The history of Llandudno – from ancient to modern times.
The flat area that is now home to the famous seaside resort of Llandudno has not always been as homely as people would like to think; indeed, Llandudno has a surprising history dating from very ancient times.
Look around you – the shops, hotels, arcades, memorials and churches stand proud. Llandudno has been justifiably called “The Queen of Welsh Resorts” for 150 years now; its Victorian elegance and graceful charm perfectly complimenting the flawless curve of the north shore and the shelter of the two Ormes. But 200 years ago, there was nothing here but uninhabitable common marshland, used by locals for grazing and fishing, but certainly not for living.
The earliest evidence of human inhabitation in the area comes from the Great Orme itself. Excavations in the Neolithic burial chamber of Llety’r Filiast have unearthed artifacts dating from between 3’500 and 2’500 BC, possibly predating Stonehenge. We therefore know that people have inhabited the Llandudno area for around five thousand years. At this time, if you had stood on the Orme and looked west towards Conwy, much of what is now the estuary would have been covered in thick forest, as the mountains of Snowdonia were also.
The iron-age hill fort at Pen-y-dinas, also on the Orme, is a great example of ancient architecture, containing 50-60 hut circles and dating from 550-543 BC. In fact, around the whole area, many different examples of decorated animal bones and stone artifacts have been unearthed, many in Kendrick’s cave, showing signs of human civilization from Paleolithic times.
Of course, Llandudno’s most famous prehistoric site is the ancient copper mine; close to the summit of the great Orme and dating from around 1’500 BC, it is hailed as the largest and most impressive warren of ancient mines that can be found in Western Europe. Visitors to the mines can clearly see the blue copper ore in the cavern walls that was so sought after by Bronze Age miners – it was blended with tin imported from Devon and Cornwall to make bronze. There is even evidence that the copper from Llandudno was exported to mainland Europe.
With the arrival of the Romans in Britain about 2000 years ago, the mines fell into disuse, but advances were being made around north Wales with the construction of Roman roads, many of them still clearly accessible today. The Romans built many roads that weave precariously through the mountains as they lacked the technology to build around the steep and rocky coastline – thus many of the roads they engineered are now no more than public footpaths. North Wales was an important area for them – rich in metals such as copper, lead, and of course, gold.
The fall of Rome in the 5th century AD brought about the dark ages – a thousand years of technological and civil reverse. Legend has it that in the 6th century, a monk from Bangor-is-y-Coed by the name of Tudno founded a monastery on the great Orme, converting the locals to Christianity. Tudno was a son of King Seithenyn, King of the (now submerged) legendary Kingdom in Cardigan Bay. He left his father with his six brothers to study with St. Dunawd in Bangor, and after the move to the great Orme lived in a cave, “Ogof Llech”, which although difficult to access had a well of fresh spring water. It is he, St. Tudno, after whom Llandudno is named (Llan meaning Parish of and dudno being a Welsh mutation of Tudno). However, nothing of his church dates from his day, the earliest piece of architecture being the font which dates from the 12th Century.
It was around this time that seafarers began to first call the rocky headland the ‘Great Orme’ – Orme is descended from the Old Norse word ‘Horma’ meaning a sea serpent or monster. When approaching Llandudno from the sea on a misty day, it’s pretty easy to see what they meant.
During medieval times, the now established parish of Llandudno was made up of three villages Y Gogarth; Cyngreawdr and Yn Wyddfid – though the smallest but most important was Y Gogarth, located on the western flanks of the Orme. Its importance began in 1284, when King Edward I of England built a palace for Anian the Bishop of Bangor for services to the Royal Family, including the baptism of the first ever English Prince of Wales in Caernarvon. A special quarry was started for the construction of the palace, clearly visible at the summit of the Orme. The house was burned down, however, by the Welsh rebel Owain Glyndwr in 1400, and now all that remains is a single wall.
An interesting story surrounds the legend of one of the Orme’s wells, known as “Powell’s well”. Allegedly, the local Powell family suffered a minor conflict and was in desperate need of fresh drinking water. After praying at St. Tudno’s church in Llandudno, they stumbled upon a well never before seen or used that seemed to have appeared from nowhere. The well bubbles to this day.
Llandudno’s copper mines reopened in the 1600s, and the town became a haven for persecuted Catholics following the creation of the Church of England by Henry VIII. At one point in the 17th century, the great Orme was home to one of the last catholic congregations in the whole of North Wales. There still persists a famous legend about a local Catholic priest – William Davies. Whilst avoiding local magistrates, he and his followers hid in a cave on the Little Orme and there printed “Y Drych Christianogawl”, perhaps the first book ever to be printed in Wales, around 1590.
During all of this, the area that is now Llandudno was marshland, largely uninhabitable and waterlogged, common land used merely for livestock. It wasn’t until 1845 that things began to change, when the land was taken from the people and assumed proprietorship by the feudal Mostyn Family in an act of parliament known locally as ‘Deddf y Lladrad Mawr’, Welsh for ‘The Great Theft Act’. Soon after the act, Owen Williams, an Anglesey architect, approached the Mostyn family with plans to build a town on the flat isthmus between the two Ormes. The family accepted, funded Williams, and the town of Llandudno as we know it today began to take shape. The original town plan, much of which is still in use, followed a grid pattern which curved naturally along the shape of the north beach. By just 1847, the population of Llandudno had reached a thousand people, many of whom worked in the copper mines.
The very first visitors to the new resort would have arrived by boat from Liverpool, coming ashore on rowing boats and landing in St. Edward’s Square. Built in 1858, a rail link was built from nearby Llandudno Junction to the centre of Llandudno, giving hundreds of people from cities in the north of England the chance to visit the new haven during their holidays, a time which they relished annually. Not only that, but it also gave rise to a new competition – to decide which north wales town would become the new seaport to Ireland. Between Holyhead, Port Dinllaen and Llandudno, Llandudno’s chances seemed high. Even a pier was constructed in 1859 to aid in loading ships with coal from Denbighshire and Flintshire. However, disaster struck.
The great storm struck the coast of Britain on October 25th, 1859. A strong wind blowing from the north east grew to gale force and sent huge waves flying into Llandudno. Sources from the time describe waves like mountains smashing into the promenade, covering the whole beach in foam and mist. No such storm had ever been witnessed in Llandudno before. The brand new pier was granted no mercy. It was battered to pieces, splintering all along its length, and the ticket booth being carried all the way towards the little Orme by a giant wave. Nationwide, over eight hundred people died and over two hundred shipwrecks occurred (one of which was the tragic loss of the Royal Charter at Moelfre on Anglesey).
In 1858, Reginald Cust, a trustee of the Mostyn family oversaw the construction of a footpath that skirted the entire coastal perimeter of the great Orme. Between 1872 and 1879, the footpath was expanded by the Great Ormes Head Marine Drive Co. Ltd, turning it into a road fit for carriage use. Now known as ‘Marine Drive’, it is still a popular destination today, winding round the Orme’s sheer cliff faces.
Plans to make Llandudno a sea port were smashed along with the pier. The only direction the town could now take was as a holiday resort. Such towns were the ultimate destinations of the day; conditions were still appalling in the industrial cities of England and a clean, fresh, seaside location to escape to was the dream of every working and middle class individual of the day. Hotels were erected along the promenade, and in the 1860s a reservoir was built on the great Orme to cater for growing population down on the flat land. Visitors flocked in their thousands to Llandudno during the tourist season, and in 1877 a new pier was built – to this day the fifth longest in the UK. Tourists would pay to board the pier, but have their investment returned when greeted by the brass band which played every day in the pavilion at the end. The town became a pride of Wales and indeed Great Britain, Queen Victoria herself bestowed upon the town the gift of some fine Feral Kashmir Goats in 1900: they still roam the great Orme today.
In 1898, ‘The Great Orme Tramways Company’ was established and given £25’000 pa to begin the construction of the tramway to the summit of the great Orme. By 1902 the trams were ready to take passengers halfway up the Orme, complete with emergency brake technology, essential considering the gradient reaches 1 in 3.7! In 1903 the first complete journey to the top was made, and in that year 77’410 people enjoyed the stress-free ride to the summit. The funicular rope-drawn trams have run ever since, still using the same steam engines and Victorian carriages as they did when first constructed.
These weren’t the only trams to be in operation in Llandudno. In 1907, construction began on an electric tramway that ran from Colwyn Bay to Deganwy, via Llandudno. The trams can be seen on many historic photographs, and were a centerpiece of Northwalian life. In 1915 the tracks were extended to the Queens Hotel, Old Colwyn. However, despite the best efforts of preservationists, the costly trams were disbanded in 1956. The last journey was undertaken by tram No. 8, driven by the mayor of Colwyn Bay who pulled into Greenfield Road on March. 24th.
Llandudno continued to grow, remaining a successful tourist destination through the entire twentieth century. At one point, it boasted five theatres: the Pier, the Arcadia, the Pavilion, the Astra, and the North Wales. Sadly, only the North Wales (Venue Cymru) survives as a theatre today, as the Pavilion has been overtaken by the firm Wetherspoons and the other three have been demolished or burned down.
The lengthening of the A470 through Gloddaeth woods in the late 1980s and the construction of the A55 led to far greater accessibility of Llandudno, previously only approachable via small and often crowded coastal roads.
It was in Llandudno that Alice Liddell, inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s famous novel “Alice in Wonderland” spend every summer of her childhood at the Penmorfa hotel on the west short, just by the great Orme. Sadly, despite angry public protest, the Penmorfa was demolished in 2009.
Today, Llandudno enjoys a population of 29’000, including Penrhyn Bay and Penrhynside. As many people as ever flock to the hills of North Wales each summer for their holidays, and Llandudno is always high on their list of ‘must-sees’. Protection is in place for the Victorian hotels lining the promenade: being class II buildings they may only paint their facades in certain pale colours congruent with the style with which they were erected. The town centre is always adorned with decorative lighting, and boasts original street lamps dating from the 19th Century.
The town is, however, threatened by rising sea levels – it would indeed be one of the first places in the British Isles to disappear. It is our responsibility to ensure that the beautiful town of Llandudno remains as well-preserved and best-loved in the future as it is today.