Jan arrived in time to share breakfast with the rest of us. She was joining the party for the day and was kitted out to cope with almost any weather. She need not have worried… it was to be an unexpectedly glorious day, as warm as spring and just as beautiful. We piled into the cars and headed off towards our first stop, which was to be the lighthouse on the tiny island of South Stack.
The lighthouse at South Stack has been in operation since 1809. To reach it there are over four hundred steps, snaking down the cliff to the narrow, treacherous channel that separates the island from the mainland. Until 1828, the only way to cross was in a basket suspended on a hemp rope. A suspension bridge was then built to enable safe passage. The bridge has been replaced three times, with the present aluminium bridge being opened in 1997, allowing visitors to cross once more to the island. It seemed a little strange to realise that this bridge had not been conceived when I was last here.
One thing that has not changed in the intervening years was going to be put to the test. I looked at the long, winding stairway, quaking in my boots. I have an unreasoning and unreasonable horror of going down stairs. I have no fear of heights, will scramble up a rock face with the best of them, but the thought of even half a dozen downward steps has always been enough to bring me out in a cold sweat. No matter how many times I have descended staircases domestic, municipal or historical, the horror is just the same. Four hundred or so steps, descending the three hundred feet of the cliff face were going to be a bit of a trial. We would never impose such things on anyone who accompanies us on these weekends…there is always the possibility to say no. On the other hand, we believe that facing fear is the most effective way of loosening its hold on us…and we cannot teach with any authenticity that which we will not ourselves put into practice. And it works. Where once I might have been paralysed with fear, now I can accept it and, even though I may feel like a quivering lump of jelly, fear no longer freezes me like a rabbit in headlights.
So, down we went, passing incredible layers of folded rocks, laid down, it is believed, in the Cambrian era some five hundred million years ago. Here and there, great chunks of quartzite gleam white against the reds and ochres of the sandstone, older by far, dating back to the Pre-Cambrian era where time is counted in billions of years. Holyhead mountain, the holy hill of the isle, is made largely of this white stone. Not surprising then that it has been a site of reverence since time beyond memory.
Further along the cliff is Ellin’s Tower, a castellated folly built in 1868 by the wife of William Owen Stanley, a local MP who became the Lord Lieutenant of Anglesey. Today it is a visitor centre for the RSPB. In season the cliffs are home to over eight thousand birds. We had seen an unexpected heron and a pair of choughs, the rarest of the crows with their red beaks and feet, but winter lacks the puffins and fulmars, the guillemots and razorbills that haunt the rocks during the mating season.
Even in winter, though, there is an astonishing array of wildflowers, many still in bloom, others clinging precariously to the cliffs. The emerald cushions of sea thrift are everywhere. Succulents mould themselves to the cliffs and at any other time I would have been bringing up the rear just because of the plants. This time, however, it was all I could do to put one foot in front of the other, holding tightly to a supportive hand. Most of the pictures, I admit, were taken on the way back up when the only thing I had to contend with was the mechanical problems of protesting joints.
The final flights of stairs were even worse than the rest; each step narrow and very steep. But eventually we reached the bridge. Sadly, in what was to be the only slight hitch in the planned weekend, the bridge was closed for the winter and the island of South Stack with its lighthouse inaccessible. We had known this before the descent… but the steps were worth it to see the cliffs. In summer they would be entirely covered with nesting birds, and the island full of tourists, so winter is the ideal time to visit. At the foot of the bridge we paused while one of our Companions shared a poem appropriate to the moment. Steve spoke about the symbolism of the solstice and the descent into darkness as we approach the longest night…which is also the point of the year at which the light is reborn. It is in the very moment of the apparent triumph of darkness that life, light and hope is renewed.
I, still shaking from the descent and glad of the respite, could relate to that. We waited for a while, at that lowest point, looking up and back at millions, billions of years of history… a rare glimpse into the exposed heart of the earth. It is a moving experience, as moving as seeing into the heart of a loved one somehow. We have our own roots deep in this earth… we are part of this world… and though our souls may soar with the angels, we share a common origin with land, sea and sky. In places like this, you glimpse those shared roots…and a shared destiny.