Letter from Holyhead
In the first of a new series which will map the whole of Wales, documentary photographer Robert Law tells us about a port town he’s fallen in love with.
I wandered into one of Holyhead’s cafés and struck up a conversation with the owner in the hope of taking a couple of photographs.
She told me that once, when some tourists had come in and asked where the town centre was, her heart sank as she had to explain: “This is the town centre”.
You can’t avoid the fact that the actual town of Caergybi/Holyhead is, and has been, chronically overlooked.
You may even have blissfully breezed through by rail or car on your way to the city of Dublin via the ferry port, despite a relatively new, impressive pedestrian bridge that links the train/ferry terminal directly to the town centre.
In days gone by, our coastal towns and cities were vibrant nodes of converging maritime traffic, goods and people.
But in common with many contemporary sea ports, Holyhead can feel like more of a thoroughfare to many. A place that’s used. A familiar feeling shared with many places in North Wales, I’d suggest.
An important disclaimer: I’m from Ynys Môn/Anglesey and not Ynys Gybi/Holy Island, the island-off-an-island on which the county’s largest town of Holyhead sits. And therein lies a seismic difference.
If you ever thought of Anglesey as being independently-minded in comparison with the rest of Wales with its rainbow electorate, then Holyhead is like a breakaway republic.
Conventional lines of communication and thinking seem to be stretched. Cardiff, London and even the (smaller) county town of Llangefni seem remote.
As for Brussels? Well, we’ll get to that.
And how can I frame this kindly? As a youth in the 70’s and 80’s, coming from the ‘mainland’, I wouldn’t necessarily have expected a warm welcome from my peers. It was a tough place and I know people won’t mind me saying that.
That’s how, many years older and as a documentary photographer, I’ve turned my lens on this town and community with the unexpected perspective of an outsider, living only thirty minutes away.
And I love the place.
A quick search for Holyhead on Google images will reveal a host of breathtaking pictures of South Stack lighthouse, miles outside the town and maybe a few views of the port itself. Very little or nothing of the actual town.
And that’s what I’ve been addressing.
The late travel and food critic A A Gill rather waspishly described Holyhead as “where pebbledash comes to die”. But the town and its community deserve more attention and respect and that’s been my work. And it’s been truly humbling.
I started examining the fabric of the town, and yes, that pebbledash. Subsequently, those very images have been shown in galleries and published nationally, even. Holyhead has its own aesthetic and, I hope you’ll agree, looks good.
Documentary photography is all about narrative, and the project changed with Brexit.
I was then also faced with exploring the paradox of how a town with strong links to the Republic of Ireland and in receipt of EU funding, could vote to leave a political community in which it seemed deeply embedded.
I needed to hear the voices of these people: And their voices were clear. Whatever our personal views are, and any frustration that entails, I feel that there was never a mature, national dialogue before the referendum and maybe we needed to redress that to some extent by listening.
So, what did they say?
There was an overwhelming feeling of disenfranchisement, of being unheard, of nothing ever changing.
When challenged on the question of the busy ferry port: Yes, it provided some employment, but all the wealth seemed to travel through it along with the travelling public, with little actually ‘sticking’ in the town.
EU investment and those blue badges were perceived more as ‘window dressing’ rather than effecting real change.
Traditional industrial employers have been disappearing for decades. The outlying Wylfa nuclear power station is not currently being recommissioned.
The former massive Anglesey Aluminium plant was mooted as a site for an ambitious biomass plant which never came to fruition… and so on.
To say the town has been let down is an understatement.
My project is entitled ‘Holyhead – Sea Change?’ and charts the aspirations of the people as well as any material changes on the ground.
One recent tangible change has been the closure of the popular Road King truck stop as it has been converted into a multi-acre HMRC Inland Border Facility. I even heard anecdotally that even more space may be requisitioned for the facility.
However, Post Brexit trading levels seem to be remaining at about 80% of former capacity as Ireland-EU routes diverge and avoid the land bridge of the UK.
Inadvertently, this new facility has created a couple of hundred posts.
Forthright and proud
But this town is resilient. It’s a place forged through adversity and challenges. That has made Holyhead a distinctive and robust place.
There’s an enduring self-confidence in the people who are particularly in touch with their proud, maritime heritage.
I discovered a cohesive, generous community that looks after its own. And now as a man in his fifties, it’s no longer frightening in any way of course, but cheerful, welcoming, forthright and proud.
I love every visit I make.
The real heart
I’d encourage you also to pay a visit and meet the wonderful people that live here, full of character. It’s a special place that deserves better.
And as for that café I walked in to?
Well, that was over three years ago and it’s no longer around, unfortunately. But I certainly hope visitors do find their way to the real heart of Holyhead, which can be found in its people.
You can find more of Robert’s work at his website.
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