Wednesday 23 September 2020


It was early, too early, and I'd slipped out of the Travelodge with my backpack of clothes and walked across a silent Llandudno to the station.  Llandudno is not an early morning town; there was no hustle of commuters or throng of coffee shops open for shift workers.  It was still sleepy.  A little like me.

I was so early, in fact, that the booking hall wasn't even open.  Luckily I'd ordered all my tickets in advance so I didn't need to buy a new one.  I entered the station via a side entrance by the car park.  

Like a lot of seaside termini, Llandudno was built for throughput.  Long platforms butt onto a wide open concourse with a recently added glass front.  Send the hordes straight through and out the other side with as little fuss as possible.  I walked down to the exposed platform and waited for my train south.  I only had one stop to travel right now.

Deganwy is the only intermediate stop on the branch from the North Wales Coast Line to Llandudno.  It felt like a town that had once tried to be seasidey too, maybe getting some of the people who couldn't afford Llandudno proper, but had since given up and become simply a quiet coastal spot.  

The station was wedged into the sea wall, overlooked by a row of shops and a car park.  I was the only person to get off here, of course, and I trudged across the tarmac.

The A546 burned alongside the railway, but I took a side path.  Jutting out into the Conwy estuary was an enclave of new, modern homes and apartment blocks, grouped around a marina.  They were, in truth, astonishingly ordinary, but their single entrance point and the yachts they surrounded gave it a low-rent glamour, like a Welsh Howard's Way.  The developers had clearly been persuaded to put in a coastal path as part of their planning permission and it was meanly provided, slicing between a high wall and the railway line and fizzing with resentment.  There was the occasional jogger, but I mostly had it to myself.

Past the apartments the view opened up and I could see across the river to Conwy castle, a fairytale construction, barely seeming real.  Above it squatted a grim looking grey cloud.  The further south I'd gone from Llandudno, the chillier it had got, as though the bad weather was waiting for me.  As I reached the head of the Conwy Tunnel it broke.  Suddenly I was pelted by heavy raindrops, the cloud seemingly dropping all its water on me at once.  I wrestled with my bag and pulled on a coat by I was already wet through.

It did mean that the excitement of crossing the Conwy Tunnel itself was slightly muted.  The A55, a motorway in all but name stretching from Chester to Holyhead, used to slow to a crawl when it hit Conwy.  The ancient town was far too historic to be bulldozed for a dual carriageway, but the only crossing point for the river was via its bridges, so they had no choice.  

Finally in 1986 construction began on two immersed tube tunnels; basically two long boxes dropped onto the river bed and then connected to the road at each end.  It was a marvellous engineering achievement and opened in 1991.  I was walking on an artificial headland constructed to form the tunnel entrances, passing over the road traffic itself, and that will always give me a little frisson of excitement.

With over two hours until my next train, and the weather doing its best to drown me before I got there, I gambled that Conwy would be a little more lively at this time of morning than Llandudno Junction and turned right onto the the causeway instead of left.  I'd not eaten yet; I'd forgone the overpriced Travelodge croissant and orange juice breakfast, and nowhere in Llandudno had been open for me.  I wanted a warming cup of tea and maybe a bacon roll.

The rain battered me across the headland.  It blurred my glasses so much I took them off; it's easier to squint through storms than to have your vision completely impaired.  I dodged the roadworks that were making the Conwy Bridge distinctly utilitarian looking and plunged into Conwy town through the gate in the town walls.  Sadly, it looked like Conwy was as quiet at that time in the morning as Llandudno, but luckily the Costa had just opened.  The barista was unloading boxes of coffee and syrup and looked bemused at my dripping wet hair and coat, but I still managed to get a large tea and a sausage bap and I sat near a radiator and dried.  

Filled with pork and PG Tips I retraced my steps back over the bridge.  I'd walked this way before, in 2011 when I did the North Wales line, and little had changed in the intervening years.  Perhaps Llandudno Junction was a little shabbier, or perhaps I'd walked a different way.  I'd ducked down below the main road and walked silent side streets with boarded up buildings.  

Yes, it was still raining, though it had slowed to a trickle, a relentless wash of water speckling your face and body.   I ducked across the car park to reach Llandudno Junction station and went inside.

Llandudno Junction is not a destination.  It's a crossover point.  It's designed to be experienced at platform level only, as a place for people to change trains.  Even then it falls down.  It's a cold, bare station.  The wind whistles into its open spaces and the rain comes at you from all angles - sometimes through the roof itself.  It wasn't a place to spend any time.  

Unfortunately, I had ages to wait until my train south.  Instead, I leapt on the train north to Llandudno, the train that would actually turn into the one I wanted, simply so I could have a bit of warmth and a comfortable seat.  Across the aisle from me a man in shorts, fresh from the gym, was eating a tin of tuna with a fork.  When he'd finished protein loading, he reached into his bag and pulled out another tin and started on that.  In the meantime, the rest of us got to enjoy the distinct scent of fish wafting down the carriage.

At Llandudno I walked out of the station with everyone else, because I didn't want the train people to see that I was loitering.  This is absolutely what happens; station staff love to stare at middle-aged men and judge them on their travelling choices.  Instead I walked round the block then back in the station in time to board the same train I'd just come in on and head to Glan Conwy.

No, I'm not going to make a cheap glans joke.  

Now I felt like I was in proper Wales.  Above the A55 it can be a bit like England with an accent.  Now it seemed like I had slipped into the proper, rural Wales that you imagine.

Admittedly, Glan Conwy wasn't the most charming place on earth.  It was a little bit grim and utilitarian, wedged against the wide river.  Homes cascaded down the hillside.  The pub was in the process of being redeveloped into homes.  There was a tiny village shop, and a playground, and that was about it.  I'd seen pretty much all of its charms in five minutes.

Which was handy, because I soon had to be out of there.  I had a bus to catch.


Thursday 17 September 2020

Top To Bottom

Back in July 2016 I worked my way down the Conwy Valley Line, from Llandudno Junction to Blaenau Ffestiniog and then on to Porthmadog.  This journey was for a book which, sadly, I never actually wrote.  However, I did make copious notes and took dozens of photos, and since it's 2020 and the idea of travelling anywhere at all is a pipe dream, I've decided to write it up at last.  Remember that this is all taking place four years ago, so things might be different now - there's a new rail operating company for starters - and also I'm dredging my memory so there may be some errors.  Be kind.  It's the first lot of content on here in months.

I thought I'd have a cup of tea at the top of the Great Orme.  That's what you do, isn't it?  You go to the top of the local landmark, you have a cup of tea, then you go back down again.  I'd ridden the clanking, wheezing, grinding tramway right up the side of the limestone mountain and now I had time to kill until I went back down again.  

I headed for the cafe at the top. a squat white building decorated with mobile phone masts.  The smell of chip fat hit me long before I got there.  Not the good kind, the inviting, tantalising scent that wafts from a chippy on a Friday night, but the dark scent, tinged with burning, so greasy you can almost taste it on the air.  It's the smell of oil that lingers in the furniture of the cafe and you wipe off the plastic menus.  It was off-putting, but not as off-putting as the prices, chalked up outside.  You go to the top of the local landmark, you have a cup of tea, and you get thoroughly gouged.  I flounced away, walking back down to the visitor's centre attached to the tram stop.  

Inside it was dry, a respite from the fine rain that had whipped across the summit and sprayed my glasses, but the exhibits were very much aimed at the younger generation.  Lots of bilingual signs with colourful fonts and buttons to push and knobs to pull.  I was at least thirty years too old for it, and besides, there was a man in there with body odour so strong it left me light headed, so I walked back to the tramway and headed down again.

The Great Orme Tramway has clanged its way from Llandudno to the peak for over a century.  I managed to get a seat, a hard wooden slat that I felt all the way down, and the rest of the carriage filled up with a gang of boy scouts.  They wore their scarves over their regular clothes and an anxious looking leaded counted and recounted their heads to make sure one hadn't been left behind.  The cable-operated tramcar slid down the peak, creaking, groaning, jerking around, until it reached the half-way station and we all got out and trooped over the rubber floor to a second tram to take us down into the town.

The last few hundred yards of the tramway are through the streets of Llandudno itself, weaving down the centre of streets that look far too small to cope with traffic and pedestrians and then a tourist tram as well.  People waved as we passed until we finally settled in at the terminus and I could stiffly get out and walk down into the town itself.

The plan was to travel from top to bottom, right across North Wales to the middle, taking in all the stations from Llandudno to Blaenau Ffestiniog and then a trip on the preserved railway down to Porthmadog.  I thought it only right to start the trip on the Great Orme tramway - go as far as I could on the iron road then change to a more modern railway.  Ride the helter skelter right from the very top.  That was for tomorrow, though; today I was wandering round the resort.

Cards on the table: I love Llandudno.  It's the grandest and best preserved of all the North Wales resorts.  Rhyl has a certain vulgar charm, and Bangor is certainly beautiful, but Llandudno still feels like a special place.  It sits on its own headland, shielded by the Great Orme to one side and the Little Orme to the other, with the grand sweep of the bay connecting the two.  The front is lined with tall white-painted guest houses and hotels and there's a pier and a promenade to be proud of.  

I walked on the red tarmac front among the holidaymakers and pensioners.  There was a loud group of American teenagers, wearing baseball caps and matching sweatshirts with their school's name on them, bellowing at one another.  A combination of natural teenage ebullience and innate American excess meant you could probably hear their conversations in Anglesey.  I wondered what had brought them thousands of miles across the Atlantic to a Victorian coastal resort; perhaps they were on a visit from Liverpool or Manchester, following the traditional path of Northern day trippers along the coast.  

Behind the front, you hit more standard shopping streets, laid out in a slightly curved grid with grand avenues striding down the centre.  There are cafes and bars and restaurants mixed in with the shops, a little faded, but still charming, then on the furthest stretch you hit the Venue Cymru, the town's theatre-cum-conference centre.  There were posts along the front plugging the entertainments - The Rocky Horror Show with Rhydian, The Three Degrees (without Sheila Ferguson), Tommy Steele in The Glenn Miller Story.  Also scattered around the town were Alice in Wonderland-themed statues.

The link between Alice in Wonderland and Llandudno is... tenuous.  The Liddells - the real life Alice's family - had a summerhouse, and it's theorised that Lewis Carroll may, possibly, have visited them there.  The town also claims that Through the Looking-Glass was inspired by them, because it's based around a chessboard and Llandudno's grid plan looks like a chessboard, sort of, if you go up to the top of the Great Orme and squint.  It's all a bit shameless but they've taken this limited claim to fame and run with it and so they've scattered Alice statues round town for you to find and collect.  

They are at least beautifully made statues.  I wandered back through town, pausing in a pub for a plate of pie and chips and a pint.  I had got a room in the Travelodge.  I know technically I should've gone for the boarding house experience for a proper Llandudno experience, a building on a side road with a fearsome landlady and a curfew and a TV lounge, but I couldn't bring myself to try it.  At least with a Travelodge you know what you're getting and it'll be clean and reasonable.  I went back to the hotel to rest for the night.  I had an early train in the morning, and a lot of walking after that.  The Conwy Valley line was ready to be collected.