Steam engines, steep gradients, Pullman carriages and gorgeous scenery. Welcome to the Ffestiniog Railway; a wonderful way to explore North Wales
"Ladies and gentlemen we apologise that the next train will be 15 minutes late due to a technical problem with the engine." I looked around at my fellow passengers expecting to hear moans, groans and sighs, but there weren't any. Oddly, they all looked happy about this news.
You see, the engine in question was a 130 year-old steam locomotive so you could forgive it for having a " technical problem" and furthermore it would be taking us on one of the most scenic stretches of track in the world. No amount of bad news about train performance was going to dampen the mood on the platform of Porthmadog station.
The train itself is the star of this journey, but along the way there is the Italianate fantasy village of Portmeirion and the chance to don a hard hat and descend into a slate mine.
“Let me out, it's my stop!”
I planned to leave the train at the first stop, Minffordd, to make the half hour walk to Portmeirion, but it almost didn't happen because I got locked inside the train!
I had decided to sit in an 1870s railway carriage that could only be opened from the outside. I started to panic, wondering if people in the nineteenth century had climbed out train windows.
Then the guard strided down the platform, "Anyone for Minffordd?"
I opened the window to speak to him, but this window was from the Victorian era and, just my luck, had to be a complicated contraption that involved unfastening and lifting up a leather belt to get it to slide down, "Yes, me."
He didn't hear me because by the time I actually got the window down he was out of ear shot, so I resorted to knocking on an adjacent window; my predicament now causing much amusement to the other passengers. This time he saw me and I was released!
“Sir Clough Williams-Ellis' contemporaries must have thought he was bonkers!”
A man turned and said this to me in the Town Hall Restaurant in reference to the architect of Portmeirion, a Disney-like creation of Italian buildings lovingly put together between 1925 and 1976.
“He had the last laugh,” I replied referring to how busy the place was. It receives 250,000 visitors per year.
Portmeirion (www.portmeirion-village.com £8 to enter for adults; half price after 15:30) is really small and you could probably get around it in about half an hour, but that is not the point. The pleasure is in slowing down and enjoying the quirky little details, like the statues dotted about, the bright, happy colours of the buildings and the gorgeous floral displays. I found a secret path that took me up through some trees to a domed gazebo that gave that postcard view of the village and the estuary of the River Dwyryd.
Portmeirion is also designed to empty wallets. There are six cafes and several souvenir shops, including one dedicated to The Prisoner, the 1960s TV-show that was filmed here. The iconic blazer and swivel bucket seat are on sale.
Drama on the rails
Sit on the right! The best views are here. The Ffestiniog really is one of those rail journeys that lives up to the hype. I've been to Switzerland and thought that the mountain railways were unrivalled but this is just as good. Plenty of steep climbs, the right amount of twisting and turning, too much clinging to mountain edges with sheer drops and a nice fix of valleys and rolling hills. Large parts of the route are totally hemmed in by thick forests so that a heady scent of fir and steam breezes through the windows.
To enhance the journey you can treat yourself to a seat in the Pullman carriage. These have beautiful armchairs, varnished tables and a large observation window at the rear.
Heaps and heaps of slate
Blaenau Ffestiniog, the last stop on the railway, is surrounded by mountains of slate, the remnants of an industry that once employed 17,000 men. The railway had been constructed to pull wagons of slate.
The Llechwedd Slate Caverns (www.llechwedd-slate-caverns.co.uk) provide a unique experience of Welsh mining heritage. It takes about twenty minutes to walk there from the centre of town.
I took the Deep Mine tour (£10) which begins with a funicular railway ride underground. I ended up being the only person on the tour. It was a bit scary to be told to wander off into the pitch dark. I was assured that motion detection technology would turn on lights as I made my way around.
At first I couldn't help myself wondering what would happen if something went wrong, but soon I relaxed and this became a very dramatic and moving experience. I walked through a series of caverns and shafts, accompanied by audio commentary of a Victorian miner telling of his experience. Later there was classical music and male voice choirs creating a beautiful atmosphere and evoking the pride that Wales has for this heritage and the men who toiled in harsh conditions.
Back on the surface there is a small mock-up Victorian village complete with a bank where you can change your money into pennies and farthings to spend in the Miner's Arms pub or the old fashioned sweet shop.
Lumpy, bumpy cake
I stayed in the Isallt Guest House, conveniently located next to the train station. For £35 bed and breakfast I got a clean, comfortable room and filling breakfast.
Blaenau Ffestiniog was hit hard by the collapse of the slate industry. There is a lot of unemployment and the town is not the prettiest place you will find. The owner of the guest house despaired of the coach parties who came to see the slate mine or board the Ffestiniog Railway, but came nowhere near the town.
However, locals are making a lot of effort to attract visitors. For an evening meal I was surprised by a place that goes to prove the old adage that you can never judge a book by its cover.
De Niros (36 High Street, 0790 182 5270 ) has a simple décor of country kitchen pine furniture. It feels like it is more at home as a daytime caff, rather than as an evening restaurant. However, the food is very good and incredible value featuring steaks, lamb hot pot, chicken Kiev and several vegetarian options. The owners, Sue and Kevin, make you feel instantly welcome and create an informal atmosphere akin to a family kitchen. I met a Swedish family and they had liked this place so much that they ate there for all three nights of their stay.
If you want to experience dessert paradise it will cost you a mere £2.95. Order the lumpy bumpy cake; a concoction of chocolate sponge, chocolate mousse, chocolate cheese cake, chocolate sauce, pecans and ice cream.
This is part two of a guide to a circular route through North Wales using several of Wales' scenic trains.
My first guide Great little Welsh trains describes the route of the Welsh Highland Railway. In 2011 this will be linked with the Ffestiniog Railway. Until then you can reach Porthmadog by bus from Beddgelert, the town where my first guide concluded.
My Google map (http://maps.google.com/maps/ms?ie=UTF&msa=0&msid=105230649681054569951.00048b5f9b98c70cb6033) shows the circular route and it includes practical detail to help with planning.
Train times and number of departures on the Ffestiniog Railway depend on time of year and day of week. A single ticket from Porthmadog to Blaenau Ffestiniog costs £12.35. A £5 supplement on this ticket will give you the luxury of first class. See www.festrail.co.uk