Puffin Island: monarchs, monks and myths

If you’ve ever visited the North Wales coast and spent balmy days enjoying the views towards Anglesey, you might have spotted a little island floating off its tip. That’s Puffin Island.

You can’t set foot in the island without the express permission of the landowner but you can take a boat trip around it. Puffin island has an interesting history and is a haven for wildlife – not just puffins – and it makes for an interesting and enjoyable day out with a difference.

Story time…

In the 6th century, Wales experienced the meteoric rise of Christianity. Monasteries sprang up in busy towns and remote locations alike, places of refuge and reflection in a brutal world. On Ynys Mon (the Isle of Anglesey) it was no different.

Christians and friends, Seiriol and Cybi, decided to establish monasteries on the island. Cybi established his monastery in Holyhead (its Welsh name, Caergybi, is derived from Cybi) and Seiriol founded Penmon, at the northeastern end of the island. He also set-up a small religious community on remote Puffin Island, then known as Ynys Lannog to the Welsh and Priestholm to the vikings.

For their contribution to the early church, both men would go on to be made saints. It is said they enjoyed long walks together at Llanerchymedd, a small village halfway between their religious houses. Cybi walked facing the rising sun in the morning and the setting sun in the evening. Of course, he got a tan on his walks and became known as Cybi ‘the Dark’, while Seiriol who drew the short straw and had to walk in shadow (and, hence, no tan), became known as Seiriol ‘the Fair’.

Seiriol retired to Ynys Lannog and ended his life in seclusion. He is believed to be buried here, along with King Maelgwn Gwynedd (Seiriol’s patron), in the ruins of a monastic building that you can still see on your boat trip.

During the 7th century, King Cadwallon ap Cadfan of Gwynedd sheltered on Ynys Lannog while fleeing the invading king of Northumbria; its remote location and lack of access made it the perfect place to lay low.

Gerald of Wales (one of the earliest British historians) visited the area in 1188, reporting that the island’s mice would devour the community’s food stores whenever tensions ran high among the monks – a good incentive to get along, don’t you think?

It’s a wild life…

The natural history of the area is equally as interesting. As the name suggests, Puffin Island once was home to vast numbers of the seabirds but an infestation of brown rats decimated the population during the 1890s. This situation only worsened an existing crisis; puffin numbers had dwindled for years since man had developed quite a taste for the little bird.

In 1998, the Countryside Council for Wales launched a scheme to rid the island of the rats in the hope of encouraging the birds to return. Today a small colony inhabit the island but these naturally shy birds are hard to spot so you should keep your eyes peeled.

Despite this, the island has an incredibly diverse ecosystem. It is a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and a Special Protection Area (SPA).

Puffin Island’s remoteness makes it especially popular with seabirds and you’ll see a many different species all year round, but particularly in spring which is breeding season.

There is a significant colony of breeding guillemots, with in excess of 2,500 breeding pairs on the island. Cormorants, oystercatchers, razorbills, kittiwakes and several species of gull also make the island their home. It’s a dream location for twitchers and wildlife photographers alike!

If you’re not a keen birdwatcher, there’s still plenty to see. Sea mammals, in particular grey seals, dolphins and porpoises, are frequent visitors to waters around the island and have been known to accompany boat trips!

Sailing to new lands…

The narrow stretch of water between Puffin Island and Penmon Point (or Trwyn Du) is a short but treacherous route. In 1831, a ship called the Rothesay Castle sank here on a day trip from Liverpool killing 130 people and, shortly after, the distinctive ‘Everton mint’ lighthouse and a lifeboat station were built.

Today, visitors in their thousands make the pleasure boat trip around Puffin Island and there are several reputable companies running a variety of trips all year round from various departure points along the Menai strait.

Seacoast Safaris and Starida operate from Beaumaris, on the banks of the Menai Straits. If you’re visiting Puffin Island from here, be sure to spend some time in the historic town and perhaps visit the castle too.

Seacoast Safaris encourage visitors to experience nature and wildlife in its natural habitat, keeping disruption to a minimum. Ribride Tours offer a similar experience and operate from both Beaumaris and Porth Daniel in Menai Bridge. Seawake are based in the aforementioned locations, as well as Y Felinheli.

Each tour company provides a slightly different Puffin Island experience, Ribride cruise at high speeds for instance, so check them all out and then get planning a day of fantastic discoveries! Trips run more frequently in high season (starting from the Easter Holidays, weather permitting) but please check with the tour operator in advance.

Images courtesy: Penmon Lighthouse by © Copyright Oliver Mills and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. Puffin and Ribride by © Crown copyright 2017 (Visit Wales).