William Ewart Gladstone once claimed that he owed his health and strength ‘in no small degree to the salubrity, fresh breezes and habits of life which prevail in Penmaenmawr’. His regular visits popularised the town in late Victorian times, and inspired me to try North Wales instead of my normal summer holiday on the Continent.
Penmaenmawr – pronounced ‘Pen-mine-mowr’, but popularly known as ‘Pen’ – is an old-fashioned seaside town, now past its former glory. It nestles among the mountains of Snowdonia, which rise straight up from the Irish Sea. The locals have gardens steep enough to make a mountain goat nervous, and a renovated Victorian arcade has grand little shops which provide everything you need.
Situated in this visually stunning place, Pen has suffered from the decline of its primary industry. Since neolithic times, employment has been provided by its granite mines, and a Bronze Age monument in the mountains overlooking the town is known as the Druid’s Circle (or Meini Hirion in Welsh, meaning ‘long stones’). The toughness of the local stone has meant it was always sought after; artefacts made from it have been found throughout the British Isles, and during the 19th century granite ‘setts’ from Penmaenmawr were used to pave the streets of Liverpool and Manchester.
Granite-mining bred a tough and proud people who relied on this single source of employment. Families of old workers talk about men blasting the granite in the dead of winter, crying from the cold as they were carried inside and laid before stoves to thaw out. The mine still operates, but where 500 men were employed in the 1950s, today there are fewer than ten.
Local historian Dennis Roberts, who runs the excellent Penmaenmawr Museum (www.penmaenmawrmuseum.co.uk), told me that Pen’s other industry, tourism, is also in decline. People began to visit Spain in the 1970s, and holidays ‘became more about sun-worshipping and less about fresh air, exercise and meeting and talking with people’. Places like Benidorm have prospered at the expense of this beautiful area.
Things aren’t just laid out for you in Penmaenmaw: you have to explore the country round about – starting with the mountains which surround the town and can be reached on foot or by car. The walking is terrific, the green hills are laced with lilac heather, and the views over Anglesey and the Irish Sea are worth the visit alone.
I made a short drive to Llanberis, in the shadow of Snowdon. You can walk or take a train to the summit of Snowdon, but I never made it past Llyn Padarn (‘llyn’ is ‘lake’ in Welsh). The mountains were ranged around its waters under blue skies with touches of high white cloud, sea air had been replaced by the scent of the forests, and – since it was a hot day – I even braved a swim.I then visited the beach front and promenade in Pen. Both the beach and the sea are clean, and the promenade forms part of the Wales Coast Path. This is a splendid way to enjoy the coastline, by foot or bicycle. I walked the five miles to Conwy: a World Heritage Site, its castle was built by Edward I between 1283 and 1289. The coastal track is relatively flat, but there is some challenging cycling, with stunning views, in the hills above the towns.
I spent a day exploring Anglesey, before visiting the magical Llanddwyn Island, a small tidal island off its west coast. With the wind blowing, bands of sunlight lighting up the ground and the mountains of the Llŷn Peninsula visible on the far side of Caernarfon Bay, it was a truly breathtaking place. The area is like an explorer’s dream, with a nature reserve, historic buildings and fantastic walks. Cyclists and water sports enthusiasts are catered for, but many people were simply walking through the island’s forests or along its beaches.
I had a glorious week in Penmaenmawr. It has so much to offer – great cycling, a golf course, fishing, bowling, a sailing club and two marvellous restaurants renowned throughout North Wales, all set in one of our majestic National Parks. It’s easy to see why Gladstone found it so appealing.