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?
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!