As a child, we regularly took our summer holiday in north Wales and Llandudno was a favourite place to visit. I have fond memories of wandering along the promenade licking on a tutti frutti ice cream and playing tupenny falls in the arcade on the pier. In fact, there’s even a black and white photo somewhere in my mother’s attic of me and my little brother riding donkeys on the beach. What I hadn’t realized then, but have discovered since, is that another little girl was probably enjoying similar summertime activities, but some 90-years before me. Her name was Alice Liddle, and it was in Llandudno that her well-to-do Oxfordshire family would come for the summer, and where her father’s friend, Charles Dodgson, would also visit. It was young Alice who inspired Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, to write his classic children’s story. So when the opportunity arose to revisit not only a much loved childhood haunt, but also home of the original Alice, how could I possibly refuse? What’s more, this time I would have my own two children in tow and I couldn’t wait to see what they (very much 21st century high tech children) would make of this quaint, Victorian seaside town where very little has changed since its inception in the 1850s…
There can be no getting over the fact that North Wales is a long way from London – five hours according to the sat nav, but more like seven when you take into account the Bank Holiday traffic, plus a pit stop at the motorway services. Thankfully my husband had set up the portable DVD player to keep the children entertained and fittingly they chose to watch Alice in Wonderland, albeit Tim Burton’s reworked version. Meanwhile, us adults tuned in for a marathon session of Radio 4 where the weatherman reported that North Wales was set to enjoy glorious sunshine and warmth over the coming few days, thus pushing aside our pessimistic visions of a typical rain-sodden, wind-swept, British seaside break.
Where to begin… The St Tudno hotel is the antithesis of minimalist chic. It is flouncy, fancy and chintzy and I use all those adjectives without a hint of criticism. In short, we loved it. Its handsome double fronted Victorian edifice, festooned with hanging baskets and lovingly tended flower beds, overlooks the pier and is opposite Codman’s Punch & Judy booth (est. 1860) and the Noddy-esque land train that travels the 10-minute journey from the North to the West shore, so everything is quite literally on the doorstep. Inside, the hotel is a riot of ruches, frills, flowers and fabrics, but the place is so obviously personal and very deeply cared for (during our stay, the owner, a charming, elderly gentleman called Mr Bland could regularly be seen plumping up cushions and watering flowers) that you immediately feel like you’re staying with dear friends or family. Our room at the top of the house had amazing views of the beach and promenade and the children were delighted to discover that their bed was a pull down wall bed cunningly disguised as a wardrobe. They were also rather impressed with the glasses of milk and heart-shaped shortbread (homemade) that greeted their arrival. Our daughter did make us laugh when she announced shortly after: “This is the sort of place the Hotel Inspector would hate, but I think it’s great.” A sentiment probably echoed by Alice Liddle, whose family actually stayed here when it was apartments. Indeed they even appeared on the 1861 census – husband, wife, five children, four servants and a governess to boot.
Llandudno (also known as “Queen of the Welsh Resorts”) is a place set in aspic – you’ll not find any burger vans or tower blocks along its beachfront strip, just beautifully preserved Victorian villas forming a picturesque arc around an uncluttered shoreline (the town is tightly regulated by the Mostyn family, which has owned the land for hundreds of years). The two limestone headlands known as the Great and Little Ormes (the former is said to resemble an alligator, while the latter looks like a baby elephant) form a stunning, natural backdrop and a wonderful foil to the town’s manicured elegance. In the wider setting, Snowdonia National Park is only a half hour drive away, while Caernarfon and its magnificent castle is a similar distance along the coastal road.
What we ate
More a case of what didn’t we. The hotel itself did wonderfully fresh and tasty food with dinner having a surprisingly contemporary flourish, thanks no doubt to the skills of head chef Andy Foster. My duo of Welsh lamb was exemplary, while my husband declared his fillet of Welsh beef one of the best he’d ever tasted. My children’s rapt silence told me everything I needed to know about their pan roast fillet of salmon, and they were so full up afterwards they didn’t even want dessert. Breakfasts were equally as impressive, with a made to order menu that included all the usual suspects plus poached smoked haddock and kippers. We also sampled afternoon tea (yes, our waistbands were somewhat over-stretched) on the front patio that consisted of a selection of finger sandwiches, homemade scones with cream and jam, assorted cakes, and traditional Welsh buttered Bara Brith (a bit like malt loaf, but even nicer). It was all washed down with a fine Ceylon tea, served loose leaf, from a teapot and strainer into elegant little bone china cups. My children absolutely adored the ritual of it all and couldn’t believe this was the first time they’d ever experienced a proper afternoon tea. A wander into town revealed another culinary delight in The Hambone Food Hall and Brasserie, a deli and restaurant that served us well for delicious takeaway paninis and pastries one day and a lip smacking fish and chip supper another.
Things to do
In honour of Alice Liddle, we just had to experience Down The Rabbit Hole, a walking theatrical performance that takes you on a whimsical tour of Llandudno, revealing little known facts about Alice, the book she inspired and the town she so often frequented. The fact that the tour was conducted by the White Rabbit and Mad Hatter initially had my ten-year-old twins squirming in embarrassment, but in testament to the enthusiasm of the performers, they were soon captivated and loved hearing all the interesting facts about the town – a particular favourite being the great storm of 1859 which destroyed the original pier and scuppered the town’s chances of becoming a major port to rival Holyhead. The following day we decided to pay a trip to the Welsh Mountain Zoo, set high above Colwyn Bay and just a 15-minute drive from town, and we were so glad we did. Home to a wide range of rare and endangered animals, including snow leopards, Sumatran tigers and red pandas, the zoo prides itself on its conservation credentials, as well as being one of the most scenic in the country, with breath-taking views over the bay. For the children the meerkat enclosure was a huge draw, along with the sea lions, who we had the privilege to watch being trained. When not out and about on excursions, the children liked nothing better than wandering along the beach, peering into rock pools and tempting crabs on the jetty with bait hooked to a handline. One evening as the sun was setting, I watched from the bedroom window as my husband took the children crabbing. It was amazing to think that Alice and her siblings probably did the exact same thing and that so little about childhood had really changed. On the morning of our departure, with the sun shining and before the long drive home, we decided to treat ourselves to a trip on the Great Orme Tramway. Built in 1902, it’s the only cable-hauled tramway still operating on British public roads and climbs a gloriously scenic route up to the Great Orme’s 679ft summit. Each tram is named after a saint, and ours just happened to be called St Tudno, which the driver informed us was actually the ancient church that nestles in a sheltered hollow on the Northern side of the Great Orme. At the top, we spent a wonderful half an hour drinking in the fabulous views (you can see all the way to the Isle of Man, Blackpool and The Lake District), before making our descent and rather heavy heartedly heading home.
So little has changed about Llandudno, it really is a living, breathing museum. One afternoon we popped into one of the town’s traditional pubs on the hillside, which was bedecked with black and white photographs of Llandudno’s illustrious past, some of which dated back to Alice Liddle’s day. Practically all of the town’s landmarks are still recognisable, so if transported to the 21st century, young Alice would still feel completely at home, a fact that certainly sparked my children’s imaginations.
Why we’ll go back
Having rediscovered somewhere that I adored visiting as a child myself, it was wonderful seeing my own children having such good, wholesome seaside fun. We will most definitely return, but next time we’ll make it a week-long holiday rather than just a weekend visit.
A family room at the St Tudno Hotel starts from £90 per adult per night, with children under six staying free. Children aged six to 12 cost £20 per child, while children aged 13 to 16 cost £25 per child. All prices are on a bed and breakfast basis. For more details visit st-tudno.co.uk. For information about the town and things to do visit www.visitllandudno.org.uk
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