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Letter from Benllech

10 Feb 2024 5 minute read
Gentle waves at Benllech. Photo: Catherine Duigan

Catherine Duigan

There was no hurry after picking up my book in Benllech Library, so I dropped down to the beach to record some more steps for the day.

The tide was out, and I headed for the water’s edge with its promise of discovery – maybe another ink-black oyster shell?

Meandering and sorting sediments, small streams across the sand illustrate the hydrodynamics of river systems.

On reaching the watertable, the flow dissolved into a plane of water on the surface, reflecting the blue sky and clouds, and connecting to the sea.

I stood there on the Anglesey coast feeling suspended between land and sky – a liquid elemental nowhere place in the natural world.

Near the tideline, the empty fragmented tubes of sand mason worms were marooned in the water-filled ripples, each cyclinder a colourful mosaic of sand grains and shell fragments.

Reflections off the caravans of the strong but welcome winter sun angled into my field of view.  Almost touching the horizon behind me, the piercing beam of sunshine cut horizontally across the sea surface.

As I turned back, it brightly illuminated the creamy fleece of small, gentle waves now feeling their way up to reclaim the beach.

There were no wild white seahorses today but perhaps the frothy wave edges were the sheep belonging to Gwenhidw’s, the mermaid queen of Wales.

You don’t have to go far to find Gwenhidw as the nearby Parish Church of St. Peter’s of Llanbedr-Goch, just outside Benllech, has a depiction of a mermaid carved into a 15th century bench end.

Wenda, a passionate church guardian, met us there on a crisp sunny morning when we could see from the ancient circular church enclosure right across Ynys Môn to snow covered Eryri.

It was a perfect day to appreciate the beautiful geometric stain glass windows in the church. “I admit that the patterns in these windows have been a distraction for my mathematical brain”, said Wenda.

There must be some connection to the other churches on the island which were refurbished by Henry Stanley, 3rd Baron of Alderley and owner of the Penrhos Estate.

As a convert to Islam, he specified the use in stained glass of simple lines, shapes and angles, and occasional floral designs, rather than biblical characters.

St. Peters is a small cruciform originally Celtic Church which holds about 150 people.

Wenda told us you can really feel the parishioners wrapped around you in times of sorrow and celebration. It is a holy place at the very heart of its community, providing spiritual comfort and companionship.

Church mermaid Photo: Catherine Duigan

On the wooden bench end, the mermaid rises like an angel on her fishy tail, with the lower part of her body covered in triangular scales, each one a single indentation in the wood from a pointed metal tool.

Three triangular fins protrude from the edges of her body.  A halo of hair radiates out from her head and extends down on to her shoulders. Angular elbows and crudely formed hands hold a mirror and a comb.

Heavy brows, linear nose and mouth, and protruding eyes form her expressionless skull-shaped face, which is very similar to the carved stone heads set in the outside wall on either side of the church’s main doorway.

One theory is that this extraordinary mermaid was part a piece of ship’s timber which washed up nearby.

A Mermaid’s Purse or Shark Eggcase. Photo supplied by North Wales Wildlife Trust.

Maybe the story developed that a mermaid would need to keep her mirror and comb in a purse, and so called “Mermaid’s Purses” are a favourite beach exploration find, often camouflaged in seaweed along the strandline.

If you hold one up to the light you may be able to see an embryonic shark curled inside but each one is also a valuable piece of scientific data telling us about species distribution.

“Collecting these shark eggcases can help us understand which shark species we have living in our seas and how these populations are changing over time”, according to Reece Halstead, Living Seas Officer at North Wales Wildlife Trust.

The Great Eggcase Hunt gives everyone the opportunity to become true shark citizen scientists! Nursehound, small spotted catshark, thornback and spotted skate eggcases can often be seen washed up onto our shores on and around Benllech, but it’s always worth keeping your eye out for something slightly rarer.”

For me, it is a special Ynys Môn blessing to be able to walk along a local beach in search of shells and mermaid’s purses, and to use ancient paths to cross the fields to Llanbedr-goch to see a mermaid.

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Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
5 months ago

Ynys Mon is blessed with a most beautiful and historical coastline and you have helped to bring out the detail of just a mile or two, diolch…

The ‘Welsh Rarebit’ in Aberffraw is especially tasty…

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