Caught by the River

Bardsey: Naming The Island

4th April 2014

IMG_3328 Photo:Ben Porter

Words: Jon Gower.

Viewed from the mainland, from Uwchmynydd, the island squats on the horizon, a brontosaurus hump breaching the waves: it’s a place of mewling gulls, keening seals and ancient sanctity. On a map, Bardsey is an apple just out of reach of the gnarly, extended arm of the Llŷn peninsula and, fittingly, a rather shrivelled and unique apple variety, afal Enlli, does grow in sheltered spots. One imagines it being tastier than another indigenous Welsh apple species, twll tun gwydd, the goose’s arse, although it is named because of the way it looks rather than tastes!

Bardsey’s name derives from the Norse. The Vikings named so many of the Welsh islands – Grassholm, Skokholm, Anglesey, Skomer, Steep Holm – so to these marauding plunderers, it was Bardr’s isle¬, whoever he was, though there is a prettier, alternative etymology which suggests it was the Bards’ Isle. Certainly there’s one bard, Christine Evans, who lives there for much of the year, taking it as the subject of much of her art. The late, great poet R.S. Thomas also knew the island well and could almost see Enlli from his last parish posting, at St. Hywyn’s, in Aberdaron. Whichever is the correct explanation for the island’s naming, it is so much more than a rock enduring in the sea.

Enlli’s long been a known destination, set as it is along well-established trade routes: it was known to the Phoenicians for instance. Ptolemy knew it as Edri – and included it on the first ever map, or at least the first extant map of the Irish Sea, while Pliny called it Andros.

This sea-girt isle, viewed from the mainland, is today raked by searchlights of sunlight. It has fascinated and intrigued legions of people down the centuries but as Rachel Carson once put it “Islands have always fascinated the human mind. Perhaps it is the instinctive response of man, the land animal, welcoming a brief intrusion of earth in the vast, overwhelming expanse of sea.” Some believe Enlli to be Afallon, or Avalon (the Welsh word for apple is afal) and, indeed, there’s a jagged set of rocks set in the middle of Bardsey Sound called, tongue-twistingly, Gorffrydiau Caswennan whose spiked dangers reputedly wrecked the Gwennan, King Arthur’s ship.

And because the Ordnance Survey maps covering Wales are thoroughly bilingual nowadays, the humped, sea-bound rock is also marked as Ynys Enlli, which sets it in swirling context, translating as “the island in the tides, or flood tides.”

The spuming, thrashing winter swells inspired the medieval poet Bleddyn Fardd to sing about “white waves that make loud the holy land of Enlli.” It’s not a place you’d get to by pedalo, that’s for sure.

There’s a story told about winter gales so tempestuously strong that when the islanders came over to nearby Aberdaron in the spring they were all bald, their hair having been blown to Wicklow. It’s probably the Llŷn peninsula equivalent to an urban myth, born out of the mainland envy of the islanders’ renown for catching lobsters. Truth is, the fishermen of Enlli simply whistle at the sea and the big-clawed crustaceans climb into the pots, obedient as sheepdogs. Comes from years of practice.

Enlli has other names and monikers, too, not least “the island of twenty thousand saints.” In medieval times the faithful would calculate that three trips here was equivalent to one to Rome, which explains the sheer numbers of saints, or pilgrims who braved the treacherous crossing. Nowadays it’s thirty quid, there and back.

To get to the island you have to cross Bardsey Sound: today it’s a Chartreuse surge, a racing stretch of fast and dangerous water. In places it is as smooth as green panes of plate-glass – both cathedral and aquarium – and as sleek as seal pelt, while in other places deceptive, unseen currents run just under the sea’s surface, like streams cutting across fields.

As Enlli lies off the end of a peninsula it’s a place where currents meet and clash: the sea can therefore boil and thrash, veritably explode with spume, hit the shore like geysers going off. Little wonder, then, that the island has a long and terrible history of shipwrecks, ships turned to matchsticks, when pounded relentlessly against its jagged, deadly edges.

Bardsey archive.