The Journal Of Antiquities

Ancient Sites In Great Britain & Southern Ireland

Hilbre Island, Dee Estuary, Wirral Peninsula

SJ1855 8781. About 1 mile off the very north-western tip of the Wirral Peninsula, in the Dee estuary, and 2 miles from West Kirby is the small island of Hilbre – it is one of three islands here but the other two, Eye Islands, are even tinier than Hilbre. The island is just under 12 acres long. In medieval times it was called St Hildeburgh’s Island after a female saint who may have founded a monastic church on the island in the 7th century AD. She is perhaps one and the same as St Edburga of Mercia, daughter of the pagan king, Penda? Hilbre became a place of pilgrimage in the 13th and 14th centuries. A church is still dedicated to St Hildeburgh at Hoylake, Wirral Peninsula.

Hilbre Cross 1000 AD [Image copyright S.Craggs]

In about 1080 AD a cell and church for Benedictine monks was established on the island as a dependancy of Chester; this probably acted as a chapel of ease to Chircheb (West Kirby). At the dissolution of the monasteries two monks were allowed to remain on the island, the last monk leaving in 1550. Apparently the monks kept a beacon lit during the nightime to aide sea-going vessels in the Dee estuary from colliding with dangerous rocks.

In 1926 archaeological excavations on the island discovered artefacts from the Neolithic Age, the Bronze-Age and the Roman period. Roman artefacts found included pottery and beads. The Romans may have had a signal station here to protect their fort at Deva (Chester). Earlier, in the 19th century a sandstone cross-head from 1000 AD, a gravestone and a cross-slab in the wall of a stable were found – the gravestone cover may have come from the monks graveyard. A rock-cut grave was also found. At the western-side of the island is the famous or, perhaps, infamous ‘Lady’s Cave’, but there are other caves in the cliffs.

Bardsey Island, Gwynedd, North Wales

NGR: SH 1209 2236. Bardsey Island (Ynys Enlli) or ‘the island of the currants’ lies 2 miles off the southern tip of the Lleyn Peninsula across Bardsey Sound, locally called ‘The Race of Bardsey’. Since the early 6th century AD the island has been a “Cradle of Celtic Christianity”. It apparently takes its name from Bardda, a Welsh prince, but in 516 St Cadfan came here from Brittany at the invitation of Einion, King of Lleyn, to establish a Celtic (clas) monastic college. Since that time the place has been called the holy island of Bardsey and, when 20,000

Bardsey Island Taken from Braich y Pwll - at t...

Bardsey Island Taken from Braich y Pwll – at the end of the Lleyn Peninsula (Photo credit: Martin Connolly).

saints were “supposedly” buried there, its place on the list of holy, sacred sites had been sealed and the island became a place of pilgrimage. Since medieval times three pilgrimages to Bardsey Island were equal to one pilgrimage to Rome, and many still visit the holy island even today. St Cadfan died and was buried on the island in 540 AD as were St Cybi and St Dubricius. Legend says that Merlin the Magician lies sleeping in an unidentified cave on Bardsey Island.

Unfortunately, there is no trace of the Celtic monastery, the scant ruins there now are, in fact, those of the Augustinian abbey of St Mary that was founded in 1240 and, the main part of that still surviving is a ruined tower (abbots lodging) and some foundations of the abbey church. The abbey did not survive the dissolution of the monasteries in 1537. In the ancient cemetery there are two modern Celtic crosses; the taller cross stands in memory of the third Baron Newborough and the other for the 20,000 saints who lie in unmarked graves on the island – 900 of these were monks who fled from the monastery of Bangor-is-Coed near Wrexham when it was besieged and burnt to the ground by King Ethelfrid of Northumbria in 607 AD.

To the east of St Mary’s Abbey at Ty Capel is the holy well. This now supplies the island with its drinking water. Just east of Plas Bach is the hermit’s cave and near here stands the famous 1,000-year-old ‘Afal Enlli’ the Bardsey apple tree. At the northern side of the island at Penryn Gogar there are traces of round hut dwellings that belong to the Neolithic age some 5,000 years ago. At Ty Newydd farm some graves from the 10th-11th century were discovered during an archaeological excavation in 1995 along with some skeletons, one of which had a silver coin in its mouth.

Photo (above) is of Bardsey Island taken from Braich-y-Pwll – at the end of the Lleyn Peninsula, by Martin Connolly (Geograph/Creative Commons).

Copyright © Ray Spencer, The Journal of Antiquities, 2012 (updated 2023).