Short stuff

Find high ad­ven­ture on Bri­tain’s tini­est moun­tains this win­ter.

Country Walking Magazine (UK) - - Contents - WORDS: JENNY WAL­TERS PHO­TOS: TOM BAI­LEY

Find high ad­ven­ture on Bri­tain’s tini­est moun­tains this win­ter.

ISCALE THE LAST few rocks and hit the sum­mit – tri­umphant, arms aloft, whoop whoop. The viewfind­ers on the tri­an­gu­la­tion point tell me clear-day sight­lines stretch 50 miles to Ire­land’s Wick­low Moun­tains, to the Isle of Man, the Llŷn Penin­sula, and the peaks of Snow­do­nia. It’s like the mo­ment Ed­mund Hil­lary and Ten­z­ing Nor­gay con­quered Ever­est.

Well, maybe not quite. I am of­fi­cially on top of a moun­tain – it’s baked right into its name – but I am only 722 feet (220m) above sea-level and 23 min­utes from the car park. I could ride the lift to the top of the Shard and stand higher than this.

An­gle­sey’s Holy­head Moun­tain is one of a hand­ful of tid­dly peaks with Alpine as­pi­ra­tions. A search of the data­base at Hill Bag­ging ( www.hill-bag­ re­veals 14 sum­mits in Bri­tain be­low 1000 feet that proudly bear moun­tain in their name, with an­other 23 in Ire­land. They make per­fect ex­pe­di­tions for win­ter days. You’re un­likely to hit se­ri­ous snow­pack at this al­ti­tude. Short as­cents mean they fit eas­ily into clipped day­light hours. And you can en­joy flint-eyed brag­ging rights at the bar: “Yup, ahem, up on a moun­tain to­day.”

It’s not quite clear why these bumps are called moun­tains, but this one def­i­nitely has the right char­ac­ter. As I fol­low the track uphill from RSPB South Stack, Holy­head Moun­tain’s rocky crown cuts up ahead in an an­gu­lar, grey fortress. I could be near­ing the sum­mit of a Snow­do­nian Rhinog, or Scafell Pike, or Ben Ne­vis, although I’m barely skim­ming above sea-level. It’s like some­one has sunk the lower bit of the mas­sif – you know, the slog bit – be­neath the waves, leav­ing just the fun crags up top.

Close in, I can see lines of quartz craz­ing the rock like ice and a steep gulch frames a view across the is­land to Snow­don and its cloud­both­er­ing neigh­bours on the main­land. Then be­fore I know it – and un­like pretty much any moun­tain walk ever – I’m stand­ing on the sum­mit. As the viewfinder re­vealed ear­lier, the 360º panorama is moun­tain big. The farms be­low are toy-town small. I feel like the king of the world.

“An­gle­sey’s Holy­head Moun­tain is one of a hand­ful of tid­dly peaks with Alpine as­pi­ra­tions… they make per­fect ex­pe­di­tions for days.” win­ter

Just be­low the trig point, an L-shaped wall is all that’s left of a Ro­man watch­tower. I’m clearly not the first to ap­pre­ci­ate the ex­ten­sive view from this van­tage point – and nor were they. The path down soon cuts through the re­mains of an­other wall, part of an Iron Age hill­fort (reused by the Ro­mans) that capped al­most seven hectares of the sum­mit. On the south­ern side they could use the Bru­tal­ist ar­chi­tec­ture of the crags for pro­tec­tion; on this north­ern side they heaped stones into a wall which at its big­gest is 14 feet wide and 10 feet high. It’s called Caer y Tŵr, which is re­flected in the Welsh name for this peak: Mynydd Tŵr, or Tower Moun­tain.

The ground ahead drops from boul­dery heather to green field and then nar­rows to a line that zigzags out to sea. Built with seven mil­lion tonnes of rock quar­ried from this very peak, it’s the na­tion’s long­est break­wa­ter and stretches over 10 times fur­ther into the bay (1 ½ miles) than the moun­tain does into the sky.

Like so many Vic­to­rian en­gi­neer­ing projects it de­fines the word am­bi­tious. It took 26 years to com­plete and em­ployed 1300 men dur­ing peak con­struc­tion. The foun­da­tions were laid by divers work­ing from sub­ma­rine bells, us­ing picks and ham­mers un­der­wa­ter. In the quarry, a sin­gle blast brought down 100,000 tonnes of rock. By the time it opened in 1873, it had cost 40 lives. Now re­green­ing as a coun­try park, the flooded quarry lies tucked at the foot of the hill be­low.

A ferry to Ire­land passes the light­house at the tip of the break­wa­ter: one of a host of safe­guards for ships on this treach­er­ous corner of Wales. Next on the walk is the fog horn sta­tion at North Stack, where warn­ing meth­ods have var­ied over the cen­turies. The cen­tral shed-like build­ing was once the mag­a­zine house, where they stored gun­pow­der for a can­non they fired from the cliffs. (There’s no record of a mist-bound ship get­ting struck by a stray shot.) The one that looks like a WC block to the left houses the elec­tric foghorn that re­placed it in 1958. The re­dun­dant can­non was pushed off the cliff and rusted on the shore un­til 1984, when it was moved to Break­wa­ter Coun­try Park. North Stack now lies silent, ex­cept for the wail-bark of grey seals from the coves be­low, and the keeper’s cot­tage was home to artist Philippa Ja­cobs for many years: ‘ The sea al­most sur­rounds me...I moved there be­cause I needed the iso­la­tion to think.’

I turn south along the clifftop on the Wales Coast Path, pass­ing be­low the airy (ahem) sum­mit of Holy­head Moun­tain and above the wa­ters of Gog­a­rth Bay. These spec­tac­u­lar rock faces are mag­nets for climbers, who have given names to the in­fer­nally dif­fi­cult routes like Stroke of the Fiend, The Demons of Bosch and Ex­tinc­tion. For­tu­nately, for those who don’t rel­ish fin­ger­nail-swing­ing, there are steps down the cliff at South Stack – 390 stone ones and 10 metal – to reach the bridge across to its fa­mous white­washed light­house. For, like a set of Rus­sian dolls, the tower sits on a tiny is­land (Ynys Lawd/South Stack) off an is­land (Ynys Gybi/ Holy Is­land) off an is­land (Ynys Môn/An­gle­sey) off an is­land (main­land Bri­tain).

“The ground ahead drops from boul­dery heather to green field and then nar­rows to a line that zig-zags sea…” out to

A warn­ing light was first mooted here in 1665, but the light­house wasn’t built un­til 1809. Like at Holy­head Break­wa­ter, these 19th-cen­tury en­gi­neers weren’t go­ing to let any­thing stand in the way of a good plan – say, a 200-foot cliff face, or that 100-foot gulf of seething sea to reach the skerry. They hacked a loop­ing line of steps into the cliffs, moved men and ma­te­ri­als to the is­land with a bas­ket hang­ing from a hemp cable, and built a 92foot tower for the lantern. To­day, the au­to­mated, 467,000-can­dela beam rakes 24 nau­ti­cal miles out to sea. A sus­pen­sion bridge was fi­nally built in 1828, and has been re­placed twice since. It’s open to the pub­lic when light­house tours are run­ning.

It is then, of course, 400 steps back up. It’s prob­a­bly the long­est climb of the whole day, but the eyes-in view of the cliff is mes­meris­ing – and if you’re any­thing like me, you’ll have a good long time to ap­pre­ci­ate it as you sweat slowly sky­wards. The whole of An­gle­sey is a geop­ark – one of seven in the UK and 140 around the world des­ig­nated by UN­ESCO. GeoMôn, as the park is called, has more than 100 dif­fer­ent kinds of rock from an event­ful tec­tonic his­tory that spans four eras, 12 ge­o­log­i­cal time pe­ri­ods, and 1800 mil­lion years.

Here at South Stack the schists and quartzites fold into as­ton­ish­ing creases. It’s hard to com­pre­hend the force that can turn rock to puff

pas­try, here dark brown like it’s been scorched in the oven. The crum­pled strata have long drawn ge­ol­o­gists, but de­bate about the rock’s age is on­go­ing. Cur­rently it’s thought to be from the Cam­brian pe­riod, 500 mil­lion years ago.

Crowds of an­other sort flock here too: seabirds. Their fo­cus is find­ing a ledge in the steep gran­ite big enough to lay an egg, and come spring 8000 guille­mots, ra­zor­bills, kit­ti­wakes, ful­mars and puffins will con­gre­gate, in a squawk­ing, squab­bling wall of sound. Rare flow­ers blos­som in this Site of Spe­cial Sci­en­tific In­ter­est too, like rock sea laven­der, and the spot­ted rock-rose which blooms once in its life­time for just a few hours, or the sun­shine-pe­tals of the South Stack or spat­u­late flea­wort which is found nowhere else on Earth. In the depths of win­ter, it’s the scar­let legs and beaks of choughs, the rarest of Bri­tain’s corvids, that splash colour, while pere­grine fal­cons, the world’s fastest bird, rise and stoop across the skies.

If you’re a fan of Roxy Mu­sic, you’ll recog­nise the day’s fi­nal stop. Ellin’s Tower is the square build­ing on the clifftop on the cover of the al­bum Siren, up above su­per­model Jerry Hall ly­ing on a rocky shore. Built by the lo­cal Stan­ley fam­ily as a folly for paint­ing seascapes, the tower is now (sea­son­ally) an RSPB look­out on those bird-packed cliffs of South Stack, where the mas­sif of Holy­head Moun­tain meets the sea. Short, yes. But very, very sweet.

HOW HIGH? The gnarly crags and the airy back­drop say thou­sands of feet up, but the map says some­thing dif­fer­ent...

You can find routes to three of these pint­size peaks in this is­sue. Walk 10 takes you to Sweeney Moun­tain (620 feet/189m) in Shrop­shire. For Pem­brokeshire’s Great Tr­ef­f­garne Moun­tain (545 feet/166m) turn to Walk 21. And for the tini­est of them all, Ban­gor Moun­tain (387 feet, 118 me­tres) just across the Me­nai Strait in Gwynedd, see Walk 23.

 TOP SPOT Re­ward far out­weighs ef­fort on Holy­head Moun­tain, where a short walk takes you to the top of the county of An­gle­sey and a panorama of land and sea.

 DEEP SEA DIVE A prom­e­nade tops the Holy­head Break­wa­ter so you can walk miles out into the waves of the bay.

to the light­house 400 steps make straight­for­ward work of the de­scent to South Stack light­house, with close-up views of the spec­tac­u­lar twists and twirls of the cliff’s rocky lay­ers.

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