'Edge-of-world' Anglesey twin is a coastal beauty with one outstanding purpose

The former fog station at North Stack is surrounded by the sea
-Credit: (Image: Phil Burkhill)

In winter, when the sea spits venom and hurls fury at the cliffs, wind-blown stones can break windows in buildings on the headland 400ft above. When summer comes and the wind quietens, the sound of seabirds brings life to a rugged spot that feels like the edge of the world.

From the high cliffs above North Stack, on Anglesey’s Holy Island, the views are panoramic, stretching out across Gogarth Bay towards an almost endless horizon (on a clear day, the mountains of Wicklow are discernible – so is the Isle of Man). It’s a place with a timeless quality, where beauty abounds but danger lurks and there’s an uneasy co-existence between people and nature.

Not so long ago, a woman was reputed to sing from the clifftops to the seals far below. Donkeys once carried provisions here from Holyhead as Trinity House keepers hunkered down against capricious weather.

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On the headland, a former fog warning station still hugs the ground. It was built to warn passing ships of the dangers of North Stack, an islet below the headland whose Welsh name is Ynys Arw, meaning “rugged island”. Back in the 18th century the station fired warning cannonballs into the fog, a practice dogged with the potential for unintended consequences.

Below the fog station is a giant 250ft-high cavern that’s so noisy with querulous birds it was dubbed Parliament House because of the “disagreeable gabbling noises” they made. Climber Pete Crew once quipped the “cormorants represent the bishops, the peregrine falcons the lords, the razorbills the Commons and the gulls the people”.

Looking like a quarried hole in the cliff, on account of its rectangular shape, the cave is part of a rocky expanse some reckon offers the UK’s best climbing. Lives have been lost here as climbers tackle a mix of 28 routes that revel in names such as Wen Zawn, Dream of White Horses and the intimidating T-Rex.

A reminder of the dangers came only last weekend when a dramatic multi-agency rescue saw a fallen climber retrieved from the cliffs after an eight-hour operation. The alarm was raised by a friend who’d climbed back up the 400ft cliffs to get a mobile phone signal – there’s more on this here. North Wales Live has a WhatsApp community group where you can get the latest stories delivered straight to your phone

North Stack's vast Parliament House Cave, so called because its garrulous seabirds seem to squabble like politicians. Viewed from above on a summer's day, visitors remark on the scene's Mediterranean feel
North Stack's vast Parliament House Cave, so called because its garrulous seabirds seem to squabble like politicians. Viewed from above on a summer's day, visitors remark on the scene's Mediterranean feel -Credit:Phil Burkhill

Invariably, people who come here, by land or sea, describe the area as breathtaking. Yet it is a place much less visited than its better known sibling. South Stack lies just over a mile away but, weather permitting, it often bustles with people drawn by its photo-friendly lighthouse and RSPB reserve.

In contrast, North Stack lies in its shadow: harder to reach and its buildings less charismatic. But for sheer drama and sense of wilderness, set to a backing track of caws from razorbills, cormorants, razorbills and gulls, the rock at the top left-hand corner of Wales is hard to beat.

Reviews are sparce, as if the place has yet to be discovered by social media. “Fabulous scenery,” said a woman visiting last summer. “Beautiful walks and wildlife.” Another visitor added: “Great spot to just sit listen and observe. Love it there.”

Dwell time is rewarded here, and a natural seat in the rock has been painted like a chair so you can do just this. It was probably much the same when Neolitic cultures built roundhouses atop nearby Holyhead Mountain, followed by an Iron Age hillfort and a 3rd-century Roman watchtower. Carneddau ponies now graze its slopes, helping to restore heathland that forms part of Anglesey’s Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

The island’s coastal path runs to North Stack, connecting it with Holyhead’s Breakwater Park, giving views back to the harbour. Or you can follow the path up along the coast from South Stack.

For centuries, North Stack had little function other than to wreck ships. Efforts to address this situation began around 1780 when a fog station was established. Initially, a bell was used, its efficacy dependent on prevailing winds.

A more reliable solution was needed and in 1857 the faciltiy was taken over by Trinity House. Two long-barrel cannons were installed, firing every four minutes. By 1861 the shells were being stored in a stone-built magazine which, with its distinctive curved roof, remains the site’s signature building.

Cannon shells fired to warn fog-mired ships were stored in a distinctive stone magazine
Cannon shells fired to warn fog-mired ships were stored in a distinctive stone magazine -Credit:Phil Burkhill

In the latter half of the 19th century, electric tannoy emitters replaced the fog cannons. The new fog signal stack contained 35 tannoys and could be heard up to six nautical miles away.

Designed for ships, they were ineffective for aircraft and on December 22, 1944, an American B24 J Bomber crashed into the sea nearby. Flying in dense fog, en route to refuel at nearby RAF Valley, the pilot ordered his eight crew to bail out and these were never seen again. The pilot and his co-pilot survived.

A propeller blade was late recovered by local divers and this was used as a memorial in Breakwater Country Park, Holyhead. The ill-fated B24 still lies 10-20 metres underwater near North Stack.

The fog station’s siren was silenced in 1986 when a new array was installed at South Stack lighthouse. Long redundant, its two cannons were to meet an ignominious fate – hauled over the cliff in the 1960s. One was rescued by divers in 1984 and is now also on display at Breakwater Country Park.

Of the site's two buildings, one was put to post-fog-station use as an artist studio. Running it for 22 years was the indefatigable Philippa Jacobs, pushed to the place by personal tragedy while simultaneously lured by its grandeur and ever-changing light.

Living in such an inspirational setting meant sacrifices: no mains water, postal service or refuse collection, as no roads lead to North Stack, just a steep, rocky track over Holyhead Mountain. For washing and bathing, she used water pumped in from the building’s flat roof.

As she grew older, the challenges became more tiresome: mending windows hurled by the sea and tackling the bumpy 1.3-mile cliff-edge track, along which she ferried her exhibition paintings in a Landrover. At the time, she told North Wales Live: “I have had 22 very happy years here and have loved every moment of it. It has been an enormous privilege to have lived at North Stack so long – the longest I have lived in one place.

“Everyone loves the position, which is unique, and the history of the house, but the track has put people off even though I have negotiated it successfully for 22 years and have made many improvements.” She sold up in 2011 and now lives – and still paints – in Llandderfel, Bala.

Sea kayaks arguably offer a more comfortable ride to North Stack and its alluring network of water-filled tunnels. Another attraction is a resident colony of grey seals, who are apt to bask in Parliament House Cave. There’s a strict ban on visiting the cave during the autumn breeding season to ensure the seals are undisturbed.

For the most part, life here carries on just as it has for millennia. It’s a wild but beautiful spot whose main purpose for visitors is to offer astonishingly beautiful views. Get the best island stories from our Anglesey newsletter - sent every Friday

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