As we head down through the dunes, clusters of people are already gathered on the shore. A young couple locked in a cwtch (Welsh for hug) survey the gulls bobbing up and down. The people are waiting for the tide to ebb and reveal the narrow strip of land connecting this corner of south-west Anglesey to desolate Llanddwyn Island. Across the strait, the rocky ruins of an ancient chapel stand out against the brooding skyline.
Llanddwyn was home to the Celtic patron saint of love, St Dwynwen. Her feast day on January 25 is celebrated by Welsh couples with as many hearts, flowers and candlelit dinners as St Valentine’s Day – plus the odd hand-carved Welsh love spoon.
But sweethearts make romantic pilgrimages throughout the year to the ruins on this narrow, rocky spit of land, which at high tide is cut off to form a literal love island.
Wild idyll: Lizzie Enfield visited Llanddwyn Island off the coast of Anglesey. Pictured is the island’s Twr Mawr lighthouse
I’m a sucker for a great love story, a romantic novelist and a keen hiker. So we set out on our own short pilgrimage, from the village of Newborough (home to the feted Marram Grass restaurant) to the windswept island where St Dwynwen spent the latter part of her life.
From Newborough there are breathtaking views of the Menai Strait, the narrow channel of tidal water that separates Anglesey from mainland Wales, and Snowdonia. The route passes through a forest of sweet-smelling pines and whispering silver birches – home to red squirrels – before reaching an expansive, dune-backed beach. It’s January and not exactly the weather for strolling hand in hand, but good for a brisk buttoned-up walk. And we pick our way carefully across the stretch of sand, eventually revealed by the receding tide.
St Dwynwen was a 5th Century Welsh princess, the most beautiful of King Brychan Brycheiniog’s 24 daughters, portrayed with flowing robes and cascading ringlets.
Lizzie set off on her journey to Llanddwyn from the village of Newborough. Pictured is the huge beach and dunes at Newborough Warren
Heart warming: Couples paint pebbles from the beach to celebrate St Dwynwen, the patron saint of love
She fell in love with Prince Maelon Dafodrill – the names alone are enough to make my epic love story Ivy & Abe pale in comparison. But the course of true love never does run smooth, and Dwynwen’s father already had plans for her to marry someone else. Distraught, she fled to a forest where an angel gave her a potion intended to help banish all thoughts of Maelon. Instead, he was turned into a block of ice.
So it seems perfectly appropriate that an icy wind whips around as we head along a well-defined path towards an ancient Celtic cross that guides us towards the remaining arches of St Dwynwen’s chapel, nestled in the centre of the island.
When Maelon turned to ice, God granted St Dwynwen three wishes. She asked for him to be thawed, that she would not be forced to marry her father’s choice of suitor, and that God would do better with other paramours. She then founded a convent in this splendidly isolated spot where she prayed for lovers everywhere to be happy, until her death in 465 AD.
It worked for Sir John Hay-Williams and his wife Lady Sarah, whose mid-19th Century romance is enshrined in the towers and turrets of the fairytale Chateau Rhianfa nearby, perched on the banks of the Menai Strait.
Sir John spent more than a decade creating the castle as the ultimate love token for his wife. Inspired by her passion for France and sketches of Loire Valley chateaux, the couple’s former home is now a gloriously romantic hotel. It’s midway between Llanddwyn Island and thriving Beaumaris with its mix of Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian architecture, a medieval castle and clutch of lively cafes, restaurants, shops and galleries.
The Grade II listed building has 27 rooms with views of the snow-capped peaks of Snowdonia and twinkling lights of Garth Pier in Bangor. Our double room had a sumptuous, slate-floored en suite and an adjoining cosy velvet-cushioned nook in a chandeliered turret. In the restaurant, where Welsh beef, lamb and fish is served with Loire Valley wines, a similar turret room has an intimate table for two – a perfect spot for a proposal. That is, if wooers have not already been tempted by the dovecote, or one of the many splendidly positioned garden benches, or even the hotel’s tiny private beach.
And if it goes well, you can also get married in the chateau’s superb wood-panelled ballroom.
Lizzie journeyed to the remaining arches of St Dwynwen’s chapel, nestled in the centre of the island
French-style fancy: Lizzie stayed at the ‘gloriously romantic’ Chateau Rhianfa, overlooking the Menai Strait
Grade II listed Chateau Rhianfa has 27 rooms with views of the snow-capped peaks of Snowdonia. Pictured is the sitting room
Llanddwyn Island also has tiny, sandy beaches, as well as the chapel, two lighthouses and a row of former pilots’ cottages. It’s surrounded by numerous volcanic rocky outcrops. One, Ynys yr Adar (the Isle of Birds), is home to one per cent of Britain’s cormorant population, drawn by the same rich pickings that have brought generations of fishermen to these shores.
It was medieval love poet Dafydd ap Gwilym who brought the first love pilgrims here. He popularised Dwynwen’s story in the 14th Century when people began to make the journey to her chapel. He wrote of a mythical well, home to magical eels that could predict the success, or otherwise, of a relationship. If the eels whipped up the water, this was supposed to signify good fortune and happiness in love.
Evidence of the contemporary revival of the Welsh love saint can be found in hearts with initials drawn in the sand and the odd inscribed beach pebble hidden around the chapel’s remains.
St Tysilio’s Church is where Lizzie would have St Dwynwen tie the knot were she to write a novel about her and give her a happy ending. The church is a stone’s-throw from Thomas Telford’s famous Menai Suspension Bridge (pictured)
‘Marry me’, says one. Although we look, there is no answering pebble to let us know if this particular love story had a happier ending than St Dwynwen’s. The beauty of the surrounding landscape and the poetry of the ruined chapel are enough to make me hopeful.
Were I to write the mystery lovers a happy ending, I would have them tie the knot in the impossibly pretty 15th Century St Tysilio’s Church, on Church Island in the strait – a stone’s-throw from Thomas Telford’s famous Menai Suspension Bridge.
The air in this picturesque pocket of Wales might be bracing and windswept, but there is definitely love in it.
Lizzie Enfield was a guest of Visit Wales (visitwales.com). B&B at Chateau Rhianfa based on two sharing is from £203 per room, per night (chateaurhianfa.co.uk).