Amlwch on the north coast of Anglesey is now a small, depressed town with an obviously struggling economy. I talked to a young woman of 16 and her 12 year old brother, who were both itching to leave rather than hang about the dock on a sunny but deserted evening, and I couldn’t blame them.
Olwyn must have been here, for it is right on the coastal path. I walked a short stretch, seeing no other humans. I heard lots of stonechats and finally saw one. She started up from the carpet of heather and gorse, her clacking cry warning me away, and she winged along the path below the height of the vegetation for several strides before she flew high and beyond my sight.
Yet Amlwch (pronunciation here) used to be the biggest copper exporting port in the world. The magic metal was mined in nearby Parys Mountain in the Bronze Age and by the Romans, and then in 1768 the ‘great discovery’ started the copper rush. It lasted about 100 years until mining was suspended. By then ship building had become more important and that kept the port thriving until about 1913. Since then, Amlwch has depended on small scale fishing and limited tourism, but not much else.
The harbour is thin, squeezed between cliffs and running back to a small beach. I can only find it described as a ‘natural creek’ but it is reminiscent of the calanques on the French coast east of Marseilles. (I’ve sailed there: you can find more about that here.) Those are deep fissures in limestone rock caused by differential erosion and very deep. Of course, they’re not affected by tides, but Amlwch is, and has had a hefty breakwater in place for a long time.
Of course, to today’s eyes this is a town on the edge of things, peripheral in so many ways. Look at it another way. It is 277 nautical miles to Dunvegan on Skye, the seat of the McLeods, 102 to Belfast, just 65 to Dublin and 56 to Liverpool. It is only 44 to Douglas (and you can even see the Isle of Man on a clear day). Contrast that to nearly 300 miles to London and almost 200 to Cardiff and 82 to Ellesmere Port. Of course, timewise those are closer now but not when your transport was a horse or your own two feet.
Barry Cunliffe’s majestic examination of the maritime history of the western edges of Europe Facing the Ocean puts it into context. He focuses on the Atlantic Arc from Greenland to the Canaries, and points to Irish Sea (despite tides and atrocious weather, as the ‘inner sea’ of the British archipelago, and a key highway from the rich fishing and hunting grounds of the north to the luxuries of the south. The presence of passage graves all along the Welsh coast support this. And closer in, the connections are even more obvious. Yet Amlwch didn’t punch its weight for long. At its simplest that natural creek simply wasn’t big enough. North Anglesey needed a river that could stretch inland in the way of the Dee and the Taff. It’s wee harbour, great for protection, for beaching boats and loading barges, could not compete without one.
We are rethinking industrial transportation and manufacturing as 3D printing, exotic materials and customisation become the norm. Can long-marginalised spots rethink their centre of gravity? We should find ways to reimagine what can be offered from a little harbour in the middle of the inner sea on one of the most beautiful islands I’ve ever seen.