Escape to the Welsh Islands

Escape to the Welsh Islands

For the avid explorer, there’s nothing more exciting than getting off the hard land. The 50 Welsh Islands tempt the traveler to see unique landscapes, wildlife and heritage. Discover the delights of these offshore havens.

Pembrokeshire Islands, Southwest Wales

Skomer, Skoholm and Grassholm are three neighboring islands named by ancient Viking visitors . They are located off the coast of south Pembrokeshire and are known for their exceptional wildlife. The islands are grouped as Sites of Special Scientific Interest and are included in the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park in West Wales.

Skomer, the larger island, has a thriving colony of pipits, these quirky birds with their famous black and orange beaks attracting visitors. A circular walk through the island’s highlands will take you to its abandoned farm, overlooking high cliffs and a sea full of seabirds. You can spend the night on Scomer in a self-catering apartment, a treat when there are Maine petrels around, birds returning from hunting at night to a cacophony of eerie sounds.

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Pembrokeshire Islands, Southwest Wales

The nearest Skocholm is more rugged. Its cliffs run out into the Irish Sea, which crashes against its edges, creating a wild and dramatic landscape for photographers. Skoholm is known for its bird-watching observatory and attracts wildlife enthusiasts from around the world.

Tiny, secluded Grassholm is the westernmost point in Wales, 11 miles from the Pembrokeshire mainland. An adventurous cruise on the open sea will give you a chance to see the famous colony of the Island of Oluce, as well as spy dolphins, porpoises, and gray seals.

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Pembrokeshire Islands, Southwest Wales

For the exact opposite experience, try the charms of Caldy, just off the coast of the seaside resort of Tenby. Tour its Cistercian monastery and relax on its pristine beach and don’t leave without visiting the gift store and post office: the monks make and sell their own lavender perfume and sand cookies, produce their own postage stamps and have their own currency.

Bardsey, North Wales

To get to Bardsey, you have to get to the very end of the Llan Peninsula in North Wales and take a boat to approach the dead ends on the water as you do so (in the right season). Watch the fog fall from the sea from Mynydd Enlli, its highest point, and look down on a working farm, abbey ruins and seals resting on the rocks.

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Bardsey, North Wales

Anglesey, North Wales.

The largest of the islands of Wales and a county in itself, Anglesey in North Wales offers visitors a number of experiences. The north of the island is spectacular cliffs and industrial history, while from the flatter southwestern part you can admire the silhouettes of the Snowdonia Mountains across the narrow Menai Strait that separates the island from the mainland.

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Anglesey, North Wales.

Anglesey Adventures offers a wide range of activities for adventurers, including full- and half-day courses in coasteering, sea kayaking, gorge scrambling, rock climbing, raft building and rappelling . Or walk the causeway to romantic Llanddwyn Island, separated from Anglesey at high tide, or take a boat to nearby Dead End Island, or cross the bridge to explore Holy Island.

On Holy Island, you can bask in the sun at the popular beaches of Roscolin and Trearddur and climb the lighthouse at South Stack on a guided tour. Puffin Island is at the end of the Menai Strait, which separates Anglesey from North Wales. It’s worth a day trip from Beaumaris to see the wildlife, views of the strait and fishing in the rich waters surrounding the island. Anglesey (together with Holy Island and Llanddwyn Island) can be reached by road from Bangor, 5 km across the Menai Bridge or Anglesey has a train station at Holyhead.

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Anglesey, North Wales.

Worm’s Head, South Wales

Worm’s Head is a postcard image whose island protrudes above Cape Rossili at the very end of the Gower Peninsula in South Wales. For six hours after low tide, you can scramble up the rocks before climbing their crest and, if you’re lucky, seeing seals wallowing in the waters below. It’s a great place to look back and enjoy the long beach at Rossili, a favorite spot for surfers, families, and couples in love.

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Worm’s Head, South Wales

“Worm’s Head can be visited on a day trip from Swansea, 20 miles (32 km) away.

Flat Hill, South Wales

Flat Holm can be seen from the dam at Cardiff Bay in South Wales in the middle distance, apparently in the center of the Bristol Channel. The cliffs of the English-owned steep hill rise above the plateau of the lower level of the Welsh Flat Holm on its side. Join a tour of the island and learn about its smuggling past and working lighthouse. It was from here that Italian physicist Guglielmo Marconi transmitted the first wireless signals across the high seas in 1897. As Marconi’s first message said, “Are you ready?”

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Flat Hill, South Wales

Flat Holm can be visited as part of a 5-mile (8-kilometer) boat ride on a day trip from Cardiff.

Escape from the “isles of hell.”

The Northern Special Purpose Camps (SLON) were first established in the Arkhangelsk Province in 1919. Four years later the Solovetsky Monastery was included in this system. The former abode of monks soon gained a reputation as the worst camp in the SLON system. It was thought impossible to escape from it. But in 1925 the myth about the impossibility to escape from Solovki was debunked: five prisoners escaped successfully – the only escape in the history of the camp.

According to former Solovki prisoner and escape participant Sozerko Malsagov, no matter how a prisoner behaved on Solovki, he would never be released. “Anyone exiled by the Soviet authorities,” Malsagov wrote, “is doomed to perish during his wanderings from prison to prison, from one place of violent exile to another. The appalling realization that he is condemned for life, that after Solovki he will be taken to further suffering, forced to do even harder work, thrown into a ‘stone sack’ or exiled to another ‘Sekirka’, leads the unfortunate prisoner to the conviction that this endless, hopeless walk through torture must be ended once and for all by means of escape.

As already mentioned, escape from the “infernal islands” was practically impossible. All attempts to escape from Solovki were invariably unsuccessful. Thus, it is known that six counter-revolutionaries led by Captain Tskhirtladze escaped from the Solovetsky camp. The prisoners escaped in a boat, captured by them after killing a sentry. The exhausted fugitives were adrift on the rough sea for almost a week. Several times they tried to dock at the shore near Kemi, but nothing came of it. They had neither food nor water, and after a few days of wandering, they even contemplated suicide: it was decided that if they would not set foot on solid ground in the next two days, they would capsize the boat themselves. But fate took pity on the unfortunates, and on the same day when the decision to end their lives was made, the fugitives saw land.

Once moored to the shore, the exhausted and tired prisoners went deep into the woods, built a fire, and fell asleep for the first time in five days, oblivious of the world. It was there that they were discovered by a Solovetsky patrol. The soldiers didn’t bother to detain them and take them back to the camp to be processed. They simply threw a grenade into the camp fire that killed four of the escapees. Two of the survivors were badly injured: Captain Tskhirtladze lost his arm and had both legs broken, while the other fugitive who survived was more badly injured. The wounded prisoners were taken to the prison infirmary, treated for some time and then, after severe torture, shot without trial.

In the cold winter of 1925, another batch of prisoners arrived at the Kemsk transit point, where criminals and “enemies of the people” were taken all winter long, to be sent to the Solovetsky Islands when the navigation was opened. Among the new arrivals was a former captain of the dragoon regiment from the personal guard of Nicholas II, Yuri Bessonov. This man had already been in 25 Soviet prisons and concentration camps, from which Bessonov repeatedly escaped. The last escape the former captain made from the Tobolsk prison, after which he was caught and sentenced to execution. But after some time, his capital punishment was replaced with five years in the Solovki with subsequent exile to the Naryn district.

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Bessonov was sure that he would not be able to endure another term. Emaciated and sickly, having gone through the horrors of prisons and camps, he knew clearly: his body was no longer able to endure strenuous physical exertion and meager nutrition. Thinking about escape, Bessonov was well aware that all previous attempts to escape prisoners had always ended in failure. But he had only one chance to survive – to escape from the Solovki.

The former captain understood that the only way to escape was abroad. The nearest country where he could escape from his pursuers was Finland, the three hundred kilometers long route to which lay through swamps and impassable forests. But the hardships did not frighten Bessonov; he was more concerned with how to escape from the camp and evade the pursuers – guards with trained dogs. For several days the prisoner made all kinds of plans for his escape, and finally he came to the conclusion that it would be impossible to carry out any of the plans he had devised alone: he would need helpers. The first person involved in Bessonov’s plans was the former officer Sozerko Malsagov. According to Malsagov’s own recollections, Bessonov approached him two days after his arrival in Solovki and asked: “How do you feel about the idea of escape? As for me, I’m going to escape from here pretty soon.”

But Malsagov did not trust Bessonov at first, considering him a provocateur, and so he answered: “I don’t think about running anywhere. I am fine here. But very soon he realized that the former officer was neither a GPU agent nor a snitch, but the same unfortunate prisoner like himself. And soon the prisoners found a common language.

It turned out that Malsagov, together with the Pole Malbrodsky, had long been planning an escape, and the latter even had a compass hidden in a bar of soap, without which, as you know, on a polar day it is virtually impossible to orient oneself on the ground. Now the prisoners had only to find a man who knew well how to survive in the woods. Such a person was soon found: a taiga man, Sazonov, agreed to run away with the desperate trio.

Often gathering as a foursome, the prisoners worked out an escape plan in detail. To carry out their plans, they had to get out of the camp. And they soon had that opportunity: from time to time, some of the prisoners were escorted out of the camp to work in the wood-processing industry under the guards of armed Red Army soldiers.

On May 18, 1925, a group of five prisoners, who happened to include the conspirators, were sent to the woods to cut logs. The fifth in the group was a prisoner named Pribludin. He knew nothing about the conspiracy, but Malsagov said he was a reliable man who would definitely agree to join the fugitives.

After being safely searched in the watchhouse, the prisoners went into the woods under escort of two Red Army soldiers. They worked as hard as they could, trying not to attract the attention of the escort and thereby to drown his vigilance. After about two hours, Bessonov gave his comrades a signal (he raised his collar), after which they all attacked the guards. One of the Red Army guards was immediately disarmed by Malsagov and Bessonov, the second managed to escape and ran in the direction of the camp, announcing the surroundings with a wild scream. But he did not manage to hide. Malsagov, who rushed after him, caught up with him and wounded him with the bayonet of the rifle taken from the first guard. The wounded Red Army man fell unconscious. After long arguments the conspirators decided not to kill the guards, but to take them with them. Bessonov saw a special sense in this, intending to let the Red Army men go one by one along the way, and, having let them go, to abruptly change the direction of their movement. It was a clever move: the Red Army men would definitely tell the pursuers which way the fugitives were going, thus leading them on a false trail.

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The conspirators suggested that the prisoner Pribludin, who knew nothing about the impending escape, either join them or go to the other side. But he had no choice: returning to the camp would mean an imminent execution, so he decided to run away together with the others.

A group of fugitives was led by Bessonov. The prisoners who escaped to freedom walked at some distance from the railroad, keeping the path to the north. After 12 km they let the first guard go, and after another 5 km – the second one. Subsequently, the two hostages sent the pursuers on a false trail, saying that the fugitives were heading north. Their words were confirmed by the wayman, whose house the prisoners stopped at on their way to buy some bread. The railway attendant refused to sell the bread to the fugitives, so they took all the foodstuffs he had by force.

After traveling several kilometers in a northerly direction, Bessonov and his group crossed the railroad tracks and moved westward through the thawed swamp. This clever maneuver threw the pursuit off the trail and gave the fugitives a significant advantage in time.

The camp authorities, who learned of the escape of the five prisoners and the guards taken hostage, at first allotted only a small force to capture them, since they believed that the exhausted and sick prisoners would not get far, just as other prisoners had never managed to get far away. A group of Red Army men and their trained dogs set out in pursuit. As already mentioned, the pursuers were sure that the fugitives were heading north. After a while, however, the Red Army men lost track of the escapees, and the prisoners vanished into thin air. Soon an order was received from Moscow to immediately locate and destroy the fugitives.

After the order of the Moscow authorities to search for Bessonov’s group thousands of Red Army men were thrown, all roads were blocked, and ambushes were set in the settlements. On the alleged route of the fugitives, the authorities concentrated detachments of police, firemen, and Red Army soldiers. But all these measures proved to be ineffective. The former prisoners, thanks to their leader Bessonov, had never run into pursuers. Often changing directions, moving practically without rest or sleep, they could barely stand on their feet and were even ready to surrender to the authorities. But Bessonov did not allow even the thought of stopping. Ignoring the pessimistic talk of his comrades, he said he would shoot anyone who disobeyed his orders. Any disobedience the former officer declared a betrayal.

A few days later the fugitives were unexpectedly helped by the onset of snowfall. It was impossible to move in the deep snow, and Bessonov ordered the exhausted prisoners to stay in an abandoned cabin in the woods, where they spent three days waiting out the bad weather. As soon as the snow stopped, Bessonov again led his group through the swamps. Once on the way they met two peasants of Karelian nationality, from whom the fugitives learned that the authorities were promising ten poods of flour for each of them. But the fugitives had no choice, and they still had to enter the villages to obtain food. Moreover, the locals, from whom the prisoners took bread and other products, later necessarily reported to the authorities about the visit of the escaped prisoners.

In one village Bessonov’s group was ambushed and faced their pursuers. But all ended well: thanks to the combat skills of Bessonov and Malsagov, the fugitives coped with the situation and managed to escape. The incident took place in a small village, which the fugitives approached and watched from the forest for several hours. Finding nothing suspicious, Bessonov and Malsagov went to the village to get food, leaving the other escapees in safe hiding.

When Bessonov reached the outermost house, he opened the door (Malsagov moved some distance away from him) and saw three rifles pointed at him. Being a remarkably cold-blooded man, the former officer instantly slammed the door and started shooting through it. Malsagov and Bessonov took advantage of the Red Army’s confusion and disappeared into the woods.

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Further progress of the fugitives was even more difficult. The way of the prisoners lay through a swamp, overgrown with dense bushes. It was difficult to move, and the travelers were weakened by the long march, hunger, and cold. As Sozerko Malsagov wrote in his memoirs, hope gave way to despair in their hearts. From time to time someone would fall unconscious into the swampy water, and then the others would have to carry their comrade in misfortune for some time.

One day Bessonov’s group came to the shore of a huge lake where several fishermen’s huts stood. But there were no fishermen in any of the huts. The fugitives took some groceries from one of the huts, leaving a quarter and a note: “Forgive me, but necessity forces us to steal. Here’s a dime for you.”

For several days the prisoners walked around the lake, having no idea how to get across. They tried to walk around it, but after about ten kilometers they realized that it was hopeless – everywhere you look there was water. Then Sazonov made some unusual small rafts, and fugitives crossed to the opposite shore.

The crossing took the last of the unfortunate prisoners’ strength. In Malsagov’s recollections of those terrible days there are the following lines: “Recalling now the whole distance travelled in those terrible days, I cannot understand how we managed to withstand such exertion and not to fall dead somewhere in the Karelian peat bogs. But, obviously, God willed to save us by leading us out of the thick bogs so that we could testify before the whole world: the holy borders of the Solovetsky monastery are turned by the unholy government into places of inexorable torment.

So, having crossed the lake, the tired and falling from hunger former prisoners, having walked about 10 km more, stumbled upon another lake. On the opposite shore of it there was a fairly large village. The fugitives began shouting, “Hey, somebody!” They were heard, and after a while a boat in which a Karelian was sitting approached them. “Is it possible to get some bread from you?” – the travelers asked. “You can get as much bread as you like. And everything else, too,” answered the fisherman, “but there are Chekists from Solovki in the village. They are looking for you.”

The prisoners again went deeper into the bushes of the shore bushes and went on. After four days, they came to an empty wooden house in the middle of the swamp, where they found a decent supply of food. After resting for some time in the hut, they took some bread with them and set out again. The former prisoners had been travelling for over a week, and at the end of their journey they gave a rather sad impression: their clothes were torn to shreds, their shoes were torn apart, a layer of mud was covering their faces and hands… As Malsagov wrote, at that moment they looked “like cannibals or convicts on the run”.

The closer the Finnish border was, the fiercer the pursuit became. The fugitives were even hunted from aircraft, but all the efforts of the KGB were in vain – 36 days later the travelers crossed the Finnish border. For some time, the Soviet government unsuccessfully tried to get Finland to extradite the escaped prisoners, representing them as dangerous criminals. But the Finnish authorities greeted Bessonov and his friends as heroes.

Of course, these men had no way back to their homeland. All of them lived abroad for the rest of their lives (Malsagov lived in Finland for several years, then in Poland and England), only occasionally and illegally exchanging messages with their families who remained in a now far-away and alien Russia…

This text is an introductory excerpt.

Continued on LitRes

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