The Great Orme Tramway
Legend has it that St George (or St Michael, depending upon which books you read) fought the dragon all over mainland Britain. The dragon breathed a deadly fire, but the saint leapt onto its back where the flames couldn’t reach him, and rode the enraged dragon off the top of a rocky headland at the northernmost tip of Wales and into the sea, where it drowned. Martyn Oliver took the same route, but travelled by tram.
The headland is The Great Orme, at Llandudno in North Wales, the highest sea-facing outcrop in Britain and named after an old English word for a dragon: ‘worm’.
The climb to the top of The Great Orme is as steep today as it was in St George’s time, but you no longer need to wait for the next dragon to hitch a ride. Instead, the four carriages of The Great Orme Tramway make their measured way up and down the hillside, one every twenty minutes, seven days a week, between April and October. On average the Tramway carries 160,000 passengers a year. The route begins at a tiny terminus close to Llandudno’s elegant North Shore seafront, and at first it rises through the quiet streets at the west end of town. Drawn by a thick steel cable buried beneath the road surface, the carriage climbs to the Halfway Station, which houses the driving mechanism, the huge cable drums and the safety brakes.
From this point the carriage ascends the steep crags to the summit of The Great Orme, through alpine meadows with rare wildflowers and Kashmiri mountain goats. The view from the top is spectacular. In good weather it’s possible to see the Isle of Man and Blackpool Tower to the north, with the Lakes and Scafell Pike in the distance. To the west lies the bulk of Anglesey, Snowdonia rises majestically to the south, while to the east is the shining crescent of Llandudno Bay. On the day I rode the tram the clouds came and went, and for a while Anglesey loomed through the mist in dramatic mystery.
Similar in appearance and function to San Francisco’s famous cable cars, the Great Orme Tramway was opened in 1902 and is the last remaining cable-operated tramway on British roads. It was conceived by James Nichol, a doctor from Llandudno, who believed that the ‘exceptionally pure and exhilarating’ air at the top of The Great Orme was the healthiest in Britain. The four carriages, named after Welsh saints, are all original, and their open construction (no glass in the windows) reflects Dr Nichol’s prescription. The Tramway has an enviable safety record, with only one serious accident all the way back in 1932. At first powered by steam, the Tramway was converted to electricity in 1957, and the two winding engines – one for each half of the route – are operated by winchmen at the Halfway Station in communication with the drivers.
Passengers can leave the Tramway at the Halfway Station to inspect the control room, completing their ascent on a later carriage. Or they can visit the Great Orme’s prehistoric copper mines, cross to St Tudno’s, a clifftop church overlooking the Irish Sea, and then walk on up through the Great Orme Country Park. At the very top of the headland, and close to the Tramway’s upper terminus, is the Summit Hotel, at one time a telegraph station (and owned in the 1950s by world boxing champion Randolph Turpin).
Even without the fire-breathing dragon, the Great Orme Tramway is an adventure not to be missed.
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