Find high adventure on Britain’s tiniest mountains this winter.
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-bagging.co.uk) 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.