IN THE SHADOW OF WALES’ MOST SPECTACULAR BRIDGE
WALES has its fair share of iconic bridges; some simple stone constructs for pack horses, others far more modern and sweeping statements of intent. But there can be no arguments whatsoever that our most spectacular and picturesque, in glorious sunshine just as much as in its nightime floodlit glory, is the Menai Suspension Bridge over the Menai Strait between Ynys Môn – the island of Anglesey – and the Welsh mainland.
But it’s not just the bridge itself that makes this fascinating spot well worth a few hours, or even a day or two, of your precious time. Lying in its impressive shadow, the settlement known in Welsh as Porthaethwy has since the opening of the bridge in 1826 developed into an attractive town of some 3,000 people known in English simply, if rather confusingly, as Menai Bridge.
Although it is Anglesey’s fifth largest town, and proud of it, it has lately been seen more as an upmarket suburb of Bangor, the university city that lies just a couple of miles away over the water on the mainland.
Indeed the university’s much-lauded School of Ocean Sciences is to be found in Menai Bridge, and students of a myriad subjects have traditionally sought lodgings here. You might spot the university’s research vessel Prince Madog – also used by the Welsh Government in a fisheries research role – tied up at the town’s rickety-appearing pier.
An unusual feature right in the centre of town is a film set that has been developed on the site of an old garage for a Welsh-language TV soap opera. You might well be tempted to think it’s a row of real life shops and cafés, but they’re not ones you’ll ever be served in. You might well also trip across film crews recording scenes here and there throughout town. The locals are so used to them they usually take not the slighest bit of notice, even should there be a screaming murder scene or other major soap catastrophe happening on their doorsteps.
If you’re around on October 24th, that’s when the annual fair takes over every nook and cranny of town. Ffair y Borth was originally an agricultural affair when horses would be traded, and farm hands would find employment, and possibly even a wife. Nowadays it’s a huge, noisy market-cum-fairground where people come to from miles around. Another huge event is the Menai Food Festival, which usually takes place in early August.
But we digress; back to the bridge itself. It was built by acclaimed Scottish civil engineer Thomas Telford over a seven-year period, constructed from local Penmon limestone and featuring 16 suspension chains weighing 136 metric tonnes. Those with a penchant for the engineering and architectural facets of its construction would be well advised to try and catch the Menai Heritage Bridges Exhibition at the nearby Thomas Telford Centre established in a former school opposite the Waitrose supermarket. Be aware though that, although fascinating, it is a community venture, and has somewhat restricted opening hours.
Previously the treacherous waters hereabouts could only be crossed in a flimsy ferry. Animals being taken to market on the mainland had to be prodded in to swim across. Anglesey was noted for its trade in pigs, and the small islet on which the bridge’s central support column was built is indeed called Ynys y Moch (which could be translated, but never is, as Pigs’ Island). Doubtless countless desperate animals sought refuge here, doubtful if they’d ever make it to the other side, let alone the market or the butcher’s table.
The sight of droves of these dripping wet, squealing porkers putting their trotters ashore is said to have to led the mainlanders dubbing their island cousins “Moch Môn” (Anglesey Pigs). It’s a nickname in use to this day, if still not appreciated.
It was once traditional for first-time visitors to Ynys Môn to forego their horseless carriage or charabanc and to walk over the bridge onto the island, and it’s still a well-worthwhile option to consider. The bridge has perfectly serviceable pavements on both sides, and the walk, if at times on the windy side, is an experience never to be forgotten.
Equally memorable is to walk beneath its towering arches. Follow the route of the Anglesey Coastal Path, popping down towards the Strait anywhere from the centre of town, and aiming for that massive bridge that owns the horizon. A lane takes you past fishermen fighting off eels the size of your arm, and directly beneath the bridge, giving you time to appreciate the massive complexity of this project undertaken all of two centuries ago.
Appreciate the massive power of the Menai Strait as it snakes leviathan-like to or from the coast, changing its direction of flow with the tides. It’s easy to imagine it’s the back of some huge black serpent slithering forebodingly towards unseen prey.
The whirlpools in clear view between the bridge and its twin Brittania Bridge, a mile to the south west, are known as Pwll Ceris, or in English as The Swillies. They are notoriously dangerous and should not be tackled by uninitiated boatsmen. And absolutely never by swimmers of any standard.
It was reportedly what led to Admiral Nelson declaring the Menai Strait to be a most treacherous stretch of water he’d ever known. He reckoned that if you could sail here, you could sail anywhere. In recognition of his services in warning amateurs off, you’ll find an imposing statue of him standing on a column – highly reminiscent its London namesake – just up the coast near Llanfairpwll, erected in 1873 as a navigational aid.
The footpath leads from the suspension bridge to a wonderful coastal walkway known as the Belgian Promenade. It was built in 1916 by Flemish refugees fleeing the horrors of World War I, in thanks for having been cared for by their Welsh friends. It leads further over a causeway to Ynys Dysilio, a charming islet sometimes known as Church Island which stands fearlessly amid the churning waters of The Swillies.
The church of St Tysilio which occupies it dates from the 15th century. In the surrounding churchyard you’ll find the graves of poor souls lost while building the bridge, as well as a number of notable Welsh high-fliers, including Sir Albert Evans-Jones, the former Archdruid Cynan.
The next substantial island in view, in the shadow of the Britannia Bridge, is Ynys Gorad Goch. Access is not permitted, but the house occupying a substantial part of it stands on the site of medieval fish traps (Gorad Goch translating as Red Weir) first used by monks, and which saw its last fishing on a commercial scale in the 1950s. The island shrinks to a third of its maximum size of three acres between tides.
A delightful walk through the Coed Cyrnol nature reserve, where you might spot a scampering red squirrel if the arborial gods are with you, leads us right back to town.
The town itself is something of a foodie’s paradise, and popular among those seeking a decent pub-circuit come the weekend for whom Bangor doesn’t quite cut the mustard. But if you’re thinking nightclubs and booming dancefloors, think again.
Among our favourite eating-cum-drinking places are The Bridge Inn , once known as Jodie’s Wine Bar and standing as the name suggests right in the bridge’s shadow, the cowboy-themed American-style Hyde Out bar, and seafood specialists Dylan’s, where it’s difficult to think of a more relaxed place to tackle a bottle of wine looking over some of our country’s more stunning maritime views.