Ramsey and its offshore islands are steeped in myth and legend, with tantalising glimpses of part-remembered stories only adding to the allure of these islands.
From the burial place of 20,000 saints to the source of magical otherworlds, Ramsey is a place of enchantment on many different levels.
Ramsey is 640 acres in size and is currently owned and run by the RSPB as a bird reserve. They bought it in 1992 because of its importance as a breeding site for a number of nationally rare species of bird, the most notable of these being the Chough. Its importance in conservation terms does not stop there though as, not only is it an SPA – Special Protection Area (an EU directive on the conservation of wild birds), but the surrounding waters and inter-tidal zone are covered by the Pembrokeshire Marine SAC (Special Area of Conservation) and it is also an SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest). In addition to the birds, some of its features include internationally rare plants as well as marine mammals, fossils and even a nationally rare spider!
There are signs of human habitation on Ramsey dating back over 4000 years, and evidence that the land has been farmed for centuries. Ancient field patterns, which are still visible in the areas around the two hills of Carn Llundain and Carn Ysgubor, are suggestive of the Bronze Age period. From its early Christian history, with its links to the 6th century St David, up until relatively recently, Ramsey has been owned or at least associated with the Church. It was farmed from the early 1900’s until the RSPB bought it both as a general farm and later as a deer or venison farm. Farming still plays a part in the RSPB’s management of the island today.
Ramsey has a complex and fascinating geology as well as spectacular scenery with deep sea caves, rock gorges and the second highest sea cliffs in the country. It is these cliffs that become home to thousands of breeding seabirds during spring and early summer each year. These seabird cities are truly a sight to behold.
It is also a breeding stronghold for the Chough, a rare member of the crow family, and it also hosts the largest breeding colony of Atlantic grey seals in southern Britain.
Ramsey Sound and The Bitches
The waters of Ramsey Sound and the outlying islands are home to some of the most ferocious tidal currents in the UK, which, whilst making them an adventure playground for kayakers and the like, also makes for some of the most perilous waters around the British coastline.
It’s not for nothing that St Davids Head, lying just to the north of the Sound, earned the name of Octapitorum promontorium or the ‘Promontory of the Eight Perils’, so called by the second century Egyptian geographer Ptolemy. It is the tides, combined with its exposed situation on the westernmost part of the Welsh coastline and therefore open to the Atlantic swells built up over thousands of miles of fetch, which lead to the dramatic seascapes for which the area is renowned. Ramsey, the outlying islands and their adjacent coastline are the first land those storm waves encounter.
The exceptionally strong tides that run through Ramsey Sound are caused by the topography of the area exaggerating the gravitational pull of the moon and sun. In its daily sojourn north and south, the flooding and ebbing tide is constricted on a large scale by the Irish Sea and St George’s Channel, and then on a more local level by the sweep of St Brides Bay and the position of Ramsey in that tidal current. As the vast body of water funnels through the narrow channel of the Sound, it is squeezed between island and mainland, causing it to speed up. Then, to add insult to injury, a reef of rocks known as the Bitches stretches one third of the way into the Sound from the island, creating a natural barrier or dam holding back the tide. The resulting tidal flow can reach 18 knots over the Bitches reef. It is an incredible sight to behold on a big spring tide and, on a quiet evening, the sound of the water roaring over rocks can be heard from St Davids.
The bathymetry of the Sound (right) in particular is incredibly dramatic and, if you drained all the water out, this is what you would see. It’s hard to imagine such a dramatic landscape existing beneath your feet when you are out in a boat, although it goes a long way to explaining the complex, ever-shifting currents. It is this ancient landscape, created between ten and twenty million years ago, which creates hundreds of opposing currents with the water changing direction and speed numerous times as you cross the Sound, forming not only back tides and eddies but also vertical columns of moving water. This complex landscape was partly carved out by ice movement from the last Ice Age, and it is thought that a meltwater channel beneath the ice may have caused the deep, closed canyon down the middle of the Sound. Most geologists think that much of the surrounding coastal landscape today was created by marine erosion, and parts of the coastal platform in this area are thought to be a wave-cut platform, created at a time when sea levels were much higher.
The shallowing at either end of the Sound causes great upwellings of water as the tide is forced to the surface in vertical currents. Nowhere is this more evident than around the Horse Rock, an infamous pinnacle rising from the depths of this canyon in the middle of Ramsey Sound, which is only visible above the surface at low water spring tides. These ferocious tides, combined with the underwater topography, are one of the reasons the area is so rich in marine wildlife.
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