Neil Sowerby’s perfect base to wallow in the wonders of the Welsh spring
CAPTAIN Smidge is the first dog of the season on board as the Great Orme Tramway reopens, a chihuahua primed to tackle the near 700ft summit of Llandudno’s great limestone headland. Such tiny legs, such mighty energy.
We could have driven, but an essential part of the Orme’s magic is to be trundled up on Britain’s only cable-hauled road tram. It’s actually two journeys – you have to swap trams at the Halfway Station. As we ascend in true Edwardian style the skies get bluer, the temperature summerlike, belying the date, Saturday, March 25.
From a Neolithic burial ground to visitable Bronze Age copper mines with their labyrinth of tunnels, from the sixth century St Tudno’s church and its impressive burial ground to a modern ski slope there are places of interest dotted all around the Orme (the name is said to derive from an old Norse word for sea serpent, which its coiled bulk is said to resemble).
We were just happy to roam around the network of tracks with the small dog, always bearing in mind nearly half the land is used for sheep grazing. Notably the 140-acre Parc Farm, purchased for £1 million by the National Trust in 2015 to prevent possible conversion into a golf course and famously leased out on a £1 annual rent from last year to a farmer with a remit to also protect rare habitats and species.
There’s a wealth of walks in Bodysgallen’s park and woods. All so lovely in springtime, carpeted in daffodils, bluebells and wild garlic
We noted dozens of butterflies that day but hadn’t the knowledge to recognise the rarest of the rare, the Silver Studded Blue. Nor did we come across any of the 200 wild Kashmir goats, whose ancestors were gifts from the Shah of Persia to Queen Victoria and farmed initially at Windsor. Today these shy creatures are managed by the Great Orme Wildlife Reserve wardens, using artificial contraception to restrict numbers.
What we did see in abundance were the spring flowers along the cliff walks, thrift, bloody cranesbill and the delicate white blooms of the sea campion. Up here it is dog walking heaven and Smidge became bosom buddies with a sedate spaniel, similarly off the lead, as we took in the stupendous views across to Snowdonia. On the other side of the headland you can apparently see Blackpool and the Lake District in the far distance.
We had been already been astounded by the panorama from our base, Bodysgallen Hall, a couple of miles south of Llandudno. The hotel’s five storey tower is its earliest feature, dating back to the 13th century, when it was a hilltop watchtower for Edward I’s Conwy Castle, to alert it to possible attack by the Welsh. Ask at reception to be taken up its spiral staircase and gasp at Snowdon and the Conwy estuary spread out before you (main picture).
Bodysgallen is a remarkable place to stay. It is run as a luxury hotel by Historic House Hotels, who first restored it in 1980 after years of neglect then gave it to the National Trust in 2008 to maintain its unique character. The symbiotic caretaking seems to work well for the house, added to century by century, and both the formal gardens and the 200 acres of parkland with their immemorial oaks.
Next to reception in the dark-panelled foyer is a picture of the 17th Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers raised by Colonel Henry Mostyn, whose family owned Bodysgallen, and paraded in its park complete with horses and regimental goat. The troops were destined for the Somme – most never returned, mown down in Mametz Wood. In their memory a century ago an oak was planted on the photograph site; now it is to be joined by another. As I write this piece a sapling grown from an acorn gathered in Mametz will be added in a ceremony attended by Lord Mostyn and descendants of the fallen.
It was the Mostyns who laid out Llandudno as ‘the queen of Welsh resorts’ in the 19th century and the freehold of much of today’s centre is owned by the Mostyn Estate – they give their name to the acclaimed MOSTYN contemporary art gallery that has kickstarted a trendy regeneration of this remarkably intact Victorian townscape.
Still Llandudno retains enough seaside staples to please the traditionalist – superb cooked to order fish and chips from Fish Tram Chips, next to the tram terminus, the 150-year-old Codman’s Punch and Judy Show on the Promenade and a well-preserved 2,295ft long pier that has survived the ferocity of the Irish Sea surges. Sad to see a good portion of its kiosks empty. Will it benefit, though, from recently submitted plans for a £15million restaurant and apartment complex on the site of the Pier Pavilion Theatre site, which burned down 20 years ago?
Strolling back to our car along the glorious North Shore that stretches in a crescent to Little Orme, we came upon an RNLI lifeboat being launched by tractor across the pebbles. Then skirting the town centre, we discovered the much quieter West Shore lit up by a dazzling sunset – a fine prelude to dinner at Bodysgallen, served in some style.
We were staying in cosy, self-contained Mill Cottage, dog-friendly with its own little walled garden, yards from the terraced gardens for which the Hall is famous.
Dogs are not allowed there, but there’s a wealth of walks in the park and woods. All so lovely in springtime, carpeted in daffodils, bluebells and wild garlic. It would be easy not to stray from the estate – especially when you throw in the acclaimed spa retreat with its large pool and the lure of afternoon tea in the Hall – but Conwy called.
We’ve loved this compact walled town ever since we spent a riotous weekend at its annual autumn food festival, the Gwledd Conwy Feast. A surfeit of mussels and surprisingly good local ales. Buy the former, grown in the estuary, on the quayside;don’t miss a wonderful new showcase for the latter on Uppergate Street. The Albion Ale House is a remarkably preserved, multi-room 1920s pub, all art nouveau tiling and art deco fireplaces, push bells, a hatch to the snug; even four of the 10 handpulls date back to the Twenties.
These serve primarily beers from (and this is what makes this place unique) the four North Wales breweries who have combined to run the place – Purple Moose, Bragdy Conwy, Bragdy Nant and Great Orme. Oh and it’s just simple snacks, pork pies and scratchings plus a single malt list.
Another hostelry arrival since my last visit is the eye-catching Bank of Conwy Craft Beer Bar, near the station. Cocktails, tapas and well-sourced ales in former bank premises; the wine store is in the vault.
Trust me, we did more than drink in Conwy. After mounting the Castle’s eight towers and hulking curtain wall, it’s best to do the circuit of the town walls – three quarters of a mile long with 22 towers – before descending to the quayside.
Here we took in the contrasting Smallest House In Great Britain. Perfect photo opportunity for a visiting chihuahua, the red Quay House is 10ft high by 6ft wide and was a residence from the 16th century until 1900 when council evicted the very tall fisherman who lived there. His descendants still run it as a tourist attraction.
Opposite was docked The Queen Victoria, dog-friendly cruise boat just about to head out on its half hour trip up to the Castle and Telford’s fame suspension bridge then out to the mouth of the Conwy estuary. We liked the look of the vast beaches beyond the Marina so much we returned on foot via the Wales Coastal Path. No wonder we needed the pubs.
After checking out from beautiful Bodysgallen we had one final port of call. You can’t have a weekend away without bringing back a souvenir. No, not a red aproned doll with tall hat or a bleached sheepskin rug…ours was a rib of well-hung Welsh Black Beef. The 5lb specimen we purchased from the in-house butchery at the Bodnant Welsh Food Centre, looked and, eventually, tasted the part. I’d heartily recommend the centre, overlooking a loop in the River Conwy at Tal Y Cafin, six miles south of Bodysgallen on the A470. With a pleasing symmetry, it is situated next door to another famed, more orthodoxly accessible, National Trust-run garden, Bodnant. The rhododendrons will now be in full bloom. How lovely this part of Wales is in springtime.
Bodysgallen Hall and Spa, Llandudno, North Wales, LL30 1RS. The hotel features 15 bedrooms in the main hall including four Principal Suites: The Mostyn Suite, The Lady Augusta Suite, The Conwy Suite and The Vaughan Suite. Plus there are 16 cottage suites in the grounds, many with their their own private gardens, some close to the top notch Bodysgallen Spa. Double rooms from £185.
Dogs are not allowed in the Hall but are welcome by prior arrangement in some of the Cottage Suites, but not in their bedrooms. Either two small dogs or one larger dog. Public access to the NT-owned property is by booking a garden tour, having lunch, afternoon tea or dinner at the hall.
Bodysgallen is easy to reach. Take the A55 and exit at Junction 19, and then follow the A470 towards Llandudno. The hotel is approximately two miles on the right. The nearest train station is Llandudno Junction, 2 miles away, where guests can be met by taxi.
Great Orme Tramway. Adult return £7.50, children (3-16) £5. Every 20 minutes, 10am-6pm (5pm March and October) seven days a week. The Tramway has been running since 1902; its rival, the Llandudno Cable Car, from Happy Valley, only open since 1969. Adult return £9, child £ (cash only).
Great Orme Bronze Age Mine. Adults £7, children over five £5, family tickets £20.
Conwy Castle. Adults £8.95, Reduced rate £5.80. Family £26.60 – admits 2 adults and up to 3 children under 16. For opening hours ring 01492 592358.
Plas Mawr. Alas it was shut during our visit. This richly ornamented Grade 1-listed Elizabethan merchant’s house off the High Street, is one of Britain’s spookiest buildings. Adults £6.50. Child under 16 £4.20. Family £19.30. For opening hours ring 01492 580167.
For full tourism information on North Wales, visit www.nwt.co.uk.