Distance: 8.25km (round trip).
This hike from comely harbour village Cemaes is SO Wales: hugging the wind-smacked north coast of Anglesey, it encompasses a swaddle of sandy, craggy, seaweed-trailed seaboard jaw-droppingly dramatic even by the standards of an island celebrated for quality coastline, then with characteristic lack of fanfare ushers you up to the hulking headland of Llanlleiana, Wales’ most northerly point accessible by foot.
What to do
The walk has many more claims to fame than an extreme compass point. The route drops to several stunning coves, with the highlight being the sand-and-stone curve of Porth Padrig, and rises to some lofty cliffs. Along the way is one of the most photogenic maritime churches you ever will see, Eglwys Llanbadrig, as well as Dinas Gynfor, a prehistoric hill fort. Signs of industry old and new await too, with remnants of Victorian china clay works strikingly dominating Porth Llanlleiana near Wales’ northernmost point, Llanlleiana headland, and views across to the Wylfa Head, the potential (and controversial, of course) location of one of the UK’s new generation of nuclear power stations, from the start of the path near Cemaes. Allow for time in Cemaes at the walk’s end too: perhaps a stroll along the beach, a wander about the harbour, a mosey around the couple of craft shops or ordering something to replenish those spent calories at the Stag Inn.
1: Unusually for Anglesey, Cemaes has an amply-sized free-of-charge car park right on the seashore (it even has a cafe and a tourist information point!) making a perfect beginning and end point for this walk. One of the greatest loves we have as avid hikers are those trails which start in civilisation and run into relative wilderness, with the contrasts making you appreciate both to the maximum, and this is such a trail. Cemaes might only be a village, but this fetching collection of whitewashed houses slanting down to a narrow harbour and broad sweep of sandy bay takes on the status of a small town in remote northern Anglesey. And as you walk east along the promenade behind the bay and then left on the Anglesey Coast Path just after the parking area on the far side up into the headland demarcating the bay’s eastern edge, the transition to nature is a nice one. The path dives immediately into scrubby foliage and feels like a hidden viewing gallery from which to spy Cemaes fanning along the waterfront below. Indeed, after an enclosed section, the path does lead to a rather lovely bench to further capture Cemaes bathed in all its bayside beauty. A little bit north, and soon visible across the bay as the path clambers atop the headland, is the controversial ex-power station of Wylfa Head. Shut down in 2015 after over 40 years of operation, it is still currently embroiled in talk of reopening as one of the Conservative Party’s potential new generation of nuclear sites. Arguments are the usual ones: creation of jobs versus local concerns over pollution and destruction of habitat. Plus the fact that Anglesey also has already quite developed alternative energy capabilities, blessed with an abundance of wind, historically harnessed by the area’s graceful old windmills and today channelled by extensive wind farms in the vicinity.
2. The route, now up on the headland, slices northwest out of sight of Cemaes, bearing down across an open grassy field to visit a series of two tempestuous rocky coves, the first especially interesting as it is slightly raised and pockmarked by rock pools. It then arcs about a wild rocky section of shoreline (that you cannot explore) to descend in front of houses to Porth Padrig, one of the prettiest beaches in northern Anglesey. The coast path actually skirts above the beach but by continuing straight on along the narrow path you can descend to this pebble, sand and seaweed beach and walk right along it to the low grassy headland visible at the far end, where you can then easily hook up to the coast path again. At its southwestern end Porth Padrig has a few stasheded-away caves, the middle section is dominated by a distinctive rock stack and beyond the kelp forests at the northeastern end there is an abundance of delicious marsh samphire (the saltier and tastier cousin of rock samphire that you would pay good money for in a supermarket!). The headland in the background curves out into the sea like the curious head of a giant creature, the gentle green slopes culminating in a pulpit-like series of rocks. It’s such a jigsaw-esque in-and-out coastline that the equivalent distance along the coast by road is just a few metres, whilst sticking to the shore it is well over a kilometre from first sighting Porth Padrig to reaching the tiny sea-facing church of Eglwys Llanbadrig above the headland beyond.
3. At this church it is worth pausing for some etymological explanation. Both ‘Padrig’ as in the bay and the ‘badrig’ of Llanbadrig refer to St Patrick. Yes, as in the patron saint of Ireland. The holy man, as local legend would have it, was shipwrecked on the nearby isle of Middle Mouse and took refuge in Ogof Badrig (Patrick’s Cave) on the coast below where the church now stands. He was on his way, allegedly, to convert the Irish to Christianity (he had originally been converted himself whilst imprisoned there as a young man). Again according to legend, a now-inaccessible freshwater well near the cave allowed the saint to recover after his ordeal and the church was founded by him in gratitude. The building sits snugly in a hollow with a sunken bench (beautiful bench number two on this walk) making a sheltered spot for a picnic. The sun, when out, casts phenomenal shadows over the gravestones in the churchyard here, along the edge of which the path passes to rise high up onto the green-brown cliffs beyond and the first proper sighting of Middle Mouse (Ynys Badrig or Patrick’s Island in Welsh), the teensy rocky island that looks more like a part-submerged crocodile than a mouse and, as well as being the location of St Patrick’s shipwreck, is also the actual northernmost point of Wales. At one point, the perspective as you cross the lofty cliffs of Llanlleiana headland makes it seem as though you could skip across to Middle Mouse but you need your own boat to make it here – otherwise you will have to content yourself in terms of compass point boasts with the northernmost point of Wales accessible by foot, which this walk will lead you to next.
4. The landscape suddenly gets very wild after this. Bracken-covered cliffs tumble into the sea on your left as lonelier moorland now separates you by some distance from civilisation on the right. There are lonelier stretches of seaboard in Wales, and here it feels far lonelier than it really is (houses in fact less than a kilometre away) but part of the beauty of this walk is in creating this illusion. Nipping through a gate, a beautiful perspective of path opens up swinging east after you have been keeping an up-and-down northeasterly trajectory for a while. Undulating away, you can see the path helter-skeltering up to the final thrust of Llanlleiana headland, set off by a surreal-looking little monument on the top. Cast your eyes down, though. One last lonesome bay, Porth Llanlleiana, mostly made up of large boulders, commands you to descend before the ultimate headland ascent. And what a descent it is. First via the grassy knoll of the ancient hillfort of Dinas Gynfor and then, a few steep twists below, the china clay works of Porth Llanlleiana, with its chimney and factory buildings gazing out in solitude at the bay. The name ‘Llanlleiana’ suggests a connection with nuns here, but despite intimations of prehistoric and 19th-century labours, not to mention the purported presence of the great St Patrick himself, no direct evidence of nuns has been unearthed.
5. Now, from the seaward side of the china clay works, clamber up the very steep headland, over some 200 steps, to reach the odd monument marking the northernmost point of Wales you can get to by foot. Most odd, perhaps, is that there is no fanfare whatsoever surrounding this point. Think of the tackiness of Land’s End of John O’ Groats, if you have visited other such extreme compass points of Great Britain, and contrast those with this isolated, humble headland marked by no sign and by hardly any information about it whatsoever online. The monument itself is a decrepit pavillion-esque tower, perhaps fine in the days when it was erected to commemorate King Edward VII’s coronation but today broken, graffiti-daubed concrete and quite easily the ugliest thing on the walk. It’s a shame, as it’s also the northernmost structure in Wales and perhaps occupies a point that should be marked in some more fetching way. But the prettiness of your surroundings, as Middle Mouse and the distant outlines of boats trawling across to Ireland frame the yawning ocean views, will anyway suffice.
6. Although a simpler path from the china clay works to the lane that marks the return route can be taken, we were glad to have climbed to Llanlleiana headland – and equally glad to come down over the bracken to check out the rough rock-strewn cove of Hell’s Mouth on the headland’s far side. The coast path continues on to Porth Wen and the striking ruined brickworks there (and also has a path back to Cemaes to make a round walk of things) but we took the little path leading inland and down to the large white house visible for much of the last section of the walk (named Llanlleiana, appropriately) and the road behind it. On the road (an attractive country lane meandering through the moor and fields, actually) you can continue east to the National Trust-owned Georgian manor of Bryn Llywelyn (where you can stay if you book enough in advance) but the circular route to Cemaes now follows the lane back all the way to the village. You cannot really go wrong: be sure to turn left where a right-hand turn descends to Eglwys Llanbadrig and right where the lane bends left around to the A5025 to come down to Cemaes Bay again after 2km/1.25 miles.
The lasting thought in your mind will likely be, as it was for us, that the greatest and most surprising thing about a walk taking in Wales’ northernmost point as well as a rich history and some truly magnificent coastal scenery, is the lack of other visitors. Of course, if the area were somehow more developed, then the crowds would be here too as they are in other parts of Anglesey. And this article would never have needed to be written.
NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Cemaes, it’s 12 miles southeast around the Anglesey coastline to the trio of impressive ancient sites (one Roman, one medieval, one Neolithic) that constitute the Lligwy monuments.
At a glance
How to get there: Coming from Menai Bridge, the best approach is probably to take the A5025 22.5 miles northeast via Amlwch to Cemaes. Coming from Holyhead, it will be the A5 to Y Fali and then the A5025 northwest to Cemaes: 16 miles all in.
Parking: Large car parks either side of Traeth Mor, Cemaes’ beach. Free, too. And the main town car park with a seasonal cafe and tourist information point. Despite not being touristy whatsoever.
Refreshments: It’s not just the little cafe in the car park: delightful Cemaes has several options. A decent hotel, the lovely, whitewashed Stag Inn, a Fish & Chip shop, even a little minimarket if you prefer a picnic along the coast.
Best time to visit: Late summer/ early autumn would be perfect here, when the sea has warmed up that little bit more to invite a swim. The coast is very tantalising in this regard, especially on beautiful Porth Padrig, but even normally plucky Undiscovered Wales flinched at the idea of a November dip!