Great little Welsh trains

By Colin Baird, a Travel Enthusiast

Read more on Caernarfon.

Overall rating:5.0 out of 5 (based on 5 votes)
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Inspirational
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Recommended for:
Cultural, Family, Short Break, Budget, Mid-range

Explore North Wales on beautifully restored narrow-gauge steam trains. This guide takes you on an unforgettable journey on the Welsh Highland Railway

What is it with Wales and its little trains, often steam powered, rattling past thrilling scenery? Why so many, why this country? Well, I found out that many of the lines were originally built for slate quarries and when this industry declined there have since been great efforts by enthusiasts to keep the trains running for tourism and pride.

It is possible to do a circular tour of North Wales using mainly these trains. This guide focuses on the Welsh Highland Railway which travels through Snowdonia National Park. Future guides will cover the Ffestiniog and Conwy Valley Railways.

“I Charles, Prince of Wales, do become your Liege man.”

Caernarfon Castle (www.caernarfon.com) is where Charles was invested Prince of Wales in 1969 and where my journey on the Welsh Highland Railway began. This castle means business and is sprawling with polygonal towers. I went up each and every one of them with the result that I didn't need to feel guilty at giving the gym a miss for a couple of days. It was built on the orders of Edward I and part of his “ring of iron”; a chain of castles arranged around North Wales that were so elaborate that they cost ten times the King's income to build.

The Black Boy Inn hurt my head! Not from the real ales in the bar, but the exposed roof beams too low for a tall bloke like me. They are a lovely feature in one of the oldest Inns in Wales (1522), so I considered it worth the bump. The recently renovated rooms are complemented by modern touches like flat screen TVs and free wi-fi. Expect to pay around £100 for a double with breakfast.

The food here is very popular, featuring dishes like Welsh pie and local mussels, so it is best to book a table. I failed to do so and had to find an alternative that turned out to be pretty good despite a limited menu; the Floating Restaurant (01286 672896, Slate Quay). With a name like that you would be expecting watery views and indeed a sunrise over the harbour and Seiont River strait is what I got to accompany my creamy ocean pie. I loved the fact that the children's menu is called “Buoys and Gulls”. Families and mature couples are the main custom in this homely restaurant.

Sink back into the armchair of a Pullman coach

After some friendly banter over the toast-making conveyor belt and a filling breakfast of croissant with Welsh cheese and sliced apple it was time to board the Welsh Highland Railway, just 900 yards from the Black Boy Inn.

How is it possible to get excited waiting for a train to arrive? It is when you hear a toot, toot and see an old steam engine chug chugging towards you.

How is it possible for a train to be cute? It is when the carriages are miniature, almost like a toy train, with handsome wood paneling. Each carriage is different and I found it a great challenge deciding which one I wanted to get on.

I walked through the train to get a good look, coming up with the cunning plan of sitting in a different coach each time I broke my journey. First off, the third class saloon with its arrangement of face to face seats and table in between.

We trundled along, hemmed in by trees and greenery. Then things got very dramatic as we started to climb and travelled alongside a beautiful lake- Llyn Cwellyn. We were right next to Mount Snowdon and I got off at Rhyd Ddu station where trails head off into the hills. It is perfectly possible to climb to the summit and still be able to catch a train onwards. I didn't venture to the top, but enjoyed two hours of  superb walking before returning to the station.

This time I braved the open coach with no windows and wooden seats; actually rather pleasant on a warm, summer's afternoon.

From Beddgelert to Pont Croesor I treated myself to a first class upgrade. The plush Pullman coach has an Edwardian parlour room interior of comfy armchairs and varnished tables. The chairs are like those that you aren't allowed to sit on when visiting a castle or country house. Some of the first class carriages have an observation section with big picture windows. I ordered a Snowdonia Ale (www.purplemoose.co.uk) from the buffet service and it turned out to be an excellent accompaniment to the scenery.

This part of the journey runs along the Aberglaslyn Pass, a theatre of rushing water, boulders, steep hillsides and exciting tunnel. Pont Croesor is as far as you can go until the final section of track is laid in 2011. This will create a link with the Ffestiniog Railway making this the longest narrow-guage line in Europe.

Chocolate and chilli ice cream

I returned to charming Beddgelert to spend the night. Room 2, Yr Wyddfa, in the River Garden Guest House was a little cramped, but the view of the river from the window more than made up for it. From £30 per person, bed and breakfast, it met the need for a comfy bed for the night.

This village is too beautiful to stay in your room anyway. Every single house is adorned with the prettiest, colourful flowers. It made me wonder if you had to have a degree in gardening to qualify as a resident.

I walked to Gelert's Grave, the faithful dog of Prince Llywelyn, and read the plaque that tells the story of how the village got its name. I am not going to tell it; travel is exciting when you have some surprises that guides don't tell you about.

A little further on and I joined the path into the Aberglaslyn Pass. You have to do this walk! This powerful river plunges over rocks and there are some precarious bits of path that have iron handholds. It is right alongside the railway line and gives a much better impression of the engineering feat than from the train.

Next door to the River Garden is the Saracen's Head (www.saracens-head.co.uk). This is the place for straightforward, filling and satisfying pub food, such as fish and chips and curries.

I made sure to save myself for Beddgelert's show stopper- Glaslyn Ices (www.glaslynices.co.uk) You can't miss this place because there are always people sitting on the wall outside engrossed in some serious licking. They even employ a “Sundae technician” dedicated to your pleasure.

You can link to another fabulous little train from Beddgelert; the Ffestiniog Railway. My next guide (www.simonseeks.com/travel-guides/great-little-welsh-trains-ffestiniog-railway__168232) covers this railway. Why not continue your journey?

Essentials

My Google map shows that it is possible to do a circular route of North Wales using mostly scenic railways. I have included some practical detail on this map to help with planning.

You can reach Caernarfon via Bangor, the nearest mainline train station. Frequent buses from Bangor to Caernarfon take 30 minutes. See www.gwynedd.gov.uk 

Train times and number of departures on the Welsh Highland Railway depend on time of year and day of week. A single ticket from Caernarfon to Beddgelert costs £15.20 and you can get on and off the train at any of the stations in between. A £6 supplement on this ticket will give you the luxury of first class. See www.festrail.co.uk 

Look out for Tregroes Waffles, (www.tregroeswaffles.co.uk) produced in South-West Wales, and found in most shops in this region. I became addicted!

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More information on Great little Welsh trains:

Author:
Colin Baird
Traveller type:
Travel Enthusiast
Guide rating:
5
Average: 5 (5 votes)
Total views:
518
First uploaded:
25 August 2010
Last updated:
3 years 51 weeks 1 day 10 hours 57 min 11 sec ago
Destinations featured:
Trip types:
Cultural, Family, Short Break
Budget level:
Budget, Mid-range
Free tags / Keywords:
restored-steamtrain, narrow gauge railway, country walking

Colin recommends

Hotels

Price from Rating
(out of 5)
1. Black Boy Inn
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2. River Garden Guest House
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Community comments (6)

Rating:
5
0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

Another superb guide Colin. Fab pics, lots of recommendations and wonderful narrative told with humour and with an insight into what someone planning a visit would want to know. I really enjoy your guides, thank you.

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Rating:
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0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

Hi Colin

I can very easily see how a steam train can bu cute, especially if it's on a small narrow gauge railway. Great guide which demonstrates that you do not have to travel far to find something out of the ordinary in the UK. Shame about the beams ouch!

simon

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0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

What a week for guides! It's reminded me all over again how much I love this site even though it's often a trial inputting stuff (i.e these comments!)
Your photos tell the story so beautifully before I even get to read the guide. Comforting to know that there are a few of us oldies out there(obviously not you Colin)as I was actually present at that Investiture, with my Dad!
It is a great way to see Wales and I can't wait for your next guides. Could be a bit hectic at stations as we all play "excuse me" and hop about between carriages but I'm game if you are. Everything I could wish for in a guide including my favourite phrase "theatre of rushing water"- thanks Colin.

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0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

What memories! I spent a lot of my childhood holidays in this area, when the railways you write of were derelict. How nice that they have been revived. North Wales is among the most beautiful spots on the planet; time I went back...

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0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

Just shows that you don't need to go to exotic places to have fun - and write an excellent guide.

Some good, innovative touches here: intriguing headings,the Google map, the video, refusing to tell us about Gelert's Grave.... but I think it is the deceptively relaxed style which characterises the guide, yet gives us plenty of tips and information at the same time, which really gives it a five-star rating. I love the idea of carriage-hopping during the journey (I'd never have thought of that!), though with writing like this, you don't belong in 3rd class, Colin - ever.

Laced with some creative turns of phrase and subtle humour. I loved the video, too, though I fear I am reaching the age at which taking photos of trains might seem like a good idea!

I have a friend who lives just south of here, at Bontnewydd. Time for a visit, methinks. Excellent guide, well done.

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Thanks Murray. I am happy you liked it and thank you for taking the time to review it. Your kind comments are very much appreciated. Part two of this guide- the Ffestiniog Railway- is on the way.