WALES’ northernmost town lies beyond the more touristy hot-spots on the Isle of Anglesey’s eastern coast, a gritty place where making an honest penny has never been easy. But scratch beneath Amlwch’s hard-as-nails exterior and you’ll uncover a little gem that was once the epicentre of the whole world’s copper trade.
In the late 18th century Amlwch (pronounced am-looch, with the ch guttural as in Scottish loch or the x in the Spanish pronunciation of México) was Wales’ second largest centre of population, after Merthyr Tydfil. 10,000 souls had flocked there from near and far, many of them our Celtic cousins from Cornwall, in Wales’ own version of the gold rush. Fortunes were certainly made, but as per usual by a selected few, with grinding poverty always a bone of contention.
Drive up the B5111 road up the pock-marked hillock above the town, just 147m high but priding itself on being rather grandiosely called Mynydd Parys or Parys Mountain, or enjoy a bracing 45-minute walk from town. You’ll be astounded at the sight that awaits you. This is where much of the world’s copper ore was once dragged from the earth.
A short, easy walk from the free car park, where you’ll find information boards and leaflets, on our first visit we found ourselves staring in astonishment on having found ourselves on the surface of the moon. Massive craters dug through sheer muscle-power and human sweat enticed us to peek over their vertigo-inducing precipices, the ore-infused soil and rock debris scattered everywhere dazzling in unreal hues of purple, blue, yellow, red and green.
Tiny scraps of vegetation that had out-witted the sterile local environment grinned at us triumphantly. Little wonder that this place has on many occasions found itself a role as a film set, liberally peppered with little green men from the planet Zog.
We followed a well-marked circular path a couple of kilometres long around the site’s perimeter, passing long-redundant sedimentation pits and the remains of a marvellous old windmill right on the summit. The views of inland Anglesey and the man-made reservoir of Llyn Alaw are to kill for, and we caught an enticing glimpse of the ancient Celtic kingdom of the Isle of Man shimmering on the horizon across the Irish Sea.
Mynydd Parys was originally known as Mynydd Trysglwyn. It was re-named on being handed by the English crown in 1406 to tax-collector extraordinaire Robert Parys, after he’d successfully fleeced the locals who’d supported Owain Glyndŵr’s attempt to re-establish Welsh sovereignty.
The mountain was not without reason known as the Copper Kingdom. It was mined from the Bronze Age, and afterwards by the Romans, right up until the early 20th century. And not all of it was drift mining, scraping the ore from the surface. There are some 20km of tunnels and shafts, and an underground waste water reservoir, lying beneath your feet, unfortunately too dangerous to be open to the public.
Although smelting was done on-site, much of the ore made its way up or down the Welsh coast to sites at Flint, Holywell and Swansea to be further processed. It was at Holywell that the copper blanks were produced from which the famous Amlwch pennies were struck. Many of the workers were paid in this currency, which featured a druid’s head on one side, and a pledge on its rim that the currency would be honoured “On demand in London, Liverpool or Anglesey.” They were also used extensively by cattle drovers.
A lot of the copper in the industry’s hey-day was used to water-proof and protect ships’ bottoms, and it was a natural consequence that Amlwch saw its own ship-building industry develop. Another industry that took advantage of the town’s useful maritime links was tobacco, with a number of works in the area importing and packaging it under their own branding within living memory.
On descending to the town, the unusual avant garde Catholic church right on the western outskirts is worth a visit. In a huge nod to the area’s maritime history, the striking Church of Our Lady Star of the Sea and St Winefride was designed by Italian architect Guiseppe Rinvolucri, and consecrated in 1937. The Grade II listed building is constructed of reinforced concrete in the design of an upturned boat, and features six parabolic arch ribs, between which are fitted porthole windows.
On the other side of town lies the pretty harbour area of Amlwch Port, alongside its fascinating olde worlde sliver-like quaysides, from where sailing ships once set off laden with copper or returned with tobacco and rum. Here you’ll learn more about the area’s industrial and maritime heritage – and enjoy a bite to eat – as well as be able to visit a recreation of the underground mines, in the twin interpretive centres of the Copper Kingdom Centre and the Sail Loft.