Full steam ahead

Posted on: 22 March 2010 by Mark O'haire

Wales has more than its fair share of narrow-gauge steam railways, especially in the northern region, around Snowdonia.

These steam engines were used to transport slate from the area’s world-famous slate quarries to the coast, for shipping around the British Empire during the 19th and early 20th centuries. No longer used for their original purpose, many have been renovated by enthusiasts and now offer short but evocative journeys through glorious countryside.

All the trains travel at a delightfully modest speed, so you can gently soak up the wonderful views. In fact, by using Snowdonia’s “Sherpa” bus services to plug the gaps, it’s possible to travel from the sea to the summit of Mount Snowdon by steam train.

From Caernarfon on the Welsh coast you can take a Welsh Highland Railway train through stunning scenery to Pitt’s Head, a starting point for a trek to the top of Snowdon, or travel on to Beddgelert before looping around, via a dramatic plunge through a hillside tunnel, for the return journey.

Or disembark at Beddgelert and take the bus to nearby Llanberis, the starting point for two magical steam-train rides: one around tranquil twin lakes and through the Padam Country Park, with great views of the peaks; the other chugging its way up the slopes of Snowdon itself to Hafod Eryri – the summit’s new visitor centre.

Buses connect Caernarfon with Porthmadog, further up the coast, where there are another two trips to savour. From Porthmadog’s Harbour Station the Ffestiniog Railway heads east, climbing straight into the heart of Snowdonia. It runs through glorious oakwoods and past magnificent lakes and waterfalls, clinging to the sides of the mountains or even tunneling through them, and up to Blaenau Ffestiniog station, at the head of the valley.

The Welsh Highland Heritage Railway is a loop of line only 1.6-km (1-mile) long, starting and finishing at Porthmadog, but the stop at its engine sheds en route is a must for enthusiasts young and old. The line offers visitors over 18 the opportunity to drive a steam engine called “Gelert” – an experience likened to “driving a car using bath taps”.

While younger visitors may be disappointed at missing out, they can still clamber into the locomotive cabs in the engine sheds and learn how it all works. Each train has a wheelchair-accessible, pushchair-friendly coach and the railway will even take well-behaved dogs – so this really can be a day out for all the family.

The Essentials

Getting there and around

The Welsh Narrow-gauge Railways are concentrated in northwest Wales. The area is approximately 4 hours’ drive from London. There are three main starting points for the narrow-gauge trains: Porthmadog, Caenarfon and Llanberis.

Mainline rail services along the north Wales coast call at Porthmadog. The Sherpa bus service connects Porthmadog to Caenarfon and Llanberis, and runs buses to all the most popular tourist points in Snowdonia.

Weather

Spring is generally mild but windy, with rain showers. Daytime temperatures vary from 7 to 15ºC in the valleys and from 0 to 11ºC on the summit of Snowdon.

Accommodation

Splashing Out: Tan-yr-Allt, just outside Porthmadog, is an early-19th-century country house that was once the home of the Romantic poet Shelley.

On a Budget: Lake View, in Llanberis, within the Snowdonia National Park, is a friendly family-owned hotel with lake views and good locally sourced food.

Eating Out

Splashing Out: Bistro Moelwyn in Blaenau Ffestiniog is an excellent restaurant with views over the mountains and organic food.

On a Budget: Russell Tea Room, in Porthmadog Station, is a classic old station café with mugs of tea and filling meals.

Price for a family of four

From £260 for accommodation, food and train tickets.

Where 
to go whenThis is an extract from Where to Go When: Great Britain and Ireland with a foreword by Julia Bradbury, published by DK Eyewitness Travel, £19.99, out now or £12.49 from Amazon.

Further Reading

www.visitwales.com

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