It had been a hectic six months, one way or another so we thought we deserved a break. I was waiting for my partner to come back from parking the car and I found myself alone on St. Martin’s Haven on the Pembrokeshire coast. I walked past the rusty remains of a winch that had once hauled boats in and scrunched onto the stony beach. The little bay is steep-sided and has a view of St. David’s Head with the Preseli Mountains brooding over in the East and a couple of oil tankers waited at anchor in the sunshine.
I sat down on a stone that was really a bit too small for the job and settled myself down to enjoy just being there for a few moments, feeling the breeze, taking in the horizon and letting the noise of the surf on the stones wash over me.
Suddenly there was a head in the water looking at me and a pair of dark eyes took me in without comment, looked away and then the head was gone. It resurfaced again a minute later, glanced at me when it suited it, repeated the procedure a few times and then sank out of sight for what turned out to be the last time.
This close encounter with a seal was the beginning of a three day stay on the island of Skomer off the coast of Pembrokeshire that we had booked on the spur of the moment. Soon we were lugging our bags and food along the cliff path and down a steep, slippery catwalk and onto the Dale Princess, the converted fishing boat that would take us and the other visitors onto the island.
The island is small enough to walk round comfortably in a couple of hours and soon there is nowhere to actually go, so you end up slowing right down into an island rhythm without an agenda or timetable. As a couple we love being out in nature but we are far from being experts and so it was great to learn how to identify birds we didn’t know and learn handy tips like the best time to spot porpoises is when you see gannets feeding. New knowledge is very exciting but it gets even better once it has lost its sheen and you don’t feel the need to point and name everything all the time. Just by being on the island and bumbling along to wherever we fancied being next the things around us started to become more apparent. The horizon seems to stretch your gaze and in this wider field the other inhabitants of the island begin to let you see them more readily.
The wildlife on the island is truly astonishing and it is a real privilege to see it up so close. Wheeling gannets folding their wings and plummeting arrow-like into the sea to fish; the curve off porpoises’ backs as they arrive to join the feast; a raven party with raucous diving, twisting and whirling; the shearwaters skimming the waves and getting ready for their trip to South America; the gruesome remains of unlucky shearwaters on the path (so elegant in the air but so clumsy on land where the black-backed gulls get them) their wings outstretched and nothing but a picked-clean breast bone between them. The list could go on and on.
People have lived on the island on and off for many centuries. Archeologists have found flints that indicate that our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived here, although that doesn’t really count because Skomer wasn’t an island then. There is a neolithic standing stone and a number of Iron Age round houses and the island was used to breed rabbits in the middle ages. A farm was built in the eighteenth century and a much bigger farmhouse in the nineteenth and the land was farmed sporadically until the 1950s when it was finally abandoned.
Over the centuries people have lived on the island but never for long and even the volunteers and workers who stay there the longest don’t actually live there full-time and, inevitably, the smart accommodation and research facilities will one day be gone too. Nothing is ever certain but I feel that it is more than likely once humans have left the island again it will still be full of the wheeling, singing, burrowing, raucous, splendid life that I was lucky enough to be amongst last week.
Being in such a beautiful place can leave us humans feeling a bit crap. We’ve had a go at living in this place and the remains of our stony nests are still there to be seen, but beside the teeming life around us we do look a bit rubbish. I mean, just spend some time looking at the choughs, ravens, shearwaters or seals. They all seem to be really good at what they do, and always seem fully engaged in whatever they’re up to whether it’s hunting, playing or having a nap, whereas us… need I say more?
However, there is something that we do that our fellow species don’t do, at least not in the same way. There is another way of looking at the landscape so that it tells a different story. West from Skomer lies another island called Grassholm which seems to be half-covered in snow but when you get your binoculars out you can see that it’s many thousands of gannets that make it look white . Almost all of the English names of the islands off the coast of Wales have Viking names but in Welsh that island is called Gwales and when you know the stories it suddenly looks and feels very different.
In the stories of the Mabinogi, Gwales is the island where the giant king Bendigeidfran’s head spent eighty enchanted years endlessly feasting in the company of seven survivors of a battle in Ireland until the fateful day when one of them opened the door they weren’t meant to open and the spell was broken. The head fell silent and they had to carry it all the way to London where is was buried on the site where the Tower of London is today. The ravens provide the link - ravens on the Welsh islands; ravens in the Tower and a raven in that name Bendigeidfran, which translates as ‘Blessed Crow’.
Looking back to the mainland you can see the Preseli mountains on the horizon where King Arthur faced the monstrous wild boar, Y Twrch Trwyth, in a hunt that nearly cost him his kingdom and, closer, St. David’s Head and St. Non’s Bay bristling with stories of Dewi, the patron saint of Wales, and his mother, Non. The marks she etched with her nails in her birth pangs can still be seen on the ancient stones by her chapel.
On the final morning we had the time to walk the island again and visit a couple of places and just enjoy being there before going down to the jetty with our bags and our rubbish, ready for the mainland where they have bins. We chatted with the others who had spent time on the island - a volunteer going home after her fourth visit and missing the place already; a Russian family touring round Wales; a dad gamely shepherding his four kids - and us. We shuffled down the narrow steps on the rocks to get on board the Dale Princess for our return journey and watching us struggle, stumble and laugh as we went was a pale young seal who had seen this all before many times.
This post was first published on another site on September 23, 2015