To Llandudno and beyond: Robert Chalmers embarks on a father-and-son 'castling' trip in Wales
The writer sets out to discard his preconceptions that the only worthwhile things to have come out of Wales are Ryan Giggs, Cerys Matthews and the M4...
Saturday 12 June 2010
"The Welsh," poet John Cooper Clarke once told me, "burned down my holiday home."
"Wasn't that something of an urban myth, 40 years ago?"
"I don't know," he replied. "But mine was in Lanzarote."
Somehow, over the years, I've developed the entirely unfounded idea that the only worthwhile things to have come out of Wales are Ryan Giggs, Cerys Matthews and the M4. But last month I finally gave in to the demands of my nine-year-old son, Christian (named, I feel I should say, after characters from The Pilgrim's Progress and Mutiny On The Bounty and not, as most strangers assume, from some born-again zeal), that we should head off for Llandudno and go, as he likes to put it, "castling".
Our trip begins inauspiciously when Christian proves, somewhere between Stafford and Crewe, that, whatever Richard Branson says about the design of his Pendolino trains, they can induce projectile vomiting in some passengers.
Once we arrive at Llandudno Junction, we go to pick up a hire car. I've used the rental company in various continents over the years, with no problems, but here things are less straightforward. The credit-card company (who for some reason implied on the phone that seeking to hire a car in Wales could be interpreted as an "irregular and potentially suspicious pattern of spending") keep me in the office for 20 minutes, after which they allow the transaction, but still block the card.
We check in to the Imperial Hotel: one of the posher establishments on the front, which I chose on the basis that, even though there are only the two of us, we need separate, adjoining rooms so that I can sit up all night watching early Buñuel films.
The Imperial, despite its name and imposing façade, is a friendly sort of place with few of the pretensions, such as dress codes, that still cling to life in some parts of the UK. The staff are welcoming, helpful and unfussy. A sea-facing double with an adjoining children's room containing twin beds costs £170.
Llandudno's spectacular bay is bordered by two imposing land masses: the Great Orme and the Little Orme. Looking out to sea, though, your eye is caught first by the pier, then by the rather less uplifting sight of a wind farm in the bay. As with any incongruous development, your eye tends to get drawn to these propellers like a rip in an otherwise perfect oil painting.
Although most attractions, such as the cable car over the Great Orme, appear to be closed, and the promenade is mainly populated by OAPs battling an unforgiving squall, Llandudno has not developed the kind of atmosphere prevalent in Ramsgate or Southend, which doesn't so much dent your holiday mood as sap the will to live.
The fish and chips at Holmes Place in the town centre cost less than £10 and are wonderful, even if, when I go to drop some money in the tip jar on the counter, the staff fall on it like vultures on a fresh antelope corpse.
We walk down to the pier. With the temperature dropping and mist coming in from the sea, the atmosphere in the café at the end of the pier is reminiscent of a film I once saw where Trevor Howard boards an ocean liner, and gradually realises that everyone around him is dead.
The Imperial's evening menu has a wide and imaginative range of options for children; the main adult courses, such as cod braised with leek and salsify are fresh and inventive, but not cheap. Their vegetarian lasagne is excellent, but at £18.50 comes in at more than you'd expect to pay at places more popular with celebrities, such as The Ivy in central London. But the view from here – depending on how you feel about staring at Alice Cooper sipping mineral water at his favourite corner table – is much more interesting, and the drinks are not overpriced (The very decent house Pinot Grigio is £16 a bottle.)
The Imperial does adhere to the practice of listing certain items only in French ("What," Christian asks me, "are petit pois?") a practice guaranteed to intimidate visitors unfortunate enough not to speak the language of Marshal Pétain and Arsène Wenger.
The following morning, I drive our small voiture to Conwy Castle. The most imposing of Edward I's fortresses, it commands stunning views of the peninsula and the suspension bridge, built by Thomas Telford in 1826, which crosses Conwy River, leading back to Llandudno. The castle's eight towers are all, unfortunately, intact, which means that, as somebody accompanying a nine-year-old, you are going to have to be prepared to go up them all at least twice, an experience at least as demanding as an hour's circuit training. (Back in Conwy, Anna's Tea Rooms at 9 Castle Street has an excellent range of beverages and food, and waitress service for those too enfeebled to stand.)
The real jewel of these buildings, though, is Beaumaris Castle, just across the Menai Straits in Anglesey. It's an unfinished single-storey structure that commands your entire attention from the moment you set eyes on it, which may be why I failed to notice the pay-and-display machine in its deserted car park and consequently acquired, among other souvenirs, my first Welsh parking ticket.
We have a short excursion to Penmaenmawr, where a sign reads: "Café Open All Day!" (Café Closed All Day). The promenade I remember from my own visits as a child has been demolished to make way for a bypass, and the beach looks like that scene where the submarine surfaces in post-holocaust San Francisco, in Russell Mulcahy's 2000 remake of On The Beach. And yet, as I'm coming to realise, sunshine and crowds don't really matter to a child, so long as there's sand, a rock pool and a cheap fishing net.
I leave Llandudno unsure as to why more people don't come here, though I do write as somebody who has yet to file last year's income tax return, and there may be some clue in the cost. I admit that the Dylan Thomas-esque room-service bill I ran up on Buñuel night was nobody's fault but my own, but my generally relaxed attitude to ordering food and drink meant that, when you add two nights' total hotel bill (£521) to the hire of a tiny Citroen (£173), the parking ticket (£25), train fares (£62) minicab to and from London stations (£40), admission to monuments (£20) miscellaneous stuffed dragons, fish and chips, rock and bookmarks (£50) forgotten swimming trunks and new T-shirt (£36) the grand total for a two-and-a-half day break comes in at £927, which is only £60 short of what a friend recently paid to take her son to Mongolia for a fortnight. It seems only fair to admit that, were you to drive your own car to Wales, camp, and cook for yourself, you could bring that figure down by at least £800.
I feel obliged to conclude with my companion's verdict on the hotel ("Brilliant") its food ("Brilliant") the chip shop ("Brilliant") the pier ("Brilliant") and Beaumaris Castle: "The Best Ever, because it had ducks."
Travel essentials: Llandudno
* Trains from London Euston are operated by Virgin Trains (08719 774 222; virgintrains.co.uk ). Connecting services from other parts of the country are via Crewe or Chester (08457 484950; nationalrail.co.uk ).
* The Imperial Hotel, The Promenade, Llandudno, Conwy, North Wales LL30 (12A)P (01492 877 466; theimperial.co.uk ). B&B starts at £119, including breakfast.
Eating and drinking there
* Holmes Place Café, 15 South Parade, Llandudno LL30 LN (01492 874235).
* Conwy Castle, Conwy (01492 592358; conwy.com ). Open 9.30am-5pm daily (until 6pm during July-August and 10am-4pm November-March). Adults £4.60, children £4.10.
* Beaumaris Castle, Anglesey (01248 810361; beaumaris.com ). Open 9.30am-5pm daily (until 6pm during July-August and to 4pm November-March). Adults £3.60, children £3.20.
* Llandudno Tourist Office: 01492 577577; visitllandudno.org.uk .
* Visit Wales: 08708 300 306; visitwales.co.uk
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