Bird Haunts and Nature Memories/Chapter 2


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THE first station on the Chester and Holyhead line after it has crossed the Straits and entered Anglesey is called, by the London, Midland and Scottish Railway Company, Llanfair P.G. Popular tradition affirms that the village of Llanfair possesses the longest name in existence, and a jargon of letters, inches long, is sold for a penny in Bangor and elsewhere, professing to be this Welsh word; the juvenile Celt earns coppers by reeling off the name to the "Sassenach" tripper. The real name is Llanfairpwllgwyngyll, surely long enough without adding a jaw-breaking termination, which is merely a description of the place converted into a single word. Llanfair is the station for Plas Newydd, the seat of the Marquis of Anglesey, and for the Anglesey Column, a monument overlooking the Straits, from the summit of which a magnificent view can be obtained.

Twenty years ago I visited this little-known part of Wales. I have been many times since, but though a steam-ferry has replaced the old sailing-boat from Carnarvon, and motor transport passes through the one small town, there has been little change in these years. I shall never forget my first impressions of a part of Anglesey which the tourist had hardly ventured to invade.

We cycled west from Llanfair, past the fine beeches of Plas Newydd; everywhere wood-pigeons were busy in the tops, gorging on the fresh young buds, flying off with a noisy clatter of wings, as if conscious of guilt and possible retribution. Pheasants attacked the sprouting wheat. raiding the fields from their stronghold beyond the wall; from the far side of the same wall a pack of barriers yelped a welcome. Against the dark green background of sombre firs the pale shoots of the latches stood out in delicate freshness; a flicker of white wings showed where the chaffinches were busy amongst the little tufts, not, like the pigeons, devouring, but ridding them of tiny insect pests. Anemones, pink-tinged, had pushed through the carpet of last autumn's leaves, and primroses in clumps gave colour to the banks.

Beyond the park, and a little to the left of the road, stands the mined church of Llanidan, famous in history. Here was—perhaps still is—the Maen Mordhwyd, or stone of the thigh, built into the church wall. Giraldus de Barri, priest and scribe, describes the stone as he found it when he visited the place in 1188; it was small, shaped like a thigh, and possessed wonderful homing instincts; "whatever distance it may be carried, it returns, of its own accord, the following night, as has often been experienced by the inhabitants." Hugh Lupus, we learn from the same veracious source, who did not like anything but himself to have power, determined to subdue its wandering proclivities. Chaining it to a much heavier stone, he pitched the two into the Straits, but next day it was back in its accustomed station. "A countryman also, to try the power of the stone, fastened it to his thigh, which immediately became putrid, and the stone returned to its original situation." Giraldus failed to finish the story; what became of the countryman's own thigh? Here in the early days of the eighteenth century Henry Rowlands, vicar of Llanidan, wrote "Mona Antiqua Restaurata," dealing with all the antiquities of Anglesey from a point of view very remote from that of the higher critics. The marshes and bogs which till the inlets and valleys of the rugged western shores were, to Rowlands, relics of the Deluge, the "dreggy sediments of the retiring fluid." How could it be otherwise? Had not men, digging for coal on Malldraeth Marsh, found shelly sea-beaches deep beneath the turf? Were not the peat-bogs full of tree-stumps, evidence of inundation? What did the old parson make of the Maen Mordhwyd?

West of Llanidan the character of the country changes; woods no longer border the Straits, and the undulating country falls to flat, cultivated land in the valley of the Braint. The road runs along a low ridge, sloping to the south to the Straits and to the north, beyond the little Braint, to the wide valley of the Cefni, Anglesey's most important river. Cromlechs, camps, carnedds, maenhirs—relics of the vanished races—remain as single or heaped stones, or, often as not. as mere place-names on a map; it is a fine country for archæological and antiquarian speculation. Giraldus, crossing from Carnarvon to Aber Menai, remarked that at first sight "the island of Mona is a dry and stoney land, rough and unpleasant in its appearance," but that inland it is "more fertile in corn than any other part of Wales." This, to a great extent, is true to-day. The cultivated land stretches away to Newborough, now but a typical Welsh village, but once of great importance. Rhos-vair was a British town, overlooking the impassable marshes of the Cefni; Edward I. made it the seat of justice for the island, calling it the New Borough, a set-off for the royal town of Aberffraw, with its port and palaces, away across the sands. The mansions of the rulers were here, the business of the island centred in the town; it was within reach of Carnarvon, of strategic value. Pennant, however, says that it has "greatly fallen away from its ancient splendour." We echo his lament—"the glory of Newborough has now passed away."

South and west of Newborough the Warren extends for miles, a waste of blown sand, dune after dune, the home of rabbit, stock-dove and sheld-duck. The intertwisted, wide-spreading rootlets of the marram grass barely hold the shifting sand, but in the hollows between the dunes dwarf willow has a firmer hold; bees hum amidst the yellow catkins, the titlark sings as it emulates the skylark in these hollows. Marram is Newborough's crop to-day; it is harvested, dried, and taken to the village, where skilled fingers plait ropes and matting. tough and durable, which is exported in considerable quantity; the star grass, which binds the sand and saves the land from further encroachment, feeds the inhabitants of Newborough.

A little rocky peninsula tips the seaward limits of the Warren, where a lighthouse and a few pilots' cottages are all that remain of the village of Llanddwyn; the village itself has lain for centuries beneath the drifted sand, or sunk in the peaty hollows where pools of water lie, thick with the beautiful flowers of the buck~bean and great masses of yellow flags. Llanddwyn Island was once isolated, and even now a storm sweeps heavy seas above its stone causeway; it is sacred to the memory of St. Deuwnn or Ddwyn, an early British lady. Baring-Gould calls her Dwynwen and says that she was a princess, probably daughter of a king of Brecknock. Her own love affairs did not run smoothly, but she became the patron saint of lovers and adopted as her motto: "Nothing wins hearts like cheerfulness." She fell in love with one Maelon, but something went wrong and he spread ugly reports about her; she prayed to be relieved of her passion, and was relieved by an angel who administered drops of heavenly balm. Maelon also was dosed, but with different results; he became a lump of ice. She retired to the peninsula, quite a pleasant place to live in if she was interested in birds and flowers, and prayed that Maelon might be thawed but have no more to do with her, and that all who appealed to her might obtain the husbands they desired or forget all about them.

The picturesque ruins of an abbey stand on the highest part of the island, and a modern cross has been erected in memory of the many pilgrims who visited the shrine and were buried there. Round the Abbey are the remains of the monastic gardens, still fruitful, for the once well-tilled land. helped by rotting seaweed, an excellent fertiliser, produces the best early potatoes for Carnarvon market. Starlings and a most valuable member of this isolated colony, a donkey, were occupying the ruin on our first visit, and we have since found that patient steed the best method of transporting baggage across the soft and shifting dunes. Llanddwyn was never large, but in Tudor days it was important; its inhabitants entertained and traded with the One method of transferring the wealth of the visitors to their own pockets was a peculiar occult science, divination from fishes, but I have failed to find how the finny tribe revealed the future; the monks of St. Ddwyn knew.

We sat amongst the ruins watching the children from the cottages playing in a hollow below. Beyond the four white cottages is a small harbour, where at one time there was a lifeboat and where the pilot boats can be hauled up the sandy beach. On a headland is a tower, used as a landmark before the lighthouse was erected, and beyond the lighthouse, on a couple of stacks, hundreds of terns lay their nests on the bare, jagged rocks or amongst the dense tangle of tree-mallow and sea-beet. Drying their wings on a tangle-covered stack were three or four cormorants, heraldic birds holding their black pinions half unfurled; nearer an orange-billed oystercatcher eyed us suspiciously. Beyond, a wide sweep of firm sand stretched to Aber Menai, once a ferry to Carnarvon, and behind were the billowy dunes, their loose tops lifted like smoke in the stiff sea-breeze. Across the streak of twinkling water, looking cool under a hot sun, lay the Welsh shore with its stern background of mountains, the Snowdon range. Far away to the right, beneath the peaks of Yr Eifl, was the precipitous face of Careg-y-llam, haunt of the chough in those days, and where the guillemots still line the ledges in thousands. Towering above was the shaggy top of Carn Madryn, beyond the Rivals, and to the north Carnedd-goch, scarred by the Nantlle quarries; the snow-capped conical peak of Snowdon itself and the sister height of Crib-y-dysgyll, a great snow mound, were straight before us. The Glydyrs and Carnedds were white alps, Y Foel Fras had a wintry cap; we might have been gazing on Alps, dazzlingly white in hot summer sunshine.

The monks of Llanddwyn are forgotten; the children of the pilots play above their nameless graves and hunt for cowries on the shore where they once landed; starlings nest in the walls, feeding their noisy young in the Abbey refectory. Drifting sand from the Irish Sea has buried deep the village that was, and rabbits burrow and wheatears nest where once the pilgrims trod.

Two streams, the Braint and Cefni, rise in the inland marshes, and enter the sea on either side of Newborough Warren; the latter was once a trickle through a great marsh, now it is a broad, embanked tidal stream, draining the whole of the vast Malldraeth Marsh. Much of this land is under cultivation, rich, fertile soil; but here and there are unreclaimed reaches, wet tracts where reeds, rushes. and horse-tails flourish, and where in places the water-violet and mare's-tail abound. Old spoil-banks, where pioneers dug but did not mine for coal, rise above the level, and thick double hedges and deep dykes cross the marsh to mark out the fields where the black Welsh cattle wade in the lush, rich grass. A few pools or llyns remain; their muddy bottoms are far deeper than the water that overlies them; here we found the gaudy shoveler drakes resting whilst their mates attended to domestic duties; here we disturbed the lively teal, and sent the mallard duck squattering to lure us from her scared flappers. A cormorant was swimming, its beak tilted upward, on one pool, a grey heron rose with a squawk from another; coots scuttled into the rushes, and moorhens swam rapidly into cover, jerking perky tails. From the dense fringe of aquatic vegetation came the long musical trill of the dabchick, and with its triple call a whimbrel came in from the sea and alighted to feed.

The bird of the marsh is the sedge-warbler; everywhere its chattering song drowned other bird notes; swinging on the stems, creeping amongst the rushes and equisetum, perched on the low hedge or tall weed, it poured its varied tunes upon the air—now sweet, now harsh, now but an oft-repeated chatter, now a soft, gentle warble. By the embankment, though the sun was shining brightly, that lover of the half-light, the grasshopper warbler, trilled its continuous song with wide-open mandibles; then like a mouse it crept, still singing, amongst the stems, and once, as it fluttered into the air to intercept a passing fly, expanded its rounded tail.

Below the railway the Cefni runs across level pastureland to the embankment and road between Newborough and Yard Malldraeth, better known as The Yard. Between road and embankment, a strong wide barrier to keep the sea from the fertile land, lie shallow lagoons, where swallows and martins skim, protected by the sea-wall from the breeze, where the sheld-ducks bathe and sandpipers indulge in nuptial flight. Beyond the sluices the river winds across a wide estuary, bordering the Warren. On the edge of Malldraeth Sands are saltings, flat land overgrown with rushes and intersected by shallow tidal gutters; in the gutters gobies and shrimps dart away, scared by the human shadow, stirring the loose mud in their hurry; above the saltings the redshanks yelp, annoyed and anxious. Sixty-one sheld-duck, perhaps the most beautiful of our resident fowl, were resting on the slub and short grass. preening themselves and leaving behind a litter of white and gay chestnut feathers. Many of the birds were drakes, adorned with bigger knobs on their scarlet bills than their mates, who, no doubt, were deep in some rabbit-burrow, sitting numerous, down-surrounded eggs. When the young brood, tiny infants in down, are led from the burrow to the shore, the fishermen lie in wait to intercept them; the sheld-duck is a showy, handsome bird on ornamental waters. Nevertheless, it is no easy matter to capture these juveniles, for at a very early age they can run, and if they gain the water they prove that diving is instinctive; even a trained water-dog cannot catch them then.

On the Warren, moles burrow in the loose sand, making superficial runs through the turf and star-grass roots; these miners had many runs on the Sands, even below high-tide mark. Surely there are few earthworms within reach of salt water; indeed I have seen countless thousands, drowned out and slain by an exceptionally high tide. Probably the pioneer moles had invaded the sand for the sake of lobs or other marine worms; they had been busy, for the tunnels ran in all directions, crossing and recrossing. Round the point where the sands extend to the islet of Llanddwyn, we met with some accidental members of the fauna, all below the last tide line. The weather had been boisterous, and a strong west wind was lifting the drying sand in clouds, piling the particles on to the dunes; a number of round crustaceans were whisked inland, rolling over the ripple marks. They were masked crabs, usually rather deep water

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animals, but evidently driven in, and in serious trouble. The masked crab, which gets its name from the face-like marking of the carapace, buries itself tail foremost in the sand, leaving its long "feelers" or antennæ alone exposed. Whenever there was a lull in the breeze, and the crab happened to be right end up, it started working itself into the sand. Many succeeded, and we found some of these by their antennae, and left them waiting for the next tide; others, however, were caught by the next gust, driven further inland on the sandhills; where the tide would not reach them they would perish, and be added to the varied relics of the shore.

And there are relics, many alas! along this beach. They lie, half buried in the sand, stark, barnacle-covered ribs of gallant vessels. Above the tide reach are broken masts, planks, spars—pitiful fragments. Well may there be a light on Llanddwyn's rocky point; well may there be pilots to guide incoming vessels over the treacherous bar of the western entrance to the Straits. It was bright and sunny here when we saw it first; it is not always so.