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A Holyhead Childhood

At the end of the war, when I was nearly six, we moved to Holyhead, where my father had got a job on the Irish ferries. I remember the day we arrived: a dark wet day in December. Is there any town worse than Holyhead on a day like that? The taxi took us along the bare streets to our lodgings, and I stared gloomily through the cab windows. But the next day came and it was a pearl of a morning! Everywhere glistened and the sea was blue as could be.  .  .  .

When the time came for me to start school, I met some new friends: a family who lived at the other end of the island. The mother was a widow, with three children, a girl and two boys. The girl was three years older than me, but the boys were about my age.

They lived in Penrhos Fedw, and soon that name came to seem like magic to me. The house stood alone in the fields with the open sea about half a mile away. The boys had places in the gorse where they could hide, completely out of sight - long tunnels leading through the undergrowth to some central chamber, and there we would sit like red Indians to make our plans.

My mother and father used to visit their mother quite often, and while they chatted or played cards in the winter, we children would be playing in and out of the house. It was a marvellous experience to sneak out in to the darkness about the silent house.

And then we used to walk the two miles or so home through the night, with the gorse creaking on either side of the road, and the occasional shooting-star speeding quietly across the heavens and disappearing like Willams Parry's fox. Safely in bed, I would go to sleep to the sound of the singing of a group of locals who used to gather sometimes on the corner of the street behind our house.

In the summer I would go over to my friends even more often. There was a good spot for bathing nearby, an inlet called Porth Gof Du, and it was there we liked to go. They were like porpoises in the water and I quickly learnt to swim. It was a perfect place, and completely private. Very rarely would there be anyone else there.

When the tide came in there would be about six feet of water in the sandy trough which formed the inlet. The water was crystal-clear, and the fish-spawn and sand-eels stood out blue in its depths. The inlet faced east, and on many a morning I saw the sea shining like silver or gold in the sun. On mornings like these, our hearts were light and full of fun, and we would sing at the top of our voices along the path through the heather to the inlet. Certainly there was some magic in the sea there, and the body cried out to be baptised in it.

Other times, in the afternoon when the inlet was in the shade, after a quick swim we would get dressed and go to explore the cliffs. I didn't have such a good head for heights as my friends and I would often have to turn back, only to be called a coward. But I eventually learnt how to look over the edge of the cliff without being frightened too much, and discovered that there was a fairly easy way down after all.

It was a delight to climb down to some small remote beach, with the cliffs like a wall around us, and to feel that no-one had ever stood there before. And the seagulls would add to that feeling, circling overhead making a deafening noise. Sometimes, to disprove our belief that we were the first there, we would come across an iron ring. But we would soon decide that pirates had fixed it there. 

Have you ever heard the sound of the sea in a little rocky cove? There is no sound like it, or like the sound hollow smack of a wave penetrating the deep recesses of the rock. This was true solitude, and even three lively and mischievous boys would become quieter under its influence.

Then a race up to the top of the cliff; sometimes getting stuck because we had taken a wrong turning. The only thing to do then was to go back and start again, although the top of the cliff was only a few yards away.

The perfect end to a day like that in the summer, was to walk home through a twilight full of the smell of grass and honeysuckle and the song of the nightjar in the bracken. My skin would be stinging from the sun and the salt sea; but a glass of water before going to bed tasted marvellous, and the white sheets were smooth and refreshing.


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