Visitors just can't get enough of the Victorian charm in Llandudno
PUBLISHED: 13:22 17 April 2013 | UPDATED: 13:22 17 April 2013
The future of this classic seaside resort lies in its past. Visitors just can't get enough of its Victorian charm. Ray King pays tribute to the Mostyn family and a few of today's busy residents. Words BY RAY KING PHOTOGRAPHY BY JOHN COCKS
Every spring for more than a quarter of a century, Llandudno, ‘Queen of the North Wales Resorts’, celebrates its heritage with a three-day Victorian Extravaganza.
This carnival of period fancy dress - this year taking place over the Bank Holiday weekend of May 4th -6th - plus parades, fairground attractions and marching bands is tremendous fun drawing in thousands of visitors but is also a serious act of homage to the Victorians who transformed this delightful town in the middle of the 19th Century.
Their legacy is all around, from the elegant hotels lining the magnificent sweep of the promenade between the dramatic headlands, the Great and Little Ormes, to the ornate cast iron pier – one of the finest in Britain – opened in 1877 and the gardens of Happy Valley, landscaped from Lord Mostyn’s former quarry to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee of 1887.
It was with the coming of the railway branch line via Deganwy in 1858 that the small community dependent on copper mining and fishing was, within the short span of 20 years, developed into one of the country’s first holiday resorts. The project was enthusiastically pursued by Lord Mostyn, then head of one of the oldest and wealthiest families in North Wales, who owned much of the surrounding land.
The family’s influence on the resort has been immense; the name appears everywhere not least in Mostyn Street, the town’s main shopping thoroughfare, which leads on to Mostyn Broadway and then Mostyn Avenue. The new art gallery is called The Mostyn; St George’s Hotel has its Mostyn Suite and the retail park just outside the town centre is Mostyn Champneys.
It is though, that influence that Llandudno has retained its Victorian decorum down the decades in which seaside traditions have flourished. The Punch and Judy show, brought to town in 1860 by ‘Professor’ Richard Codman is still operated on the promenade by the entrance to the pier, 153 years later, by members of the same family.
The Professor’s great-grand daughter Mrs Jacqueline Millband Codman, who has recently handed over the reins to her son Jason, said her ancestor was driving his caravan when one of the horses died just outside Llandudno. ‘The resort was still being built at the time, so he used his initiative to find something to do.
‘Walking on the beach he found some driftwood and carved the traditional Punch and Judy puppets.’
Jacqueline added: ‘Lord Mostyn wouldn’t let him perform on the prom to start, so my great-grandfather set up by the Empire Hotel, which was shops in those days, to catch the local miners who would be rowing the visitors ashore at that point.’ After appealing to Lord Mostyn’s improvement committee, Richard won the right to stage his show near the pier, entertaining visitors including Queen Victoria herself and Edward VII’s consort, Queen Alexandra.
The show, which runs three times daily during school holidays and weekends from Easter, sticks to its historic traditions.
‘Yes, Punch beats Judy with his stick, the crocodile takes the sausages and the baby is thrown out of the window, but it’s all done in jest and the kids love it today just as they did more than 150 years ago,’ said Jacqueline, who believes there’s no more beautiful place to live than Llandudno.
Donkey rides remain, after 125 years, charming features of both Llandudno’s beaches, the busy North Shore below the promenade and the quieter West Shore where, as a young girl Alice Liddell, upon whom Lewis Carroll based his timelessly popular Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass stories holidayed with her family between 1862 and 1871. At the head of the boating pool a statue of the White Rabbit was unveiled by David Lloyd George in 1933.
West Shore’s ‘Donkey Man’ is Philip Talbot who is devoted to his ten gentle animals and the location which enjoys stunning views over the Conwy estuary, Puffin Island, Anglesey, and the spectacular backdrop of Snowdonia.
‘They are very lovable animals and can work until they are about 15 – maybe even 20. I know when they are ready to stop and they go to a donkey sanctuary in Sidmouth in Devon where they are kept safe and receive the very best of attention in retirement.’
One of his donkeys, Heidi, led the palm procession around Llandudno’s parish church, Holy Trinity, on Palm Sunday last year.
Out in the bay between the Ormes, colourful sails are a picturesque sight during the season and Llandudno is home to a thriving sailing club of more than 200 members, most of who live locally, that has just celebrated its 50th season. It’s president is Tony Lockett, whose role as race officer in charge of the Olympic Regatta at Athens made him one of the sport’s key figures.
He said: ‘There is no marina at Llandudno so we have to launch from the beach. They are all dinghy variants with Lasers and GP 14s being the main classes and junior boats include Toppers, Optimists and Pico classes.’
Affiliated to the Royal Yacht Club, Llandudno Sailing Club, based in recently extended premises on the promenade, hosts national championships and over four days in August and September more than 50 competitors in their Contender class boats will tackle the bay’s challenging tidal conditions. ‘There is a big rise and fall and quite a strong tidal stream,’ said Mr Lockett. ‘They say if you can sail Llandudno Bay you can sail anywhere.’ He should know after spending 25 years as an auxiliary coastguard and overseeing many national and international races.
The winner of the first race of the season on Easter Sunday is traditionally awarded a pewter tankard presented to the original club, wound up during the Great War, in 1868. Current members are hopeful that the county council will find resources to fund the construction of a new slipway directly opposite the club house.
Though the Victorian era dominates Llandudno’s heritage, there are important remains from much earlier periods and new developments that guarantee a positive future. The ancient history of the Llandudno area is very ancient indeed, dating back thousands of years to the Bronze Age. The Great Orme mine, 3,500 years old, is the oldest metal mine open to the public in the world with tunnels leading to an amazing prehistoric cavern.
On the northern side of the Great Orme is the church of St Tudno, built in the 12th Century on a Christian site dating from 600 years earlier. Tudno was one of the of the seven sons of King Seithenyn whose legendary kingdom in Cardigan Bay was submerged by tidal activity. It served as Llandudno’s parish church until 1862.
These sites and the natural beauty of the surrounding country park are reached by the Great Orme Tramway that has been delighting passengers – there were 156,000 last year – since it was opened in 1902. Tramway manager for the last nine years, Neil Jones, takes great pride in the only cable-hauled system still operating on British public roads and one of only three in the world.
‘The trams are originals, based on the design of the street cars in San Francisco,’ he says. ‘There are only four in the entire fleet, but maintenance is a major undertaking for keeping 110-year-old vehicles in operation seven days a week from mid-March to the end of September, each covering 3,200 miles a year.
‘The reason it has survived is all about location. At the top of the Orme there are fantastic walks with fabulous views – it’s an area of Special Scientific Interest – and attractions like the toboggan run and ski slope.’
As for the future, Llandudno has been broadening its horizons and now boasts two nationally important cultural institutions. Venue Cymru, northern home of the Welsh National Opera, dominates the eastern end of the main promenade. The performing arts, conference and events centre stands on the site of the old Victoria Palace theatre dating from 1894, a familiar landmark for more than 100 years.
The venue hosts major touring productions like record breaking drama The Mousetrap; top rock stars simple minds will play before 2,500 there in April, Sleeping Beauty on Ice opens on May 7th and the Welsh National Opera returns in November for an autumn season featuring Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda, Roberto Devereux and Tosca.
Venue Cymru’s Joanne Brett said: ‘We try to programme a wide variety of performances in the hall, theatre and auditorium. Events range from major productions to ensemble performances and coffee time concerts.’ That the venue is an asset not only to Llandudno, but to all of north Wales is reflected by audience figures topping 250,000 a year.
The Mostyn, Wales’ foremost contemporary art gallery – a touch of the Tate Modern in Vaughan Street – reopened in 2010 after a major expansion and refurbishment. Originally opened in 1902 by Lady Augusta Mostyn for women artists denied the opportunity to exhibit their works, the six galleries showcase the best contemporary art being produced in Wales and bring to the principality some of the most interesting art being made internationally.
Curator Adam Carr said:‘Mostyn also has a very wide and highly imaginative programme of learning activities aimed at schools, universities and young people. And from later this year until 2017 we shall mount a series of shows directly linked with the history of the building.’