The Romans walked to Anglesey. This was no mean feat, since Anglesey is an island. It lies off the northwest coast of Wales, separated from the mainland by a shallow band of water less than two miles wide called the Menai Strait. At low tide the exposed sands and silver currents of the Menai look like a chain of twisted silver and gold -- though I doubt the legions were in the mood to appreciate its beauty as they hiked up their tunics and waded through the cold water.
I'm a moderately intrepid walker, and I have a historical bent, but my friend and I did not commence our recent hiking trip on Anglesey by following in the Romans' footsteps. Instead we drove across the world's first heavy-duty suspension bridge, built in 1826 to keep people's feet dry.
Our reasons for going to Anglesey were different as well. We had come to hike stretches of the 150-mile coastal footpath that encircles the island, all of which lies entirely within an "Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty" (as if you could possibly overlook this fact, it is officially designated as such on the map). Along the path are some of the oldest monuments in the world, burial chambers of massive standing stones, kin to those at Stonehenge, and we'd come to pay homage to these too. I also harbored a faint-hearted goal of speaking Welsh, but I'll get to that later.
The Romans came to make war. The imperial legions reached the Menai Strait in A.D. 61. At that time, Anglesey was known as the Isle of the Glory of the Powerful Ones, as it had been for centuries. The Powerful Ones were the Druids, to whom the island was a kind of sacred school, where would-be Celtic priests came from all over Europe to spend 20 years memorizing Druidic philosophy (the Druids worshiped in forest clearings; Anglesey's standing stones and tomb were erected by Neolithic peoples who preceded the Druids by as many years as the Druids precede us). To the Romans, the Druids were dangerous, anti-imperial subversives, of whom an example had to be made.
According to the historian Tacitus, who wrote about the Battle of Menai Strait, the Druids lined up on Anglesey's eastern shore behind rows of Celtic warriors, their bodies painted bright blue, and howled ferocious curses down upon the legions. The Romans, on the mainland side, were scared witless. They were also stumped as to how to cross the Strait. As it turned out, the tides of both history and the sea were in the Romans' favor. When the water ebbed and more gold showed than silver, the soldiers simply walked across the Menai and massacred everyone on the island, bringing Celtic civilization to a sudden, violent end.
My imagination is always at the ready when it comes to Druids, but I found it impossible on this calm island to visualize shrieking, blue-painted Celts in hand-to-hand combat with Roman foot soldiers. If nothing else, Anglesey encourages serene, all's-well-with-the-world thoughts, which my friend and I were more than ready to substitute for historical thrills. I'd been cooped up all summer in a makeshift classroom in a trailer, learning Welsh in a course so intensive that it even met on Sunday nights; my friend had spent the summer teaching English to Asian teenagers. We both wanted to stretch our horizons, literally, in a place where the wind and the views went unchecked. The Anglesey coastal footpath was the antidote we needed. Anglesey, called Ynys Mon in Welsh, stretches 25 miles east to west and 20 miles north to south. In any direction save due west, the mountains of Snowdonia on the Welsh mainland dominate the skyline. They curtain the island's rolling lowlands with a backwash of green, gray and brown shapes that merge in the sky with clouds, and serve the walker as a natural compass by which to gauge direction. The mountains also provide a protective ring around Anglesey, siphoning off commercial flotsam like resort hotels and fast-food restaurants, while protecting fragile institutions like the Welsh language, which most islanders still learn before English.
We crossed the Menai Strait with the mountains in our rearview mirror and headed north up the eastern coast to the little village of Moelfre to begin our first hike.
You can pick up the coastal path anywhere on the island by turning off the ring road and heading toward the sea. In Moelfre this leads through a pretty hamlet of whitewashed cottages on the edge of a tidal harbor; from here bilingual footpath signs guide you out onto a headland to meet the coastal trial ("Llwybr Cyhoeddus" means public footpath in Welsh). We'd opted to head west along the northern seaboard toward Amlwch, a one-way trek of about 12 miles along a well-marked route, but only got as far as Lligwy Bay, where we were seduced off the path by an arrow marked "Ancient Monument." Our round-trip hike probably amounted to about six miles.
We set out in uncharacteristic sunshine, ever reminded of our good fortune by mud-made impressions of the soles of hiking boots and Wellies, embedded in the path on wetter days (such is the proper, protective gear of anyone acquainted with Welsh weather; we knew better but were in a mood to snub fate, and recklessly wore Keds). The sun held. On our landward side, sheep pastures rose and then fell again our of sight; we walked the land's edge, so there wasn't much on the seaward side but deep blue water and sky. We had to scramble to follow the path as it ribboned over the crests of rocky cliffs and occasionally dipped down to a cove-protected beach. I lost my companion repeatedly to the lure of ripe blackberry bushes that lined the route, occasionally turning it into a warm, fruit-scented tunnel.
I was responsible for her pokiness since I'd left our lunch in the car. But for the first hour at least, my own hunger paled beside the desire to see what was around the next bend. This is how I came alone to a spot where a copse of tall pine trees marked a curve in the path. They strained the wind into a soothing wail, if that's possible, and helped protect a cottage partially hidden by a garden wall and a mass of wild fuchsia trees.
We gave in to a heightened sense of the exotic until loud sheep bleats interrupted us, and we moved on to the sweeping beach at Lligwy Bay, sandwiched between matching headlands. The path turned sandy as we climbed down to the beach, where to my delight we found the Ancient Monument sign and a lane leading inland up to the tiny village of Lligwy. The monument sits just beyond: a pile of big, lichen-covered rocks hunkered down in the corner of a sheep field. This is the Lligwy Burial Chamber -- also known as a cromlech -- built in the Neolithic period, or New Stone Age, around 2500 B.C. It is constructed of upright megaliths (on their own, megaliths are called standing stones), with a massive capstone weighing 28 tons set across the top.
The builders of cromlechs must have been unconditionally convinced of their necessity; why else haul 28 tons of rock up a mound to protect the dead? I tried to imagine the vulnerability of people for whom nature is so chaotic and utterly beyond control that their own security is in rock and death. Even in the sun, with the sea a vibrant stripe of turquoise on the horizon, we shivered here.
The hike back to Moelfre went faster than the trip out; the wind was at our backs and food was ahead of us. This time a pack of hikers from England pointed out a monument to the victims of the Royal Charter, a ship that, having sailed all the way from Australia, went down off the Anglesey coast just hours short of its Liverpool destination. When Charles Dickens came from London to report the tragedy for his newspaper, he stayed in the same inn we chose for the night, Ye Olde Bull's Head in Beaumaris (the bedrooms are named after his characters).
It must be said that Anglesey towns are as gray and homely as the scenery is beautiful -- with the exceptions of Moelfre and Beaumaris.
Beaumaris is particularly alluring. It overlooks a harbor shadowed by immense mountains on the far coast, and its one main street ends with a moated castle, built in 1285 by Edward I of England to terrify the Welsh. Beaumaris is a perfect hiking base: There is no point on the island more than an hour's drive away, and the Bull's Head is a wonderful place to come back to each night. The food is outstanding and the rooms are full of modern comforts, yet manage to retain a sense of great age. The Bull's Head was built as a coaching inn in 1472; two nearby structures are also centuries old, the George and Dragon Hotel, built in 1595, and the Tudor Rose of 1400, one of the oldest buildings in Britain.
Yr Hen Tarw is "The Olde Bull" in Welsh (I didn't make that out for myself but found it printed on the dinner menu). Alas, my plans of speaking Welsh foundered on Anglesey. I had a hard time understanding the "Gog" accent -- Gog is short for Gogledd, which means North -- as I'd been learning South Walian Welsh. My accent troubles contributed to my sudden case of shyness. Nonetheless, I impressed my friend and a knot of tourists by correctly pronouncing Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwbwllllantysiliogogogoch -- which means "St. Mary's church in the hollow of the white hazel near a rapid whirlpool and the church of St. Tysilionear the red cave." (The last five syllables of the town's name were added in the 19th century as a publicity stunt.)
After a night at the Bull's Head, we drove through Lanfair P.G., as it's known, en route to the southern coast. We spent most of the day in the car cromlech-hunting, prowling the narrow lanes that honeycomb southwestern Anglesey, committing ourselves again and again to the wrong direction with no space to turn around. We found four more tombs, including one we weren't even looking for, on the coastal path near Rhosneigr (Barclodiad Y Gawress, which means the Giantess's Apron, and still bears traces of Neolithic artwork). Here we shared high sea cliffs with grazing sheep, and found their pastures to be springy underfoot.
Yet despite the easy turf and our success with burial chambers, we both felt unsatisfied. Our walks had been short and fitful, and I, especially, needed to get all those wrong turns out of my system. It was time for a real hike.
As clouds gathered in the late afternoon, we parked the car off a secondary road between Aberffraw and Hermon on the southern coast. We estimated that about a mile of low dunes separated us from the sea, where we'd be able to pick up the main path. We set off into the dunes and found ourselves alone in a weirdly magnificent landscape, utterly at odds with the high cliffs and picturesque beauty of Moelfre. Here there were only dunes as far as the eyes could see, covered in khaki, close-grown turf that eventually gave way to sea grass (we found out later that this is the largest expanse of sand dunes in Western Britain). The wind was unrelenting, pelting us hard with airborne sand that stung like tiny missiles. We saw that it had ripped creamy, gaping cavities on the seaward side of some of the dunes.
This was more trek than walk -- actually, survival march was more like it. We had to shoulder our way into a wind so strong that it was nearly a presence, and one none too happy about our being there. We were halfway to the beach when the sun disappeared altogether and a chill set in. We began to find tiny bones strewed about the dunes, as well as hundreds of beautiful snail shells, pastel pink and yellow, like Easter eggs. I finally put the bones together with the thousands of holes that pocked the place, and realized that we were in an immense -- I mean a gargantuan -- rabbit warren.
While the thought of hundreds of bunnies close by should have been comforting, a mounting unease set in instead. My companion was beguiled by the snail shells, but I kept setting the scene as the revenge of "Watership Down." Sure, I thought, the rabbits lure us in here with pretty shells, then when we have so much sand blown in our eyes that we can't see, they get us.
We persevered and finally, as we spit and sputtered sand at each other, mounted the last rise to find a great beach stretching before us, wide and empty. It was a triumphant sight, even though the view was fleeting (every second we stared at the beach put our contact lenses in mortal danger).
On this stretch of the coastal path the trail follows the beach itself, and it had been our intention to take it as far as Aberffraw, at least. But the wind changed our plans. We turned our backs from the sea, and far off across the warren spotted our car parked by the roadside.
"Ymlaen," I shouted -- "Forward!" My friend had no idea what I'd said, but understood the intent. On the way back we discovered a turf path running alongside the edge of the dunes, which made the going far easier than if we'd had to scramble through sand and sea grass as we'd done on the way out. We reached the car feeling that the wind and the walk had unfolded us and shaken the irritations and dust and unused energy out of our creases. We were tired and happy as we returned to Beaumaris for the night. Pamela J. Petro is author of "Newport and Narragansett Bay: A Complete Guide" (Berkshire House). CAPTION: WAYS & MEANS
GETTING THERE: The easiest way to get to Wales is to fly to London and then take British Rail from London's Euston Station for the four-hour journey to Holyhead. United, British Airways, Lufthansa and Continental are quoting a round-trip fare of $838, with restrictions, from Washington to London. The train, which costs about $122 round trip, leaves frequently; for details, contact BritRail, 1-800-677-8585. WHERE TO STAY: Anglesey has no resort hotels so there is no official "season." Because Holyhead is a ferry embarkation point for Ireland, the island never really shuts down in winter and most inns remain open (at considerably lower rates). Ye Olde Bull's Head (Castle Street, Beaumaris, Anglesey, Gwynedd, Wales LL58 8AP, United Kingdom, telephone 011-44-1248-810-329) is a member of the Welsh Gold Collection, which includes the top hotels, manor homes and inns in Wales. The building itself has been listed as a British historic site (the ancient door leading to the inn's courtyard is the largest in Britain), and the restaurant is ranked as one of the best eating places in Wales. Bed-and-breakfast rates begin at about $70 per night.
"Welsh Rarebits," a free guide to all the Welsh Gold Hotels, is available from EuroWales, Montgomery, Powys, Wales SY15 6HR, United Kingdom, telephone 011-44-1686-668-030, fax 1-800-873-7140 or 011-44-1686-668-029. WHAT TO SEE: Beaumaris will celebrate its 700th anniversary in 1996. An International Arts Festival will be held May 25 through June 2, and many other special events are planned from May through October. Contact the British Tourist Authority (see below) for more information.
Anglesey is home to many historic sites and ancient monuments. A free 58-page color pamphlet, "The Isle of Anglesey," is available from the British Tourist Authority (see below).
The annual Menai Bridge Fair Oct. 24 is one of Britain's few surviving market and carnival fairs. INFORMATION: The Anglesey Tourist Information Office is in Llanfair P.G. (telephone 011-44-1248-713-177), about a five-minute drive from the Menai Bridge on the A5, also known as the Holyhead Road, the island's central east-west artery. You can book reservations here and also visit James Pringle Weavers, a souvenir and woolen goods shop in the same building (this is about as touristy as Anglesey gets).
In the United States, information on Wales is available from the British Tourist Authority, 551 Fifth Ave., 7th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10176, 1-800-462-2748. -- Pamela J. Petro CAPTION: Beaumaris Castle, built in 1285, top; and the town of Beaumaris on Anglesey's east coast.