4 February 2020
It’s before 7am. There’s an autumnal chill in the air, but it’s forecast to become a sunny September day. I’m stood at Llandudno Coach Park, the road behind the resort’s sweeping promenade and bay, lined with hotels as far as the eye can see, waiting for the number 5 Arriva bus. It’s called the Cymru Coastliner and it will take me to Caernarfon.
This was a recce ahead of personally leading a group around Wales a few weeks later. The group would have the comfort of a coach transfer to meet the Welsh Highland Railway beneath the keeps of Caernarfon Castle, but today I would have to make my own way there for the start of a classic round trip through Snowdonia.
At this point, I’d like to dispel the myth that Welsh people switch from English to Welsh when we walk in the room so that they can talk about us. How many times have I heard this? In Gwynedd around two thirds of the population speaks Welsh as well as English. On the bus to Caernarfon and in the café where I munched breakfast I heard people of all ages speaking their own language, just going about their daily routine. In one corner of the café there was a bunch of retired lads having their regular morning coffee and a chat in Welsh. In the other corner there was a conversation ongoing in English. The staff interchanged between English and Welsh with the ease that only comes with having two mother tongues. So, English tourists, they aren’t talking about us. We’re probably not that interesting. And if they are talking about us in Welsh, well maybe it’s because we’re being a bit of a wally?
The sun was shining and Caernarfon Castle is a stunning backdrop to the Welsh Highland Railway’s modern station, complete with a cool café and shop. I wandered along the platform to watch the loco taking on water before readying itself for the ride, then headed for the carriage directly behind the cab, where you can hear the pounding of the engine as it tackles the terrain and smell the smoke and soot from its toil. After Waunfawr station the views to the left open up spectacularly. The Snowdonian scenery is splendid and you can really understand why this railway has been described as one of the best in the world. Llyn Cwellyn lake appears on the right hand side to satisfy those at the other window. Then comes the Aberglaslyn Valley, with watery woodlands once voted Britain best view! Tunnels engineered through the mountains finally bring us to a different coast at Porthmadog.
Porthmadog itself is a pleasant town but its station, home to the Welsh Highland Railway and the Ffestiniog Railway, is so well equipped that it’s pointless venturing far. The onsite pub provided a between trains local beer on the patio next to the platforms in the Indian Summer September sunshine for this traveller who had left his car at home, as both railways geared up for their next trip up into the mountains.
So onto the Ffestiniog. Okay, if it’s not quite as scenic as the Welsh Highland Railway, it’s certainly just as interesting. Coming out of Porthmadog there are fantastic seascapes on the right, then views open up again on the right hand side after Tan-Y-Bwch. But that’s not all as there follows something unique in British heritage railway circles, the word ‘circle’ being apt. At Dduallt Loop the track spirals the mountain to conquer the inhospitable terrain. As the train climbs towards the eerie gleaming grey mountains of Blaenau Ffestiniog, waterfalls cascade outside your window to the left.
The history of these two narrow gauge railways is filled with controversy and politics that I won’t attempt to cover here. Let’s just say that the Welsh Highland Railway, extended to Caernarfon to make use of its full potential in 2011, is at 25 miles in length an extraordinary experience that you shouldn’t miss. The Ffestiniog Railway, shorter at just over 13 miles long and very much built to transport the slate hewn from the mountains, is the oldest surviving railway company in the world. The whole trip, if you can manage it, is well worth a day of anyone’s time.
The round trip doesn’t end there though. At Blaenau Ffestiniog you simply walk across the tracks to the main station, from where Transport for Wales operates services through the Conwy Valley back to the seaside town of Llandudno. The Conwy Valley Line runs for 27 miles and was also originally built to transport slate, this time to the seaport at Deganwy. Leaving Blaenau Ffestiniog you get better views of the slate mountains than on the Ffestiniog Railway, today glistening in the late summer sun. A two mile tunnel bores through the mountain as the line descends towards Betws Y Coed, with lovely valley views all the way on both sides of the train. As the journey progresses you need to try to position yourself to the left though, as watery landscapes turn to seascapes after Deganwy.
Back in Llandudno at just after 4.15pm, the day’s circular tour complete, the weather was still warm and sunny. Warm and sunny enough for one last great railway adventure. From Llandudno’s striking promenade and pier a short walk takes you to Victoria Station, the base of the Great Orme Tramway, opened in 1902 and now the only remaining cable-operated street tramway in Britain. With a quick change at the middle station, the tramway operates with original vehicles dating from its very beginnings, taking you through the streets, up severe inclines to the top of the Great Orme. This is the only place in the country that springs to my mind where you can be sitting on the beach enjoying an ice cream one minute, then a hot chocolate at the top of a mountain just a few minutes later. A truly wonderful way to top off a wonderful day. Croeso i Gymru. Welcome to Wales.