Travel on two of Wales' greatest little train journeys; the Conwy Valley line from mountain to seaside and the Great Orme Tramway to a nature reserve with white goats and wild flowers.
This is the final part of my circular tour of North Wales using scenic railways. This segment travels on the Conwy Valley Railway from Blaenau Ffestiniog to Conwy and Llandudno.
Britain's longest single-track tunnel
The Conwy Valley line (www.conwy.gov.uk/cvr/) does not have the vintage steam charm of other little trains in North Wales. Modern diesel units are a bit of a disappointment in comparison, but, hey, at least the scenery is good.
The line was originally built to transport slate from the mines in Blaenau Ffestiniog. It begins with a 2 mile tunnel, Britain's longest, that took five years to complete. The transformation from one end of this tunnel to the other is dramatic; it takes you from the huge mountains of slate and stark industrial landscapes into a world of pretty pastures.
The line has a seven arch viaduct, steep gradients, mountains, forests, rivers and moors that kept me enthralled for the one hour journey to Llandudno Junction. From here I made the twenty minute walk to Conwy.
Keep the children in the attic!
Conwy has everything you could possibly dream of. Town walls. Medieval and Victorian buildings. Spectacular castle. Fish and chips. Seagulls to steal your chips.
Built by Edward I between 1283 and 1289 Conwy Castle (£4.60 adult ticket, www.cadw.wales.gov.uk/default.asp?id=6&PlaceID=55) is designed to intimidate and leave you feeling rather small. It has eight towers which you can climb up for superb views over pocket-sized Conwy, the harbour and distant mountains.
The most exciting approach to the castle is across the suspension bridge (£1 adult ticket, www.nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-conwysuspensionbridge). You would be forgiven for assuming that the bridge was a part of the castle because it also has towers and turrets. But no! It was built in 1826; Thomas Telford cleverly designed it to complement the castle.
I visited the tiny tollhouse where a family once lived and collected the fees for crossing the bridge. The guide pointed to a trap door in the ceiling and told me with a smile that the children had lived up there! I asked how the family got money from customers, imagining that they had to stand outside and operate some sort of barrier. My modern cynicism had clearly got the better of me because in those days the family got on with their lives in the house and customers would politely knock on the front door and offer to pay.
A “worthy, plentiful house”.
This is how Robert Wynne described his 1586 house, Plas Mawr (£4.60 adult ticket or joint ticket with castle for £6.85, www.conwy.com/plasmawr.html). It is regarded as the best preserved Elizabethan town house in Britain and has a lovely period atmosphere. Inside there is exquisite ornamental plasterwork and original furniture and the chance to climb the observation tower. The building is beautifully rendered in lime with steeped gables and a Tudor garden.
480 firing positions and 22 towers
These are some of the impressive statistics about Conwy's town walls. The walk along them is ¾ of a mile and the views are awesome. The last time I was this impressed by town walls was in Dubrovnik, Croatia, one of that town's greatest features. Unlike Dubrovnik, Conwy's town walls are free to walk.
Apple pie with a view
There are plenty of nice cafes in Conwy to take a well earned rest- walking up and down those castle towers and along the walls will need some serious calories.
The Tower Coffee House is across the road from the castle and has booths with views over the bay. The windows were wide open so that a pleasant breeze accompanied my apple pie and coffee deal.
Fish and chips is a must in a town by the sea and Archway (12-14 Bangor Road,01492 592458) is the place to get some. The queues of locals is a good sign and you can either sit in or better still take your package down to the benches on the harbour. For me it is the crispiness of the batter that makes a fish supper and this place gets it very right.
Two pillows makes a great youth hostel
Conwy Youth Hostel (from £14 for a bed in a dorm) is one of the growing band of hostels that could almost be a hotel. The dorms are en suite, immaculate and two pillows for each bed. This is not something to downplay! A single, limp pillow is the usual hostel characteristic but two pillows makes sleep very sweet.
The rooftop lounge is a nice touch with comfy sofas and outdoor terrace. The views are great from here because the hostel is located in a residential area above the town, about a 15 minute walk. There are plenty of seats outside to sit with a bottle of Conwy Brewery ale (www.conwybrewery.co.uk) from the bar.
The Castle Hotel (from £60 for a double) is the upmarket option, located on the High Street. It has a gorgeous exterior of granite and brick and classy rooms, including a deluxe suite with two-person jacuzzi. The bar is a cosy, relaxed place to try a pint of Celebration Ale from Conwy Brewery. I didn't eat there, but the restaurant is regarded as the best place in town.
Are we in San Francisco or Llandudno?
The Great Orme Tramway in Llandudno (20 minutes by bus from Conwy) made me think of the iconic cable cars in San Francisco. Along with Lisbon these are the only three locations in the world that have cable operated street trams.
The tramway (www.greatormetramway.co.uk) begins at Victoria Station, Church Walks, which is well signposted all over the town. Trams depart every 20 minutes and an adult return is £5.60. The big blue 1902 tram cars are a charming way to travel.
The tram moves off very slowly on a steep climb. It travels right past front gardens and bedroom windows. Then suddenly there are no more buildings and it enters countryside. I was startled that somewhere this wild and rural was just around the corner from a packed seaside town. This is the Great Orme, a mountain headland that is a nature reserve famous for its Kashmir goats and rare wild plants. I spent a delightful couple of hours walking, enjoying the coastal views and sunbathing.
An alternative way to go up or down the Great Orme is on the Llandudno Cable Car (www.attractionsnorthwales.co.uk/attractions/llandudno-cable-car), the longest cable car ride in Britain. The views are striking and on a sultry summer day the cool breezes are most welcome. I couldn't resist doing the tram and the cable car because they are both so much fun to ride!
“A Maharaja's Palace floating on a lake.”
What on earth received such a glowing report from the British Tourist Authority? Llandudno's Pier of course! Yes, it has ice cream, deck chairs, fish and chips and novelty gifts, but it is simply walking along the wooden decking and admiring the decorative railings,the curvy roof of the pavilion and sea views that I enjoyed the most.
I was fortunate to be in Llandudno on a beautiful, warm day and for outdoor dining Mostyn Street is the place to be. There are plenty of cafes and restaurants with terraces on this street, but I'd like to point you to the place I had lunch in. New Mediterranean (153 Mostyn Street, 01492 860670, www.mediterranean-restaurant.co.uk) offers a lunchtime tapas menu; I selected delicious sardines, calamari, vine leaves and haloumi.
This is the final part of a circular tour of North Wales using scenic railways.
- The first guide (www.simonseeks.com/travel-guides/great-little-welsh-trains__167718) covers the Welsh Highland Railway
- The second guide (www.simonseeks.com/travel-guides/great-little-welsh-trains-ffestiniog-railway__168232) covers the Ffestiniog Railway.
My Google map (http://maps.google.com/maps/ms?ie=UTF&msa=0&msid=105230649681054569951.00048b5f9b98c70cb6033) shows the route and it includes details to help with planning.
For more about Llandudno Joe Shooman has written a great guide to the town: www.simonseeks.com/travel-guides/llandudno-more-pier-and-candy-floss__111722