Porth Oer, an attractive if unobtrusive beach hidden on the north Wales coast is an unusual location for one of the UK’s strangest unsolved mysteries. This small, picturesque National Trust beach, backed by steep grassy cliffs, is famously known as ‘Whistling Sands’, a nickname based on the sound the granules make underfoot when you walk over its gleaming sand. The sound is created due to the stress of weight that is put upon the sand, and interestingly Porth Oer is unique among the beaches of Europe for this unusual effect. ‘Singing sands’ do exist in other places in the world, but usually these take the form of vast desert landscapes – the singing dunes of Almaty in Kazakhstan for example, or the Kelso dunes in California’s Mojave Desert – rather than a cute little beach on the Llyn Heritage Coast. Although there is a general consensus among scientists as to the best conditions for the ‘singing sand’ effect, why places like Port Oer exist at all remains something of a mystery.
Without doubt, while the coal valleys are the defining feature of the south of the country, Snowdonia is the crowning glory of North Wales. This tightly packed bundle of soaring cliff faces, jagged peaks and plunging waterfalls is widely acclaimed as the most dramatic and alluring of all Welsh scenery, a compact, barren land of tortured ridges dividing glacial valleys. It was to this mountain fastness that Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, the last true Prince of Wales, retreated in 1277 after his first war with Edward I; it was also here that the sorcerer Owain Glyndwyr held on most tenaciously to his dream of regaining Wales for his people. Not even Snowdonia can match the remoteness of the Llyn peninsula, however, which is the most westerly part of North Wales. Nowhere in Wales is more staunchly Welsh: road signs are still bilingual but the English is frequently obliterated; the term Stryd Fawr is used instead of ‘High Street’, and in most local shops you’ll only hear Welsh spoken. Porth Oer lies at the heart of this ancient land.
The small, lime-washed fishing village of Aberdaron backs onto the Whistling Sands two miles short of the tip of the Llyn. For a thousand years, from the 6th century onwards, it was the last stop for pilgrims to Bardsey Island, just offshore (three visits there were proclaimed equivalent to one pilgrimage to Rome). Many pilgrims came to die there, earning Bardsey its epithet ‘The Isle of Twenty Thousand Saints’. The final gathering place before the treacherous crossing is the 14th century Y Gegin Fawr (‘Great Kitchen’), a stone building which still operates as a cafe. So, while today scientists may tell you that the ‘singing sand’ effect at Porth Oer is created by a certain indefinable concentration of silica, humidity and grain thickness, knowing locals will tap their noses before giving you a very different explanation. The sound of the Whistling Sands, they say, is the murmuring of twenty thousand saints as they go to and come back from pilgrimage at Bardsey Island across the centuries.