It’s a bright spring day on Llandudno promenade when a rasping squawk pierces the calm like someone treading on a duck. Children flock to the source of the sound, a red-and-white-striped wooden booth topped with a proscenium arch. Parents loiter awkwardly as the squawks evolve into a familiar voice from their own childhood: “That’s the way to do it!”
Mr Punch is warming up for another round of wife- beating, perverting the course of justice and murder, the likes of which he has been getting away with in Llandudno for 150 years. And the kids love it. Launching into the pantomime refrains, “He’s behind you!”; “Oh no, he didn’t! (Oh yes, he did!)” and “Sausages!”, they wriggle on the Tarmac with delight as the hook-nosed harlequin tosses his baby down the stairs, beats his wife with a stick, loses his “swossages” to a crocodile, and outwits the forces of law and order in the form of PC Plod, Jack Ketch, the hangman (whom he hangs), and the Devil himself. If it hadn’t been going since the 19th century, it could almost be a plot from The Simpsons.
“Professor Codman’s Wooden Headed Follies” is the longest-running Punch and Judy show in the country, although versions have existed in Britain since the 17th century. This one was established in 1860 by Richard Codman, a travelling Romany musician from Norwich, who found himself stranded in the North Wales seaside town when his horse dropped dead.
The next day, Codman went to Llandudno beach to collect driftwood from which he carved his Punch and Judy figures. The same puppets (bar the crocodile, who is prone to breaking due to the beatings he endures) have been used by his descendants ever since. His great-granddaughter,
Jackie Millband-Codman, fronts the show today, shaking a donations tin while her son Jason toils inside the booth, flipping his swazzle (the metal reed responsible for Mr Punch’s rasp) from the back of his throat to the side of the mouth as he switches between voices.
“You’re not a Punch-and-Judy man until you’ve swallowed a swazzle,” Jackie confides after the show. She adds, possibly with a little physiological exaggeration, “My father inhaled one once, and had to have it removed from his lung with a magnet.”
Jason emerges sweating from the booth, a towering, barrel-chested Welshman who looks like he would be more comfortable in the second row of Llandudno First 1st XV. He learnt the ropes as a teenager from his father, Jackie’s husband Morris Millband, with whom he now shares the honorific title of “professor”.
A glorious sweep of Victoriana between the two limestone headlands of the Great Orme and the Little Orme, Llandudno is a town embedded in tradition. The only thing more prevalent than nostalgia is fish and chips, and the best place to feast on both is either the town pier (the longest in Wales) or at the clunkily-named Fish Tram Chips opposite the starting point of the Great Orme Tramway.
After lunch, hop on to the only cable-hauled trams still operating on British public roads. The blue, open-sided carriages climb through the steep and narrow streets, affording spectacular views on their way to the 679-foot summit as they have done since 1902, while Kashmir goats scramble around the trackside. Today, the Great Orme is a favoured jumping-off point for paragliders, as well as a nature reserve and the site of a Bronze Age copper mine. The only way to improve on the views is by taking the cable car down – a high-flying 1969 alternative to the tramway which returns to earth in the Happy Valley, where you will find more Victorian follies, including the town’s camera obscura.
Ken Jones is polishing his lens when I arrive at the octagonal shed on the hill – one of the last of its kind in the UK. Perched on a ladder, he wipes salt and seagull guano off the all-seeing eye. Unsoiled, the lens projects the panorama of Llandudno Bay on to a table in the darkroom below. For £1.50 (50p for children), visitors can see the terraces of prim and peeling 19th-century hotels. Or they can step outside and see the same view with their own eyes. The technological wizardry may have lost some of its aura since Llandudno got its camera obscura in 1859. Today, the replica maintained by Ken and his business partner Mat Shields serves more as a window on to the past.
From this viewpoint, you also notice Llandudno has not one but two shores. Beyond the low-slung grid of streets is the quieter West Shore, where a young Alice Liddell, whose father owned a property there until 1872, used to spend her summer holidays. Alice was the inspiration behind Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and a White Rabbit sculpture in carved marble on a model boating lake commemorates the fact.
Llandudno’s energies are not devoted purely to preserving the past. Behind the period edifices of the hotels and guesthouses, modernizsation is under way. Up Church Walks from the tramway, the Escape boutique guesthouse is a grand Victorian villa decked out in the kind of urban chic you might find in a Malmaison. Sam and Gaynor Nayar spared little expense on the rooms, each individually designed with features such as standalone brass baths, rainforest showers and king-size leather beds.
The Empire Hotel, back towards the North Shore, was built in 1854 and maintains its period elegance but has a modern spa area at its core. The blue-underlit pool is overlooked – somewhat disconcertingly for shy swimmers – by diners in the hotel restaurant. “People come to Llandudno because they want Victoriana, they want that Punch-and-Judy character – but they also want Wi-Fi and a decent shower,” says Elyse Waddy, the third generation of her family to run the Empire.
These establishments are a far cry from the Llandudno guesthouse Bill Bryson endured in Notes from a Small Island, with its “ceiling stains that bring to mind a corpse in the room above”. After a subsequent trip, he named Llandudno his favourite seaside resort.
The town still has its fair share of indistinguishable guesthouses, chippies and pubs sagging behind the rusting iron lacework of a more ornate age. But the likes of Elyse, Sam and Gaynor are leading a discreet revolution that is as respectful of Llandudno’s past as it is of its future. That’s the way to do it!
Direct trains run in just over two hours from Manchester (Piccadilly and Oxford Road) to Llandudno, via Chester. From other points, you can change at Chester or at Llandudno Junction on the North Wales line to Holyhead.
When to go
Professor Codman’s Punch and Judy show takes place on the promenade in front of the pier at 2pm and 4pm daily (also at noon in peak weeks and bank holidays; 01492 879 523).
This bank holiday weekend (1-3 May) is the annual Llandudno Victorian Extravaganza (victorian-extravaganza.co.uk), an old-fashioned knees-up complete with street entertainers, parades, fairground rides, steam engines, marching bands and competitions for the best Victorian costumes.
Where to stay
The Empire Hotel 73 Church Walks (01492 860 555; empirehotel.co.uk); doubles from £80 per night including breakfast.
Escape boutique B&B 48 Church Walks (01492 877 776; escapebandb.co.uk); doubles from £85 per night including breakfast.
Where to eat
* Osborne House Promenade, 17 North Parade (01492 860 330; osbornehouse.com), the Empire’s sister hotel, has a black-and-gold Victorian gothic café: three-course meal, £18.50 per person.
* The Seahorse seafood restaurant, 7 Church Walks (01492 875 315; the-seahorse.co.uk): £21 set menu.
* Fish Tram Chips Old Road, opposite the Great Orme Tramway (01492 872 673).
Llandudno tourist information centre (01492 577 677; visitllandudno.org.uk)