Islands are places of transformation. The tides undo and remake them. Their winds blow right through you. There is the hope that only being surrounded entirely by sea brings: the ever-changing light and open horizons, the fierce night storms and still mornings. Islands remind us of nature’s unerring constancy and its sudden, brilliant unpredictability. In pandemic times, they are the ultimate refuge.
With its bone-rattling winds and wild coastscapes, Anglesey is the epitome of a British island – a tour de force of vast dunes, gentle coves and knife-edge cliffs that would wreck your ship if you had one. Dangling off Wales’ northwesternmost tip, it bears the brunt of the Irish Sea’s foulest tempers. One minute the weather gives you a good drenching and boxes your ears, the next the light is so dazzling you need to shield your gaze, or so dreamy every smartphone shot is a Turner.
As I drive over the Menai Bridge, with the dying embers of sunset silhouetting Snowdonia’s dark mountains, I have to pinch myself to believe I am really here – this trip is long overdue.
Covid lockdowns 1.0 and 2.0 have put the mockers on my plans to visit Anglesey multiple times in this most fickle of years. And while nothing is certain yet, the likelihood is that the island will continue to be off limits for English visitors despite its own lockdown lifting, and – more incredibly – possibly to Welsh guests, too.
Though Anglesey currently has one of the lowest Covid rates in Wales (14.3 per 100,000 population), First Minister Mark Drakeford’s broad-brush, one-size-fits-all restrictions that will come into force on Friday, December 4, are hovering over the island like a storm cloud. These will ban the sale of alcohol and impose a 6pm curfew in pubs and restaurants that have only just reopened their doors, invested heavily in safety measures and put up Christmas decorations. The consensus is that the island is being unfairly victimized, and that the impact on trade during one of the busiest times of the year will be devastating.
I therefore feel lucky and almost giddy with delight when I arrive at the chicly converted 19th-century windmill of Melin Y Bont in Tŷ Croes in the island’s southwest. I love the living room with its stick-of-rock pinks and whites and shell table redolent of more carefree seaside days. I love racing up the spiral staircase to the master bedroom, where a vaulted roof projects into the starriest of night skies. I love the way the wind rages against the sailless mill, making its oak beams groan. Most of all, I love feeling far, far away – even though home in Mid Wales is none too distant.
“The firebreak lockdown impacted the tourism sector heavily and made us re-evaluate the role that tourism plays in the rural economy,” says Catherine Cunnah, the director of Boltholes & Hideaways, which offers luxury holiday lets in Snowdonia and on Anglesey. In her mind, the way forward must be a sustainable one, providing connection and balance with the local community and businesses.
“Anglesey is a wild, fresh, invigorating place, and a walk along the coast in mid winter can be as much a tonic for the soul as a warm summer evening spent on one of the beautiful beaches,” she enthuses.
I know this to be true.
In the week I spend on Anglesey together with my partner and baby daughter, the island holds me in its thrall. We walk for mile after mile along one seaweed-ensnared beach after the next, looking for samphire, driftwood and shells until darkness comes. At Aberffraw, the dunes give way to the silvery expanse of the sea, the mountains of Snowdonia beyond and the Llŷn Peninsula rising up like a dragon’s backbone. We race gleefully down them, making fresh tracks in the sand.
The welcome on the island is cautiously friendly, but I can sense the frustration and worry of the business owners that will soon be forced to close in another clutching-at-straws attempt to control Covid. And it feels particularly unjustifiable on a place with such low rates of infection and so much open space.
Like many who have made a last-minute booking on the island before it is no longer possible, we keep a reasonably low profile, with remote hikes to Neolithic burial chambers, hidden coves and sleepy coastal villages.
Some places are busier than we expect, notably Newborough Warren and Ynys Llanddwyn National Nature Reserve. On a sunny November Sunday, many families are out exploring the trails that weave through Corsican pine forest to a sweep of dune-flanked beach that tapers to a narrow headland. Here a ruined chapel stands on the site of a Celtic nunnery with associations to St Dwynwen, the Welsh patron saint of lovers.
Elsewhere we are largely alone. We fall hard for Traeth Lligwy, with its spectacular light play in tidal pools, rippled sands and trill of wading birds. We battle against high winds at starkly rugged Holyhead Mountain and are forced to return before reaching our goal of lighthouse-topped South Stack. We walk from pretty Cemaes, Wales’ northernmost village, to Llanlleiana Head along a steep, strenuous, magnificent coastal path, admiring views of Middle Mouse (Ynys Badrig), where legend has it St Patrick was once shipwrecked. The bracken and dry-stone walls run riot along the cliffs, and the only other hiker is a sprightly old gent, keen to point out local must-sees on our OS map. Instead of asking him to keep his two-metre distance, we find ourselves shuffling further and further back towards the cliff edge in a scene of parody-worthy British politeness.
Bar the spacing and sanitizer, the Freckled Angel restaurant in Menai Bridge is a delicious, much-missed burst of normality. Over Welsh-inspired tapas, we watch a small group celebrating a birthday with party hats and prosecco. Snowflakes dance on the ceiling. We stick to the menu’s suggestion of three small plates each, which include an outstanding Korean barbecued ox cheek and twice-baked Perl Las soufflé, but there’s a temptation to order the lot - seize the moment while it lasts - in the knowledge that soon the festive bubble will pop and nights like this will no longer be possible.
As we reluctantly leave the windmill and the island for home, we stop for fish and chips and take a last lingering look at the sea and sky, cloudless but for murmurations of starlings. Anglesey has welcomed us with open arms – albeit a socially distanced embrace between lockdowns. It seems sad that the island may soon be off limits and that local businesses will inevitably suffer – some never to open their doors again. But the incoming tide is a reminder that nothing lasts, that change can and must happen, and that everything is just a point in time.