The Thrill of the Rhyl in Better Times

A look at the North Wales resorts in the 1980s and 1990s

With the Wakes Weeks upon us (Oldham’s starting on the 27 June, Stalybridge’s being from the 19 July), a great many of us may be in holiday mood. Today’s holidaymakers – thanks in no small part to our continued membership of the EU – think nothing of boarding a flight to Spain, Greece or Turkey. For some, as second nature as boarding a 216 bus into ‘Town’.

Fifty years ago, a trip to North Wales would be similarly exotic. In the 1970s and 1980s it remained a popular option. This courtesy of two factors: one being the rise in private motoring; and two, the popularity of caravan holidays.

By 1984, the completion of the M56 motorway shrunk journey times for Cestrian and Lancastrian holidaymakers heading to Rhyl, Llandudno and Colwyn Bay. Towyn, Abergele, Prestatyn and Gronant would remain popular haunts for caravan owners. Today, it is possible to get to Colwyn Bay from Manchester by road in the same time it takes to get from Manchester to Nelson by bus. This, thanks to the expansion of the A55 expressway route.

But, today’s travellers are likely to miss the sights and sounds of Prestatyn, Rhyl and Towyn. A rammed A548 in the summer season is largely a thing of the past thanks to the A55’s expansion west of the M56 motorway. Thanks to speed, Rhyl or Prestatyn is as good as off limits for motorists.

Yet, the North Wales resorts has brought its holidaymakers much pleasure in the last 150 years. Today’s holidaymakers are likely to stay in the caravan for a few days instead of treating a trip to Colwyn Bay as a main holiday. Instead, as part of a second holiday to an overseas one via Speke or Ringway. Some of us – the writer of this post included – think nothing of going to North Wales to see The Mighty Stalybridge Celtic.

Over 30 years ago when I went to Rhyl on the coach, it seemed so different. It was vibrant unlike today’s resort with a number of family attractions. Today, a real shame compared with my first visit. However, thanks to the wonders of the internet, we could pull ourselves away from the fiasco of the Ocean Beach development. At least in about 1,500 words from now.

Before you do, pick up your bucket and spade, call in to your newsagents for some pick and mix, then wait a few moments for your coach.

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The Journey

Typically, any child of the 1980s would have gone to the North Wales resorts via the A548. From Greater Manchester, this meant the M56 motorway to the English/Welsh boundary. Before 1984, it used to finish at Junction 14 – a few miles east of Chester – with road traffic continuing to North Wales via Stanlow. Queensferry was a favoured relief stop for excursion coaches.

In Greater Manchester, local coach companies offered Holiday Express Services to the popular resorts. One example was Mayne of Manchester’s Summer Saturday service. After stopping at its usual local pick-up points, its last stop in Greater Manchester was its garage on Ashton New Road, Clayton. From then on, non-stop till The Queensferry Hotel (for a toilet stop). Afterwards, its next stop would be Gronant (for the Presthaven Sands Haven camp), followed by Prestatyn, Rhyl, Kinmel Bay, Abergele and Colwyn Bay. Its last stop, Llandudno.

By rail, the 1980s passenger would have seen summer services from Scarborough to Bangor or Llandudno. Holyhead saw a direct service from Hull Paragon, again via Stalybridge. Typically, trains were hauled by Class 40, 45 or 47 diesel locomotives. Carriages, typically British Rail Mark 1s and early Mark 2s. Loco-hauled trains to North Wales continued till the early noughties. In recent times, Arriva Trains Wales’ direct service from Holyhead to Cardiff Central opted for loco haulage.

One of the great joys for road and rail passengers was its view of the coastline as well as the caravans. You knew for sure you got to Wales once you saw the Dee estuary, the tower blocks in Flint, and the Duke of Lancaster ship (in use as a nightclub). On reaching Prestatyn, excitement would build up as soon as you saw the first caravans. You knew you were there properly once you saw the Robin Hood Camp Site and the Crosville buses.

A bed for the night (or seven)

Given its popularity, Rhyl, Colwyn Bay and Llandudno had no shortage of guest houses and hotels. Prior to the rise in car ownership, the most popular option owing to its seafront position and proximity to railway stations.

From the 1930s, holiday camps started to gain popularity. In 1939 Thomas Cook opened one in Prestatyn which had an imposing tower and striking Art Deco architecture. As a Pontins camp, it featured in Holiday on the Buses (the third spin-off film from LWT’s On The Buses series).

The oldest holiday camp along the A485 is the Robin Hood camp in Prestatyn which has been going since 1925. There is now eight sites owned by Lyons Robin Hood from Abergele to Gronant. The company has held its own against the Pontins and Havens of this world by embracing caravans instead of tents.

30 years ago, I could have seen Bobby Davro on Copycats; today, Lyons’ original site is one of his regular gigs.

For hotels, Llandudno was – and remains – a popular option. Back in the 1980s, the Grand Hotel was owned by Butlins. It was ideal for the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company’s summer service to Douglas (which ceased in September 1982).

A bite to eat

From Gronant to Llandudno, an eighties child could have been sure of any of the following certainties. One, the likelihood of a Wimpy bar as well as a National Milk Bar; and two, that you couldn’t move for Clwyd Cream ice cream posters from the West End to the Sun Centre.

A desirable spot for a snack was the café overlooking Marine Lake in Rhyl. An unassuming 1960s building beside a giant slide, it was close to the Rhyl Miniature Railway. Back then, the area around the lake, miniature railway, and the neighbouring amusement park was owned by Trusthouse Forte.

Inspired by the Forte’s hospitality business, the National Milk Bars was a small chain of eateries concentrated along North and Mid Wales. Llandudno’s branch was on Mostyn Street. In England they also had branches in Shrewsbury, Liverpool, Birmingham, Ellesmere Port and Manchester. Established in 1933, their cafés were a shop window for its dairy products.

Unlike Colwyn Bay and Llandudno, a number of Rhyl’s eateries fronted the promenade. One example being the café in the Queen’s Market. Towards the West End, a number of eateries were close to Ocean Beach Amusement Park. Further west was The Downtown public house which – till its very end – proudly promoted the fact it sold Skol lager.

Amusements

By the start of 1980s, the North Wales coast resorts continued to suffer from changing holiday habits. Whereas Llandudno was cushioned from the worst excesses (thank you Lord Mostyn!), Rhyl took a hit. Its pier – North Wales’ first – was demolished in 1973. Its distinctive domed pavilion was demolished – though replaced by a modern structure on East Parade.

Though the loss was an architectural one, its replacement includes another attraction popular since its opening. One which may have enticed many a child from Granadaland to jump in to the water or play on the water slides.

The ‘in-place’ to be being Rhyl Sun Centre. Sharing the same building as the Rhyl Pavilion, its water slides were a relief from the staid environment of school swimming lessons. Prestatyn’s answer was the Nova Centre. Both centres, owing to mismanagement by an arms-length trust (who ran the concerns from 2001) are now closed.

The present Rhyl Pavilion theatre is still open. It was opened in 1980 by the now disgraced Stuart Hall (then of It’s A Knockout and Look North fame). Close by was another Rhyl landmark: the Skytower. Higher than the Blackpool Pleasure Beach’s “Space Tower” (now a mobile phone mast on the site of Frontierland in Morecambe), it offered a view of the Welsh Mountains as well as Rhyl itself. It was pretty popular in the early 1990s.

Gone but not forgotten is Ocean Beach Amusement Park. For many a 1980s and 1990s child, the stirring sight of its water chute or Jetstream roller coaster couldn’t escape anyone’s attention. Not least the fact it had a coach park which for many passengers meant “Rhyl”.

Trusthouse Forte – who also owned Belle Vue Zoological Gardens in its twilight years – owned Ocean Beach. As a consequence, some rides from Belle Vue made the journey to Rhyl. The Jetstream roller coaster was one – a Pinfari roller coaster which had a short stay in Belle Vue, after moving from London Festival Gardens, Battersea. Another was one of the steam trains from Belle Vue over to the Rhyl Miniature Railway.

Other rides included a Ghost Train, a Caterpillar ride (known as L’amour Express) and an imposing water chute. This came from The Kursaal amusement park in Southend-on-Sea. To my five year old eyes it was massive.

For 1980s children preferring gentler attractions, this meant Dinosaur World in Eirias Park, Colwyn Bay. A corner of the park was allocated for a display of life-size dinosaurs prior to 2003. Pitch and putt or crazy golf was in abundance along the resorts. Again, Eirias Park had a rather challenging Pitch and Putt course. Its last hole was surpassed in difficulty by the final one on Rhos Promenade.

For a bit more rough and tumble, the Welsh Mountain Zoo’s adventure playground was a fantastic place for letting off steam. As someone used to the puny efforts in my locality, I loved its assortment of rope bridges and long tubular slides. On Great Orme, Llandudno, another must-visit attraction for thrill seekers was its tobogganing and snow tubing track.

As part of Llandudno Ski and Snowboard Centre it is still going and remains a popular attraction. Even the aprés ski arrangements are covered with a licensed bar 415 feet above sea level.

Piers

In 1980, the North Wales resorts had the same number of piers as in 2015. One is virtually on death row, and the other one thrives to this day. On my trip to Colwyn Bay in the late 1980s, only the landward amusement arcade remained open. This was dominated by Sega’s Super Hang-On arcade machine, a sit-on motorbike.

Llandudno pier remained central to the resort’s leisure offerings as of now. Amusement arcades at the seaward and landward ends of the pier plus ornate kiosks. Before 1982, there was scheduled summer sailings to Douglas by the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company. Today, only occasional excursions.

Going further afield

Exploring North Wales on public transport, during the 1980s and 1990s meant one thing: Crosville Cymru buses and Heritage DMUs. That’s before we mention any little trains!

The promenades of Rhyl, Colwyn Bay and Rhos-on-Sea were flanked by open-top double decker buses. All of which named after castles denoted in both English and Welsh languages. In the late 1980s, the minibus revolution saw Mercedes buses the norm between Colwyn Bay and Llandudno Junction. Apart from open-top buses, all vehicles had a red coloured cab to denote ‘Bws Gwynedd’ services, and their operator’s livery.

As of now, Mostyn Street was a main coach terminus for Llandudno coaches – National Express journeys as well as excursion coaches. Colwyn Bay’s coach station was next to the General Post Office, a small yet modern facility now gone.

Further to the InterCity and Trans-Pennine Express trains, trains of the 4′ 8″ gauge meant the Conwy Valley line and a connection with the Blaenau Ffestiniog line. By 1984, a connection was gained with the Cambrian Coast Line with through-ticketing available for Pwllheli, Harlech, Barmouth and Aberystwyth. Plus connections with Wales’ other Great Little Trains.

Shopping

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the North Wales resorts offered many possibilities for shoppers, from department stores to street markets. The White Rose Centre in Rhyl was a new arrival in the former decade opening in 1984. Next to that was an imposing Woolworths opposite the Queen’s Arcade (which was anchored by a John Menzies store).

By John Menzies was the Queen’s Indoor Market. Part of what was known as Little Venice, it used to be a ballroom before having a number of walk-around stalls. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, much of West Parade had walk-around ‘tat shops’ which served their purpose in wet weather.

Outdoor markets were – and remain to this day in North Wales – popular. As well as Prestatyn’s central market and Colwyn Bay’s open market, one of the biggest was in Rhyl, on the car park of Ocean Beach. This was also a popular spot for car boot sales.

As of now, Llandudno was the place to go for upmarket department stores and shops of distinctive character. Thanks to Lord Mostyn’s plans for the resort several years back, it was saved from the ‘tat shops’ and kept its promenade unspoilt.

In 1986, Colwyn Bay was boosted by the opening of its then new shopping centre, the Bayview Shopping Centre. Its anchor store was a Presto – later Safeway, and now today’s Morrisons supermarket.

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Next to the A55 Expressway, the Bayview Shopping Centre epitomised the face of North Wales’ resorts of the second half of the 1980s. A future where one could speed away from the decaying former B&Bs in the West End of Rhyl. In short, Stock Up, Shut Up and Drive. There’s no windows looking out to the bay from the centre – need I say more.

The opening of the Expressway, in spite of reducing journey times to make the Dublin ferry, lacks the same thrill as the A548. On another level, the thrill of Rhyl is much reduced: what was once a desirable place for a week’s holiday on the West End of the resort became Buy to Let Landlords’ heaven. In other words, neglect; an air of dereliction; the spectre of missing screams from the ghost train or the Pepsi Cola Loop.

The one aspect which maintained North Wales’ popularity well in to the 21st century (the caravan sites) had ramifications for seaside hotel accommodation at the bottom end of the market. To a similar level as the lure of Liverpool and Manchester airports for cheap flights and package holiday deals. Whereas Rhyl floundered, Llandudno remains a popular resort, and a starting point for exploring the rest of North Wales. I doubt as if Lord Mostyn would have been happy with the Queen’s Ballroom’s conversion into a market some 40 years ago.

How I wish I could return to the Rhyl of 1984, let alone its glory days. Now, where’s that red and cream Leyland Leopard? Should be near the toilets by the ESSO filling station.

Your Turn

Feel free to recall any memories of your visit to the North Wales resorts. Did you see ET in the cinema by Rhyl station? Was the Super Hang-On machine your favoured haunt for disposing your loose 20 pence pieces in Colwyn Bay? Comment away…

S.V., 19 June 2015.

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3 thoughts on “The Thrill of the Rhyl in Better Times

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  1. Interesting article. Still love Llandudno, never keen on Rhyl. Watched Jaws at the Astra Cinema in Llandudno back in the 70’s. Totally love piers; disgraceful what’s happening in Colwyn Bay!

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  2. Good well written article, thanks. We used to go to Rhyl in the late 60’s camping. I recall the Black Cat amusements, the floral hall and its resident Macaws,old Seagull pub.I vaguely recall a boating lake and outdoor pool and trampolines set flush into the ground called Jumpin Jacks I think.We had great times. It’s a travesty what has become of a once glorious happy place, seeing it now makes me so sad.

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    1. Hi Malcolm,

      My thoughts exactly on the state of Rhyl. Nothing short of scandalous, given the potential it has of being North Wales’ liveliest resort again. Especially given the amount of families that stay in nearby holiday camps from Abergele to Gronant. To some extent, true of neighbouring Colwyn Bay (as Paul said in the previous comment about its pier).

      I could imagine Rhyl being a vibrant place in the 1960s. Which was about the time when car-bound holidaymakers began to explore the resort (the rise in popularity of caravanning).

      For a glimpse of Rhyl in the past and present, I have come across this blog entitled Rhyl Life. I was surprised to find that Liverpudlian poet Adrian Henri did a few summer jobs there to supplement his income. There’s also some old postcodes on this blog.

      The link: http://rhyl-life.blogspot.co.uk/

      Bye for now,

      Stuart.

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