On September 21st 2023 the History of Deganwy Group met at Peniel Chapel for an armchair tour of Llanfairfechan under the competent guidance of our fellow member Konrad Balcerak. Konrad, of Scottish and Polish parentage, retired to this area in 2016 after a career in manufacturing as an engineer and manager, during which he was involved in products ranging from Heinz to Elastoplast. He was also the IT project manager responsible for installing technology in 30 venues prior to the Manchester Commonwealth Games. As well as being an open water swimmer, he is a keen cyclist, and in 2018 he was one of the founding members of the Llandudno U3A cycling group.
With his virtual cycle helmet firmly in place, Konrad shared with us the history he has uncovered, inspired by roundtrips along National Cycle Route no. 5 from Conwy to Llanfairfechan. His interest was first sparked by the plaque near the large pond on Llanfairfechan promenade, erected by the Urban District Council in 1909. This states that St Andrew’s Hospital, Northampton – owners of Bryn y Neuadd – and Col. Henry Platt give permission for ‘the right of wheeling at foot pace bath chairs drawn by hand or by pony, mule or donkey’ along the seafront. The plaque raised 3 questions for Konrad: why did a hospital in Northampton own Bryn y Neuadd; who was Col. Platt; and what does a bath chair drawn by a mule look like? During the talk, these questions and many more were answered, but first Konrad gave us an overview of the cycle route’s approach to Llanfairfechan.
Looking towards Llandudno, an aerial view of the Pen y Clip tunnels shows Stephenson’s 1848 rail track on the left, with the eastbound lane of what is now the A55 beside it – this was a 2-way road when it was built in the early 1930s. Next is Telford’s 1826 road, which is now the cycle track, and then the westbound A55 built in 1993. This cut off parts of the Telford road, hence the steel gantries and ramps which were added in 2009 to complete the cycle path. Photos from the 1930s show cyclists using the Telford road immediately after the tunnel had been built.
Near the crossroads in the centre of Llanfairfechan, behind the large tree opposite the functionally named ‘Bogs and Basins’ shop, stands Plas Llanfair Cottage. This was the home of the village’s first wealthy Victorian visitor, a solicitor from Leicester named Richard Luck (1811-1898), who arrived in 1856 and bought approximately half the land which forms Llanfairfechan today, all on the east side of Afon Llanfairfechan (aka Afon Ddu). The following year, another wealthy English immigrant arrived – John Platt (1817-1872), who bought all the land on the west side. Between them, they dominate the history of the development of Llanfairfechan. For instance, the railway passed along the coast in 1848, but it was only in 1860 that a station was built thanks to Platt’s influence. Likewise, as the village’s name suggests, there was a Welsh church dedicated to St Mary, but Platt paid for an English church – Christ Church – to be built in about 1868. Luck had begun to collect funds for this by public subscription, and the money he raised was used as an endowment when Platt provided the full building costs.
Although the two men owned roughly equally amounts of land, Platt’s house, Bryn y Neuadd, was significantly bigger than Luck’s, representing Platt’s immense wealth. The original mansion was of a substantial size, with huge towers, formal gardens, fountains, kitchen gardens and greenhouses on a massive scale. This was demolished in the 1960s, and the remaining separate buildings are still in use as a mental health hospital, with the entrance marked by the lodge built in 1861. Platt’s money came from manufacturing machinery for the cotton industry on an enormous scale, with huge factories near Oldham. At one point he had 15,000 employees, with an estimated third of households in Oldham dependent on Platt Brothers.
Disaster struck for Platt in 1872, when during house renovations he and his wife went to Turin to choose new furniture. He contracted pneumonia and died in Paris aged 54 whilst on his way home. His estate was valued at £6.5 million: over half a billion pounds in today’s terms. Bryn y Neuadd then stood more or less deserted until its sale in 1898. The sales catalogue gives the size as 368 acres, with an additional 333 acres of foreshore.
The estate was bought by St Andrew’s Hospital, Northampton as they had regularly brought mental health patients to N. Wales as a holiday retreat, and decided to have a permanent base. After the foundation of the NHS, it remained private until about 1967; a newly built hospital was opened in 1971, with the original fountain looking rather incongruous in front of the drab concrete block which replaced Platt’s magnificent earlier building. Pre-1971, it seems to have provided care for richer patients as an alternative to the asylum in Denbigh. From more recent times, Konrad highlighted the story of a resident and well-loved character called Joe Bevans, whose story is told by a former nurse, Pete Jones, in a short film called ‘A Hidden Portrait’ available on YouTube:
Next stop on the ride was Gorddinog – an estate even bigger than Bryn y Neuadd – given by John Platt to his son, the Col. Henry Platt of the plaque on the prom, on Henry’s wedding day in 1868. Lodges on either side of the estate grounds have steps on the gables, echoing those of the mansion. Henry Platt had no interest in his father’s business; he was a banker, the first mayor of Bangor, a prominent Freemason, and stood as an MP in 1900 – but he was unsuccessful, as his opponent was David Lloyd George. Henry’s son Eric followed in his footsteps, marrying Florence Perry in 1895 and taking over Gorddinog. Eric died in 1946, and after Florence’s death in 1955 Gorddinog was sold. It was bought by the de Ferranti family (who also had manufacturing links with Oldham); the current owner is Mark Ziani de Ferranti, owner of the Denis Ferranti Group engineering company based in Bangor.
Continuing up the hill to Terrace Walk, and passing Nant y Coed which sadly no longer has its beautiful tearooms, brings one to the traditional farming area personified by Gareth Wyn Jones and Fferm Ty’n Llwyfan. Gareth’s family has farmed this area for over 350 years; he is the Secretary of the Carneddau Mountain Pony Society, and also a familiar face on TV.
At the apex of Konrad’s ride, there are magnificent views across the Lafan Sands to Anglesey, and another interesting house: Newry Estate, now known as Plas Heulog, built by Mr Massey, a Lancashire coalmine owner, in the 1890s. He built Newry Drive in 1912 as the existing road was too steep for his car to negotiate. The main house was used by students in the 1930s/1940s, and is now a holiday residence. The lodge at Plas Heulog was designed by Richard Luck’s grandson, Herbert Luck North. This famous architect was a contemporary of Gaudi, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Frank Lloyd Wright, and although his buildings are found from Cumbria to Torquay, the majority are located in Llanfairfechan, where he settled.
Descending the hill by the road which Massey was unable to drive up, one comes to The Close which is filled with Luck North’s houses with their distinctive windows and steeply-pitched roofs. His own house, Wern Isaf, is between The Close and Penmaen Park. His granddaughter, Pam Phillips, lives there and occasionally opens the house to the public. Another of his buildings, S. Winifred’s School, was sadly demolished in about 1967 despite a campaign to save the beautiful chapel.
Returning to the town centre, the phenomenal impact of the Luck and Platt families can again be seen in the shops and buildings on Station Road. Back on the seafront, with the Afon Llanfairfechan as the dividing line between the land owned by two men, the different character of both sides can be seen.
Platt’s sons were keen yachtsmen, and he intended to build a harbour. Whilst awaiting parliamentary approval, he went ahead and built Moranedd, now known as The Towers, as a harbourmaster’s quarters, the towers providing a view of potential incoming ships. Richard Luck’s influence continues east along the promenade – he built holiday homes for tourists, and to celebrate Queen Victoria’s jubilee, he gave land for the park, aptly called Victoria Gardens. At the far end of the prom, St Siriol was the office of the collector of rents from the holiday homes.
Finally, returning to the plaque with which our journey started: Konrad had more than adequately answered his first two questions about the Northampton hospital and the identity of Col. Platt. All that remained was the third, and Konrad produced a splendid image he had found of bath chairs being pulled by ponies on the seafront. He had also found a quote from a Ward Locke guidebook from 1922 which mentioned the bath chairs at Llanfairfechan as a unique feature, providing transport from the seafront to the higher areas.
Many thanks are due to Konrad for his talk: following a geographical rather than chronological order made a vivid and unusual presentation, which was much appreciated by all who attended.
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