He ran up the incline up to the town centre, past where the posh store on the corner of the hill had been. A department store run by east European immigrants, who had brought some style with them, and plonked it down in the middle of the pubs and butchers that had lined the street. On he ran, dodging the dog poo like an obstacle course, breathing heavily now. He could taste rain coming, although it was still sunny. A gull shrieked overhead, laughing at his zig-zagging. The constant stream of busy traffic fell away behind him as he moved into the centre and caught up with his friend.

  • Hey, yeah, not bad. You stalking me?
  • Where you headin’?
  • MacKenzie; crabbing
  • Ok, let’s go.

They both had no money so they walked through the Roman fort instead of along Stanley Street, not wanting to either look at the shops or accidentally meet other, more affluent, acquaintances: by going through St. Cybi’s they avoided at least two of the deadly sins, and anyway it was an interesting view.

  • Hey, see the container berth? Let me tell you about my dad one time at the berth

This was a game that they had played on and off since primary school; admittedly the stories had become less brazen over the years, no longer of the form

  • See that rainbow? My dad painted that.
  • Oh yeah, d’ya know about the Dead Sea? My dad killed it.
  • My dad fell between a ship and the quayside there. He stopped himself halfway down, legs against the hull, back against the wall, all scratched and bruised. He stayed there for about 20 minutes or so, wondering if a ferry would come in and wash the boat up against the quay, squashing him like a, like a,..
  • Kumquat?
  • What!? No! Like a, a…
  • Pancake?
  • A pancake is already flat, you doppo.
  • Banana?
  • Yeah, like a banana.
  • But a banana isn’t usually squashed?
  • It is when our Glennis makes her chocolate banana cake.
  • So, what happened?
  • Someone came along and heard him call out from between the ship and the berth, helped him up. Then they watched a ferry come in and wash the boat against the quay.
  • Oh yeah?
  • Well anyway, my dad was on one of the boats at night and watched a sailor arrive from the Eddie*[1]. There was no gangway, and no-one had shortened the mooring ropes as the tide rose, so the boat was off the berth, right?
  • Yeah.
  • Yeah, well this drunken sailor er-lie in the morning decided to climb upside down along the mooring rope instead of just pulling on the rope and waiting for the ship to come alongside, the silly twat. He was half-way along before the ship had moved in close enough to dunk him in the oggin. My dad couldn’t stop laughing, so he sent someone else to gaff the daft bugger out.

They decided to go the long way round, and walked past the post office and down to the wall that enclosed most of the Inner Harbour and train station. It was quite high and forbidding, but apparently not high enough. On the other side of the Inner Harbour was the dry dock and next to that, the Pontoon Shed, so named as it was constructed out of stacked WWII pontoon barges, used to make temporary bridges and such. This was now the paint store for the ferries and boats using the dry-dock. Apart from the not-quite-high-enough wall, security around this shed was non-existent, and half of Holyhead was painted in British Rail brown and British Rail green. Not most housewives’ first choice of colours, but it suited their budget.

Above the wall towered the buildings of the Marine Yard and the refit berth that had housed hundreds of joiners, shipwrights, painters, fitters, welders & engineers who kept the ferries maintained and running. The buildings were gloomy, dark, heavy, brooding like a Victorian prison with a bad case of indigestion. These days, however, the improving quality of modern engines and steel and new building materials like plastic, all used in the newer ships, were making their mark and the number of employed in the Marine Yard was falling.

He knew this as it affected his own young life. His father had made a decent living for a few years in the 1960s pulling ships off the beaches of North Wales, sometimes using the fourth-hand tugs he had acquired cheaply as they were already past the end of their working lives, but more often using a local farmer’s tractor to dig around the grounded vessel. Then, using the ship’s own anchors plus several other smaller ones that he had brought along, and a few wire-rope-and-ratchet contraptions called Tirfor winches which were then stationed all around the stricken boat to keep the tension between the ship and the anchors high, and manually pull the ship into deeper water and wait for high tide to do the rest. The number of emergency call-outs for ships running aground due to engine failure was falling as time went on as older vessels were replaced by newer tonnage.

But his dad had never stayed still for too long anyway – he got bored too easily. He frequently set something up and then left it for someone else to run while he went off to try another scheme. The boy’s mother endured all these experiences, good and bad, graciously and with good humour, helping with the bookkeeping and keeping his dad from spending all their income on one new wild idea. Although it did seem that he had recently managed to land a new contract shipping fresh water from one Caribbean island to another, something their local government hadn’t even considered until his dad had knocked on their door with his proposal.

As they moved north past Stanley Crescent and into Marine Square, the wall enclosing the Inner Harbour came to an end and was replaced by a simple fence with a swing pole as the main gate into the Marine Yard. The gate overlooked the shallow area of the harbour that dried out at low water, which he knew as Pelham Patch but which he had recently learned was actually the Old Harbour and which had its own fish jetty standing out into the harbour and must have made things difficult for the ferries swinging around the Gut – the narrow entrance into the Inner Harbour. Doubly so for the ferries going out stern first. Presumably the fishing boats in the old days had been able to tie up and land their catch on this fish jetty and then sell it directly to the people of Holyhead. There had been a railway spur along the jetty, so possibly fish from Holyhead had ended up in some fancy London restaurants too.

Now Pelham Patch had no fish jetty and it was only used as a cheap dry-dock. Small boats would come in at high tide and dry out on the falling tide, the crew would get busy scrubbing at the barnacles or making some quick repair before being driven back up onboard and away.

The fish dock had been moved to outside the Gut, along to the South Pier at the end of Turkey Shore Road. The boy was at school with another friend whose father was, although not a sailor himself, in love with boats. This tall old gentleman would squeeze himself into a small car and park near the old graving dock at the South Pier and watch the boats come in and out. The fishermen there were uneasy at such fierce scrutiny and decided that he must work for the tax office.

At the bottom of the stone steps leading down to Pelham Patch itself, but which actually ended at the edge of the Patch and the beginning of the deeper water of the Harbour, they could see the boatman waiting to take workers from the Marine Yard over to the dry dock and back again. It was just a rowing boat, and the boatman had arms that reminded you of a horse’s hind quarters. But he was a gentle soul, that boatman, quietly drinking twelve pints of bitter in the South Stack every night before slowly toppling over and being carried home for his supper by his workmates.

They walked up the hill past Hibernia Row.

  • Hey, did you know that these houses were actually stables for the London Coach?
  • What? All of them?
  • Well, at least the smaller ones, numbers 1-4, I think. The first to live in them as houses was the old pilot and his thirteen children, one of which turned out to be our pilot, Cynfelyn.

The other boy knew that one of his friend’s brothers was working as an apprentice boathandler with Cynfelyn, and so could expect some wild tales.

  • But doesn’t Cynfelyn live in one of the end houses now?
  • Yeah, doesn’t like to travel too much, old Cavel. Also, it’s dead convenient when he runs out of booze onboard his boat, he can just bring it in to the steps below the Row and nip home for another bottle. That reminds me, my brother Si told me a new one.
  • Yeah?
  • Yeah, so they went out to meet a ship to bring in alongside the container berth, ok?
  • Ok.
  • Ok, so Si is bringing Cynfelyn’s boat back and ties it up in its place, and walks down to watch. He knows Cynfelyn’s been drinking, nothing unusual about that, but he did take three goes to get up the ladder to the ship. Anyway, this ship is only just short enough to fit from one side of the Inner Harbour to the other, and Cynfelyn has decided to swing the boat so that the bow is pointing out, ready for a fast and easy departure. So Cynfelyn is on the bridge instructing the captain and they swing the boat with about a foot clearance ahead and astern. They bring the ship alongside and after some faffing with the mooring lines, the gangway is put out. Cynfelyn makes his way down from the bridge, across the deck and down the gangway, where he promptly falls over, dead drunk.
  • Oh yeah?
  • Yeah.
  • My mam told us he was on the news once.
  • Oh yeah?
  • Yeah.
  • For being such a good boathandler?
  • Nah, he had taken about 28 day-trippers out to the Skerries and –
  • WHAT! 28! On his boat?
  • Yeah, listen to the story will ya? He had taken all these people out to the Skerries and wanted to head back in as the weather was turning bad. But you know his boat –
  • I do!
  • Well of course it broke down, and he couldn’t get it started this time, and night came, a gale blew up and 28 people were bobbing around lost. That’s what was on the news. Well, with no power Cynfelyn had no lights, and he knew that they had been blown into the ferries’ fairway, and they were not in so much danger from the weather, but they could get run down by a ferry quite easily. So, when he is expecting the ferry to show up, he lights a bunch of oily rags in a can and holds it up, and keeps it up until the ferry goes past. Burnt his hands quite badly.
  • Bet that sobered him up.
  • Bet he had a drink or two when he got home!

But they both knew that Cynfelyn had no peer when it came to piloting or boat-handling. The boy himself had watched in some embarrassment as his father’s tug had got waterlogged when someone had left the engine room hatch open, and Cynfelyn, alone except for his little collie that walked around and around the deck, had taken the tow rope from the 2000-tonne barge, and slowly (there really wasn’t much power in his boat’s little engine) brought the barge around and swung it against Soldier’s Quay, with the gentlest of kisses. Everyone had applauded.

On past the coastguards on one hand, the sea cadets on the other, they arrived at the Boatyard and the top of MacKenzie Pier. It was a fine day – he had been wrong about the rain earlier – and there was already a crowd of kids jumping from the wall and steps into the sea. They had timed it well, and it was close on high tide, so they could crab near where the Pier levelled out. They wandered down and got out the gear from his carrier bag.

  • What bait are you using?
  • I got some barnikles yesterday when the tide went out.
  • Good and smelly then?
  • Yeah!

They sat with their legs over the wall, happily passing the time.

  • Hey, you never brought a bucket, whatcha goin to do with the crabs?
  • Chuck em back in.
  • But you’ll just keep catching the same crab over an over!
  • Ok then, I’ll lob him far out.
  • Well that’s just cruel, sending him miles away from his family and home like that.
  • Stop talking tosh you drongo.
  • Hey, you still got that snorkel and mask for sale?
  • Yeah, and the flippers too. Tell you what, if you buy one flipper with the snorkel kit, I’ll throw in the other for free.
  • Oh yeah? Twat.

They agreed a price, and since that was the main point of his running to catch up when he saw his friend, said that he’d get on home now. He’d pick the snorkel gear up on his way to the beach tomorrow.

  • What’s your rush anyway?
  • There’s a big crane barge coming in tonight and going on the Admiralty moorings. The crew want to run into town and so I’m on the tea time shift, bringing them off and into the pier here.
  • Oh, right, sounds fun.

Later that afternoon he was back standing on MacKenzie. He looked towards the old lifeboat house and on to Soldier’s Point. It had been a beautiful day; not a cloud in the sky and any wind there was had died down, leaving little ruffles on the surface of the water, skipping and veering all over the place like Disney’s frost fairies. He leaned on the railing, taking some time to absorb it all. A child ran down the beach and into the sea – “AAARGH! It’s COLD!” she screamed, but refused to get out again. The tender was approaching the pier now, so he moved to the top of the steps and warned the gang of boys still swimming there of the approaching boat.

The crane barge, Smit Tak 1, was already on her mooring, and he was due to take the little workboat out at six on the dot. He waved at Davey as the man brought the boat in and handed it over.

  • That’s it, I’m off for me tea.
  • Thanks Davey, see you.

He was not that much older than the boys on the pier, and they were all interested to see him take over the boat.

  • Hey, got any fags?
  • No
  • Can we jump off of your boat then?
  • Yeah, sure, just don’t slip.

He let them play until they got too frenzied and then told them he had to leave. One of the bigger boys stayed on the boat as he let go and went astern, turning the stern into the beach. As he went ahead again, the boy dived off. He stayed down for some time, but reappeared holding a crab high above his head. There was a cheer from the pier, and the boy wondered if it was one of the crabs his friend had caught and lobbed far out again. He shook the idea away and headed off to the crane barge.

It was huge, much bigger that he had thought. A wall of steel rose up out of the water to meet him. The sheerlegs of the crane had Taklift SWL 1000t written down them – It could lift 1000 tonnes! There was a doorway a few feet above the waterline, and he could see shackles fore and aft for his ropes, so he went alongside and tied up. A man came out and said in a Dutch accent.

  • Great, you’re here, I’ll get the guys.

Soon the boat was full and they helped him let go. They all asked him about Holyhead, but he was too young to answer some of their questions. The crowd of boys had left the pier by the time the boat arrived back. He didn’t bother tying up as there were more men waiting for their ride ashore, so he just kept the engine ticking over, slowly ahead, pushing into the wall so that he could keep control of the boat and keep it safely alongside while the men went ashore. Two more trips and as the last man got off at MacKenzie, he said

  • There’s only a couple more guys that want to come ashore now, the next trip should be the last one for you.

There was a man waiting at the doorway when he arrived back at the barge, and he said,

  • The other guys is not ready, he’s still in the shower. Do you want to come onboard and have a beer?

He followed the man into the galley where the man sat at a table and said,

  • See that room over there? Just go in and help yourself.

He went into the room and was astonished. The room was probably around 20 foot square, and was stacked floor to ceiling with cases of Heineken. He took a bottle and went to sit next to the man.

  • Why so much beer?
  • I belief you have tea breaks here in England
  • (Wales! He thought),
  • Well, we have beer breaks.
  • You’re allowed to drink during the day?
  • Whoa, there’d be trouble if we weren’t, the man told him.

The second man appeared and apologised for being late, whereupon the boy just raised his bottle. The second man disappeared into the beer room and came out with another two bottles.

  • For you, for waiting.

It was a very happy boy that made his way home later that evening.

The next day was bright and clear again. He set off a bit later than he had planned to collect the snorkel, mask and flippers from his friend’s house. As he entered town, he saw an old man with a walking stick make his way slowly up the high street. He recognised him as Dick Mind My Bike. He had been christened with this moniker when as a young lad of around 8 years old or so, he had turned up at primary school with a new bike. Hey! Mind my bike! 80 years later, it was still how he was known around Holyhead.

His friend was not interested in coming with him to the beach, as he now had some money and was eager to get rid of it in town. The boy headed off along Plas Road intending to go to what his mother called Porth Caddu, and it took about half an hour to reach the farm near the coast.

  • Is it alright I walk across your field to the beach, mister?
  • Keep to the bloody hedge!
  • Ta.

He could see the mountains of Snowdonia blue in the heat haze behind Trearddur across the water from him, and there were a few rabbits running across the fields as he walked to the cliffs. He found the path in the bracken, and edged his way down the narrow part. After that it got easier and he sat on the rock above the sand, with waves running into the cave alongside him. He stripped down quickly, and put on the snorkelling gear. The tide was still high enough, so he dived off the rock over the bright sand. The water was cold compared to the air temperature, but he soon got used to it. It took a little longer to get used to breathing through the snorkel, but he found by taking deeper breaths every few seconds and holding it, instead of constantly trying in-and-out, made it much easier. He relaxed and started to look around. The sand went out for really quite a long way. Suddenly he swam face to face with a fish, a big fish. He looked at the fish, the fish looked at him. Neither moved. Both hung motionless in the blue water over the creamy sand.

Later, back on the rocks, he took out the cigar that he had nicked from his father’s desk while under the influence of Heineken. It was all quite perfect.


© Matthew Meade 2021


[1] * Edinburgh Castle, a pub, nearest to the port entrance.