The skeletal boat partially submerged in the wet sandy flats of Moel-Y-Don transported itself to the Cloud with a tap of the screen. Accompanied by its own fuzzy avatar and warnings of exhausted storage, the boat had waited long for the tide of technology to rise and liberate it from its sepulchral moorings. For the first time on this trek, we turned our backs on the Menai Straits and headed up the hill towards the A4050. Trending inland is the prevalent theme of this section of the Coastal Path. In the preceding years of travelling along the southern coast by car, heading east via Menai Bridge to Beaumaris and Penmon, I had snatched glimpses of the Snowdonian range taunting me to identify its most northerly peaks, to separate one Carnedd from another, rising up beyond the water. I had imagined picking over the rounded rocks that hug the coast below the A road, threading between inlets as the pier at Beaumaris grew taller on the horizon. When studying the map the night before, we realised that the only truly coastal section of this leg is around and beneath the two bridges that straddle the Straits, dominating the real and iconic landscape of Anglesey to the south as South Stack lighthouse does in the north.
Ascending the slope from the jetty, the warmth of the sun felt unfamiliar with hat, snood and gloves already redundant in our packs. A solitary rider passed on horseback circled by a dog and young women cracked the silence outside the small string of blinding white cottages on the wharf. The traffic on this single track lane was surprisingly steady as we passed the grounds of Plas Coch, where Scholes and Giggs had given the taxi driver who brought us from Beaumaris fifties for twelve pound fairs. Our tip was not as generous, but by scale of earnings perhaps it was. We picked tenners and fivers blooming on twisted stems around a pergola near the entrance to the Serenity Spa, the brown and the green crumbling in our palms like last autumn’s leaves.
We continued north at the crossroads on the Coastal Path that is not a Coastal Path. A coach bulged across the narrow lane, partially concealed by the hedgerow up ahead, as though breathing in, aiming for discretion. And failing. I retrod the path that runs along the stream flanked by fields on either side, the notion of a road so nearby already seeming like an immediate impossibility. Here, the way is marked by the overhanging branches, the trees, the rolling fields expanding into the distance. Heading east now, the river bank becomes deeper, steeper, broadening with a serious flow. I remain vigilant for kingfishers but there is only the sparkling of the stream and the pebbles on the river bed cast copper and bronze from the morning sun filtering through the waters.
Excavating my relatively distant past, I do not recall any presence of a sign from the road when I first visited Bryn Celli Ddu more than twenty years ago. I have vague memories of navigating with a copy of The Modern Antiquarian and a road atlas serving as an approximation of an OS map. Now, the way is signed and every visit is populated with more visitors. Nevertheless the path off the road, along the river and across the bridge still feels like a pilgrimage of sorts. As the track takes a turn for the perpendicular, it is hidden between high hedgerows, the likes of which are now also becoming symbolic of antiquated interfaces with nature. Re-treading this path is one of the inner and supplementary pleasures that compounds the experience of visiting Bryn Celli Ddu. I am walking through memories of my own past, activated through the dust that rises with every tramp of foot. From those early days years ago when megaliths were still hidden shared secrets, still obscure to an unexpected early morning foray with a colleague and friend, escaping briefly from tough times in our shared occupation, to visiting for the first time with my wife and standing in the cool darkness of the interior, the earth heaped above our heads, crowds grazing unfazed nearby. I re-tread my own past and it intersects with a deeper past, overlaying iterations of the same frames of consciousness, shared anxieties, concerns and joys that have been the human condition across the five millennia of Bryn Celli Ddu’s stoic existence. In imaginary time-lapse photography, humanity rushes around this enduring construction like a returning tide.
The burial mound rises about fifteen feet above the surrounding field, turf green with two points of entry. Anglesey wraps around its curved stone walls. The smell inside is of animal and earth. As is common to most Neolithic sites and certainly typical to those of Anglesey, they are situated in spots that afford the visitor a perspective so perfect as to make the assertion that to construct it anywhere else would have been a category error. Ley lines don’t work for me and I have no truck with a mythical past, I’m more concerned with the mythical present and its increasing indistinguishability from pasts we create for our own purposes. I’m here in the intersection between ages, where I can see, breathe, reach out and touch the modern of five thousand years ago. There is nothing like placing your hand against the unmistakably human hewn surface of a megalith to acquaint yourself with your own mortality. Instead of the star-gazing effect of experiencing one’s own insignificance, you can feel your heart beating, feel the warmth of your own body against the cold of the stone, the leaves of the grass. You can feel alive. Now. In my head are the lines from Rozi Plain’s Actually: ‘Don’t get over it; this is actually it…’
On the other side of the riverbank once more, the ‘path’ peels away from the river itself and the OS pushes us up an unmarked trajectory over empty fields towards the top of the hill, heading south east. Near some crumbling outhouses in a walled, wooded grove, I turn and take a shot of the valley where Bryn Celli Ddu is situated. The tomb is in a field adjacent to a farmhouse and to the rear there is an industry of vehicles and storage, construction is afoot. Silage sacks, platforms and towers create a contemporary structure to complement the relative scale of the megalith. It seems fitting, somehow.
Beyond the crest of the hill the Snowdon range rears its snowy white spine beyond the Straits, cutting into the clear blue sky. The water seems a long way away.
We skirt around an old expansive set of buildings being re-developed and re-built as high end apartments, surrounding a courtyard. On the unfinished road we stand aside from construction vehicles on their endless returns. At the A road, the Coastal Path sign leans back at 45 degrees, uprooted on its post, the sunlight filtering through the still bare branches of early spring, illuminating the circular motif as it cranes away from the path of the trucks. The path appears to be stretching itself out of the way of impediments. From here it runs mostly behind another hedgerow, shielded from the speed and the shunt of the cars. The boardwalk as we cross the estuary is slippery under foot.
More than the previous walk, this route is split into distinct stages with very different terrain. On the other side of the road, we descend towards the Straits once more. Following signs and the pull of gravity, we pass through a gate in a high garden wall, emerging onto a compact harbour through the trees. A man stands on the edge of the wharf opposite us, strolling in front of a Straitside cottage. He is bearded and smokes a pipe. He is wearing what looks like a thick-knit navy sweater and casting his eyes through his pipe smoke to survey the waters. Is he real? We exist in a world of simulacra. We navigate this with relative ease. Most of the issues arise when we forget that a particular simulacrum – say, a community or conversation – is not real in the traditional sense and there, where the real and the simulated collide, we discover that virtual actions have real effects. And there are moments when what we took to be the real, the authentic, turns out to be a simulacrum… the traditional brew house that has only been specifically designed to mimic a traditional brew house… the ploughman’s lunch that is a synecdoche for an entire concept of bucolic nostalgia whose basis in reality is questionable. Theme parks and the world of entertainment are packed with representations of reality that are so hackneyed, caricatured and stereotypical as to be obviously simulacra, lacking the detail and the subtle nuances of the real and the unending dynamism of the way that reality drives difference at every scale… As they become more prevalent and occupy more territory in our consciousness, such simulacra invade the landscape of the real. Their ubiquity breeds complacency towards them until in time, we surrender, unconsciously and begin to navigate their ripples, the outward spirals reaching out to further and further shores. He is bearded and smokes a pipe. It is 2018. At the negligible but quaint harbour. A dog investigates the sand ahead of him. We are in the simulacra. We are in the idea of an idea of rural coastal affectations. An artist with a Breton shirt ID of horizontal stripes. The ploughman’s lunch. His face is in shadow. He is too far away across the inlet, across the stones strewn with weed and the ebbing residue of the Straits. Of course he is there, on the modest harbour wall at the end of the ramp descending into the sand. He is bearded and smokes a pipe. It is 2018. What if the simulacra was too real? What if this was the simulacra and the harbour master was an over-zealous glitch, an algorithm awry? Can you be too real to be real? Isn’t that the definition of being real?
A group of older women approach smiling, enjoying the sunshine and the walk. We stop and chat. This is our first time on this route. We are advised against the turning of the tide. We are advised that we have plenty of time to make it to Menai Bridge. We move on on this thin path above the marginal beach between us and the water. A dog does gonzo laps of a park beyond the fence, its tongue lolling out, its eyes crazed and dizzy. The prospect of an incoming tide quickens our steps. We move down onto the pebbles and feel the world rise up above us: the immense statue of Nelson, silhouetted high on his plinth, the grandeur of the Britannia bridge arching over the water and the white white peaks of the mountains framing it all.
We head up through the graveyard of St Mary’s church, someone’s children outflanking us, bored with their walk and eager to play and hide amongst the dead. The view east right along the Straits is incredible. Next to this viewpoint there is a cuboid tomb, ancient and weathered, the ground around it eroded and the end square of the coffin gone, the inside hollow, sunlit lasers burning seams of light along its mismatched edges. I think of Bryn Celli Ddu and the splendour of the views for the dead all those millennia ago. As I peer into this tomb now I imagine deceased feet kicking out the missing panel, dead eyes staring out across the sea, teeth exposed and grinning. The prospect of this final resting place, for one without belief in the afterlife such as myself, is strangely alluring. I think of the anamorphic skull in the blurred foreground of Holbein’s Ambassadors as they presided over journeys real and symbolic, journeys of conquest and journeys of supposed progress. Symbols of mortality haunt this tranquil and easy leg of the Coastal Path.
The memorial statue of Nelson is yet another human edifice that serves as a meditation on death and the past. Built by Admiral Lord Clarence Paget who resided in Plas Llanfair up on the shore, Nelson presides forever over what he apparently referred to as ‘one of the most treacherous stretches of sea in the world’. When Paget was sculpting this he was sculpting myths, propagating imperialist power structures and simultaneously, propagating the tendency of cultures divested of power to exaggerate the dramatic features of their own environment. He set these myths in stone. I would like to stay and watch the tide rise around Nelson’s neck but I take heed of the warnings, however hyperbolic, about these waters. Obedience to authority preserved across the centuries. Down here on the shore, crouching low amongst the rocks and the kelp, something has gone wrong with scale. There is no external scale with which to measure and arrange the gigantic edifices. As soon as technology and finance permitted the alchemy of possible into real, the niche between the southern coast of Anglesey and the northern coast of Wales were inevitably filled with constructions attempting to match the heft of the mountains beyond – the mountains that dominate the southerly perspective from almost anywhere on the island. But not from here. Here the peaks are relegated, tamed.
I scurry closer to and further from the base of the plinth, lining up my shots, scurrying in and out of the shadows of imperialism, below Nelson’s booted feet, the footnotes of Empire. K walks on ahead of me, oblivious, in the moment, whilst I scramble about in the rock pools of history, enacting at one remove, what we all do from moment to moment anyway. At one remove yet further again, isn’t that what recreational walking is? Our usual footsteps reconfigured/transposed, to an environment in which we are the pilots of our own perambulations for a change? Or conversely, committing ourselves to the random wanderings of the flaneur, breaking out of our habitual engagement in life to roam, observe, cogitate? Roaming across this negligible strand on the fringes of the Straits west of Britannia Bridge reminds me that there is no escape, however much we detach ourselves from constraint, there are always these channels of history and politics, sculpting the landscape, literally and unconsciously. There is no external scale. There is no reprieve. There is only the labyrinth as we pick our way over the rocks, in and out of the shadows.
Nelson’s hatted head presides higher and higher above the bridge the closer we get until he is behind us. There are two inscriptions on his plinth: Fell at Trafalgar in 1805 and England expects that every man will do his duty. Nelson is in his place. Even in tribute he is immortalised by his servility. England expects. Every man. The water gleams further out but I reassure myself that at last the tide has turned. Earlier, I marvelled at the unexpected situation of this statue – maybe I had glimpsed it from countless road trips, usually from the driver’s seat, behind the wheel when crossing the bridge or skirting the south of the island. Upon leaving it, I felt grateful of its obscurity despite its size: an atrophied relic of less equitable times.
There are several moments where the way bends back against itself as the Coastal Path that is not a Coastal Path fights against contours, roads and houses to cling to the shore, or as close as it can manage. Now we veer past the grounds of the Gwesty Carreg Bran hotel complex and dip beneath the overpass of the A55 North Wales Expressway. Fences rise up above us caging the greenery. Magically, after the long dark winter of 2017/2018, our walk has coincided with the hottest day of the year yet by far. Amber rays of sun filter lazily through the branches, through the cross hatching of the wires, cutting across our skin and rolling up our sleeves. The woodland smells of blooms and life. The sun has activated everything. I urinate over a pile of stacked timber and watch the steam rise.
There is a Brutalism in the concrete pillars that elevate the A55 and the infrastructure of the railway up on Stephenson’s bridge. Spray painted with tags and crude illustrations the flags and angles create an intimate refuge, free from the horrors of heritage into something more wild and daring. Is this where everything converges? This vortex of transport and its dingy environs?
For some people, the thought of being exposed in an expanse of open ground is enough to induce agoraphobia, for others it is claustrophobia that stifles their sleep. I have experienced, throughout my life, the recurring yet fleeting grip of dread in imagining how it would feel to be close up against a gigantic edifice – for example, an oil rig, the enormous hull of a ship or a power plant. I anticipate feeling utterly dwarfed, not being able to catch my breath in such proximity and panic sets in. The source of this unusual apprehension is completely mysterious. Even more so is the fact that it is rarely, if ever, an actual rather than an imagined experience. It preoccupied my thoughts on the morning of heading out towards Wylfa, on the previous leg of this journey, almost to the extent that I found it hard to look at the structure on the horizon until I had no other choice. It lured me into its maw with intractable gravitational pull. In reality, it held nothing other than fascination and inspiration in a million different directions. This feeling stalks the periphery of my consciousness on the approach to the Britannia Bridge, but the air is so warm, the light so yellow through the trees that we are beneath the bridge already, clambering up towards the platform, at ease in the modernity that surrounds us. Traffic is above our heads, the sections of carriageway separated with slivers of light. Straight ahead the railway tracks disappear to a point of distant convergence, guarded on either side by the limestone lions, noble and impervious to their hidden existence for such grand beasts high up above the waters of the Straits.
It is hard to leave the space between track and road, above the water and above the woodland canopy. As we descend back to the path, a train eases along the tracks bound for Holyhead. Back alongside the water, for the longest stretch on this leg, we emerge through boggy woodland where photographers have set up their tripods, catching shots of bird life and images of the bridge. The low lying fields beyond the trees are sodden and some navigation is required to avoid a breach. Now we are between bridges as Thomas Telford’s original bridge spans the Straits ahead. We are almost at Menai Bridge and it feels as though there is too far to go.
Our route takes us up north once more, perpendicular to the run of the coast. We tramp the A5 and leave the shore behind us before returning on what looks like a recently constructed section of the path that passes Church Island. Again, the walk is flanked by graves basking in the unexpected sun. This path takes us into Menai Bridge itself as we wend through the outskirts of the small town near the promenade. Heading out the other side we pass second hand shops and cafes, the pavement thinning out until we cross the busy road. It is here that we say goodbye to the coast as we head north and east, through suburbs, uphill and out through Llandegfan. It is Thursday. There is no-one home except for occasional figures stepping out of their cars, across their driveways and disappearing into their houses. The mountain views must be magnificent from those windows.
Eventually, the Coastal Path that is not a Coastal Path departs what has become a single track lane and we venture once more across unmarked fields. Our only real guide is vague direction from the map and the occasional glimpse of a waymarker on the horizon. Marshland deeper and wider than the three tyres placed as stepping stones almost impedes our progress but then we are climbing again, up through gorse and scrubland, past hill-climbing cows glimpsed through the trees. In the late afternoon, the regained road leads us down into Beaumaris, eleven more miles behind us.