Finding romance in the stones of Anglesey’s Ynys Llanddwyn on St Dwynwen’s Day

Billowing clouds over the sands of Ynys Llanddwyn © Kerry Walker

Ynys Llanddwyn is love at first sight. Whipped by the Irish Sea, riven with secluded coves, cloaked in gold-green marram grass and commanding soul-stirring views of the dragon’s backbone of the Llŷn Peninsula, this narrow spit of land off Anglesey’s south coast becomes an island at very high tides. And not just any old island. Here the ruins of a 16th-century church, nave exposed to the sky, sitting atop the foundations of an earlier chapel intrinsically linked to love itself.

This chapel once formed part of a convent that attracted pilgrims in the Middle Ages because of its connections to St Dwynwen, the Welsh patron saint of lovers – and Wales’ very own St Valentine. St Dwynwen, incidentally, has her feast day on January 25, which has recently had a bit of a revival in Wales, with many couples now celebrating it in the same smoochy St Valentine’s way, with hearts, flowers and candlelit dinners.

The approach to Ynys Llanddwyn from Malltraeth Bay © Kerry Walker

A tale of star-crossed love

St Dwynwen’s story is an interesting one. She was, according to legend, the fairest of all King Brychan of Brycheiniog’s 24 daughters. But the poor girl was unlucky in love. She fell head over heels with a prince from the north called Maelon Dyfodrull, who met with her father’s disapproval. Her father refused her hand in marriage. A devastated St Dwynwen ran away to the woods to weep, begging God to help her. An angel heard her pleas and is said to have given her a special potion to help her forget her beloved Maelon. This potion, as lore would have it, turned her would-be suitor into a block of ice. God is then said to have allowed her three wishes: the first was to defrost Maelon, the second was for all lovers to be happy or else cured from their passion, and the third was to never marry.

St Dwynwen’s wishes – well, particularly her third one – came true. She fled to wild Ynys Llanddwyn on the Isle of Anglesey to found a convent, become a nun and devote herself to a life of God.

The ruins of St Dwynwen’s Church on Ynys Llanddwyn © Kerry Walker

Island of romance

The original convent is long gone, but there is still something special about Ynys Llanddwyn – an ethereal beauty you can’t quite put your finger on. It’s still possible to imagine how the elements and nature here invigorated the souls of weary pilgrims from these ruined, weather-bashed buildings lost amidst the peninsula grassland. There are wide open skies, ever-changing light, the continual warbling and trilling of seabirds and big views out to the rippling, purple-bruised mountains of Snowdonia and the Llŷn Peninsula. The cliffs occasionally bear the foul tempers of the Irish Sea, but mostly the coves are calm and secluded – and peaceful on all but the sunniest of summer weekends.

From the broken remains of the chapel and nearby well (the original place of pilgrimage), a trail slips through the breeze-bent marram grass to a Celtic cross that honours St Dwynwen, who died in 465 AD. Beyond lie several whitewashed cottages, built for the pilots who once helped ships to navigate the notoriously ferocious Menai Strait, and beehive-shaped Tŵr Mawr lighthouse, atmospherically perched atop a crag. 

The Celtic cross on Ynys Llanddwyn © Kerry Walker

Getting here: a walk in the woods

The coastscapes of Ynys Llanddwyn form part of the wider Newborough Warren and Ynys Llanddwyn National Nature Reserve. The approach is therefore almost as impressive as the destination – whether you choose to come on the dappled trails that thread through a vast forest of Corsican pines or along the beach of Newborough, a glorious three-and-a-half-mile scoop of golden sand fretworked by dunes and coastal marshes. Just be sure to allow enough time. Ynys Llanddwyn – like true love – is not something you can hurry.

Walking in the Corsican pine forest of Newborough Warren © Kerry Walker

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Ynys Llanddwyn it is a 14-mile (1.5 mile walk, 12.5 mile drive) to the beautiful, intimate Freckled Angel, one of our favourite places to eat on Anglesey – or in North Wales, for that matter.

At a glance

How to get there: Easiest access to either car park start point is from Llanfairpwllgwyngyll, the village (in its abbreviated form here) that has the longest placename and railway station name in Europe, Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch (to give it its full title). For the Newborough Warren car park, take the A4080 to Niwbwrch then take the road signed Llys Rhosyr by the Red Squirrel Cafe two miles down to the car park. For the Maltraeth car park, continue along the A4080 as it swings northwest 1.25 miles to the car park.

Parking: There are two main car parks. The slightly closer car park is more popular and heads up the much-busier way there: it’s at Newborough Warren, and from here you walk along the beach to Ynys Llanddwyn. Then there is the Maltraeth car park, south across the wide sandy inlet formed by the Afon Cefni from Maltraeth (literally just as you hit the forest on the other side) or, coming from Llanfairpwllgwyngyll and Niwbwrch, northwest of these villages and just before you reach the afore-mentioned inlet. With this one, you walk through Newborough Forest first to arrive. Bank on a couple of miles’ walk from Newborough Warren car park to Ynys Llandwyn, three from Maltraeth car park.

Refreshments: Bring your own for this one.

Best time to visit: January 25th, obviously. Ynys Llanddwyn is one of those lucky spots that gets great light at all times of year. This makes a good winter walk, too, because a lot of it if you come through Newborough Forest is under cover. A sharp bright winter’s day is perfect. The more into the tourist season you come, the more the crowds exponentially increase.