Bardsey Island/Ynys Enlli

A selection of our photographs taken on Bardsey Island/Ynys Enlli, off Aberdaron, North Wales. See more Bardsey pictures on our Alamy home pages:

Click to a larger version of Headstone of Jane Williams, Bardsey Abbey. photo © Jean Williamson

Headstone of Jane Williams, Bardsey Abbey. photo © Jean Williamson

Ynys Enlli is the Welsh name for a small island off the tip of the Llyn (Lleyn) peninsula, North Wales. Bardsey comes from the Norse for Bardr's Island, perhaps one of the Viking raiders who terrorized our shores in the 8th to 10th centuries, making the island his base as have other pirates in more recent times. This slate headstone, inscribed in Welsh, belongs to Jane, wife of Morris Williams who lived for many years at Nant farmhouse close by the graveyard of St Mary's Abbey. Jane died in July 1901. A description of the island made by Rev. W. T. Jones around 1880, lists 18 houses including 10 farms working 250 acres plus mountain pasture. Many sheep, 58 cattle, more than three dozen pigs, 21 horses, dozens of chickens, a few ducks, 12 dogs and 16 cats. The total human population of 72 was evenly split between males, including 12 bachelors, and females including 13 spinsters; the 12 children were spread over three families.
Click to a larger version of Bardsey Island from St Mary's Well Cove. photo © Mick Sharp

Bardsey Island from St Mary's Well Cove. photo © Mick Sharp

Bardsey/Enlli lies a tantalizing two miles off the tip of the Llyn, but embarking and landing can be a risky affair even in low winds, while a force five from the south-west will often cancel the crossing altogether. The tide-race in Bardsey Sound, with variable currents and uneven depths, has an evil reputation, often extending the sea journey to six miles or holding a boat helpless in a grip of opposed wind and water. In July and September 1993 Jean and I were on Bardsey taking photographs for an essay to be included in a book edited by R. Gerallt Jones & Christopher J. Arnold: Enlli was published in 1996 by University of Wales Press. Our first planned visit in May had been foiled by storms which left us sitting at home surrounded by supplies securely packed in whisky boxes waterproofed by layers of bin bags, tied up with string and festooned with labels saying HENDY. For me, Bardsey was difficult to reach, hard to leave and impossible to forget - one of the few places I have visited which thoroughly deserves the lavish enthusiasm and praise it so often evokes.
Click to a larger version of St Mary's Abbey Tower & Crosses. photo © Mick Sharp

St Mary's Abbey Tower & Crosses. photo © Mick Sharp

Many small islands have a special quality but Bardsey, often called 'the island of the twenty thousand saints' or 'the isle of saints', is renowned for its ancient and continuing reputation as a place where concerns of the spirit flourish. Possibly once a pagan sacred place, by around 500AD saints, monks and hermits were living an ascetic Christian life on Bardsey inspired by the desert monastic communities of Palestine and Egypt. Although the ruined tower is C13th, the memorial crosses C19th, against a Wicklow Mountain sunset they call to mind early-Christian times when saints roamed the western seaways, finding their own personal 'desert' on the Celtic fringes.
Click to a larger version of Inside St Mary's Abbey Tower. photo © Mick Sharp

Inside St Mary's Abbey Tower. photo © Mick Sharp

By around 1200 a house of Augustinian Canons (strictly a priory but generally called abbey here) was established on the traditional site of the earlier 'Celtic' monastery. The power of the island as a pilgrimage destination was at its height in the Middle Ages when it was believed that three journeys to Bardsey gained the same merit as one to Rome. The death-bed poem of Meilyr Brydydd written circa 1137 asks that he be buried to await resurrection on "Fair Mary's isle, pure island of the pure" which has "a bosom of brine about its graves". Pilgrims, alive and dead, left the mortuary chapel at Mwnt, Pembrokeshire, to travel north, following the tides and silts up Cardigan Bay. Others progressed on foot through the wild lands of Snowdonia and Llyn, calling at holy wells and shrines, chapels and hostels, before embarking from one of several locations around Aberdaron. Today's pilgrims and visitors may pause for contemplation at the modern altar within the ruined C13th tower.
Click to a larger version of St Mary's Abbey & Nant Pond. photo © Mick Sharp

St Mary's Abbey & Nant Pond. photo © Mick Sharp

The tower, Hendy and Nant farmhouses and stockyard emerge from the haze of morning sea mist. They stand on a gently sloping terrace at the north of the island with Bardsey Mountain rising to the east (L), fields falling to the sea westwards. The island's most reliable freshwater spring lies on the mountain slope close by, while to the north there is a landing-place at Bae'r Nant,. By 1537 the monastery had been Dissolved and stripped of valuables. When Thomas Pennant visited Bardsey around 1776 he described standing remains of the monastic church, and the Abbot's house still being used as a dwelling - now all gone. The present tower seems to have been a free-standing belfry-lookout-refuge. The ground around it is sown with the bones of monks and pilgrims. When the present roadway was created in the 1870s, many burials were found arranged in long cists with their feet pointing eastwards. A cross-inscribed grave-marker stone of 7th to 9th century was also recovered in the area. Great quantities of bones were also unearthed during cultivation and digging foundations. As well as the vanished buildings, the abbey had banked fields, ponds, rabbit warrens, enclosures, garden plots and orchards. Bardsey Island Apple trees, taken from the 'unique' tree growing up the side of Plas Bach farmhouse, are now commercially available.
Click to a larger version of Abbey, Chapel & Farms from Bardsey Mountain. photo © Mick Sharp

Abbey, Chapel & Farms from Bardsey Mountain. photo © Mick Sharp

Calvinistic Methodist chapel and mission house, abbey tower and graveyard, farmhouses, gardens and stockyards seen from Mynydd Enlli. Lord Newborough built the chapel, mission house and 'model farm' units for his tenants 1870-76, based on buildings at his Glynllifon estate. The detached and semi-detached units with high-walled yards were designed to afford comfort and shelter, to withstand the worst excesses of the island's storms. The prominent Celtic-style cross marks his burial vault. Chapel and Ty Capel (front L), Nant and Hendy (front R), abbey tower with stockyards to rear (centre), Ty Nesaf and Ty Bach (rear L), Carreg Fawr (far L).
Click to a larger version of Chapel & Ty Capel from Hendy Garden. photo © Mick Sharp

Chapel & Ty Capel from Hendy Garden. photo © Mick Sharp

Lord Newborough gave his Bardsey tenants the choice of a new jetty or a chapel. Completed in 1875, 31 July and 1 August were set aside for the dedication ceremony. Four ministers from the mainland preached in Welsh for two days, giving one sermon in English out of consideration for the lighthouse keepers. The Presbytery of the Calvinistic Methodists of Lleyn and Eifionydd sent an address to "The Right Honourable Spencer Bulkeley. Lord Newborough." thanking him (at length) for his generosity in building "such a handsome chapel and comfortable house" at his own expense for use by all denominations of islanders. A schoolhouse was also provided run, voluntarily and unpaid, by the unmarried resident minister. On Sundays the Rev. William Jones, M.A., preached and ran a Sunday School, on weekdays he taught and ran evening classes. In the years around 1880 his failed attempts to gain financial support from the Education Office caused him to leave. When an inspector did eventually visit the island, the new minister was able to demonstrate that the dozen or so children were excellent in English, Welsh and translation, arithmetic and general knowledge. At the end of each year a prize was awarded for the most verses learnt in Bible studies: one young girl won with 1,130. Around 50 islanders attended Sunday School, their combined verse total for the same year was 8,097, and over the next six years 24,521 verses from 24 chapters. This information mainly from Across the Bardsey Sound by H. D. Williams 1982.
Click to a larger version of Carreg Bach & Bardsey Mountain. photo © Mick Sharp

Carreg Bach & Bardsey Mountain. photo © Mick Sharp

Apart from the monastic buildings, and before Lord Newborough built his Bardsey tenants the splendid model farmhouses and yards, the island's housing consisted mostly of single-storey traditional Welsh cottages with thatched roofs. The sleeping platform or chamber in the roof space, reached by a ladder, is called a croglofft. Of a dozen such dwellings shown on a map of 1790 (a dark period for Bardsey when its occupants were considered little better than pirates) strung out along the western foot of the mountain around the 130ft (40m) contour, only Carreg Bach survives. A group photographed taken outside its door in 1886 shows a woman wearing a bedgown (becwn) protected by a coarse (flour sack?) apron, two bearded men in jacket, waistcoat and trousers, and a boy similarly attired. All four wear low-crowned felt hats. Thatch has been replaced by roofing slates, the chimney stack is mortared stone rather than wattle and daub, the walls are whitewashed and there are sash windows made up of small vertical panes. The main track passes just in front of the cottage, leading northwards to the abbey from the Cafn landing place at the south.
Click to a larger version of Henllwyn Bay & South End. photo © Mick Sharp

Henllwyn Bay & South End. photo © Mick Sharp

Looking SW over Rhedynog Goch (L) and Ty Pellaf (R) semi-detached farmhouses and stockyard to Henllwyn bay with the lighthouse beyond on South End (Pen De). The modern landing place with a small jetty of gabions and a concrete slipway is in Cafn Enlli on the near (N) side of the bay. Its narrow channel between rocks was first blasted by Trinity House when building the lighthouse in 1821. Supplies for the keepers were brought by ship and landed on the Cafn shore by small boats. The lighthouse has been automatic since 1987, fuel and spare parts etc being brought in by helicopter. The beach at Porth Solfach (far R on photo) NW of Henllwyn was also used as a landing place. The evening sunshine in this view, taken from Bardsey Mountain in May 2002, highlights the field banks and grassland. A similar photo taken in 1886 shows some of the fields ploughed for arable with cattle grazing in others, a traditional pattern the present (2014) tenant farmers have returned to.
Click to a larger version of Cafn Boathouse interior. photo © Mick Sharp

Cafn Boathouse interior. photo © Mick Sharp

Thousands of words about Bardsey have passed through the lighthouse post boxes, to and from the keepers, and then the researchers and conservation volunteers who succeeded them in the lighthouse accommodation. In July '93 the boathouse was a chaotic jumble of sights and smells with all manner of useful things lurking in dark corners: salted fish, valvoline, undercoat, outboard motor lubricant, hydrogen peroxide, metal anchors and floats, an inflatable dinghy, and wellingtons and waders wet from the sea. On the roof spars lay ancient wooden oars, similar to those shown in a photograph of one of the Bardsey open rowing-sailing boats on the beach at Aberdaron in 1896. A nesting swallow flew amongst the stillness, sprinkling motes of dust into beams of sunlight.
Click to a larger version of Bardsey Lighthouse. photo © Mick Sharp

Bardsey Lighthouse. photo © Mick Sharp

Many Bardsey Island views are dominated by the lighthouse. Designed by Joseph Nelson, it was built by Evan Thomas using ashlar brought from Holyhead on Anglesey. Completed in 1821 the tower, 99ft high and 25ft square in section at the base with battered exterior walls, was originally painted white but changed to red-and-white in 1891. The oil-burning lantern was replaced by an electric one run by generators, the two-blast trumpet foghorn added around 1887 replaced by a modern bank of speakers. The fairground atmosphere beneath the tower at night was heady and highly charged by the intensity and movement of the light - as we headed north back to Hendy, elastic shadows were pushed before us. Before the erection of special spotlights to guide them to a safe landing, the beam lured many hundreds of migrating birds to their deaths.
Click to a larger version of Cristin Withy Bed. photo © Mick Sharp

Cristin Withy Bed. photo © Mick Sharp

Islanders used willow wands to make their baskets, crab creels and lobster pots. From the seaward side the withy bed below Cristin appears insignificant, beaten and deformed by the western winds, but inside it is a roomy haven for birds, the branches full of old nests, piles of lime marking favourite perches. The Bardsey Bird & Field Observatory, based at Cristin farmhouse just visible to the rear in this photo, was founded in 1953. Mist nets are used for the humane live capture of small birds which can be safely removed from the netting, recorded, studied and ringed before being released unharmed. My September 1993 notes say that each year between March and November up to 8,000 birds from 97 species are captured at various locations on the island for study and ringing. In 2013, 3,451 birds of 69 species were ringed including such rare ones as Fea's petrel and Siberian stonechat. (

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