Balmoral: Liverpool – Llandudno – Menai Bridge – Puffin Island – Red Wharf Bay
Saturday 15th July 2006
The departure of Lady of Mann for Greek waters, and the subsequent loss of her programme of day excursions to various North West ports, now leaves Waverley Excursions as the only real option for taking a leisurely coastal cruise.
Their 1949 built motor vessel Balmoral was again scheduled to offer a programme of sailings during July, and having the benefit of some half price vouchers following a foreshortened Parade of Sail cruise on the Mersey in 2005, a friend and myself booked a return trip from Liverpool taking in calls at Llandudno and Menai Bridge and a circumnavigation of Puffin Island and Red Wharf Bay on the Anglesey coast.
The prospect of another hot and sunny summer day under cloudless skies meant that a large queue had already formed to board the Balmoral which was berthed at the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company’s landing stage. The original schedule had given a departure time of 10.00am but a letter received in the week prior to the trip had revised this to 9.30am in order to clear the stage for the arrival of Superseacat Two from Douglas.
An added bonus was the magnificent sight of the Crystal Serenity cruise liner anchored in the river. She had arrived in the early hours and her passengers were being tendered ashore by Mersey Ferries ‘Snowdrop’. It quickly became apparent that many of those waiting to board Balmoral had not obtained a ticket in advance and would have to purchase or collect them on the ship, so those of us with pre booked tickets were called forward and were able to board first, although a cursory wave of the envelope was all that was required and no detailed examination of the ticket took place.
Isle of Man Steam Packet Company staff were on hand to assist the Balmoral crew and a number of disabled passengers were driven onto the landing stage in the Steam Packet’s small courtesy bus (which seems to pick up more dents and scrapes every time I see it!). Assistance was also required for some people to descend the rather acute slope that characterises the connecting linkspan at low tide.
We made our way onto the open deck and secured a couple of plastic chairs in a favourable position on the port rail. At 12 Quays Liverpool Viking and Lagan Viking were loading for their departures for Dublin and Belfast, whilst looking up the river, Superseacat Two could already be seen reducing speed at the Radar Tower, having made good time on her run from Douglas - it was apparent why Balmoral’s loading was proceeding at such a brisk pace! We were underway at just before 9.40am and passed the fast craft off New Brighton, our anticipated time of arrival at Llandudno being given as 12.30pm.
Once beyond Perch Rock the rapidly progressing construction work of the Burbo Bank wind farm could be seen, with a large jack-up crane lifting another turbine column into position and a variety of other work vessels dotted around the site. Almost an hour into our voyage, and having made the turn off Formby into Queens Channel, the container vessel Gracechurch Meteor was passed shortly followed by a Mersey Pilot launch and MSC Venice also well loaded with containers.
Meanwhile, as the North Hoyle wind farm came into view, the tanker CT Sun was noted at the Bar Anchorage while Liverpool Viking was gaining ground on us having departed 12 Quays at 10.00am. It was interesting to note that whilst the already operative wind farm at North Hoyle consisted of rows of six turbines, the construction at Burbo appears to consist of seven.
Beyond the wind farms, the North Wales coast shimmered in the heat off our port side with recognisable landmarks from childhood summer holidays at Point of Ayr, Rhyl, Colwyn Bay and Rhos-on-Sea easily picked out with the aid of binoculars. Ahead, the Little Orme soon gave way to the sands of Llandudno with it’s promenade of hotels and guest houses, and Balmoral swung in the bay to come alongside at Llandudno pier on schedule at 12.30pm.
Many passengers had obviously elected to spend the afternoon in Llandudno – perhaps reliving memories of the days of St Tudno and St Seiriol’s sailings from Liverpool to the Welsh resort. A more detailed examination of alighting passengers tickets made this a slow process and it was 1.15pm before those joining the cruise for the Anglesey leg were able to come aboard. In the meantime those of us who remained on the ship took the opportunity for lunch.
With everyone finally boarded, Balmoral went astern into the bay only five minutes behind the scheduled departure time of 1.45pm, swinging in the shadow of the Great Orme and setting course for Anglesey. Through Conwy Bay and an enterprising mariner in his motor cruiser elected to follow in Balmoral’s wake for a while before accelerating past - exchanging waves with some of those watching from our decks.
With little wind and the shelter of the coast the early afternoon heat was now really intense and my fellow traveller and I agreed that there were probably few better ways to spend a summer afternoon than this! Passing close to Puffin Island on our starboard side, Balmoral made her way up the Menai Strait, picking a course through the many small craft and affording excellent views of Beaumaris with it’s castle and colourful houses and the restored pier at Bangor.
A short stop at Menai Bridge – in the shadow of Telford’s magnificent suspension bridge - allowed more passengers to board (who would be later be brought back by coach from Llandudno) before we headed back up the Strait to pass between Penmon Point and Puffin Island with the well known lighthouse proclaiming ‘No Passage Landward’ reinforced by the mournful tolling of it’s bell. The sandy expanses of Red Wharf Bay with the town of Benllech at it’s western end signalled the turning point for our cruise and the start of our passage back to Llandudno and a final view of Puffin Island.
With gulls sweeping and soaring alongside Balmoral, the Great Orme came into sight again and the former lighthouse – now a guest house – on the Marine Drive could be clearly seen, the late afternoon light beautifully defining the rock strata below. As we came alongside at Llandudno pier the captain asked that passengers redistribute themselves on deck to correct the starboard lean which would make berthing more difficult! The low tide made it necessary for passengers to disembark from a narrow ramp on the small deck behind the wheelhouse, and this coupled with the restricted size of the berth on Llandudno pier made it another slow operation.
With the Llandudno day trippers back on board we departed for the final leg back to Liverpool. Venturing below deck for virtually the first time - in pursuit of some liquid refreshment - one of the limitations of Balmoral’s onboard facilities became apparent. Only the bar at the forward end of the Britiannia Lounge was open, staffed by one rather harassed operative. Consequently a lengthy queue had formed and service was very slow – exacerbated by a shortage of small change in the till and the somewhat ambitious pricing (a single-glass sized bottle of wine at £3.50!).
Finally getting back to the open deck - my travelling companion convinced that I had been press ganged to work in the engine room – we were already approaching North Hoyle wind farm with the turbine blades reflecting in the evening sun. The tanker CT Sun was still present at the Bar Anchorage and as we entered the Mersey, Superseacat Two could be seen leaving the landing stage for the evening run back to Douglas, whilst Dublin Viking was swinging off 12 Quays for her departure to Dublin with Mersey Viking at the other linkspan.
The low sun bathed the buildings of Liverpool’s famous waterfront in a wonderful golden light and many photographic opportunities were taken by those on board Balmoral, again causing the captain to request a redistribution of bodies to correct our distinct lean to port!
The lights were switched on aboard Crystal Serenity, still anchored in the river, and the approach of a tug suggested she would soon begin to swing in preparation for departure. Again the Steam Packet team were on hand to assist with our arrival and we were ashore at 9.30pm with tickets finally being checked as we made our way off the stage.
As the sun finally set over Birkenhead, it was the end of a perfect summer day and a very enjoyable cruise onboard the mv Balmoral.