Stuck for something romantic to impress your loved one this Valentine’s Day? I was – until I discovered the patron saint of Welsh lovers, her folklore-rich domain in Anglesey and the wonderful appeal of an away-from-it-all, romantic break in North Wales.
The country celebrated St Dwynwen’s Day on January 25th and there’s plenty to learn from the quirky Welsh equivalent to February 14th.
The event in Wales is no commercial free-for-all; it taps into the poignancy and romance of the Celtic soul.
Remembered: Two crosses stand near Twr Mawr lighthouse, close to St Dwynwen’s church
Dwynwen was a 5th-century beauty, the daughter of the King of Powys. She fell for a dashing young prince called Maelon, but her father would not agree to the marriage. Maelon attacked Dwynwen in a fit of passion and was turned to ice by an angel.
Dwynwen pledged that if the angel were to bring Maelon back to life, she would devote herself to God alone. She then crossed the mountains of Snowdonia on horseback to find a site to establish her simple church and begin a life of spiritual devotion.
She settled on Llanddwyn Island, a remote tidal islet off the west coast of Anglesey. Young lovers from across Wales would seek out Dwynwen for saintly blessings for their forthcoming marriage until she died in 497AD.
Isolated: Llanddwyn Island is a tidal isle cut off from the mainland at high tide
The medieval love poet Dafydd ap Gwilym first popularised her story in the 13th century, writing: ‘Dwynwen your beauty is like a silver tear. Your church is ablaze with candlelight.’
Even today, Welsh lovers will exchange gifts of love spoons or jewellery engraved with love poetry on St Dwynwen’s Day. Some may even take their sweetheart to the beach, close to the ruins of Dywnwen’s church, to pop the question.
I decided to follow her trail, strolling a seven-mile walking route through the Newborough Warren National Nature Reserve.
I made my base in Beaumaris, the visitor-hub town of Anglesey. It was a cosy spot to soak up some great Welsh hospitality with a clutch of brightly painted hotels, cosy pubs and funky shops strung out along Castle Street, the main thoroughfare.
Tranquil: Beaumaris is the town most visitors head for on Anglesey
On the boat-bobbing quayside, I drank in panoramic views across the Menai Strait to Snowdonia.
After a comfortable night at The Townhouse, the contemporary-styled sister hotel to Beaumaris stalwart Ye Olde Bulls Head Inn, and a slap-up breakfast of local delicacies that included cockles and lava bread, I was ready for my day’s walking.
The walk lead me through Forestry Commission land, where red squirrels frolicked with early-spring fervour amongst the Corsican pine and silver birch trees. There was a chill in the air but my heart was warmed by the closeness to nature and a delicious sense of tranquility.
Dropping down to Newborough Beach from the sand dunes, the wind engulfed me in a fine veil of salty sea-spray and gritty sand. But I pushed on. After all, Dwynwen didn’t shirk from her saintly duty, nor bow down to the elements. Neither should I.
Legacy: There are few remains of St Dwynwen’s church but her story lives on
My reward as the beach opened up
before me was a glorious yomp across the tide-washed pebbles, the sea
crashing on the beach beside me with a throaty roar. Further ahead, a
weathered sign marked the perimeter of Llanddwyn Island, the headland
stretching out into the Irish Sea, and weathered stone steps led
through a series of elaborately carved gates to the saint’s inner
Dwynwen’s ancient, moss-covered church may have long since fallen into ruins, but the stone altar still stands proud, while a stoic Celtic cross dominates the eerie landscape. As a testament to the church as a place of pilgrimage even today, I noticed a faded bouquet of blood-red roses atop the ancient altar.
The Duchess of Cambridge and Prince William have been living just a short distance from here while he serves as a search and rescue helicopter pilot. I wondered if they sometimes strolled this stretch of sand. It seemed a perfect spot for some time together away from the public gaze.
Dreamy: A view through the dunes of Newborough Beach towards the Llyn Peninsula
Along the headland, there is a small exhibition about Dwynwen and the geology of her remote outpost in a series of stone-built pilots’ cottages. Inside, it is stark but cosy, a wood-carved effigy of Dwynwen, depicting the saint with flowing robes and cascading blond ringlets, standing guard by the door.
The afternoon sun was fading and the elements gathering force for another Biblical storm. It was definitely time to head back to Beaumaris.
I was looking forward to a pint of local ale in the snug at Ye Old Bulls Head Inn, a browse through the seaside-inspired prints at the Janet Bell Gallery and dinner that evening at Cennin (which means ‘leeks’), a smart new restaurant offering signature Welsh black beef and lamb dishes.
But first I cast a wish into the wave-washed cove below, evoking the spirit of Dwynwen to watch over me and my loved one from her holy resting place.
So, you can keep your flowers and chocolates this Valentine’s Day. I’ll be whisking my cariad (sweetheart) away to North Wales. When it comes to romantic gestures, I’ve got a bone-fide Welsh saint on my side.