On July 15th 2021, 23 members of the History of Deganwy Group met for a walk and talk led by Elan Rivers on the Little Orme. Elan is a local historian and long-standing member, of the group and we were privileged to have her expert guidance on a beautiful sunny evening.
We began at the large gate entrance to Penrhyn Quarry, and headed left before turning left again up a narrow path. This brought us onto Pen y Garreg Lane, which was the original track to Pentre Isaf Farm. This was once the third biggest farm in the area and is now much changed from its 17th century origins. The house opposite, Tranquillity, was converted from the stone barn belonging to the farm. The farm marked the border of the land bought from the Pugh family of Penrhyn Old Hall in 1760 by Owen Williams, which now forms Craig-y-Don – named after Owen’s house on his native island of Anglesey.
Land in the area was also bought by the Mostyn family at auction and acquired by them through marriages. Some of Pentre Isaf’s land was sold to the quarry, and the remainder covered the area which now houses the modern estate built in the 1970s. Pentre Isaf has been lived in by the Rigby family for about 50 years; Mr Rigby was an architect and incidentally received 2 medals from the Royal Humane Society for saving lives on separate occasions. Before we moved on, Mrs Rigby came out and told us about the former outhouse in the garden which had a 3-seater toilet! The house features in the book Penrhyn Bay: Its Story by A.H. Stamp.
Further up the hill, there is a ruined homestead in the trees which was the birthplace of William Williams (1814-1869), whose bardic name was Creuddynfab. He was a farm labourer who moved to Cheshire and then became stationmaster at Stalybridge in Lancashire. He returned to Llandudno to become the first paid secretary of the National Eisteddfod.
Elan had brought copies of a photograph of Trwyn y Fuwch Quarry taken in about 1910, which shows a hive of activity with steam wagons, tracks, buildings and a ship ready for loading. As we returned to the main path and continued to the left, we emerged onto what was the original level of the quarry and could see that the only recognisable feature remaining was the distinctive headland.
The quarry began in 1889 when Edward Fiddler bought a 30 year lease from Mostyn Estates to quarry limestone. He then sold this to Joseph Storey who already had quarries in Bacup in Lancashire. He brought 5 locomotives and had a 3ft gauge track installed. The work involved men bringing bags of gunpowder from the magazine and taking it to the rockface where women laid the charges. After the limestone had been blasted from the cliffs, it was loaded into wagons and taken to the quay. At its peak in 1900, 90,000 tonnes were produced and used in the chemical and steel industry in Glasgow and the Clyde. Storer paid £150 to begin with and a penny a tonne to Mostyn Estates.
By around 1910, different companies were involved. Trading with Scotland had tailed off, but it was soon realised that the high quality limestone could be used to make Portland cement. Quarrying began again, with boats loaded at high tide and sailing to Ellesmere Port. The loading process involved trains going to the edge where blocks were unloaded into the grinding mill and then into hoppers (which were still visible until the 1980s). Later, chain sentinel wagons, which tipped sideways straight into the hoppers, and steam shovels were introduced which were more efficient. Mostyn Estates had stipulated that all the limestone must be moved by sea rather than land, and also that the headland of Trwyn y Fuwch must remain intact so that the quarry could not be seen by people on holiday in Llandudno – for the same reason, lime kilns could not be lit as the smoke would have been visible.
There was a bungalow which was used as a head office at the far end, and a few other facilities. During WW1 women worked in the quarry and some stayed in another wooden bungalow used as a hostel, with a vegetable garden at Pentre Isaf Farm. By 1926, there were several buildings at the far end, but by about 1931 demand for Portland cement had dwindled, and the last lease was surrendered in 1937.
In WW2, the site was used by the Coastal Artillery Practice Camp from November 1941 to 1943. This was initially based on the Great Orme, but firing out to sea across shipping lanes was less than ideal, and so it was moved. There is one gun emplacement remaining now, but when the site was in use there were many batteries of guns, and a total of 8,000 personnel passed through the Camp. Many of them stayed as lodgers or in places which were requisitioned in Penrhyn Bay and Penrhynside. They also used the old quarry buildings and built Nissen huts. As well as weapons, searchlights and radar techniques were tested and used in training. Sometimes the military had to apologise to the residents of Penrhyn Bay for the noise!
Elan pointed out several points of interest from the cliffs – these included the site where new flats are being built, where the Odstone house stood for many years. This place is said to have been the quay from which Madoc sailed to America, and is where the old Afon Ganol is likely to have emerged, marking the old Denbighshire and Caernarfonshire county boundary. Nearby there was said to have been a burial barrow, which probably disappeared when the golf course was developed.
When the quarry was in action, Joseph Storey or his son Robert found a woman’s skeleton in a limestone fissure, probably on the western side. As there was then no local museum, he took the skeleton back to his hometown of Bacup and presented it to their Natural History Society. Many years later, local historian Kenneth Dibble found out about it, and Elan and her husband Stuart went to see it – it was housed in a cupboard and had been put through a washing machine by the rather eccentric elderly gentleman of the Bacup society, who had an eclectic collection including dodos. The palaeontology department of Manchester University also viewed the skeleton, which they named Blodwen and dated to c. 3,500 BC, and it was arranged that it should go on display in Llandudno for a few weeks. It was then returned to Bacup, before negotiations with the proper authorities took place, and Blodwen is now permanently with the Llandudno Museum. She has well-developed shoulders, indicating that she was used to hard manual labour.
Spearheads and other ancient artefacts have been found in the quarry debris, and there have been significant coin finds in the area – Roman coins from c.250 AD were found near Pentre Isaf in 1873, and more were found near Pentre Ucha in 1907. There was another find near Simdde Hir, where the Craigside Inn is now.
Another interesting point is that a cave on the Little Orme once held an illegal printing press. When Elizabeth I issued an Act of Parliament making Protestantism the official religion of England and Wales, many Catholics continued to practise in secret, including the Pughs of Penrhyn Old Hall. The Pugh family’s priest was William Davies, who was born at Eirias in Colwyn Bay, and trained at a seminary in Europe before returning to North Wales. Catholic tracts and pamphlets written in Welsh had been sent to Europe to be printed, but often contained mistakes as the printers were not familiar with the language. A secret press was set up so that they could be printed by native speakers – it’s unclear exactly which cave it was in as several are now inaccessible.
In 1585, Elizabeth announced that Catholic priests had 40 days to leave the country. Meanwhile, Sir Thomas Mostyn, her representative in this area, had been informed that there might be a printing press operating nearby. However, he was sympathetic to the Catholic cause, and may have warned those involved. By the time the press was raided, all those in the cave had fled, and print was found scattered on the cave floor. William Davies was later caught and sent to Beaumaris Gaol. From here he was taken to Ludlow, but after refusing to recant, he was sent back to Beaumaris where he was hung, drawn and quartered. He was beatified by the Pope in the 1980s. The only known tract printed in the cave is Y Drych Cristionogl (The Christian Mirror), and 3 copies survive, one of which is in the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth.
Moving forward in history, Elan pointed out the Golf Club in Rhos, on the site of a 16th century farm house called Rhyd. The surrounding marsh was drained first in 1830 and then several times over the years. The private golf course opened in 1900, and members had to wear a uniform including a scarlet blazer with gold buttons. In 1910, the actor and early aviator Robert Loraine unexpectedly landed his biplane on the golf course when he was running low on fuel. Huge crowds gathered and came to see the amazing sight – this was the first plane to land in Wales.
As we turned to leave, Elan pointed out the steep incline running up towards the top quarry – this was known as Hill 60 after the famous WWI battle which took place near Ypres.
Many thanks to Elan for providing such an informative evening – whether this was members’ first visit or one of many, we all left with a deeper understanding of this fascinating and beautiful area.
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