Llandudno, North Wales, is one of the few parts of Britain that truly retains an uncontrived Victorian, or Edwardian, ambiance and identity. For some reason the town always reminds me of a friendly old duffer who flatly, unapologetically, refuses to be dragged into the 21st century, and is proud of it.
Picture a spectacular sweep of sandy beaches stretching as far as the eye can see between ancient limestone headlands known as the Little Orme and the Great Orme.
Dignified white columned residential hotels, rooming houses, bed and breakfasts, and genteel hotels stand guard around an elegantly curved natural bay flanked by a promenade, and a dramatic seascape.
The scene is reminiscent of Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances, Jane Austen fashions, Mr. Darcy dandys, and genteel visitors ‘taking the air’.
The double doors of my well-appointed St. George’s Hotel room open onto a veranda extending around the venerable old building which was built in 1854. Clouds hover over the Little Orme to the east urging me to face the bracing sea breeze to explore the distant Llandudno Pier which recently sold for £4.5 million. Well-endowed with rides, colourful ‘carny’ fast-food, fortune teller stalls, and souvenir shops, the famous Llandudno landmark built in 1877 is anchored by a pinball-style ‘Family Amusement’ arcade at one end and a “Deck Arcade” under a Brighton Pier-style dome jutting out into the sea.
[‘Alice in Wonderland’ adds whimsy to Wales in Llandudno (pronounced ‘clandudno’). Photo: Ursula Maxwell-Lewis]
Apart from the two arcades, the fun stuff is ‘Closed for the Season’. Waves batter the base of the Grand Hotel on the north side of the pier which, until a face appears at a second floor window, I assume is closed permanently. It’s a perfect Hitchcock set. The town will be packed at the height of the summer, but exploring in the ‘off season’ has, for a writer, its own unique charm. It’s only when contemplating the giant teacup rides that I recall Llandudno’s connection to Alice in Wonderland.
Alice Liddell, a child who regularly holidayed with her family over 150 years ago, is reputed to have been the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice’. As a result, the promenade has featured in many a Mad Hatter-themed tea party and other related events.
Jogging back to the warmth of the four-star St. George, I detour off the beach through the main streets. I am sorry time doesn’t allow for exploring the eclectic assortment of village shops. A particularly staid looking hotel advocated Christmas turkey dinners in November to beat the festive rush. A plastic Christmas tree swayed precariously in the windy doorway. Marks for initiative, I thought.
Dinner, on the other hand, at The Sea Horse Restaurant, 7 Church Walks, was a complete contrast. Tucked into a refurbished ‘Victorian’ with stone walls, oak pews and priests’ chairs for casual dining, or more formal red leather furniture upstairs, I find an upbeat atmosphere catering to a decidedly trendier clientele.
Owned by Don and Gill Hadwin, the personable Manchester pair clearly enjoy fine food and friendship. Don, a Master Chef, and Gill, a drama and English major, were school friends who drifted apart, but reconnected on-line in 2002 through Friends Re-United.
They’re also avid fisherfolk who pride themselves on serving their own ‘fresh catch’ complemented with locally-grown and raised products for their varied menu. Grilled sea bass with garlic butter and prawns paired with a crisp white wine were perfect choices with which to end my day.
[The Victorian era lives on at the end of Llandudno Pier. Ursula Maxwell-Lewis photo]
Exploring the Great Orme, famous for an old copper mine, a 13th century church (where even your pooch is welcome to attend services), and a visit to the nearby ancient walled castle town of Conwy are on the agenda for tomorrow.
Wales is steeped in mysteries, histories, and surprises. No wonder writers, poets, musicians, and independent spirits are drawn to it and thrive here.
For more information on the many charms of ancient Wales, go to: www.visitwales.com
– Ursula Maxwell-Lewis is a retired Black Press managing editor and British Columbia-based writer and photographer.