Castles, bays and beaches along the holiday coast of North Wales
This is one of Britain’s most popular holiday coasts, studded with a chain of resorts ranging from quiet villages such as Penmaenmawr to the grander centres of Llandudno and Colwyn Bay. At Conwy, one of Edward I’s great Welsh castles dominates the Conwy estuary. Inland the background varies from the rich flat meadows of the Vale of Clwyd to the towering peaks of Gwynedd, faced across Conwy Bay by the low broad back of Anglesey.
Before the building of the bridges over the Menai Strait, Llanfairfechan was the place from which intrepid travellers set out to cross the Strait. They faced a long and dangerous walk across the sweep of the Lavan Sands at low tide, until the deep channel brought them to a stop; their fate then depended on attracting the attention of the ferryman on the Beaumaris shore before rising waters made them retreat to safety.
Llanfairfechan offers safe bathing close inshore: but beware of the deep gullies scoured in the wide sweeping sand by tidal currents further out. Fishermen will find bass in these deeper channels.
The area is one for hill walking and pony-trekking, sailing and golf, bowls, tennis and minigolf. A walk along the embankment to the west of the main seafront on a fine summer’s evening gives a splendid view of the sunset.
A favourite holiday resort of Mr Gladstone, Penmaenmawr – the name means ‘large stone head’ – is squeezed between the mountains and the sea. The main coast road burrows through tunnels on either side of the town to find its way round the steep cliffs, and when Robert Stephenson built the railway line along this stretch of coast he had to protect it with avalanche shelters and a strong sea-wall. Even in prehistoric times, the tough local stone found a ready market; a historic trail leads visitors to a hilltop 1,200 ft above the town to the site of a Stone Age axe factory, whose stone tools have been found as far apart as Wiltshire and Northern Ireland. Quarrying goes on here even today, and visitors can watch coasters being loaded at the nearby jetty. Bathing is safe, and water-skiing and sailing are popular.
Probably the best-preserved medieval fortified town in Britain, Conwy’s battlemented walls and narrow gateways constitute a major obstacle to holiday traffic threading its way along the North Wales coast. But the frowning bulk of Edward I’s great castle, dominating the bridges across the Conwy estuary, makes an unforgettable composition.
Started in 1283, the castle was completed in 1292, as one of Edward’s iron Ring’ of fortified places designed to keep the Welsh in subjection. Conwy’s walls – up to 15 ft thick – and eight massive round towers were quickly needed, for the Welsh rose two years after it was finished and besieged King Edward in his own castle. In 1401 Welsh insurgents overran Conwy while its 75-strong garrison was at church. Held for Charles 1 during the Civil War, it was attacked and captured’again in 1646.
There are three bridges: Telford’s elegant suspension bridge, now used by pedestrians, Robert Stephenson’s tubular railway bridge, and the graceful modern road bridge. Telford’s bridge, opened in 1826, was designed to blend with the medieval turrets and walls of the castle, but the design of the railway bridge running alongside it was governed by practical factors. A suspension bridge would not have been rigid enough to carry railway tracks, so Stephenson used two rectangular iron tubes, each 424 ft long and resting at one end on balls and rollers. The bridge was opened in 1848.
The enclosing walls have survived almost complete. So far it is possible to walk only a half mile of the ramparts, but they offer a fine view of the plan of the town’s fortifications. Inside the walls are more than 200 buildings listed as being of special architectural interest. They include Aberconway House, which dates from around 1300, the Elizabethan Plas Mawr, Jacobean and Georgian houses and rows of early Victorian terraces. Down on the quayside is what is said to be the smallest house in Britain, measuring just 6 ft across and 10 ft 2 in. to the top of its upper storey.
Fishing trips and pleasure cruises up the river (which offer a spectacular view of the castle from water level) leave from the quayside, where boats land their catches of mackerel, plaice, whiting and the famous Conwy dabs. For bathing, strong currents make the estuary dangerous and it is better to make for Morfa Beach, 11/2 miles northwest.
Deganwy was originally called Dinas Conwy, which means ‘fortress on the Conwy’, and the hill above the village was fortified 600 years before Edward’s castle was built on the opposite bank. It was fought over, destroyed (once by lightning) and rebuilt many times before falling into disuse, but even now it offers a splendid viewpoint of its later rival to the south.
As a holiday resort, Deganwy has the advantage of facing south-west, so that it tends to be sheltered, sunny and warm. There are good moorings for boats, fishing
TINY WINGS ON A HEADLAND
Along the cliffs of Great Ormes Head flits the dwarf grayling, a sub-species of the grayling that is found only in this part of North Wales. It is smaller than other graylings, with a wingspan up to ½ in. (4 cm). It is also duller in colour and flies late in June, a little earlier than most English graylings. trips and a shingle beach with stretches of sand at low tide. Bathing can be dangerous in the currents where the river reaches the sea, but is safer inshore.
GREAT ORMES HEAD
The larger of the two headlands which hold Llandudno’s main curving beach between them like a pair of limestone bookends, the Great Orme’s 679 ft summit is the easier to reach. Visitors can drive to the top from a branch of the toll road which runs right round its precipitous cliffs, or they can ride up in comfort by Britain’s longest cable-car, which travels 5,320 ft, or by a funicular railway built in 1877. From the top, when conditions are clear, they have a splendid view of Snowdonia and even, on occasions, the hills of Cumbria and the Isle of Man.
On the sheltered eastern slopes of the Great Orme are the gardens of Haulfre and Happy Valley with splendid views over the town and the beach, while on the exposed northern face is the little church of St Tudno, after whom the town was named.
One of the major holiday resorts of Wales, Llandudno owes its well-planned streets and wide promenade to Edward Mostyn and Owen Williams, who in the mid-19th century laid out a new town on former marshland below the Great Orme. Llandudno provides not one beach but two. On the side of the headland facing Conwy is
West Shore, with a terraced sea-wall and a sand-and-shingle beach, backed by dunes. Bathing is safe at high water, but the sea recedes a long way at low tide, and venturing too far out on the sand could mean being cut off by the rising water. West Shore provides a children’s playground and paddling pool and a putting green.
On the opposite side of the Great Orme is the North Shore, a 2 mile sweep of beach bordered by a promenade, with the pier at the western end and Little Ormes Head at the eastern end, where shingle begins to take over from the sand. Water-skiing, sailing and fishing trips are available from the jetty.
LITTLE ORMES HEAD
For those who find the Great Orme too crowded, commercialised and easy to ascend, Little Ormes Head offers the answer. Although only just over two-thirds the height of its larger neighbour, visitors must walk to reach the 464 ft summit, where they can enjoy the view in greater seclusion, over cliffs almost equally spectacular.
A long, sweeping, sand-and-shingle beach on the opposite side of the Little Orme from Llandudno proper, Penrhyn Bay offers interesting sand and rock pools with casting for mullet, plaice, flounders and, occasionally, bass, conger eels and rays, with prawns and mackerel in the offshore waters.
CREATOR OF A WONDERLAND
An association between Llandudno and the writer Lewis Carroll is commemorated by a statue on the town’s West Shore, which depicts the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll – the Rev. Charles Dodgson – was a friend of Henry Liddell, an Oxford dean, and records in his diary telling his stories to the dean’s daughter Alice in a punt on the Isis. The Liddell family had a holiday home in Llandudno, and Lewis Carroll is believed to have stayed there as the guest of the Liddells and strolled on the sands with the real-life Alice.
Facing eastwards with a splendid view along the coast as far as Rhyl and the estuary of the Dee, Rhos-on-Sea marks the western end of the long Colwyn Bay sands. Close to the western end of the main promenade, where Rhos merges into Penrhyn Bay, is a tiny, stone-built chapel dedicated to St Trillo and once said to date from the 6th century, though in fact it was almost certainly built in the 16th century. The chapel, only 12 ft long and 6 ft wide, was associated with a nearby monastery, whose monks also built an ingenious fish trap out on the sands. The remains of the trap can just be seen at low tide: a set of roughly triangular stone walls, which formed an enclosure and caught unwary fish as the water level within them dropped with the ebbing tide.
Bathing is safe off a wide sandy beach, and there are sailing and water-skiing. A breakwater protecting the promenade opposite the Cayley Arms Hotel is accessible only at low water, and care should be taken to avoid being stranded by the rising tide.
Colwyn Bay, together with its neighbours of Rhos-on-Sea and Old Colwyn, adds up to a sweep of 3 miles of sandy beach, with good, safe bathing, water-skiing, sailing and seaside amusements. The beach is bordered by a promenade and road, with two railway tracks: the main North Wales line of British Rail and a promenade miniature railway. In the centre is Colwyn Bay’s pier, and overlooking the bay, at Eirias Park, are amusements including a heated indoor swimming pool, a leisure centre and a Dinosaur World. Further up, on a hillside overlooking the town and the beach, is the Welsh Mountain Zoo, with varied animals, birds and reptiles.
The village nestles beneath a new elevated section of the main coast road. Both the road and the main railway line have to squeeze into the narrow space between the hills and the sea, and still leave room for the limestone quarries from which the local stone is shipped out in coasters which tie up at small jetties to the west. Station Road, from the centre of the village, turns back under the main road and winds down to a quiet, sandy beach.
In such tranquil surroundings, it is difficult to imagine Llanddulas as the scene of a terrible railway disaster in 1868, when a string of runaway wagons rolled down the hill from the quarry sidings, and the Irish Mail express ran into them. The wagons were loaded with paraffin, the coaches of the express were lit by gas, and the passengers were locked into the compartments for safety; the result was that 33 people died, and were buried in St Michael’s churchyard in nearby Abergele.
ABERGELE AND PENSARN
Abergele is a small market town 1 mile inland on the old coast road, with a livestock sale every Monday. Pensarn is the centre of a 7 mile stretch of beach, with shingle giving way to sand as the water recedes on the ebbing tide. It was at Pensarn that Captain Matthew Webb trained before becoming the first man to swim the English Channel in 1875. There are seaside amusements at the beach, and in Abergele there are sports facilities.
Finding the beach at Towyn depends on locating the gap in a long line of holiday camps and caravan parks where a road runs down to a level-crossing over the railway line. But there is good swimming off the sand-and-pebble foreshore, and there are seaside amusements near by.
LLANDUDNO; A RESORT FASHIONED IN A GENTEEL AGE
From the towering crags of Great Ormes Head, Llandudno looks much as it did when frock-coated Victorian gentlemen escorted their wasp-zuaisted ladies along the broad promenade. The elegant, boiv-zvindowed and balconied hotels are still there, lining a bay whose sandy beaches, spectacular views and glorious sunsets have attracted visitors for more than 100 years.
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Situated at the easternmost end of the long coastal strip between Colwyn Bay and Rhyl, and separated from Rhyl only by the River Clwyd, Kinmel Bay has a popular sandy beach, backed by bungalows. There is good swimming along most of the beach. At the eastern end, however, the currents around the mouth of the Clwyd where it emerges from Foryd Harbour can be treacherous.