Starting mileage: 18605 km
Day started: 11:00
Day ended: 23:00
Llandudno is something of a Blackpool of North Wales; devised almost from scratch as a Victorian holiday resort for the workmen and managers of the slate quarries, it has neat, straight streets, still richly decorated in the quaint Victorian style, with carved wooden panels and slender pillars along the high street store fronts, and a parade row that spans the beach, ending in the middle of nowhere on either side.
The town lies in the shadow of Great Orme – the name meaning “Great Dragon” in Norse – a massive limestone headland of great antiquity; there is a range of attractions on the top of the Orme, and unless you have a car capable of braving the winding lanes of its slope, you get there using a tram.
Britain’s only cable car ( return ticket is £6.00 pp) is a reminder of Llandudno’s Victorian glory, and it remains a highly entertaining mode of transport, although whoever thought of building a tram without windows or any other weather protection in Wales had a strange sense of humour; the track is single, with one passing point at each stage: half-way up the hill is the aptly named half-way station, where you can either board the second tram to the summit of Orme, or alight to visit the Mines – which was what we had done.
You may be thinking we’ve had enough of mines by now, but the Orme ones are something different; I’ve been wanting to visit them since our first visit to North Wales, and the reason for that is simple: the Orme Copper Mines are 4000 years old, and are the largest and most important ever discovered Bronze Age mines in Europe.
The site is easy to miss: it’s a small hole, hidden away from sight; they don’t look much from the outside, and the price may seem steep (£6.75 pp), but do not fear: it’s well worth the visit.
There are 9 known levels of the original mines, with the first two accessible to the public. The corridors are wet, cold and narrow, decorated lavishly with comic sans posters aimed at the kids among the visitors; none of that detracts from the atmosphere of this ancient place, carved thousands of years ago with nothing but hard stone hammers and bone spades.
The real highlight of the visit is the great cave, the largest man-made underground cavern of ancient Britain, if not Europe. You can’t see a lot of it through the narrow opening in the corridor’s wall, but what you can glimpse is quite breath-taking.
I do have to note again one little flaw in the marketing of the caverns; in the gift shop of the visitor center to the largest copper mines of the Bronze Age we could find nothing made of copper or bronze! No jewellery, no artifact replicas, nothing. Instead the shop was filled with magic crystals and geological mish-mash from all over the world.
Our visit to Orme was cut short by the rare onset of heavy rain; without our raincoats – it was so long since we had need for them, we stopped carrying them around – we ran back to the Half-way Station and returned to Llandudno on the next tram.
We drove due east towards the Borders, where the shires are small and named after towns nobody’s heard off: Denbigh and Flint. From a leaflet we picked up at the Orme Tram station we’ve discovered two major attractions of Flintshire, apart from the Flint castle (which we didn’t get to see after all, but then we really had enough of Edwardian castles by now): the Lamentation Cross and the Holywell.
Lamentation Cross – Maen Achwyfan – is an enormous celtic cross standing in the middle of a field a few miles north of Holywell. There really is nothing else to it; the field crosses, when in good shape, are some of the most fascinating monuments of the British countryside, sentinels of centuries of history, the Christian versions of the prehistoric menhirs. This particular one is in very good shape, and the intricate celtic knots are very finely preserved, at least on two out of four sides.
The Well of St Winifred in Holywell is a peculiar site. Holywell is called the Lourdes of Wales, and indeed it wouldn’t be out of place in France – or in Spain, or in Poland; but in the middle of protestant Britain it stands out like the statue of Holy Mary in the courtyard. A Catholic sanctuary, and a place of pilgrimage, on this wet afternoon it was a grey, sad and lonely place, but we could see by the setting up of portable changing rooms that they were preparing for 15th of August’s Feast of Mary, when thousands descend on the pools to drink, wash and bathe in the holy waters.
The spring – said to have sprouted in the place where Winifred had been resurrected by the über-powerful local priest St Beuno – is reputedly all-healing, which is attested by a pile of discarded crutches at the entrance. The well itself is at the bottom of an oddly built two-story chapel on the hillside (you can access the chapel on both levels); there is a large bathing pool fed by the same spring, and a smaller side-chapel with tap for filling of holy bottles (£1.99 in the shop). You can wash and dip feet in the pool, but you can’t bathe without an attendant. Not that the weather was particularly swimming-friendly, mind.
We zipped past Flint; the town centre stunned us with its ugliness, and we decided not to stay and search for the castle which seems to be situated a bit to the side. It was our last night in Wales, and we didn’t want our last memory to be this bleak, grey, almost remarkably ordinary settlement.
There are many pubs in Britain which offer adjacent camping, but Griffin Inn in Trevalyn was the first that was convenient for us to stay at. The pub is fairly small and standard, as is the field, but it’s nice to be able to drink a draught pint and only have a few steps to go back to the car. There is only one toilet and shower, though presumably you can use the pub facilities while it’s open; all pitches are with electrics, if you can reach with the cable.
The nearby Broughton aerospace factory has its own air strip which twice a day welcomes world’s largest airplane, Airbus Beluga; if you’re lucky, you can spot it from the campsite.