The Celtic Lands are comprised of six territories in Western Europe where Celtic culture and language continues to survive. The six Celtic nations include Scotland, Ireland, Isle of Man, Wales, Cornwall and Brittany. During our cruise though the Celtic Lands, we make a stop in the Welsh port of Holyhead, which is the largest town on Holy Island and is a major sea port serving Ireland. Steeped in ancient Roman and Catholic history, interesting ecology and landscapes, quaint small town atmosphere and traditional cuisine, our stop in Holyhead is an excellent introduction to the rich culture and history of Wales.
Holyhead and Holy Island were named as such due to the many standing stones, burial chambers and other religious sites found around the island. The town was built around the ancient St. Cybi’s Church, which was constructed inside one of Europe’s few remaining three-walled Roman forts. These archaic structures utilised the sea as the fourth boundary, which used to come right up to the fort’s sides. The church’s building site is truly ancient as this monastic settlement dates back to 540 CE. St. Cybi was the first cousin of St. David, the patron Saint of Wales. Establishing this church was St. Cybi’s final life project after preaching the gospel throughout England and Wales. After his death in 554 CE, the church experienced a rather rough history. The Vikings sacked it in the 10th century and it was further violated in 1405 when Henry IV’s army invaded from Ireland and stole many of its relics. The church experienced a final assault in the 17th century when soldiers of Cromwell were garrisoned in the church for several years and destroyed interior windows, tombs and statues. Since then, St. Cybi’s church has undergone major renovations and remains a cornerstone of the community.
Beyond the historic St. Cybi’s church, other ancient religious relics scatter the landscape of this coastal town. Holyhead features the highest concentration of prehistoric sites in Britain, which include circular huts, burial chambers and standing stones. Another local area that features evidence of ancient Roman influence is Holyhead Mountain and the surrounding maritime heather moor. At 220 meters tall, it’s the highest peak in the county and has archeological sites that suggest human occupation during the Stone Age, Neolithic Age, and both the Bronze and Iron ages. On the East side of the mountain is the site of a Roman watchtower and a nearby stone circle that dates back to the Iron Age. A stone circle is any circular arrangement of large standing stones, with the most iconic being Stonehenge. Stone circles can vary in size and arrangement from a small cluster of standing stones megaliths made up of full rings. Stone circles have long baffled archeologists who theorize their construction relates to spiritual ceremonies, agricultural milestones of astrological phenomenon. Some appear to be constructed for memorial ceremonies or are associated with a burial pit or chamber. Nevertheless, standing in the presence of these ancient wonders exudes a sense of mysticism and contributes to Holyhead’s spiritual nature.
Holyhead Mountain is also popular with visitors because it offers extensive views from its summit. On a clear day, visitors can see all the way to Ireland’s Wicklow Mountains, far beyond the Irish Sea. After enjoying the mountain’s vistas, take a quick trip to the nearby South Stack Lighthouse, which is built on its own little island outcrop and is connected to the mainland by a suspension bridge. The Welsh Coastal Path is 1,400 km long, and while it offers outstanding views, these rocky coastlines were extremely dangerous for ships and many met their fate in the stormy weather. Between 1797 and 1996, over 36 lighthouses were built in and around Holyhead to help guide the way. The South Stack Lighthouse is considered one of Wales' most spectacular lighthouses, and thousands of people visit every year. The lighthouse is an impressive 41 metres tall and features over 390 stone steps down to a footbridge, which provides a chance to see some of the nearly 8,000 nesting birds that line the cliffs during breeding season. Bird sightings include Atlantic puffins, stonechats, peregrine falcons, kestrels and oyster catchers. Grey seals can also be seen on shore in the summer months, along with harbour porpoises and bottlenose dolphins during high tide.
Not only is Holyhead steeped in ancient history and surrounded by a glorious natural environment, but the town itself is also bursting with charm with plenty of local shops and galleries for visitors to explore. Wander over to the Ucheldre Center, which holds regular art exhibitions, live performances, craft workshops and film screenings. Or stop by the Holyhead Maritime Museum which is housed in Wales' oldest lifeboat house. Enjoy the local seaside fare in a restaurant nestled right next to the ocean, or enjoy a craft brew at a village pub and overhear a bit of Welsh, one of Europe’s oldest living languages. Since the 20th century, the Welsh dialect has been steadily phased out of mainstream use. English spread to the main city centres of Wales and overtook the Welsh school system. However, at almost 4,000 years old, this Celtic language survives in rural communities such as Holyhead, where roughly 47% of its residence can still speak Welsh. Walking through Holyhead is a bit like stepping back in time and our visit to this historic town during our exploration of the Celtic Lands is sure to provide an authentic Welsh experience.
Take in the local flavours of Holyhead, Wales for yourself during our upcoming cruise around the Celtic Lands. The charm and history of Holyhead is just one stop during our 14-night trip embarking from the Netherlands as we port in the UK, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland along the way. To book your spots for our upcoming September 4th, 2020 cruise, email cruise specialist Roselle King, or call us at 1-800-387-8890.