The Menai Strait is a narrow stretch of shallow tidal water about 25 km long, which separates the island of Anglesey from the mainland of Wales. The strait is bridged in two places: the Menai Suspension Bridge carrying the A5, Robert Stephenson's 1850 Britannia Tubular Bridge; the Britannia carried rail traffic in two wrought-iron rectangular box spans but after a disastrous fire in 1970, which left only the limestone pillars remaining, it was rebuilt as a steel box girder bridge, now carries both rail and road traffic. Between the two bridge crossings there is a small island in the middle of the strait, Ynys Gorad Goch, on which are built a house and outbuildings and around which are the significant remains of fish traps, no longer used; the strait varies in width from 400 metres from Fort Belan to Abermenai Point to 1,100 metres from Traeth Gwyllt to Caernarfon Castle. It narrows to 500 metres in the middle reaches and it broadens again. At Bangor, Garth Pier, it is 900 metres wide, it widens out, the distance from Puffin Island to Penmaenmawr is about 8 kilometres.
The differential tides at the two ends of the strait cause strong currents to flow in both directions through the strait at different times, creating dangerous conditions. One of the most dangerous areas of the strait is known as the Swellies between the two bridges. Here rocks near the surface cause over-falls and local whirlpools, which can be of considerable danger in themselves and cause small boats to founder on the rocks; this was the site of the loss of the training ship HMS Conway in 1953. Entering the strait at the Caernarfon end is hazardous because of the shifting sand banks that make up Caernarfon bar. On the mainland side at this point is Fort Belan, an 18th-century defensive fort built in the times of the American War of Independence; the present day channel is a result of glacial erosion of the bedrock along a line of weakness associated with the Menai Strait Fault System. During the series of Pleistocene glaciations a succession of ice-sheets moved from northeast to southwest across Anglesey and neighbouring Arfon scouring the underlying rock, the grain of which runs in this direction.
The result was a series of linear bedrock hollows across the region, the deepest of, flooded by the sea as world ocean levels rose at the end of the last ice age. The name Menai comes from Welsh main-aw or main-wy, meaning "narrow water."According to Heimskringla, the 11th century Norse-Gael ruler Echmarcach mac Ragnaill plundered in Wales with his friend, the Viking Guttorm Gunnhildsson. However they fought a battle at the Menai Strait. Guttorm won the battle by praying to Saint Olaf and Echmarcach was killed. In the 12th century, a Viking raid and battle in the Menai Strait are recounted in the Orkneyinga Saga as playing an important role in the life of Magnus Erlendsson, Earl of Orkney – the future Saint Magnus, he had a reputation for gentleness. Refusing to fight in the raid on Anglesey, he stayed on board his ship; this incident is recounted at length in the 1973 novel Magnus by Orcadian author George Mackay Brown, in the 1977 opera, The Martyrdom of St Magnus by Peter Maxwell Davies. The first of the opera's nine parts is called "The Battle of Menai Strait".
From the 1890s until 1963, the pleasure steamers of the Liverpool and North Wales Steamship Company would ply their main route from Liverpool and Llandudno along the Menai Strait, around Anglesey. After the company's voluntary liquidation in 1962, P and A Campbell took over the services for a while. Now, every year for two weeks in the summer, the MV Balmoral undertakes a similar service; the tidal effects observed along the banks of the strait can be confusing. A rising tide approaches from the south-west, causing the water in the strait to flow north-eastwards as the level rises; the tide flows around Anglesey until, after a few hours, it starts to flow into the strait in a south-westerly direction from Beaumaris. By the time this happens the tidal flow from the Caernarfon end is weakening and the tide continues to rise in height but the direction of tidal flow is reversed. A similar sequence is seen in reverse on a falling tide; this means that slack water between the bridges tends to occur one hour before high tide or low tide.
Theoretically it is possible to ford the strait in the Swellies at low water, spring tides when the depth may fall to less than 0.5 metres. However, at these times a strong current of around 4.8 knots is running, making the passage difficult. Elsewhere in the strait the minimum depth is never less than 2 metres until the great sand flats at Lavan Sands are reached beyond Bangor; the tides carry large quantities of fish, the construction of Fish weirs on both banks and on several of the islands, helped make the Strait an important source of fish for many centuries. Eight of the numerous Menai Strait fish weirs are now scheduled monuments; because the strait has such unusual tidal conditions, coupled with low wave heights because of its sheltered position, it presents a unique and diverse benthic ecology. The depth of the channel reaches 15 metres in places, the current can exceed 7 knots, it is rich in sponges. The existence of this unique ecology was a major factor in the establishment of Bangor University's School of Ocean Sciences at Menai Bridge, as well as its status as a special area of conservation with marine components.
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