The dunes rolled out from Newborough Forest towards tidal Llanddwyn Island off the coast of Anglesey, with a view absorbing the whole of Caernarfon Bay and Snowdonia National Park on the Welsh mainland. It was raining gently – the kind of light rain that seemed to hang in the sky – and a curtain of smoke-grey clouds curled over the islet’s medieval ruins, casting them in an almost ethereal glow.
“You could say this is the ‘Welshest’ part of Wales
Locals here still celebrate Saint Dwynwen, Wales’ patron saint of love, and at low tide, a path across a neck of sand from Anglesey leads onto uninhabited Llanddwyn where her religious cult was born.
Ahead, a group of walkers consulted the tides, as druids (Celtic priests) would have done when they first inhabited the island of Anglesey between 100BC and 60 AD. None of the hikers appeared to be aware of the beautiful coves to explore or the clusters of cormorants, shags and gulls that nested in the cliffs; they were here for something else entirely.
For while Llanddwyn has a spectacular coastline, what also draws visitors is the ill-fated story of Saint Dwynwen. According to legend, this treeless isle, forgotten for millennia, is where the daughter of 5th-Century Brychan Brycheiniog (son of an Irish King) made thousands of love stories come true. And nowadays, those in need of salvation come in the hope they too can find romance, particularly on 25 January, the Welsh equivalent of Valentine’s Day.
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In a country where national identity weighs heavily, Anglesey offers an all-round introduction to Welshness. It lies off the coast of the mainland, where the northernmost tip of the country embraces the Irish Sea, and teems with Welsh language speakers and culture. Almost as if the farther from Cardiff you travel, the purer the sense of tradition. So much so that the island is known as Môn Mam Cymru, the “Mother of Wales”, so named because it was once the breadbasket of the north.
Like much of the country, Anglesey also has some of Europe’s most picturesque beaches, and it is a highlight of the 1,400km Wales Coast Path, the world’s first uninterrupted route along a national coastline.
Certainly, it is littered with lyrical folk tales, and its high cliffs, offshore skerries and rocky bays each have an enthralling story to tell of one Welsh legend or another. Tales of dragons, wizards, Arthurian legends and Celtic mythologies abound. But if you tell an Anglesey local that you’re en route to Llanddwyn, their first thought will be that you’re unlucky in love.
When I arrived in October, I wasn’t loveless, or looking for love, but I was curious none the less. This is a poetic island instilled with a story that’d tug at anyone’s heartstrings, yet it also appeals because it is in a part of the world most never hear about. Welsh oral histories tell of Dwynwen once providing a road map to love, and my deeper motives for going were to see if this story held. I was fascinated by the idea that pilgrims, both devout and philosophical, once crossed the sea from far and wide to come here and that the island is being rediscovered by a new generation keen to keep the saint’s legend live. I was enamoured by the storybook romance of it all.
“The increase in visitors is a testament to there being a story worth telling,” said my guide Charlotte Hawksworth, senior reserve manager at Natural Resources Wales, as we followed a path towards the ruins of Saint Dwynwen’s original chapel, where she is said to be buried. “You could say this is the ‘Welshest’ part of Wales and people are very proud of that. Dwynwen’s story has been embellished through the years, but it’s one ingrained in our local identity. The potency of Llanddwyn is clear to anyone who visits.”
With more than a little in common with Romeo and Juliet’s tragedy, the star-crossed romance between Dwynwen and her suitor Maelon Dafodrill is legend in Wales. Today, differing versions exist, but as Hawksworth told it, Dafodrill was an unsuitable partner for Dwynwen, with the princess rebuffing his premarital sexual advances so she could remain chaste. A second account tells of Dwynwen being left heartbroken after her father Brychan Brycheiniog arranged her marriage to another prince.
What is generally agreed, however, is that Dwynwen, distressed and broken-hearted, met an angel in her dreams and was granted a series of wishes. With these, she asked that God meet the hopes of true lovers everywhere, and that she would never marry. Soon after, she fled from Brycheiniog (Brecon), where she lived, to Llanddwyn, where she devoted the rest of her life to God as a nun. Were we able to learn Dwynwen’s whole story, its accumulative effect might be like that of the fables of Orpheus and Eurydice, Odysseus and Penelope, or Lancelot and Guinevere, all of which continue to inspire romantics today.
To some in Wales, Dwynwen’s myth is nothing more than an excuse to capitalise on the growing trend for Welshness. The revival itself was born from a set of circumstances occurring in the 1960s when a Bangor University student marketed St Dwynwen’s cards as an alternative to Valentine’s Day love letters. Now, every 25 January, shops set aside novelty gifts and restaurants offer carefully-packaged St Dwynwen’s Day menus. This has also led to a renaissance for love spoons, elaborately made folkcrafts, which were first exchanged by Welsh lovers in the 17th Century.
For others, however, the annual day is the very expression of modern Welsh identity itself, with the celebration increasingly taking precedence over Valentine’s Day among the Welsh. The preference to champion one of the country’s lesser-known heroines is understandable, after all. It’s also not unheard of for couples to make a point of visiting Llanddwyn on 25 January to propose or renew their vows. It would take a brave visitor to doubt the sentiment.
If Dwynwen’s story is the context for a visit to Llanddwyn today, then the wind-battered topography provides the drama. The 74-acre isle looks like an etching from a Welsh fairy tale, covered in rare golden hair lichen, liverwort and crowberry, and harbouring only a few hints that Dwynwen once settled here. One such clue is a moss-covered memorial, its profile a bare cross, standing on a small rise towards the island’s north-west tip. “In memory of St Dwynwen, 25 January 465,” reads the inscription.
With the exception of the crashing waves, the reach of the silence was total, and we looked down from here to the island’s perimeter. Below were the ramshackle ruins of Saint Dwynwen’s Church, built in the 16th Century on the site of the chapel she founded, and the remains of Dwynwen’s Well, where the nun once blessed visitors with its holy waters. “The legend says she could divine a lover’s faithfulness through the movements of sacred eels that lived in the well,” Hawksworth said, as we looked into its depths. “Make of that what you will.”
If anything, this’ll help preserve the ecology of the island – and her story
As well as two lighthouses, there are 19th-Century pilots’ cottages built for boatmen who once helped direct traffic from the city of Bangor up the treacherous Menai Strait, which separates Anglesey from the mainland. Precambrian bedrock geology also makes the island a designated site of special scientific interest, and its other coastal treasures – intertidal rocky shores, rumpled dune grasslands and salt marshes – means geologists are as transfixed by the island as those longing for love; a two-hour loop takes in a circuit of rocky coves, mudflats, dune heath and sandy foreshore.
“The irony is the neck of sand that connects the island to Newborough Forest is quickly eroding and Llanddwyn is becoming increasingly cut off,” Hawksworth said, pointing to the tideline as it began to turn. “We love sharing Dwynwen’s legend, but equally we’re keen for it not to reach critical mass. So, if anything, this’ll help preserve the ecology of the island – and her story.”
There were shapes in the clouds – ghosts and wraiths – as we picked our way back to the mainland. The air felt fraught, and above Snowdon mountain, the largest in Wales, a thunderstorm was ready to break into a deluge. Soon, the rain was falling hard, and the island was cut off by the tides once more.
You do not have to go to Llanddwyn to find love. Or to seek out romance. But whatever your reason for visiting, you’ll find yourself in a place that might deepen both your understanding of Wales and yourself. And, for that, you’ll have a heartbroken princess from the 5th Century to thank.
Islands of Imagination is a BBC Travel series that journeys to some of the world’s most unique, extreme and beautiful places that have been inimitably fashioned by their geographic isolation.
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