Caergybi: The Final Frontier

There is something overwhelmingly fascinating about the end of the line, be it a railway or a road. When I was a small child I used to stare at maps and my eye would always stray to one particular edge, one particular line’s end… Why it fascinated me I don’t know, perhaps because it was called Holyhead and it was on an island shaped liked a head. Well… It isn’t actually on the head shaped island… It’s on a smaller, separate island called Ynys Gybi, although it is usually grouped in with that aforementioned head shaped island (Ynys Mon/Anglesey). In English it is called Holyhead but I think I prefer the Welsh name of Caergybi (pronounced as ‘Caer-Gubby,’ meaning Cybi’s fort) It has a sweeter and slightly more exotic sound, despite the fact that the town itself is about as far from exotic as you can possibly get…

Most people who come out this far, to the furthest corner of north Wales, don’t usually hang around. For them, Caergybi (from now on I’ll just shorten it to Gybi) is just a passing blur on the way to Ireland. It is just a place to catch a ferry for Dublin, a place to leave behind and never think of again. The only exception are the few cruise ships that stop here each summer but even then most of the cruise tourists are more interested in visiting the likes of Caernarfon and Beaumaris than they are seeing Gybi. The port and the ferry crossing are certainly an integral part of the town’s identity and its main claim to fame but it is also its greatest curse. It has meant that by many it is only seen as just that, somewhere to pass by rather than to stop, and for the last town in Wales that is a sad thing indeed. But for those who do stop for a short while they’ll find a unique town; perhaps not quite a charming one but one that certainly leaves an impression.

“Really you should be in no hurry to get there. You should stop and admire the scenery along the way. The journey to Gybi is certainly impressive, whether by road or by train. Really you should be in no hurry to get there. You should stop and admire the scenery along the way. Once you reach Bangor, if journeying by road, you should drop off from the A55 and cross to Mon by Telford’s spectacular Menai suspension bridge (Pont Grog-Y-Borth in Welsh), which is certainly a more memorable experience than crossing over by the rather dull (and somewhat ugly) Pont Britannia. Afterwards you should follow the B5402 north to Llangefni and then B5109 until you reach the A5025 at Llanynghenedl where you’ll turn towards Y Fali and your final destination. This way you’ll drive through all the rolling fields and through sleepy, silent villages with names like Ceint, Penmynydd and Tynlon and with the mountains of Eryri your back as you head onwards, further into the pastoral idyll of the bread basket of Wales. By all means, stop and admire the scenery along the way, perhaps take a walk around Llangefni. Dawdle… Take your time. Take all the time in the world. The train, alas, doesn’t allow much time for dawdling as, depending on what service you take, you might not be able to stop off along the way. The regular Virgin service passes straight through to Gybi but the Arriva Wales service does request stops at Fali, Rhosneigr and Llanfair­pwllgwyngyll­gogery­chwyrn­drobwll­llan­tysilio­gogo­goch, where you’ll probably want to get off for the name alone- but sadly the train announcers shorten it to ‘Llanfair PG.’ There’s plenty more to see here than just the railway station and the long name but I’ll save all that for another time.

A train pulls into Gybi Station (Courtesy of the Daily Post)

If taking the train you’ll find that Gybi Station is unusual in the fact that it has been built around the edge of a harbour inlet with two platforms on the right hand bank and two on the left. From the air the station looks like a pair of scissors, about to cut into the waters of the harbour. The more spectacular platform is the right hand platform, a simple Victorian beast with an industrial air to it. Back in the days of steam this must have been a wonderous place, filled with smoke and soot and perhaps a bit like Platform 9 3/4 of King’s Cross. One wall is a series of exposed brick arches where a few are open to the elements and the end platform.  Sadly, the view is mostly of the car park for the ferry terminal though you can also observe ‘Skinner’s Monument’ atop a craggy hillock on the other side. You can reach this monument by way of a flight of steps on the far side of the port. The view from the top, looking out over Gybi and Mynydd Twr just beyond is quite spectacular. The left bank station platforms are less spectacular and are more like those of any other railway station. Mostly Gybi is a no-frills station but what is clear when you step off the train is that this really is the end of the line… The railway comes to an abrupt halt at the end of the platform and the only thing beyond is a passenger entrance to the ferry terminal. You can go no further without leaving Britain. You have reached your final destination.

At the rear the station is connected to the heart of Holyhead by the ‘Celtic Gateway Bridge,’ a fantastical, futuristic structure of an Italian design featuring two enormous steel butterfly wings. Crossing this bridge gives the impression that you are about to enter somewhere special. You pass through an opening on the far side and you find yourself on Gybi’s main street, which after the station and the bridge can be somewhat disappointing. Drab is rather an understatement- There is very little colour here. Most of the buildings are brown or white or grey and those few that aren’t are a faded, colourless blue or green. It isn’t helped by the fact that almost every building here and in the surrounding streets is crying out for a bit of love and attention. There is even one building, opposite the opening to the bridge, with bricked up windows and what appears to be a metal cage covering the upper storey. There aren’t likely to be many people around either… You might see a few here and there but never in any large groups. Crowds are not a thing you will easily find in Gybi. And because of all this it feels like you’ve entered the borderlands of civilization, a place few dare to venture as far as. It feels, for want of a better phrase, like a lonely frontier town.

“It is probably fair to say that Gybi is not a major shopping destination but for those who are not content with the stores on offer in the town centre there is also the Penrhos Industrial Estate to the south of the town.”Along the length of the main street, which runs in a not quite straight line before suddenly kinking around a corner at one end, you will find a small selection of shops. None can be regarded as particularly spectacular but amongst them you will find both a Superdrug and a Boots. The rest of the stores, and there are a few more in the surrounding streets, are a mix of independents and charity shops scattered between a selection of pubs and takeaways. It is probably fair to say that Gybi is not a major shopping destination but for those who are not content with the stores on offer in the town centre there is also the Penrhos Industrial Estate to the south of the town where you’ll find a Wilko, Tesco, Argos and a Homebase as well as a few other stores to browse around in. Fans of Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, will probably be interested to learn that whilst William was stationed at RAF Valley she was spotted shopping in the Tesco on a regular basis, as was William.

Besides shopping there is a surprisingly large ammount to see and do in and around Gybi. In the town centre there is a cinema, the Empire, which shows the latest films and for what is really a bargain price (£5 for adults, £3 for kids) when compared to larger multiplex cinemas. There’s also a tanning salon in the same building so, in theory, you could go in, watch a film set on a tropical island (EG: Castaway) and come out with a tan! Where else could you find a cinema like that I wonder? Certainly, around here you would have to go quite far to find another cinema at all. The next nearest is some forty miles along the A55 in Tremarl at the base of the Creuddyn Peninsula. The Empire isn’t quite the westernmost cinema in Wales (that honour belongs to The Pembrokeshire Herald in Milford Haven) but it certainly feels that way. If you want to watch the latest film out here it is either the Empire or a very long journey eastwards.

Down by the sea front, a ten minute walk from the town centre, you will discover the local Maritime museum. Sadly the place wasn’t open when I visited the town a few years ago but from what I can find online it looks to be quite a decent place. It may not be the largest museum in the world but it is still packed full of displays and exhibits showcasing the wetter side of Gybi’s history. There is also the ubiquitous museum shop (no good museum should be without one), a bistro restaurant next door and a permanent WWII exhibit all about what was going down in the town during the war. The maritime section is housed in a building that is purported to be the oldest life boat station in Wales whilst the WWII section is housed in an air raid bunker across from the main entrance. At £4.50 for adults it might be a little on the pricey side for the size but it still looks to be worth a visit.

Along the water front from the museum, which is lined by a strip of rock and shingle, rather erroneously reffered to as a ‘beach,’ you’ll come to the Marina, which describes itself as ‘The gateway to sailing in North Wales’ where you can stand and watch all the little yachts and fishing boats coming and going. There is also a yachting shop and Marina store here for those who have an interest. Further along still, just outside of the town, you’ll come to the breakwater, which at 1.7 miles long is the longest in the UK. For those prepared to walk the entire length you’ll find the Breakwater Lighthouse, a squat, square and mostly unimpressive structure built in 1873. The breakwater is closed in bad weather but should you be in Gybi on a nice day, which is certainly the best time to be in Gybi, you should be able to walk along at least part of it. And just inland there is also the Breakwater Country Park where you can take scenic walks and even partake in some fishing if you desire. You might even like to climb nearby Mynydd Twr whilst here.

South stack… An island off an island off an island. (Courtesy of Visit Wales)

A more impressive lighthouse is to be found across Ynys Gybi at South Stack, easilly accessible from both Gybi and the Breakwater Park. The lighthouse is situated on a small island (an island, off an island, off an island?) and is connected by a suspension bridge, at the foot of 400 winding steps cut into the landscape and jammed between two sets of steep, rugged cliffs- passing over tempestuous waves as it goes. Between March and October you can tour the lighthouse (one of only ten in the whole of the UK that are open to the public), including the engine room and climb to the light at the top. The rest of the time you can instead admire the wild scenery and the unique flora and fauna. It is claimed by the RSPB that the cliffs at South Stack are the best place in the UK for wildlife and species that are frequently seen here include Lizards, Puffins,  Peregrine Falcons and Basking Sharks. The fauna includes the rare spotted rock rose and the Spathulate Fleawort, which is only found on Ynys Gybi. Standing here, or even on the sea front back in Gybi now that I mention it, staring out to sea, you really can feel that there is nothing beyond. You get the sense that this is the edge of the world, the edge of civilization. That is a feeling that can’t be beat and there are few other places in the UK where you can really get that sense.

‘In Holyhead… No one can hear you scream!’ The Xenomorph of St Cybi’s church (Courtesy of St Cybi’s church official website)

Just walking around Gybi you will observe some reasonably good architecture. You aren’t going to find some lost wonder of the world here but what you will find is still worth seeing. The town’s oldest structure (just off the main street) is the Roman shore fort and within stands the church of St Cybi, a dainty and squat little church but with some excellent flourishes and details. One such detail is carved above the door in the south porch (which itself has a magnificent Gilbert Scott design ceiling) and is known as ‘the winged heart’ though to be truthful it looks less like a winged heart and more like the Xenomorph from Alien. Just, whatever you do, don’t make the same mistake I made and accidentally wander into a funeral. Keep your eyes peeled for any funereal signs (like hearses) and, if in doubt, don’t go in. Next to the fort, on the road below and paralell to the main street (which can be accessed from the fort), is another architectural curiosity. I do not believe it is one building (nor could I tell you its use) but there looks to be an old Elizabethan style town house, complete with arched door and crennelated end gables. It is enhanced by the fact that somebody appears to have renovated one of the shore fort towers next door and from the road they appear to be one building. It is easy, even today, to imagine some well to do merchant living here, using the crossing to Ireland to enhance his already considerable fortune. And as if two architectural gems in a small space weren’t enough, A short distance from the fort and the church you’ll find the magistrates court, a small old fashioned type of building that looks to be Victorian mock-medieval (but not quite gothic). It certainly wouldn’t look out of place in a Daphne Du Maurier adaptation. Around the corner you’ll find another such building, the market hall. This was built in 1855 and although it has been abandonned for the previous fifteen years and is somewhat crowded by shops to the front, it still has an aura of magnificence to it. It is, perhaps, the finest building in Gybi.

Should you find yourself staying the night in Gybi, perhaps through unfortunately missing your crossing to Ireland, you may find that accomodation options within the town are somewhat restricted. There are no fancy five star hotels here but you will find several B & B’s, guesthouses and Inns offering accomodation. If staying you will find plenty of nightlife to keep you occupied. There are many pubs and takeaways about and many have quiz nights, kareoke and even local music on ocassion. The local music scene is certainly worth checking out if you get the chance but I wouldn’t advise coming here specifically for the night life as there are no nightclubs or anywhere that truly stands out as a place to definitely vist for the specific reason of a night out. If you are really looking for a proper night out in north Wales I would reccomend trying Bangor instead. In Bangor you will find many more happening joints than you will in Gybi.

Gybi truly is the end of the line. It looks and feels like it and the final frontier is certainly an apt way of describing the town. Out beyond the breakwater and the harbour there is nothing but the Irish sea (until you reach Ireland.) This is the edge of Wales and it feels almost wild and lawless. There is a forgotten, forlorn air about the town and I quite like that. Most would immediately dismiss Gybi, seeing it as nothing more than a ferry port and a place to escape from, and whilst it probably isn’t worth spending more than a day here, there is still plenty around the town to see and enjoy. It is certainly a unique place and you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else in Britain that has quite the same frontier town feel. So instead of passing through, stop a moment and take it in. Relish the feeling of the final frontier before setting sail over the edge of the world…

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s