Walking on water (almost)
I’d almost done it; now was no time to slip! I’d walked both shores of the Menai Strait except for the stretch on the mainland side between the two bridges. This was the last piece of the jigsaw and, even though I’d waited for the lowest tide of the year, I still had to paddle through shallow water. There wasn’t any sort of beach for me to walk on there: the tide didn’t go out far enough. Shoreward a tangle of huge rocks with a thick coating of slippery, strappy seaweed loomed over me. Close by on my other side a green, deep and dangerous channel of sea moved like a lazy snake, even now at slack water.
I’d started this journey almost two years before, as a result of many sunny evenings spent gazing across the water from the Anglesey Arms in Caernarfon. There’s a a group of Scots pines on a little headland on the opposite, Anglesey shore which always drew my gaze. Bit by bit I’d walked as much of the Strait shores below high water as possible. I went from Abermenai Point to Trwyn Du on the Anglesey side, and Fort Belan to Llanfairfechan on the mainland. Where I couldn’t walk on the shore itself I’d walked as close as I could on public paths and roads. I thought I knew the Strait shorelines: I’d been for many walks down to the water, and gazed on it from buses, trains and cars. But this walk took me to places I’d never imagined.
Some of the most unexpected things I saw were on the Anglesey side: derelict lime kilns, huge stepping-stone cubes in the Afon Braint that look like modern art, and a hidden, high sea wall nearby. I saw the familiar from new perspectives: in new lights and new colours, and from different angles. A shift in sunlight, and the water could change from petrol blue to jade green to slabby grey in a few seconds. One November dusk, in a freezing wind, I watched as the western side of the Britannia Bridge turned from mustard-yellow to pale mauve-grey. In the dying light I counted thirteen cormorants perched on the vertical face of the bridge, on the shaded, eastward side, in the teeth of the wind. Why were they on the cold side? A solitary, fluffed up grey wagtail had a better idea: it was on the western side, catching the last of the sun.
I saw four great egrets at Aber Braint, and saw the sea at Trwyn Du roiling with shoals of herring and whitebait. I saw eighty or ninety swans feeding, and a similar number of grey lag geese, while wading across the river at Aber Ogwen. On a muggy May evening, in the shoreline woods between Plas Newydd and Pwll Fanogl, a sparrowhawk sliced silently past me. I came across a fuddled guillemot in dazzling noonday sun on the endless sandy beach at Abermenai, and found an oystercatcher’s skull at dusk on the stony beach by Waterloo Port. The bone was perfect, cleaned by salt water. But none of these was my most breathtaking encounter with wildlife.
The moment, or rather the ten minutes, came at Porth Penmon. I was sitting at the top of the beach, looking out idly across the water. My eye caught movement among the seaweed-covered rocks further down the beach, newly revealed by the ebbing tide. Nothing in my wildlife-watching experience had prepared me for what I saw when I raised my binoculars: a stoat on a beach. It was quartering the rocks horizontally, in exactly the same way stoats normally hunt in a vertical dry-stone wall. Up and over, in and out, seaweed pushed through and flipped aside. It moved behind some larger rocks, and I stood up cautiously to follow it with the binoculars. Out it popped, taking no notice of me. As I walked away along the beach it was still hunting, either oblivious or unafraid.
Image ©estate of Geraint Thomas. Words ©Susan Walton 2010.
Drinking beer outside the Anglesey Arms in Caernarfon inspired me to walk the foreshores of the Menai Strait. I wanted to get up close to those picturesque Scots pines on the opposite shore.