We recently spent a few days on the island of Anglesey, just off the north-west coast of Wales. On the agenda was a personal return to Rhosneigr, an attractive village on the island’s south coast.
Rhosneigr’s heyday was in the Edwardian era when it was a highly fashionable holiday destination. Today, it is still a popular resort that has retained its charm and outstanding natural beauty. A new generation of much-needed visitors has arrived, driven by water-based activities, and they have made a huge difference to the ability of the village to invest in itself. I got to love it many years ago, and we have made occasional visits over the years – mainly in winter, as we like quiet landscapes and short breaks to help dispel the gloom of the darker months. When you’re by the sea, the world seems somehow different.
This time – in summer for a change – we were shaking off the Covid blues with a few days at a rural hotel in Amlwch, in the north of the island. On the agenda was a trip to revisit Rhosneigr. The reunion was fun, though I couldn’t help reflecting how much the world had changed from the days when I first came here, in the early 1970s.
In my mid-teens, I was invited by my girlfriend’s parents to holiday with them in Rhosneigr – the place they returned to every year.
The resort is famous for its beautiful beaches, its long curving bay, and the rolling dunes; but for many of us its main claim to fame lay immediately to the west: the RAF Flight Training School (FTS) at Valley, which had a reputation for hosting some of the most modern aircraft on their testing flights…
My girlfriend’s family were staying in a large caravan on a farm at the outskirts of the village. Fathers have always protected the ‘honour’ of their daughters; and this was no exception. My girlfriend’s dad pitched a tent for me some distance away… two large fields and three thick hedges, to be exact. He was taking no chances…
I woke up early the following morning to the sound of aircraft engines. A short walk brought me face to face with a high fence. Through the fence was a bright red Gnat jet, warming its engines before hurtling down the long, military runway and into the dawning sky, waking the village with the first of a day’s worth of sorties. Later, I was told that when you grew up with the jets, you didnt hear them… The photo below shows the same type of aircraft at another airfield.
The RAF base at Valley is still there. It was and is the place where the RAF’s next generation of pilots graduate to flying jets – a very different aircraft to the propellor-based planes used to that point. The jets now used – the BAe Hawks – are the same planes deployed by the famous Red Arrows formation flying team. The Hawk replaced the original Gnat in the late 1970s and has since become embedded, proudly, in the British psyche.
RAF Valley has a fascinating story, told in its crest, which means ‘Refuge in adversity’
In heraldic language the Station Badge depicts a ‘Dragon Rampant holding a Portcullis’. For many years RAF Valley took pride in being a Master Diversion Airfield and remained open 24 hours a day to receive aircraft either in difficulty or diverted from other bases because of bad weather. The Station adopted the heraldic devices on the badge as an indication of both its location in Wales and its task of holding the entrance to the airfield open at all times.
Aircrew are also trained at RAF Valley for mountain and maritime operations throughout the world. The presence of the mountains of nearby Snowdonia and the close proximity (by jet!) of the Lake District’s Fells makes Valley the perfect location for this work.
The base is also home to the Mountain Rescue Service, the military’s only high readiness, all weather search and rescue, aircraft post-crash management team. The base holds 1,500 Service personnel, civil servants and contractors.
Many years later, on a solo camping and walking trip, I emerged from my tent in the early morning to see a strange almost sci-fi shape in the sky. As I gazed in wonder at its sharply pointed nose that seemed to be at an odd angle, I realised – with pure joy – that I was looking at the test machine that would become Concorde. It was carrying out its initial flight trials along the west coast, with the famous test pilot, Brian Trubshaw, at the controls. I never got to travel in Concorde, but I can tell you that it was one of the most beautiful things I ever watched fly.
The village of Rhosneigr is approached by a straight road that runs for nearly a mile alongside the high sand dunes all the way to the clock tower in the centre. From there, it’s a short descent via the ‘surf shack’ part of town to the popular main beach where the water sports take place. The long curve of the bay tapers off into the distance towards the town of Valley, with the airfield hidden behind the dunes to the right, although the runway comes close to the edge of town.
Over the past thirty years, Rhosneigr has grown as a centre of water activities. The bay is filled with bright ‘kites’ and other advanced ‘wind capture’ mechanisms, some of which now sport hydrofoils that raise the ‘pilot’ above the sea, reducing friction with the water and greatly increasing their speed. It’s quite dizzying to watch! Kite pilots are seen taking off to twenty or more feet above the waves, controlling their descent with skill and apparent ease, then landing to continue their crossing of the bay at break-neck speed. It’s a young person’s game, and there are always children being inducted into the next generation by their enthusiastic parents, both generations clad in shiny wet-suits.
The old Rhosneigr is still there, typified by the row of the village’s most expensive beach-side properties, but it is refreshing to see how the local authorities have embraced the potential of newer ‘engineering’-based architecture. There were several new buildings of this style along the beach front. One of the best is below:
Soon, it was time to say goodbye. Tess had enjoyed a fabulous walk and chuck along only a fraction of the huge beaches, but we could tell she had run her fill. We took one last look at the mountains of Snowdonia, only a few miles south of here, on the mainland. Then it was time to return to our hotel.
It had been fun to return; and it was wonderful to see the place thriving. I looked up at the sky, remembering that far-away morning, and Concorde above me. There are many reasons to come back here, but that remains the finest of memories…
©Stephen Tanham 2021
Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, a journey through the forest of personality to the dawn of Being.