The bay window was aptly named, curving out from the wall of our room at Castellor and depicting a double triptych of Cemaes Bay. Our rucksacks heavy with a day’s supply of water, we headed down to the modest harbour and picked up the trail, soon leaving the village behind us. Still flanked by the last of the houses, surveying the waters of the cove as they merged with the Irish Sea, the white surf of a break in the surface caught my attention. Then again, a fraction further off the rocks to the west. Through the lens of the miniature binoculars a sizeable creature could be seen, its white hide and tall fin rolling up out of the blue. At one point I was sure I glimpsed its grinning face. We watched for some time, taking turns with the binoculars, tracking its intermittent appearances westward, accompanied by darker, more discreet fins less flamboyant in their progress. Dolphins off the coast of the most northerly village in Wales.
In all my visits to Anglesey, I had always avoided any sight of Wylfa. Aside from the controversial nature of any nuclear power facility, it is always described as a particular offence to the natural beauty of the coastal landscape and a hurdle to be negotiated for visitors. Rarely venturing to the northern coast I had occasionally caught glimpses of it from the road, from Holyhead mountain and from one or two of the nearby megaliths over the years. The thought of walking past it did not appeal. I imagined the contrast between the gentle coastline and the hulking reactors rising up from sea level. In my dreams I saw colossal concrete structures looming above me as I picked over the shore. The hairs on my arms rose as I became dwarfed in the shadows of this enormous industrial ship run aground, showing signs of rust and decay decades before its inevitable decommission.
Within minutes of leaving Cemaes we were alongside the former nuclear plant. Our path was afforded an unexpected processional quality as diversionary signs took us through corridors of temporary fencing, zig-zagging to and from the original coastal route. Earthworks abounded on the embankments either side where excavators were abandoned for the weekend. Before returning to the path proper, we observed the early stages of an archaeological dig, the land scraped bare revealing crude foundations and an assortment of artefacts or labels bagged and fixed in situ, the polythene fluttering in the breeze. As we arrived beside the power station I wondered what toxic remains our descendants might initially enthuse over. The tomb will be opened, the curse it will strike.
A short detour took us up onto the headland furthest north, offering a fine vantage point over Cemaes to the east and revealing the extent of our journey to the west. Descending from the concrete hut with its boarded windows and corrugated iron extension, we caught the continuing progress of our dolphin friend, its pale hide striking out against the bright blue of sea and sky. Above the curious hut, a tall weathered pole with a short cross piece near the top formed a silhouette against the sun, the remains of a telegraph pole now transformed into a ragged totem.
As we completed our circuit of the promontory, I realised that what I had assumed to be just the part of Wylfa visible from further away was indeed the total extent of the structure: a smaller cuboid of muted gold and the turbine hall in olive green. Strangely, the closer we got, the smaller the entire edifice appeared to be. Instead of becoming increasingly intimidating as it had been on the nightmarish outskirts of my mind’s landscape, it diminished and softened before us in its pastel shades and coastal colours. Beyond the woods and thin grass of the headland, between the sky and the sea, Wylfa seduced me. I took out my camera again and again, marvelling at how it integrated into the landscape, its blunt geometric forms redolent of an abstract painting, the blocks of colour forming the strata of an alternative compressed geology, where something undeniably human ruptured the equilibrium of Earth and sky.
Intoxicated, we were lost. Repeatedly consulting OS 216, checking the extent of the path west and partially retracing our footsteps, we stumbled over the rubble strewn threshold of a fallen wall next to a security gate flanked with a higher fence skirting the road into the complex. We seemed to be following the route on the map, running parallel to the path that brought us to Wylfa but now heading in the opposite direction. A short fence separated us from the main route, a further gap in the wall connecting the two and then we were into a long grassy meadow, the stumps branded with the IOACP insignia nowhere to be seen. Traversing another ring fenced embankment we plunged through yet another fallen wall and headed into the darkness of the woods.
Emerging briefly into a clearing, a pair of buzzards rose up off the ground and circled above our heads, gliding back and forth, their pale, speckled undersides in contrast to the unbreakable blue. As with the dolphin, these animals appeared exuberant, revelling in the last of the summer sun. Having delayed already, we continued into the gloom of the trees. I began to believe I had only dreamt a decommissioned nuclear reactor beyond the enfolding green canopy.
We rediscovered the path heading back into the woods, back towards Wylfa, unseen through the thicket. Off a single track lane we found a laminated sheet stuck to a fence bearing the legend Ring o’ Fire. The path weaved through the trees passing a small stone windowless house with solar panels affixed to the roof. The irony. As we veered up a steep embankment, I noticed an assemblage of large stones amongst the undergrowth, and another sign regarding the Ring o’ Fire. No sooner had the feeling occurred to me that we were heading in the wrong direction than I found myself at the top of a short flight of steps cut from the spongy ground beneath the pines. Here, a shallow, turreted wall arose where the footpath culminated beyond the branches. The full breadth of Wylfa consumed the vista, impressing its reality upon us, drawing my phone from my rucksack to take another picture. “There’s no point coming up, it’s just a dead end,” I called to save K from mounting the steps. Behind me, the facade of the power station glowed in the sunlight.
Tracking back, we found the way marker we had missed, subtly positioned off a junction of paths not easily seen from the short ascent. Single file, I followed K through ever narrowing passageways between hedgerows, brambles and thistles that bit through our trousers. In a shaded copse we passed a spiky gamma detection station, before emerging onto the main road to the plant.
Eventually, cutting back down to the shore, we crossed a footbridge passing by an abandoned stone house almost on the beach itself. A stream poured down the steep flank to the side of the house, emptying into the sea. To the rear, the whole area had been occupied by Gunnera manicata. The rhubarb giant had stormed the river bank, rising to its full prehistoric scale and had gradually begun its assault on the house itself. A faded sign on the gate between the property and a fence intended to separate the back garden from the front read PRIVATE GARDENS STRICTLY NO ADMITTANCE. Indistinguishable in height from the mature deciduous trees behind them, these herbaceous sentinels had made their point.
As we approached Cemlyn Bay, glances over my shoulder confirmed my suspicions: what a different journey this would be in the opposite direction. From the reverse perspective, Wylfa dominated the landscape. Not by its size or heft, but by its sheer difference to the irregularity of the environment around it. The path goes to Wylfa, but few on the path will be going there as a destination. Yet, walking in the direction of Wylfa, heading east perhaps to Cemlyn or to Cemaes and beyond would feel like walking to Wylfa as a destination in itself. It is always in view. It maintains a maddening equilibrium of attraction and repulsion. The further west we walked, looking back over the miles eastward, Wylfa, like the Gunnera, increased in size, becoming more monstrous with each glance. We took the tidal route across the causeway, our boots heavy in the thick shingle. A little egret danced in the shallows of the lagoon beneath the reeds.
An elderly couple studied the strata of rocky promontories slipping out into the sea. Oblivious to us up on the path, he pointed his walking pole at the striations while she stood back, consulting some reading material. Both appeared to be reading, her with her head bent over and him scanning the ancient pre-Cambrian alphabet. I am back at Warwick in 1996. I am reading, with equal intent and blinkered concentration. I turn the pages, scan the lines and fathom the depths of Stephen Jay Gould, Deleuze and Guattari, Nietzsche and Richard Dawkins. Gould’s texts are life-affirming, entertaining and full of a wide ranging understanding of the natural world that never gives in to dogma or the self-assured complacency of Dawkins. Deleuze and Guattari are the bastard twins of Nietzsche in his prime. They cause chaos, disrupting every line of inquiry I have. I love them for their wild abandonment, their rebellious childish glee. I watch the man on the shore examining rocks that predate the Cambrian explosion and I am piecing together fragments of my own past. I try and relocate the salient points of Gould’s argument and my lack of sharpness in retention dismays me. I stare out across the still waters towards the Skerries as we walk on in the shared silence of the unfit. I see no dolphins and no porpoise, but as the occasional wave ripples and reveals a peak of rock, images emerge from the water.
Gould argued that fossilised remains of pre-Cambrian life forms reveal evidence of a wide diversity of phyla that became totally extinct. Entire phyla, not species, ceased to evolve and cannot be assimilated into the phyla that developed in the Cambrian explosion. This is a controversial argument nearly thirty years after his book, Wonderful Life, was published. It has implications for models of evolution: bush or tree, rhizome or root? Evidence of such life forms is rare, due to their soft bodied composition. Gould based his conclusion that evolution is subject to catastrophic punctures rather than operating along sleeker lines, on his interpretation of discoveries made in the fossil deposit of the Burgess Shale about four thousand miles away in the direction I am now looking, across the sea and the States, in the Rockies of British Columbia.
On the shoreline a few feet to the north of me, the pre-Cambrian is exposed. Paleoclimatologists have predicted long-term climate changes based on the Burgess Shale fossil record, attempting to model extinction and survival patterns when temperatures reach similar levels due to the expansion of the sun. In the east I can still see Wylfa. I think about radioactive waste and carbon emissions. I think about the solar panels on the roof of that mute stone shack in the woods. I scan the horizon for turbines. There are none.
Our way across Carmel Head is heralded by the looming presence of two gigantic pillars facing out towards the channel between the mainland and the string of offshore islands known as the Skerries and closer to us, West, Middle and East Mouse. Totemic and slightly foreboding, I am surprised to learn that these modern looking shards date back to 1860. Known as the Three White Ladies, when aligned with their sister obelisk on West Mouse, they indicate the presence of a dangerous reef hazardous to shipping. As with Wylfa, it’s surprisingly difficult to judge the scale of such monuments on open land with little to compare of human significance. Numerous trips to Skye have been spent with binoculars poised through the open car window at the side of some bendy carriageway, trying to judge the size of a raptor over indistinguishable moorland. A far away eagle or a nearby buzzard? It’s amazing how quickly you realise how little you really know about anything once the overtly human landscape recedes. But on Skye, as here on Carmel Head, the wilderness is haunted by its human past. This stretch of the coast is lonely with its weathered ruins and concrete towers.
We are flagging as we finally turn south and begin the final leg towards Porth Swtan. Across the bay we draw level with the incinerator on Holy Island. Another mute totem. Is it the flat surface of this island that has encouraged humans to erect vertical edifices, trying to somehow transcend the natural platform? Most of Anglesey is a treasure trove of megaliths – shattered circles, chambered cairns and bony fingered monoliths. Once I would have scoured this north western reach disappointed at its relative lack of such remains. Now I understand that they are all around me: the megaliths of the anthropocene already frozen in time through disuse. Vestigial.