Shell Island, little known to outsiders, is a popular Wales camping and beach combing spot for those in the know. The privately owned island, in reality not an island (except between 1819 and 1839 after which the southerly route silted up), is connected to the mainland. It has been in the same family, the Workmans, since 1934. A fee is charged for access across a causeway that spans a tidal estuary. Before the road was established a ferry took visitors to the 2.5 miles by .5 mile wide island. You still need to check the timetables as the causeway is covered at high tide.
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Awaiting the visitor are sand dunes, a large sandy beach, rock and shell beaches, a large pond, and a quay for boat moorings. The estuary is home to mudflats, marsh, sanddune, and streams. The dunes on the island were once some of the highest in the UK, rising to 125 feet. Marram grass is the stabilizing plant growing here.
On the island is an old farmhouse, parts of which are recorded in the 1086 Doomsday book. It was occupied by a Welsh bard, Sion Philips, who drowned in 1620 while attempting to cross back to the island. Feudal landlords owned the farm, renting the island for £95 per year in the 1800s. A tunnel once ran for 3.5 miles from the farmhouse to Cors-y-Gedol hall. It may have served as a smuggling route. The hallís claim to fame comes from the fact King Charles I stayed there in the 1640s while fleeing the Roundheads. The farmhouse, not open to the public, is said to be haunted. It served as a bed and breakfast establishment in the late 1800s.
Access to the island has been vulnerable to flooding. An embankment was constructed in 1961 but breached by a high tide in 1963 and 1972. Unknowingly, it was built over the tunnel. Now repaired and reinforced, vehicles travel over the road to the island with ease. When the island first became a tourist attraction in the 1880s the Victorians arrived by train at Pensarn station, then walked round Llandanwg to a boathouse and caught the ferry, which was in operation until the 1930s. There was a wooden tearoom at the north end of the island where they landed.
During spring tides, when the water is low, a reef, St Patrickís causeway, can be spotted from the sand dune main car park. This reef funnels the shells on to the islandís beaches. Shell gatherers best chances are in the spring when the beaches are replete with the shells driven up by winter storms. 200 varieties have been collected from the island. The more common of these are the cockle, saddle oyster, whelk, razor, tusk, tellin, oyster, scallop, and cowries.
Visit in the winter to see wild wintering fowl such as ducks, grebes, cormorants, geese, lapwings, plovers, oyster catchers, redshanks, and many more. In the spring skylarks and reed bunting visit the island. Summer sees even more birds arrive.
Wild flowers are scattered over the island, beginning in the spring with bluebells. Primroses, roses, wild strawberries, and foxglove add to the blanket of colour. June brings pink sea thrift. In the summer marsh samphire take over the mudflats. In the summer rockpools hold shrimp and prawns for the taking. Fishing from shore provides an evening meal with flounder and plaice the main varieties caught.
Looking across the bay from the island to the mainland you can spot Criccieth and Harlech castles, the Lleyn peninsula, and in the background the mountains of Snowdonia.
On the island are a restaurant, snack bar, tavern, games area, supermarket, shop, and camp shop.
Shell Island is reached from the A496 south of Harlech by leaving the A road at Llanbedr.
UK Street Map location: Shell Island
Tel. 01341 241453 for further information on tides, camping details.