I’d arrived in Crewe relatively unscathed along a pleasant branch line from our friends place in Whaley Bridge. But stepping off the train from Stockport and shuffling over to Platform 11, I realised my miscalculation. Twenty minutes before the Holyhead departure, holidaymakers were already four or five deep by the gangways, sporting an assortment of bikes, double buggies, surf-boards, fishing gear, suitcases, holdalls...
Coronavirus might have significantly impacted commuter journeys during 2020, but once restrictions were lifted on UK holidays, people were not waiting for a second chance to hit the coast. I hadn’t entirely seen this coming. The empty train pulled in to the platform firing the starting gun for a scramble to get on board. Within a couple of minutes all the seats and vestibules were overflowing. The train manager was prowling up and down the platform, squinting in through the windows. Eyebrows becoming increasingly knotted above Dane Edna spectacles and regulation black face mask. She disappeared into the guards cab and the PA crackled into life.
I feared the worst.
“There’s too many people on this train”, I could hear the exasperation in the tones of the scouse accent. “Too many. I’m not letting it leave the station until we are socially distanced.”
Here we go, I thought.
“So another five carriages are going to drop onto the platform and attach to this one. The doors will stay locked. There will be 225 new seats so that passengers can move down and be social distant. Thank you”.
Well that was a surprise. Not a cancellation. And instead a resourceful and helpful solution.
The carriages were linked up with a satisfying clump and the bloke next to me who was already half-way through his picnic, squares of kitchen roll neatly laid out on his lap, nearly choked on a scotch egg. “Tha’’ll be the extra train then!” observed his wife.
More scrambling to take up the new seats, encouraged by the train manager who was by then properly bad tempered. “Please move forward to the front carriages. Move forward. I will not let this train leave until you have social-distanced!”
Once under way, she made a further announcement, slightly less frantic, that we had departed 16 minutes late. I was impressed. Just a quarter of an hour’s delay, despite having to whistle up some extra coaches and move half the passengers round. She’d done a top job even if the stress had ruffled her demeanour momentarily.
Chester. The train manager had quite rightly put her feet up by this time and delegated announcements to the automated service, which enunciated this fine medieval city as ‘Esther’. Clearly on more personal terms with the place than the rest of us. The train stuck to the south bank of the ‘canalised’ River Dee through unremarkable places like Queensferry, and Shotton. The canal was built to keep the port of Chester open in a constant battle against the silting up of the Dee Estuary.
Chester is the tidal limit of the Dee and once beyond the city, the river widens into the expansive estuary. The view out of the window, between a few more unremarkable settlements, was a wide landscape of salt marsh, mud flats and brackish tidal flows punctuated with islands of grasses, sand banks and dunes, boat wrecks and abandoned industrial or marine buildings.
This changing riparian environment has been silting up since the Middle Ages, essentially due to shifting sands and erosion of the shoreline. Towns on the Wirral side of the estuary, such as Gayton, Neston, Parkgate and Thurlaston lost their anchorages and ferry services by the seventeenth century. New ports like Hoylake were built further out on the estuary. Eventually Liverpool and other ports on the deeper Mersey came to dominate trade.
As part of a geography field trip in the late 80’s I went to Parkgate, just north of Neston on the Wirral. I was fascinated by its Victorian promenade that looked out onto a mosquito-infested marshland bog. The ornate railings and fancy lamps were all still there. People ambled along and scoffed fish and chips like they were on Scarborough front. We field-trippers found a top (as in ‘value’, being a student) pub called The Ship in which to replenish ourselves, but could instead have bought ice creams from a brightly-painted kiosk and sat on a wrought iron bench, rusted and warped with salty air, admiring the view. The place had all the characteristics of a seaside town without actually having any sea.
Except that’s not quite true. A couple of times a year, around the spring and autumn equinoxes when the moon’s gravitational pull is at its strongest, high tides once again inundate the Dee off Parkgate. The tide doesn’t sweep in like the Severn Bore or the fearsome wash further up the coast at Morecambe Bay. Instead there is a slow seeping of the sea into the network of channels and creeks before submerging the grasses and fescues. Eventually, the vast saltmarsh becomes flooded up to the old sea wall. I’d love to witness this. A belated return field trip is on the cards.
As we flashed past Mostyn, the Dee estuary was so much wider and once again in reach of the free flowing sea. The Port of Mostyn has seen a lot of late 20th century development and I could see a couple of medium sized vessels moored off the new quay. It has become important for the offshore renewable energy sector, I gathered.
With that, the train turned westwards and we hit the run of holiday resorts on the north coast of Wales: Prestatyn, Rhyl, Colwyn Bay… Loads of passengers departed at Rhyl. I pitied them. It’s a grim place. As a kid of 10 or 11, we had a family holiday here. The flatlet (as they used to be called) was so dirty that my mum caught impetigo.
I climbed out at Conway to find a compact town on the estuary heaving with day-tripping Scousers. Liverpool on sea. There was even a pub called Liverpool Arms on the quay, where a member of the Scouse tribe was snapping his mate taking cash out of a machine housed in a redundant phone both. "Yeah. And I'm even gonna get that seagull that's just about to shit on yer 'ead!" He guffawed at his own joke, much the way I do myself and grinned at me as I passed.
Next door was a tourist attraction billed as ‘the smallest house in Great Britain’. Outside of which was the largest queue in Conwy. The slowly moving line was being distracted by a noisy bag pipe player in full tartan regalia. I assumed this was an example of pan-nation Celtic brotherly love, before realising that the musician (I use the term loosely) was playing the Welsh version of bagpipes, the pibau cyrn (I had to look it up), that he was wearing St David’s Tartan (I had to look that up too) not Scottish Highland gear.
None of this authentic local heritage saved me and the queuing Bank Holiday-makers from some terrible reverberations from his instrument more in common with the squeal of gelding pigs, the drone of crippled spitfires and the screech of diesel train brakes. Bagpipes of any description should only be heard during AC/DC’s ‘It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock n Roll)’. And even then should be ejected before the end.
I made swift progress away from the harbourside, circling the beautifully preserved, murky-stoned, gritty-looking castle and following the town walls that are apparently the most intact in Europe. The town itself was endowed with narrow cobbled streets, ancient buildings and entire families wearing Everton and Liverpool footie tops. The World Heritage Site blurb outside the medieval castle didn’t mention this phenomenon, but did a good job of describing how the castle was a key part of the ‘iron ring’ of fortresses built around Snowdonia in the 13th century by Edward I to contain the Welsh.
Lunch was of the very welcome fish-and-chip variety in a busy café up a tiny alley with a well-organising queuing system, followed by non-alcoholic liquid refreshment in the castle grounds. After another amble around the town I strolled back to quay to find it so much quieter by mid-afternoon. But where had everyone gone? Surely they didn’t all leave just because of the bagpipes?
It meant I had room to breathe and appreciate the mix of craft out in the Conwy Estuary: small sail boats, a couple of sightseeing boats and a lot of lobster smacks. All hanging loose at low tide. There was still a fishing industry here, despite the heavy reliance on tourism. A plaque on the sea wall commemorated Keith ‘The Fish’ Robinson who had run a stall on that site for 40 years and was also a mainstay of the Conwy lifeboat.
The best view of the castle was from the east bank of the estuary, taking in the Telford's suspension bridge, road bridge and the mass of the fortress itself. This is where I headed, turning seaward for a walk up the Wales Coast path towards Llandudno.
Deganwy, a couple of miles up the estuary path, was a good place to stop and take in my surroundings. The resort used to be busy with Victorian and Edwardian steamers pulling up at the landing station and heading upstream to Llandudno. That was not possible now as the estuary has silted up too much. What is it with silt and this corner of Britain?
A stout former hotel, the Deganwy Castle Hotel near the railway station, still retained its original façade as the nucleus of a new block of apartments. There had been some other recent investment in the town. The Quay hotel together with some housing had been built around the small bay alongside a new marina development.
You'd have been hard pressed to know it was a bank holiday. Dog walkers and a few family groups were out strolling this long-distance path, but the contrast with that morning in Conwy across the sand and silvery water was stark. There was no queue outside Sue’s Beach Hut where I refuelled with a dense cappuccino and a sticky, intestine blocking brick of raspberry flapjack.
Above Conwy Mountain on the far side of the estuary, clouds were lined up like battleships on the high seas. Flat-bottomed, steel grey, coffin-shaped vessels rumbling through the sky with rays of sharp light poking out between them. Sat on the seawall, I watched the patches of sunlight that had evaded the cloud flotilla skip across the dings and dinks of the green ridges of the mountain. It was easy to reflect on the simplest of good things at such moments, like a coffee served in a real mug and a cake on a crockery plate. (And the knowledge that Yorkshire’s thin batting was miraculously holding up in their Roses encounter in the Bob Willis Trophy match at Headingley).
I loved that a lot of the punters who arrived at the Hut knew Sue. There were brief conversations with Mums about the kids going back to school the following week for the first time since Covid hit; and about the slowness of trade given the pandemic and the recent weather. Life seemed altogether more sedate on this side of the estuary. Though every now and then I thought I caught snatches of a strangled ‘Land of My Fathers’ whining up from the castle and out to sea on fresh breeze.
Llandudno ticks a lot of boxes as a seaside destination. For a start it has two splendid bays. Walking up from Deganwy, I happened upon the western bay first, sitting on the Conwy estuary and sheltered by the bare rock and vertiginous cliffs of Great Orme’s wilder side. I’ve decided that I like estuaries. You tend to get two coastlines for the price of one. If you are lucky, you get some noteable geographical features. And there’s often abundant wildlife. Best of all, there are plenty of water craft and water side features (i.e. pubs, restaurants, cafes, castles, boat-trips) to boot. Llandudno’s west bay had all of these bar a pub. Which I could just about forgive. This was the less popular of the two bays. The north bay on the other side of Great Orme was more developed. It was also far more elegant. Genteel, even.
Night had enveloped the town before I was able to get out for a full explore. The sea was hard up against the prom, in a frisky mood, whisked up by the onshore breeze. I’d emerged from my hotel a few streets back from the shore at roughly the mid-point of the bay and a line of multicoloured lights strung up between lampposts traced its sweep in either direction. Both wings ended at their respective Orme, each tastefully illuminated: to the west, Great Orme; and to the east, Little Orme. Beyond the latter, I struggled to identify the source of a slew of red and yellow lights extending out in to the bay beyond the headland. Too big for another pier and wrong direction for the next town down the coast. The mind played tricks and then cleared: this was the Awel y Môr Offshore Wind Farm, adding some extra colour to the vista. Serviced by ships from Mostyn, no doubt.
Llandudno prom is a carefully manicured public space backed by elegant Edwardian hotels, each the same height and design, planned carefully to enhance the uniform curve of the bay. All the hotels were full. The Imperial, The St George’s, The Isis, The Queens Arms. All the others too. ‘No vacancies’ signs hung on every double-fronted doorway. Even the smaller guest houses. The barman at my hotel safely tucked adjacent to Oak Furnitureland had said the same. They had barely had a vacancy or an empty table since July, when lockdown restrictions eased in Wales.
So where was everybody? The prom was virtually empty. And for all the elegance of the esplanade, a few decent pubs or restaurants from which to soak up that view were sorely needed. Can you imagine such a bay in France or Italy without a ring of cafes and bars? Then again, they don’t get the North Walian weather, I suppose.
The place was unnervingly quiet at night though. By the pier head there was a little more activity where a few youths were having a game of footie on a spit of beach under the prom lights. A busker with a spangly trilby and tinsel-wrapped microphone was massacring a version of ‘Heaven Is A Place On Earth’ for no-one in particular. 10pm and the pier booths were shutting up. The few funfair rides were already closed and under cover. I wound round by Mostyn Street - another handsome, attractive thoroughfare - where there were one or two appealing restaurants and where the bars looked a little more lively. This was bank holiday Saturday. Were all those families and retirees really all tucked up in their dated hotels watching telly? I guessed so. They don’t need that much entertainment after dark, and this group is absolutely the town’s target audience.
Next morning of course, they were all up with the lark, rested after an early and peaceful night’s sleep. I walked up Great Orme. The hill was humming. Young families and grandparents all springing around the hill and the bay below, full of beans after their relaxing night in. Great Orme is well used. The dry ski slope, toboggan run and cable car all had proper Bank Holiday queues in the morning sunshine. I walked up and enjoyed clear views along the coast and down the estuary. And then back down the other side, wending my way to the station.
Llandudno is lovely to look at. Clean, wholesome and measured, with fine buildings, attractive streets and a set of physical attributes stunning enough to make Baywatch blush. But I’m the wrong demographic for this town. I said earlier that Llandudno had a good few ticks on the ‘seaside destination’ list. But not enough to make the ‘could I live here?’ list. Mrs A will be delighted to hear this.
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Intro/Index - Seaside Special: Excursions to the Coast