“A bit to the left”. “No, a tad to the right.” “Step forward, just a dash.” I hear the exasperation in the words. Clearly, getting the picture-perfect photograph isn’t easy when you want to make sure that you include a ridiculously long sign on the train station platform in the frame.
The family is on the small Welsh island of Anglesey, situated off the north-west coast of Wales and located across the Menai Strait from the city of Bangor. And we're in a small village with the longest name in Europe: Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch.
The 19-syllable name is the longest place name in Europe, and the longest one-word name of any municipality in the world. Home to about 3,000 people, the village, with a name that translates to “St Mary's Church in the hollow of white hazel near a rapid whirlpool and the Church of St Tysilio near the red cave”, welcomes more than 200,000 visitors every year, all trooping in to see the long sign and get that photograph. It’s also known as Llanfairpwll or Llanfair PG for short.
We have driven down the coastal path of Wales, going from Cardiff to St David’s and from Tenby to Aberystwyth, to reach Ynys Môn, also known as Isle of Anglesey, the largest island in England and Wales. Known for its ancient history and many prehistoric and Celtic remains, Anglesey, which has an area of 676 sq. km, has been designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and offers some of the most distinctive, beautiful, and varied landscapes in the British Isles. Connected to the mainland by the Menai Bridge and the Britannia Bridge, Anglesey was known as Mam Cymru (Mother of Wales) during the Middle Ages on account of its fertile fields that made it the bread basket for the north of Wales.
The island is sparsely populated. Census records reveal that Anglesey has a population of around 68,900 people, and boasts the second highest percentage of Welsh speakers in Wales, at 57.2%. Attractions such as coastal walks, lighthouses, old structures, and an ancient copper mine attract tourists round the year.
Most of the people who come to Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch queue up at the railway station, says Lucy Gillard, who manages the ticket counter. The village originally had a shorter, easier-to-pronounce name: Llanfairpwllgwyngyll, she says.
In the second half of the 1800s, train travel started becoming more accessible, leading to a boom in railway tourism across the UK. The local populace, keen to make their village a tourist hotspot, came up with ideas. In 1869, a tailor is said to have come up with the idea of the long name, one that would entice people to get off at the station. The name isn’t random—it offers clues to geographical and cultural features found in the vicinity of the village, Gillard says. It worked, reeling in tourists.
Since then, the name has been jokingly referred to as “the Englishman’s cure for lockjaw”. Between 1900 and 1910, a shopkeeper made quite a bit of money hawking postcards with “an English, Irish and Scotchman's cure for lockjaw”, says Greg Ainsworth, as he fixes us drinks at the Penrhos Arms, the pub near the station. In 1979, the village’s name also became the longest word to ever appear in a newspaper crossword.
Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch isn’t the only village that tried to change its tourist-led fortunes. In 2004, Llanfynydd decided to protest plans for a nearby wind farm by changing its name; it chose the name Llanhyfrydawelllehynafolybarcudprindanfygythiadtrienusyllafnauole, which translates to “A quiet, beautiful village, a historic place with rare kite under threat from wretched blades.” But things didn’t work out quite as well for them.
We walk around Llanfairpwll, which is divided into two sections: The upper village has old homes and the lower village houses the train station and commercial buildings. Over the next couple of days, staying at a gorgeous beachside bungalow in nearby Benllech, we find that there’s more to this small village than its big name.
We explore the Plas Newydd Historic House and Gardens, once the home of the marquess of Anglesey. Situated on the shore of the Menai Strait, the structure dates to the 18th century and showcases a series of neo-classical rooms, many with intricate wallpaper, lovely fabrics and ornate décor. A large mural painted by artist Rex Whistler stands out, as do the lovely gardens that offer scenic views across the Menai Strait towards/of the mountains of Snowdonia.
The Menai Suspension Bridge, built by Thomas Telford and opened in 1826, is hard to miss and makes for wonderful photographs. One of the world’s first modern suspension bridges, it connects the mainland to Menai Town, one of the five towns in Anglesey.
We stop at St Mary’s Church, the one which finds mention in the village’s long name. Built in 1853 to serve the village in the diocese of Bangor, the heritage building showcases some stunning stained-glass work.
Incidentally, Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch is not the longest place name in the world. Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateaturipukakapikimaungahoronukupokaiwhenuakitanatahu, with a length of 85 characters, takes that honour and finds mention in Guinness Book of World Records. The hill in New Zealand is named after Tamatea, a legendary Maori explorer who traversed New Zealand. The 85-character toponym translates to “the summit where Tamatea, the man with the big knees, the slider, climber of mountains, the land-swallower who travelled about, played his nose flute to his loved one”.
Back in Anglesey, Bryn Celli Ddu, which translates to the Mound in the Dark Grove, is the best- known prehistoric monument on the island. Like most prehistoric tombs on the island, it was constructed to protect and pay respect to the remains of ancestors. Erected around 5,000 years ago, as a “henge” or ritual enclosure, the site, completely excavated in 1928-29, stands apart from the other tombs on Anglesey owing to one feature: It is the only one aligned to the rising sun on the longest day of the year. “At dawn on midsummer solstice, shafts of light from the rising sun penetrate down the passageway and light the inner burial chamber. It is believed that the sunlight was meant to bring warmth and life to ancestors,” the bartender tells us that evening.
The Prince and Princess of Wales, William and Kate, lived in Bodorgan for three years, just a few miles from Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. William was deputed to the Royal Air Force base on the island, where he served as a helicopter rescue pilot.
There are many other places to explore nearby: Anglesey Sea Zoo, the Marquess of Anglesey’s Column, St Tysilio’s Church, Bryn Gwyn Stones, and Oriel Ger-Y-Fenai, a lovely art gallery. The Anglesey Sea Salt Co. offers tours that showcase the process of salt making. The small village with a big name will leave us with some really special memories—though we are still at sea when it comes to pronouncing the name of the village.
Teja Lele is an editor and writes on travel and lifestyle.