Menai Bridge is the first port of call on the Isle of Anglesey but, says Steve Goodier, make sure that you stop off in order to enjoy all that it has to offer…
There are three things that always spring to my mind when the town of Menai Bridge is mentioned. Obviously Thomas Telford’s iconic suspension bridge that first linked Anglesey with the Welsh mainland, a fishery in the hills above the town I was commissioned to write a feature on for an angling magazine many years ago, and a Staffordshire Bull Terrier I bought as a pup from a breeder in the area. I believe the fishery, Llyn Y Gors is still there (and recently changed management) and I remember my feature was called ‘Some Enchanted Evening’, but sadly poor old Zeus (the ‘Staffie’) passed away about four years ago.
Menai Bridge is often called ‘The Gateway to Anglesey’ and it’s a shame really that many who come over Telford’s Bridge today continue northerly on The A5025 and miss the town completely as they continue up the island to the likes of Red Wharf Bay, Benllech Bay and Amlwch.
Those who are heading for Beaumaris and its lovely castle drive North West once over the suspension bridge and pass through Menai Bridge and perhaps, if you haven’t done it before, or for some time, you should join them and have a look what is on offer here.
Menai Bridge is located at the narrowest crossing point for The Menai Strait and it is quite probable that a village and community of sorts existed here since as long ago as Roman times.
The first recorded ferry across the Menai Strait ran in 1292 and a service linked the mainland with the island at this point continually until Thomas Telford opened his bridge on 30th January 1896.
For many centuries the town was known as Porthaeth which derived from Porth (harbour) and Daethwy (the name of a local Celtic tribe and later of a medieval commote) but regularly took the name of the new bridge once it was officially opened.
You can’t begin to look at Menai Bridge (the town) without taking in the bridge itself which literally transformed life on the island of Anglesey. Today the bridge (Pont Menai) is a classed as a Grade 1 listed building, and when it was built 191 years ago it was the world’s first iron suspension bridge. It is 1,265ft long with a central span of 579ft. The roadway is set at 98ft above the Menai Strait and this was originally done to give adequate clearance for the tall ships that still plied the oceans in those days.
24 years after Menai Bridge opened, Britannia Bridge (Pont Britannia) opened in 1850. It was designed by William Fairbairn and Robert Stephenson and was originally built to carry rail traffic but was converted to a double decked structure following a huge fire in 1970 – today it carries both rail and road traffic.
The Menai Bridge took seven years to build and due to a lack of stiffening trusses soon proved to be highly unstable in wind. The bridge was strengthened in 1840, 1893, 1938 and again in 1999 when the bridge was closed for a month for the road to be resurfaced and the structure to be further strengthened. A very short walk from the centre of Menai Bridge town brings you to the base of the bridge and from here, underneath it, you really get to realise you how huge a structure it is and how impressive an engineering feat it was for its time.
If you fancy a walk along The Menai Strait you can follow The Belgium Promenade which leads south west to a causeway linking Church Island and the ancient Church of St Tysilio to the shore. If you get the chance to have a walk around the church yard itself you get stunning panoramas of both the bridges and up and down The Menai Strait. In the 9th Century St.Tysilio lived the life of a hermit in isolation on Church Island.
The Belgium Promenade was built by Flemish refugees from The Great War between 1914 and 1916 in appreciation of the town’s hospitality to them. The promenade was re-built in 1965 and opened by Eduard Wilhelms who was the only surviving refugee.
The full power of the sea can be appreciated as you walk in this area too and when the tide is in full flow it is hard to imagine how cattle where literally swam across between the mainland and Anglesey before the coming of the bridges. It must have been an extremely dangerous practice.
There are a number of islands dotted around the Menai Strait and as well as Church Island one of the other famous ones is Ynys Gored Goch (Red Weir Island) which is situated between the two bridges in an area known as The Swellies. Nearby there are also the islands of Ynys Faelog, Ynys Gaint, Ynys Castell and Ynys y Big. There are many stories relating to Thomas Telford’s great bridge but the one that always captures my imagination is the tale of Major Thomas Elmhirst who flew his airship under the structure following the armistice at the end of World War One. It must have been a spectacular sight to see this happen.
Modern day Menai Bridge town has a good and varied selection of shops which include general stores, book shops, antique shops and ironmongers. There is an interesting selection of pubs, cafés and restaurants with a bias towards quality sea foods.
Menai Bridge has a population of around 3,500 and is the fifth largest town on the island of Anglesey. The town is a busy and despite through traffic, still retains a ‘small town’ atmosphere.
At the north end of The High Street is a car park also known as ‘The Fair Field’. This piece of common land has been set aside of the holding of an annual fair called Ffair Borth which dates back to 1691. Originally a horse fair, and later a livestock and hiring fair, it currently boasts traditional fairground rides and comes to Menai Bridge towards the end of each October.
The town boasts one famous name in its past with the scholar and missionary Jane Helen Rowlands hailing from here. And a further source of fame came to the area when Welsh language channel S4C used the town for the backdrop to its soap opera ‘Rownd a Rownd’ with the production company converting a disused garage into a fake row of shops for the filming.
The town is also home to Bangor Universities School of Ocean Sciences whose research ship ‘The Prince Madog’ is moored at the pier when not at sea. As well as the town pier itself other local attractions include a butterfly house, and The Plas Cadnant 200 acre hidden gardens which were developed from the 1800’s onward.
It might be called ‘The Gateway to Anglesey’ but, to be fair, Menai Bridge has plenty of things all of its own to offer the curious visitor and a visit anytime of the year is worth taking the time out for.
Steve Goodier is a freelance outdoor writer that specialises in North Wales. He is the author of ten outdoor books and his latest ‘Ten Best Pub Walks in Snowdonia’ will be published later this year, followed by ‘Ten Best Waterfall and Lake Walks in Snowdonia’ (www.northerneyebooks.co.uk). He is married to Paula and has two grown up children.