of the ‘masses of iron twisted by the fury of the sea into the strangest forms.’ Divers are still exploring the site just off the north coast of the island. In an unusual quirk of fate another hurricane struck Anglesey exactly one hundred years and one day after the Royal Charter disaster on October 26, 1959. Dick Evans received his first gold medal for rescuing eight crew members of the Hindlea shortly before she was broken in two on the rocks.
Just around the coast from South Stack, in the old lifeboat house, is the Maritime Museum. Outside there are cannons and a diving bell. A group of young mothers steam the museum cafe window with mugs of coffee and chat. Inside it is compact, but fascinating and full of polished glass cabinets. There are rings, nuggets of gold, and china plates and bowls recovered from the wreck of the Royal Charter. There are log books and documents and intricate models of famous vessels made by local enthusiasts. Fred Williams, a former commercial diver, is on hand to explain details to landlubbers. He has worked all over the world, but is modest and prefers to talk about the exhibits. It’s easy to think of ourselves as well-travelled but there are quietly spoken men in small, seemingly isolated coastal towns such as Holyhead who really have seen the world.
The oldest exhibit is undoubtedly Myfanwy, or at least Myfanwy’s jawbone. Myfanwy was a mammoth dredged from the town harbour in Victorian times and only recently returned to her home after living it up at the Natural History Museum. When Fred goes to welcome another group he allows us to make the acquaintance of Captain Macgregor Skinner – a veteran of the American War of Independence who lost an arm and an eye in conflict and went about with a raven on his shoulder. Poor Captain Skinner, who served in the Post Office, was washed overboard and drowned in 1832. The grieving townspeople paid for a monument in his memory. His story, like so many others on this rugged coast, is well worth examining.