From April this year I have spent almost every Wednesday afternoon working as a volunteer in the NWWT shop situated within the Visitor Centre on the summit of the Great Orme. Meeting visitors from places all over the UK and beyond has been interesting and enjoyable, I have loved learning where they were visiting from and found I have a particularly soft spot for the older people who tell me they came up here as children, some several decades ago. It’s good to hear that the place has stood the test of time and still lives up to their happy memories. A fair few people came in seeking information too, most relating to the Great Orme itself and some regarding the local area, things to see, places to go etc. Initially I had to research things, now I feel I can give enough information for the average day visitor’s needs and in the process have learned a lot about this iconic headland.
The shop’s opening season ends this weekend, so today was my last day until next April. I am going to miss my weekly journey to and from the Summit, which have been highlights of my weeks, it’s been a real privilege to have had such a scenic drive to and from work! Today’s drive was particularly stunning as it was one of only a handful of fair weather Wednesdays this season; most have been cool to the point of cold, wet and extremely windy. The shop has sold boxes full of gloves and woolly hats to unprepared visitors!
There are a number of ways to reach the summit of the Great Orme but my route of choice is via Marine Drive, also known as the Toll Road as there is a charge to drive this way (currently £3 per car that includes free parking at the summit). You can walk this route too and the length of Marine Drive is an inclusive section of the Wales Coast Path.
Leaving the toll house you are soon confronted with this dramatic view; I love the zig-zag of angles created by the road, the limestone cliff and the stone wall.
There are a few spots where it is possible to pull in and park briefly to admire the views such as this one looking back over Ormes Bay to the ‘good’ unquarried side of the Little Orme.
A limestone cliff towers high above the road level blocking out the low sun
Looking ahead to the tip of the headland and down onto a rocky cove.
Eventually the road forks and I take the upwards route which winds its way via a series of hairpin bends to the summit. The trickiest of these bends is just past the beautiful little St Tudno’s Church where there are stone walls either side of the single track; with no forward view of anything oncoming it helps if you can reverse your car accurately.
Unless I am running particularly late I pull into the small parking area opposite the church. On wild days I contemplate the view from my car but on days such as today I get out, breathe in the air and generally take in the glorious landscape and beyond it across the Irish Sea. The shape of the hawthorn trees here gives you a clue as to the regularity and strength of the prevailing wind.
Two sheep were ambling along the road in front of the church wall. Not an unusual sight, but what was unusual was that both had their long tails and also seem to have escaped this year’s shearing. I wonder where they’ve been hiding?
The National Trust famously took over the farm on the headland a few years ago and the farmer has since built up sizeable flocks of a variety of sheep breeds. Carefully chosen for their differing grazing habits they are free to wander and help maintain the conditions needed for the special flora and fauna that grace this special place.
Some are Herdwick sheep, a breed of native to the Lake District of North West England. Herdwicks are prized for their robust health, their ability to live solely on foraged food, and their tendency to be territorial and not to stray too far from their home base.
A sighting of some of the herd of resident Kashmir goats is always a highlight of the drive. They too are free to wander and graze on the tougher vegetation and they can and do, pop up almost anywhere. I was happy to see a little party in the same field as the sheep; a couple of ‘Nannies’ (females), with this years growing kids.
A sign of fair weather is to see the cable cars gliding quietly high above you to and from the summit. This cable car system, opened in June 1969, is famously the longest passenger cable car system in Britain and I’m assured the panoramic views it offers are truly amazing. I’ve yet to try it myself, but it is on my list of must-dos. Needless to say it hasn’t run frequently this year due to strong winds; not surprising when you learn it travels about a mile and its highest point is about 80 feet (24.3 metres) off the ground!
Another way to reach the summit is by tram. Much more reliable it can travel up in most weathers, although it was forced, (in compliance with insurance requirements), to stop a few Wednesdays ago when winds were gusting at 48mph! I remember it well as that day I could hardly open the car door and almost got blown off my feet in the car park. The tram route is a journey in two parts, requiring a break at the aptly named Half-Way Station where you swap cars to continue to the Summit.
Reaching the road junction by the Half-Way Station I turn right to carry on up to the Summit (left takes you back down into town following parallel to the tram track). I pass the entrance to the Bronze Age Mines. I haven’t been down there either and may not. I can do heights much better than closed-in depths, no matter how fascinating.
From the car park the view is stunning. Not entirely clear but the sun shining through clouds had turned the lightly rippled sea to molten silver.
Although not obvious from the sea’s surface it was still windy enough to support this young Herring gull allowing it to hang in the air and parachute down to make a soft landing.
The shop closes at 4pm since the clocks went back. The summit was almost deserted and the last tram departed as I left. The sun was already setting behind Anglesey and veiled by light misty cloud was casting a glorious soft golden glow over the entire landscape, even colour-washing the white-painted summit building.
In the gathering dusk I drove back down the way I had come to the junction with Marine drive, which from this point once again becomes a one-way only road leading down to the West Shore side of the headland. The road passes by the old Lighthouse, the subdued light suitably accentuating the gothic-castellated building perched bleakly on this exposed point of the headland.
The Lighthouse, now a ’boutique’ b&b, was originally constructed in 1862 by the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company who built the fortress-like building using “dressed limestone and vast bulks of Canadian pitch pine”. The beacon remained as a continuous warning to mariners until March 22nd 1985 when the optic was removed. It is now on view within the Visitor Centre on the summit.
Past the lighthouse I just had to stop and get out of the car to photograph these pink-washed limestone cliffs before continuing on down. Then stopped again to take in the view out over the West Shore and the Conwy estuary. On a clear day you can see Conwy castle and the road bridges and follow the curve of the river back way beyond to the mountains of Snowdonia.
A few minutes later I am almost home, driving along the Llandudno sea front and admiring the almost-full moon in the darkening sky.
This must surely be one of the most scenic routes to and from a workplace that a person could wish for.