Geoff Moore visits North Wales and finds heritage and steam!
Breathing in the cool mountain air as our tiny train snaked left, then right and then left again slowly plodding to the clear summit of Snowdon. Certainly taking the 30 minute train option to the top is vastly quicker than the three or four-hour hike to its peak via six possibly different routes, which those fitter do equally well but at a somewhat slower steady pace. My excuse was that ‘time was of the essence’ but in reality I had for years dreamt of making the unique cog rail ride to the top of Wales’s highest mountain.
The huffing puffing steam engines of a bygone era are the number one choice for the thousands of visitors that make the trip every year. The diesels in my opinion do come off second best but if you are lucky enough to get a steam engine pushing you to just under the 3,500foot summit do take it!
Powering my ascent was a delightful green as the valleys engine named without the use of any vowels until the last letter Wyddfa! However the engine bumped and rattled my fellow 33 passengers and I for around half an hour with an almost a maritime sea saw action both ways on the steep gradient.
The Snowdon Mountain Railway is not alone in this area of North Wales where heritage railways seem to come along like the proverbial buses, three at a time! The Welsh Highland Railway, the Festiniog Railway and the Llangollen Railway all provide very different experiences some being like Snowdon narrow gauge and the one standard gauge of the Llangollen where you can even have a go on the engine for an additional pre booked fee.
Packages can be taken with Great Rail Journeys or Rail Discoveries with in my case based at the family run Danoon Hotel in Llandudno where a hearty welsh breakfast starts the day and excellent 3 course dinner ends it. Both companies offer inclusive breaks where it’s possible to experience all of those railways on just one holiday package or some of them.
The Welsh Highland Railway was a new kid on the block where passengers were concerned as it opened its narrow gauge service from Caenarfon to Porthmadog in 1923 but was never really viable and closed again in 1937. Like many of the other heritage lines in the early 1960’s it was brought back into use by the huge efforts of rail enthusiasts and volunteers who by 2003 had 13 miles of it was back in use and today the line runs all the way to Portmadog. Caenarfon station is currently being modernised so by 2018 the new station buildings should be ready for the new tourist season and being the longest heritage railway in the UK 25 miles long it will be one of the smartest and up to date too.
If the Welsh is the new kid then the Festiniog is the old sweat, the worlds oldest narrow gauge railway can chart its history back 200 years. The 13mile route from Portmadog to Blaenau Festiniog to the slate mining capital and was the very reason for it being built in the first place. Then it carried slate, now its passengers can enjoy a journey back in time as the ride takes you 700 feet above sea level into the mountains that is where this black gold was hewed from the quarries around Festiniog and protected roofs and buildings all over the UK and the world. Winding around very tight curves and through narrow cuttings this ride gives great views of the area around Snowdon and its forests, waterfalls and lakes. Also you do not have to leave your seat or miss any of the views as an at seat buffet trolley service will bring you snacks, refreshments and is licensed too!
With these two railways of the Welsh and Festiniog both sharing an interchange at Porthmadog its really excellent place to make the most of two railways in one and again you wait and then two come along! In 2014 this station was improved to allow cross platform access for all passengers.
Some rail enthusiasts adore narrow gauge some prefer the big stuff, that is standard gauge. For them the choice would be Llangollen as it’s the only standard gauge heritage railway in the North Wales area. Travelling along the Dee River valley for around ten miles to the town of Corwen. The station at Llangollen is very typical in the GWR style. Great Western Railway or as some would say: ‘Gods Wonderful Railway’. The volunteers have created a station that echoes back to that period when steam train rail travel was at its peak.
Stacks of old suitcases trolleys, antique lights and signage help to make the experience very much a history lesson for those that are too young to have known of steam. Although for those of a certain age it brings waves of nostalgia sweeping over them when they first felt the breathing, hissing almost living engines thunder past at a station near them.
Included on some of the inclusive holiday packages are some other non-railway excursions like that to the Italian inspired village of Portmeirion. Now a hotel and holiday cottage complex it became hugely famous when the 1960’s cult TV programme ‘The Prisoner’ was filmed there. Actor and Director Patrick McGoohan used the complex as a huge film set pretending it was a village where people like himself ‘No6’, a former intelligence agent found themselves after they resigned from the secret service. He never really knew if, he was being held and questioned by ‘his side’ or the other side. He spent much time trying to escape from the famous balloon guards.
Architect Clough Williams-Ellis from 1925 until 1976 constructed the collection of whimsical buildings, with an enforced break during the Second World War. The mix of styles from the Palladium through to Arts and Craft with aged focal statues and items placed into various setting as he felt suited the aesthetics of each view. As well as its starring role on TV it was once all hired out to Beatle George Harrison who was celebrating a birthday with friends and family. Film stars such as Gregory Peck, Ingrid Bergman, Noel Coward have stayed. More recently musician Jools Holland has been a regular visitor to one of its palladium style houses.
Another charming diversion is that of a ride on horse drawn barges at Llangollen. From the many horsepower of a steam engine to that of one horsepower and a gentle glide in horse towed a barge along the Llangollen Canal taking in the views of the famous International Musical Eisteddfod site in the town and the pretty countryside around.
Using their travel knowledge Great Rail Journeys and Rail Discoveries put together excellent inclusive packages of quality hotel accommodation, food, transport and ticketing leaving you free to enjoy that special rail experience you can treasure.
Great Rail Journeys, from £675pp for the 6-day Railways & Castles of Wales
Rail Discoveries, from £465pp for the 6-day Railways of Wales
GRJ Independent for a tailor-made holiday – price on request
Hotel: Dunoon Hotel
Free time dining recommendation:
Wildwood Restaurant Llandudno www.wildwoodrestaurants.co.uk
WALES ON THE RAILS
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Travel writer and photographer, Geoff has travelled the world in one way or another for 30 years. He is a member of the British Guild of Travel Writers and we welcome his contribution to Your Holiday TV