Caught by the River

Bardsey: Leaving the Island

26th September 2014

(7) Goldcrest (Ben Porter)Photo: Ben Porter

Words: Jon Gower

One of the most poignant memorials on Enlli is a small promontory called Trwyn y Fynwent, or Graveyard Point, commemorating the place where a Trinity House supply boat was dashed and smashed against the rocks in November 1822, not long after the building of the lighthouse. Half a dozen souls were lost in a whipping, treacherous squall, including the daughter of the skipper, who was returning from a trip to buy her wedding dress. A local poet, Ieuan Llŷn, penned her a lengthy lament, remarking, sadly, how her dark, long hair floated like seaweed, tantalizingly out of reach of the islanders’ outstretched, helping hands.

Not everyone likes life on Enlli. One wannabe modern hermit lost his mind and had to be winched off by helicopter. The Bardsey Trust, which now administers the island, always makes sure that employees have companions to keep them on an even keel. And the occasional poet, such as the curmudgeonly south Walian Harri Webb, ladled out scorn for the place, just to cheer himself up:

No, I’ve never been there, with luck never shall,
Would be bored stiff in five minutes. All islands
Of this size are horrible alike, fit only
For sheep, saints and lighthousekeepers…
Almost, but not quite, nowhere.

But while Webb, the miserable librarian from Mountain Ash, couldn’t abide even the thought of the place, it remains for many – be they people or birds – an important destination. For the artist and writer Brenda Chamberlain, who lived here between 1947 and 1961 and wrote a simply marvellous evocation of the island in the form of Tide Race, Enlli was both ‘sanctuary and prison’ and there is that about islands, there is that dichotomy. They can offer an illusion of freedom, despite being surrounded on all sides by the waves. But they can make very excellent prisons, too. Think of Robin’s Island. Rikers Island. Alcatraz. Storms can maroon and getting off the island can be a tricky business when the winds change from keening to battering.

The shadows are lengthening: time for a last round of the birding hot spots to see what’s come in. The island’s withy-beds, or willow plantings are always worth a gander: you may see a bright flick of colour, a redstart’s tail, or see willow warblers, weaving their way through the foliage, alert for insects. For avian visitors touchdown here, in these green oases, can be a matter of life or death and it always seems nothing short of miraculous that often very small birds can traverse huge tracts of sea and land, following the daylight, the lengthening days which act as a grail for migrants, and make landfall on this rock.

At one end of Enlli there is a gathering of religious buildings, including a chapel with an asthmatic organ. There’s a stone cross, and the remains of a monastery. It’s still a sanctuary, as the little birds which flit around the buildings attest.

A branch quivers inside an island conifer. A blur of feathers shakes itself. It’s a goldcrest, our smallest bird, less substantial than my thumb. It has three miniscule crystals of magnetite embedded in its head to help it navigate. I watch it awhile as it feeds frenetically, needling about in the small pine plantation at the northern end of the island, a stoic traveller, finding sustenance on this Holy Isle, fattening up before flitting off into space, once more launched on its daunting peregrination, its most determined journey.

The gold-streaked crown of the little traveller flashes in the caught light of the westering sun as it gains height and it’s hard to keep track of it through the binoculars. Its wings are a whirr, a blur, an incredibly rapid mechanism of flight.

A lighthouse flash catches its departing form, makes the little bird blaze, the whirring wings incandesce: it looks for the briefest instant like a tiny angel. Soon the goldcrest turns into a speck and then devolves into nothingness. The tiny pilgrim, intent on returning to Europe’s northern rim, has simply become as one with the widening sky.

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