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Wales The Great Orme, Llandudno - its Victorian Tramway and the Bronze Age copper mines

Llandudno is dominated by the massive limestone headland of the Great Orme rising nearly 700’ above the town and bay. It is impressive seen from below. Seen from above, as can be seen from this photograph from the Visit Conwy website, really shows just how big and impressive it is.

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It is equally as impressive when seen from the town.


One of the best ways to appreciate its bulk is from the Marine Drive, cut out of the side of the cliffs.

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The Victorian Tramway - Britains only cable operated tramway

When Llandudno developed as a Victorian holiday resort in the mid C19th, visitors arrived in their thousands. Brave souls would climb the 679’ to the summit, but it was a long and very steep climb.

A tramway was opened in 1902, with seven tramcars. Four are still in use.



As well as carrying passengers, the tramway also carried coffins for burial in St Tudno’s Church graveyard as well as freight. In its first season, it carried over 77,000 passengers.


The tramway was built in two sections with a power house at Halfway station. Steam from coke-fired boilers fuelling the winding gear. Communication between the power house and the tram cars was provided by a telegraph system, operating over an overhead wire and trolley poles on the cars.

Steam power was replaced in 1958 by electrically powered generators in 1958. The overhead poles are no longer used as all communication is now by radio.

The line was closed for nearly two years in 1932 following an accident when the cable on the lower tram broke and the brakes failed. Two people were injured and ten injured. Threat of compensation claims led to liquidation of the company. The tramway was eventually was bought by the local authority and it is still owned and run by Conwy County Borough Council. Heritage Lottery money funded a massive preservation in 2000 when Halfway station was rebuilt and a new control and communication system installed. There a small exhibition with information about the tramway and the winding house, winding drums and electric motor can be seen.



The tramway works on a funicular system, with trams crossing at a half way point.

A cable is attached to the front end of each tramcar. The downward tram descends under gravity and its weight pulls up the ascending tram. The speed of the descending tram is controlled by the winchmen at Halfway Station. Marks on the cables indicate when a tram is approaching a station.



The attendant (not driver) on the tramcar is responsible for the safety of the tram and uses the control panel at the front of the tram to communicate by buttons and lights with the winchman.



Trams travel at 4mph. If the cable should snap and the tram speed up, emergency brakes automatically operate as soon as the speed reaches 6mph. The tramcar is safely brought to a halt.

The lower section climbs up Old Road, and shares the road with cars and pedestrians. The cable is buried in a grove between the tracks.


The upper section crosses the open hillside and the cables can be seen between the tracks.





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The Victorian Tramway cont - the route

The trams leave from Victoria Station on Church Walks, which was built on the site of the former Victoria Hotel




From here, the trams climb up Old Road with gradients as steep as 1:4.


There are views down to Llandudno and North Bay. The houses are left behind and the tram runs along the limestone scar.



The tram reaches Halfway Station, where passengers get off and walk through the station building to the platform at the other side for the upper tram.


The tram now runs across the open hillside with heather, bracken thrift and yellow bedstraw, to Summit Station.




There are views across to the open cast workings of the Bronze Age Copper Mines and a large quarry near the summit.



The small Visitor Centre is open Easter-October with interactive displays and films. The Summit complex contains a cafe, bar and gift shop.


The summit is flat with plenty of good walking. There are views down to farmland on the gentler slopes below.




Trams run from late March to late October and each stage takes about ten minutes. Up trams do get very busy in the mornings and there can be long waits. Similarly there are often long queues for the down trams in the late afternoon.



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Great Orme Copper Mines

The Great Orme Bronze Age Copper Mines are one of the most significant archaeological sites in Britain.


Although people have known for years that copper was mined in the area, it had always assumed the workings were Roman. They were the largest copper mines at the time and the copper was mined on an industrial scale and tools and weapons were traded across Britain and western Europe.

Bronze tools revolutionised many different aspects of life. Not only were the axes harder and more durable than stone, they were able to cut down larger trees. Large areas of land were cleared for agriculture. They were able to build larger and better boats for sea travel and trade. Bronze tools from the from the Great Orme Mines has been found across Britain and Europe.

Distribution bronze finds.jpg

As well as axes, the bronze was used to make spears and weapons.




The area had been mined in the C18th and C19th and was covered with mine waste and mine buildings.



In 1987, there was a scheme to landscape the area and built a large car park. An underground survey was required to ensure the stability of the ground.

The diggers came in to remove the waste and quickly discovered the remains of the C19th Vivian shaft which lead to the depths of the workings. When the archaeologists went down this, they discovered a labyrinth of Bronze Age passages and chambers, as well as the remains of mining tools.


As more waste was removed, the very early open cast mining was exposed.



Radio active dating indicated the mines were active between 1700-1400BC.

Once the surface deposits had been exhausted, the miners tunnelled underground following the veins of ore. The early tunnels were often narrow and twisting. Some were so small they could only have been worked by children. The mine reached depths of 70m when they encountered problems with flooding.

Copper mining seems to have stopped with the arrival of the Iron Age and the Romans didn’t seem to be interested. Mining began again in the late C17th, when there was a rising demand for copper and improved pumps for removing water. These mines were over 200m deep, exploiting ores well below the Bronze Age mines.


Commercial mining ended around 1850 as trade laws made it increasingly uneconomic to mine copper in the UK, and there were increasing problems with the deep mines filling with water. . Small scale mining finished in 1881. The mines fell into disuse and were covered by thousands of tons of rubble. During excavation a pair of miner’s clogs was discovered which may have been left as an offering to the ‘mine spirits’.


When the significance and importance of the site was recognised, plans for a car park were shelved and planning permission gained to open the site to the public. Since excavation work began, over five miles of Bronze Age tunnels have been discovered. This is estimated to be less than half the extent of the original tunnels.

To date there is no evidence of any Bronze Age settlements which are thought to still be buried under the vast area of C19th waste.

The site is owned by the archaeologists who first began excavating and they are still working there. Everything is funded from ticket sales, so they also work as well as excavate. One was working in the shop when I visited and another was disinfecting hard hats! He was very happy to stop and talk and answer questions.

There is shop and very good visitor centre with a short video about the mines and an exhibition with artefacts found during the excavations. The highlight of the visit is the self guided tour along 200m of the original mine workings, which takes you down two levels in the mine.

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Great Orme Copper Mines cont - Bronze Age Mining techniques

The copper ore occurs in the form of malachite, which stains the rock green.



Hard volcanic stones from the beach were used as hammers to break off the rock. Over 2.500 have been discovered in the tunnels and most are now in the archaeology store. Many of these have broken ends.



Animal bones were used to scrape out the ore. Many of these have been stained green by the copper.


In places the rock was too hard to break with the hammerstones, it was weakened by fire. A small fire was lit against the rock. As the heated rock cools, it contracts and fractures, making it easier to remove. The high temperatures redden the rock and traces of charcoal have been found around the site.

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Since 2016, evidence has been found of the use of bronze mining tools in spoil removed from the tunnels. Most of these were small, although a mining pick has been discovered.

Candles made from animal fat were the only source of light. Some of the tunnels were so small they could only have been worked by children.


Ore bearing rock was sorted roughly underground and waste rock packed into abandoned workings.

The ore was crushed in a pestle and mortar, to separate the ore from the waste rock. It may have been sorted by hand, or by water as there is a natural spring close to the mine site.


Smelting done in small kilns on the surface which were fuelled by charcoal which burns hotter than wood. Copper is a fairly soft metal, so about 10% of tin from Cornwall was added to make bronze, which was a harder and more practical. Molten bronze then poured into moulds to make tools, weapons and jewellery. There is a replica of metal working shelter above the open cast mine, showing some of the equipment used.



Nothing was wasted and there is evidence of bronze scrap which would have been melted down to form new tools.


It has been estimated that 1,800 tonnes of copper ore were removed from the mines in the Bronze Age.

It is not known how many people worked in the mine or associated industries and no settlement has been found around the mine site yet. It is thought to be hidden by the C19th spoil tips. Evidence of human bones have been found.


There is a model in the exhibition showing what it might have looked like.


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Great Orme Copper Mines cont - the open cast site

The area had been covered with the waste from the C18th and C19th mines. When this was removed, it began to reveal the remains of the Bronze Age open cast mines as well as the C19th Vivian shaft. This was 170’ deep, descending into the C19th tunnels. When the archaeologists descended, they discovered the labyrinth of Bronze Age workings and tools.



As more and more of the surface workings were cleared, it began to reveal the extent of the early open cast mines. More is still hidden beneath the later waste. Pathways, bridge and viewing platforms were built to give visitors access to the site.




Once the surface ore was exhausted, the Bronze Age miners began to tunnel underground, following the veins of ore. As more waste was removed, the openings to these underground workings were revealed. As archaeologists began to clear the tunnels, they began to realise the extent of the workings. Over five miles of workings have been cleared and explored, but it is thought this is less than half of those still to be discovered.



The early tunnels were often narrow and twisting. Some were so small they could only have been worked by children.



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Great Orme Copper Mines cont - underground

One if the highlights of a trip to the mines, is the self guided underground tour, along about 200 meters of underground tunnels.



The tunnels are narrow and definitely not for the claustrophobic or the overweight. With my rucksack I was struggling to get through in places. The surface was also quite rough and uneven in places and the hard hat was appreciated!





Some of the side tunnels were very low and narrow and could only have been worked by children.



In one place is a massive underground cavern with tunnels off it. It is thought three major veins converged here, leaving behind the cavern when they were worked out.



The tunnels were on several levels with shafts or steep ramps between them.


The remains of green copper ore can still be seen in the walls and one tunnel had larger nodules of malachite.




The lumps of rock were crushed underground and before taking the copper ore to the surface for smelting. The unwanted rock was rammed into disused workings. Hammerstones used to break off the ore can still be seen, especially in tunnels that have not been cleared of mine working debris.




The tunnels are now well lit with neon lights (which give a colour cast to many of the photographs,) The Bronze Age miners would just have had small oil lamps to work by.

I remember all the excitement when the mines were first discovered in 1987 and they have been on my todo list since then. It’s taken me a long time to visit but it was definitely worth the wait. This truly is a remarkable site.


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