‘Ynys’ is Welsh for ‘island’, but ‘Gifftan’ doesn’t appear in any of the Welsh dictionaries I browsed – old and new. Instead, the online consensus seems to be that it’s a portmanteau of the words ‘Gift’ and ‘Anne’2, referring to the fact that the island was apparently gifted from the then Queen Anne to Baron Harlech sometime in the 17th century. It’s a claim echoed across many of the articles I’ve read on the location, but I can’t seem to find an original source for it. The first Baron Harlech was born in 1816, over a century after Anne’s death so it almost certainly wasn’t bestowed upon him, although there does of course exist the possibility that it was given to one of his ancestors, and passed down through the tangled mess of family lines, meeting and intermingling through the confluence of marriage. The other alternative is that it’s merely a fanciful story—a fabricated royal connection designed to garner intrigue as no sources I’ve reviewed seem to know exactly what it was that Lord Harlech had done to deserve such a gift, and I would imagine that a transfer of land from the Crown would leave at least some kind of recorded paper trail. With no answers seemingly forthcoming, I’ll leave you all to further speculate on that one…
A journey to Ynys Gifftan of course has to wait for low tide, and usually begins on the more accessible Talsarnau side of the estuary, crossing the single track Cambrian Railway and the subsequent salt marshes that skirt the edge of the mainland. These fertile wetlands3 have been extensively carved by ocean forces, forming amorphous ribbons of tidal creeks that have to be forded before progression is possible to the alluvial mudflats that separate Ynys Gifftan from the mainland. It’s not uncommon to spot sheep making their way down from the higher ground onto these vast plains—looking a little out of place in the desert-like environs—searching out the nutritious (and probably very salty) semi-aquatic plant life that dots the otherwise barren landscape.
The island itself is only 400m in length at its widest, and doesn’t take long to explore. I made straight for the highest point — a rocky granite escarpment that sits at a height of 39m and took my lunch taking in the panoramic view of the entire estuary that it affords. On the less rocky ground vegetation has reigned unchecked on what seems to have once been a small-scale farming operation judging by the faint remnants of toppled dry-stone walls — possibly once containing small herds of goats or sheep and likely the main livelihood of the island’s occupants.
After taking a few facefuls of spiderweb (and accompanying spiders) traversing the thickening overgrowth, I made my way down to the island’s sole dwelling — a small 2-storey house that I can’t find any dates for, but that doesn’t look all that old to my eyes. I’d guess that it was built sometime in the mid-late 1800s by the 1st Baron Harlech as a rental opportunity, although in the present its very much vacant and has obviously been abandoned for many years. Photos from 2017 show a number of fixtures and fittings still in place, although upon my visit in late Summer 2018, the majority of these had been stripped4 and the house itself is now merely an empty shell. Obviously the AGA range was too heavy to bother with though, as it still stands unmoved amidst the slow decay of the kitchen.
The outbuildings proved more fruitful in my search for artefacts: Numerous old newspapers, an old hi-fi system, and various tools and maintenance supplies were present in the stone workshop that lies adjacent the main residence – possibly used as something of a dumping ground when the farmhouse was cleared.
The 6th Lord Harlech died in 2016 after a somewhat tragic life that involved dealing with the premature deaths of several family members, a messy divorce, several run-ins with the law, and an eventual descension into drink and drugs, leaving a son who has now inherited the title, and subsequently made the entirety of Ynys Gifftan available on a rental basis5, which seems to tie in with the mass selling of family heirlooms and collectible pieces as a means of raising the funds to restore and maintain the family home of Glyn Cywarch6. The asking rental price is a mere £500 per month, although the catch is that it’s a 20 year lease, and the farmhouse must be renovated—the estimates for which seem to be to the tune of £100,000 and I somehow doubt include the connection of utility supplies. A few toppled telegraph poles near the farmhouse hint that the place was once wired to the main grid, and not reliant on power produced by diesel generators like I’ve seen before in other isolated rural homes, and apparently mains water has also been piped out here in the 1980s, although its current state of operation is unknown. I’m sure that installing and maintaining pipes and cabling under plains underwater a good deal of the time isn’t cheap so I can’t see too many potential letters enthused by the prospect of dealing with it.
As of 2019, the rental advert has disappeared from agency websites, and it remains to be seen whether anyone actually took on the ordeal.
Detailed information on Ynys Gifftan is surprisingly scarce, but there are a few interesting tidbits I recommend checking out: This short article briefly describes early 20th century life on the island, the local Talsarnau website’s ‘History’ section has some interesting info on events in which it features, and finally the Royal Geographical Society’s ‘Discovering Britain’ website has a walking guide that even invites you to ‘Explore the abandoned house and barn’ in some kind of odd manner of state-sanctioned Urbex.
- This waterway was also used in the early 19th century to ferry slate mined from the Diphwys quarry (which I also explored during my time in Wales, oblivious to the connection – I’ll get around to posting a report at some point in the future) in Blaenau Ffestiniog down to the port of Ynys Cyngar at the mouth of the estuary in small vessels – one of which may have wrecked near Ynys Gifftan, to be discovered in the 1980s over a century later.
- This local website however, theorises that it may be derived from the word ‘gitan’ – referring to a young goat, however I can’t substantiate this either, and the closest ‘gitan’ I can find is old English, and means ‘to give’ coming right back to the ‘gift’ origin! My own speculation is that it could potentially have stemmed from a person’s name – possibly the original owner or a famous local, and amounts to something like ‘Gifftan’s Island’
- The turf from this area appears to have been especially highly prized in the 1950s/60s, with large operations set on extracting it for use on bowling greens, golf courses and even the tennis courts at Wimbledon.
- Presumably to make it more attractive to potential customers before it went on the rental market
- Supposedly one of Queen Anne’s stipulations when bestowing the island upon the Harlech line, was that it would never be sold on.
- Another of the Harlech’s properties, Brogyntyn Hall in Shropshire was also sold off to developers some years before to pay off debts and has been thoroughly explored since.