The Great Orme is a limestone headland on the north coast of Wales, north-west of the town of Llandudno, Conwy.
The headland was know as Cyngreawdr Fynydd by the 12th-century poet Gwalchmai ap Meilyr, but its English name derives from the Old Norse word urm or orm for sea serpent. The Little Orme, a smaller but very similar limestone headland, is on the eastern side of Llandudno Bay. The Vikings left no written texts of their time in North Wales although they certainly raided the area. The entire peninsula on which Llandudno was built was known as the Creuddyn, the headland itself was called Y Gogarth or Pen y Gogarth, its promontories were Pen trwyn, Llech and Trwyn y Gogarth.
Human activity on the Great Orme began approximately 4,000 years ago during the Bronze Age. They opened several mines extracting the copper ore malachite with stones and bone tools. The mine was most productive in the period between 1700BC and 1400BC, after which most of the readily accessible copper had been extracted. The site was so productive that by 1600BC, there were no other copper mines left open in Britain because they could not compete with the Great Orme.
The mine was abandoned and was not worked again until the late 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Mining began in the late 17th century due to the demand for copper and improved ability to pump water out of the mine. A steam engine was used in 1832 and ten years later an 822-metre tunnel was mined at sea level to drain the deeper mine workings. Commercial mining on the Great Orme ended in the 1850s, although small scale mining continued until the mines were finally abandoned in 1881.
In 1987, the improvement of the derelict mine site was commissioned by the local council and Welsh Development Agency. The area was to be landscaped and turned into a car park. Since excavation began in 1987, over 5 miles of prehistoric tunnels have been discovered. New discoveries are still being frequently made and it is estimated that less than half of the prehistoric tunnels have been discovered.
A township called Yn Wyddfid clustered below the Iron Age hill fort of Pen y Dinas at the northeastern corner of the Great Orme. When the copper mines were reopened in the 18th century onwards, this town grew considerably in size with the streets and cottages of the mining village laid out on the then largely abandoned agricultural holdings.
In 1826, the summit of the Great Orme was chosen as the location for one of the 11 optical semaphore stations that would form an unbroken 80 mile chain from Liverpool to Holyhead. The original semaphore station on the Orme, which consisted of small building with living accommodation, used a 15 m ship's mast with three pairs of moveable arms to send messages to either Puffin Island 7 mi to the west or 8.5 mi to Llysfaen in the east. Skilled telegraphers could send semaphore messages between Liverpool and Holyhead in under a minute.
In March 1855, the Great Orme telegraph station was converted to electric telegraph. Landlines and submarine cables connected the Orme to Liverpool and Holyhead. At first the new equipment was installed in the original Semaphore Station on the summit until it was moved down to the Great Orme lighthouse in 1859. Two years later the Great Orme semaphore station closed with the completion of a direct electric telegraph connection from Liverpool to Holyhead.
By the late 1860s, Llandudno's blossoming tourist trade visited the old semaphore station at the summit to enjoy the panorama. This led to the development of the summit complex. By the early 20th century, a nine-bed hotel was built on the site.
On the northernmost point of the Orme is the former Llandudno lighthouse. It was constructed in 1862 by the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company. The navigation aid remained in continuous use until 22 March 1985 when it was decommissioned. The building has now been converted into a small bed & breakfast guest house. The lantern and its optics are now on permanent display at the Summit Complex visitors' centre. The old established "Rest and be thankful" café is also nearby.
During the Second World War, the RAF built a Chain Home Low radar station at the summit. In 1952 the site was taken into private ownership until it was acquired by Llandudno Urban Town Council in 1961.
The Royal Artillery coast artillery school was transferred from Shoeburyness to the Great Orme in 1940 with an additional a Practice Camp at the Little Orme in 1941, during the Second World War. Target practice was undertaken from the headland to both towed and anchored boats. Experimental work and training was also provided for radio direction finding. The foundations of some of the buildings and installations remain and can be seen from the western end of the Marine Drive. The site of the school was scheduled as an Ancient Monument in 2011 by CADW, the Welsh Government's Historic Monuments body. This was done in recognition of the site's significance in a UK and Welsh context.
Aerial Defence Research and Development Establishment (ADRDE) known as "X3" which was a 3-storey building erected in 1942. This seems to have been a secret radar experimental station above the artillery school. The road put in to serve it now serves a car park on the approximate site of the station, which was demolished in 1956.
In 1902, the Great Orme Tramway was built to convey visitors to the top of the Great Orme. In 1969, the Llandudno Cable Car was also constructed to take visitors up to the summit attractions. These include a tourist shop, cafeteria, visitors' centre, play areas, a licensed hotel, and the vintage tram/cable-car stations.
Parts of the Great Orme are managed as a nature reserve by the Conwy County Borough Countryside Service. and has a number of protective designations including Special Area of Conservation, Heritage Coast, Country Park, and Site of Special Scientific Interest. In 2015, the National Trust purchased the summit's 140-acre Parc Farm for £1million.