Friday 3 March 2017

98 Burry Holms

Pilgrimage keeps alive link to site of early settlers
98 Burry Holms              
Near Llanmadoc is the small tidal limestone island of Burry Holms - in Welsh Ynys Ianwol – situated at the north end of Rhossili Bay.  Its name is probably from the Old Scandanavian word Holm, meaning an island.
Unlike scrambling onto Worm’s Head on the south side of the bay, there is no difficulty getting onto this island, which is accessible for two-and-a-half hours either side of low tide.  In the past it has been a place of human habitation, for the Ordnance Survey map marks sites of a church, a cairn and a settlement.  The island had traces of nomadic hunters from the Mesolithic period (the middle stone age - roughly 8,000 to 4,000 BC), some of whose flint tools and implements are in Swansea Museum.   
Twenty-two small stone spears found at the site have been identified as microliths, which are small stone points only found in the Mesolithic period.  These were attached to a handle and used as hunting and fishing spears - one has an impact fracture at its tip suggesting that it was broken during use.  As there is a good supply of flint and stone in the area, ideal for manufacturing sharp tools, possibly the damaged spear was taken to Burry Holms, and there discarded and replaced before the owner went off hunting and fishing again.  The variety of objects discovered clearly shows that stone tools were being produced at the site.  Most of the microliths discovered are from the early Mesolithic period, so Burry Holms was certainly frequented by our earliest ancestors.

The island is bisected by an earthwork, a single bank and ditch, shown on the 1848 Llangennith Tithe Map, which calls it “Holmes Island”.  Behind the earthwork was a five-acre Iron Age fort on the west side of the island.  The area was last excavated by the National Museums and Galleries of Wales in 1998.  Although excavations each day are limited by the tide to five hours working-time, archaeologists found that the breaks enabled them to process the finds and samples as they were collected.

In medieval times on the sheltered east side stood a monastic enclosure with connections to Saint Cennydd, who gave his name to the settlement of Llangennith.  There are fourteenth and fifteenth century references to hermits using the chapel of “Kenyth at Holmes”.  Still visible are ruins of a twelfth century stone church, which replaced a wooden one said to be built by the hermit Caradog of Pembrokeshire.  A.G. Thompson’s book “Gower Journey” has a photo of a cave on the island’s south side with the unusual name of Vome Hole.
As well as its historic connections, the island is worth visiting for its cliff flowers and sea birds.  About sixty plant species have been recorded on Burry Holms.  Sea birds include jackdaw, meadow pipet and skylark, besides herring gulls, of which a 1959 census found as many as 20 pairs nesting on the island.  Porpoises can be sighted in the sea, as well as off Worm’s Head.
At the time of the spring tides, near Burry Holms can be seen at low tide remains of the paddle steamer City of Bristol, wrecked in 1840 when travelling from Waterford to Bristol, with only two people surviving out of twenty-nine on board.  That disaster led to a wave-swept cast iron lighthouse being erected at Whiteford Point.  When this was decommissioned in 1921, it was replaced by a 12ft-high white circular navigational beacon, which flashed twice every 12 seconds, on Burry Holms.  This was dismantled in 1966, with only a concrete disk remaining today.                                            
The island that contained evidence of early man is visited each year on the Sunday nearest to St Cennydd’s Day (5th July), in a pilgrimage from Llangennith for a service in the ruins of the Burry Holms church: a fitting way to mark the Gŵyl Mabsant, the annual Saint's Day festival.                                                                                                 

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