The Great North Welsh Railway Journey – 1. Caernarfon
North Wales. The idea began on a facebook scroll.
The image was stereotypically grey. I was, fittingly, in a library basement, and had tasked to immerse myself in the books in front of me. As any 21st-century human would, my mind inevitably drifted onto facebook, then to Chrome, where I read that the steam railways in Snowdonia would be reopened for the summer in a couple of weekends’ time.
The thought of visiting those spectacular lines had long been in my mind, with timing the major constraint that blocks it from reality. As I discovered that I actually do have a long weekend available, much like those TV adverts for hotel websites I made the snap decision to get away from the library and two weeks later found myself at Euston, looking for the train bound for Holyhead.
I have been to Wales once, a full decade ago, to the Brecon Beacons on a school trip. As I was never Bear Grylls but more the sightseeing type, my brain may have selectively deleted most recollections of that week but of some hiking and jumping down a waterfall (probably nowhere as dangerous as I remembered). What I did remember, even if also vaguely, was the visit of a giant Castle before returning to London.
I cannot remember the Castle’s name (although based on location and appearance Caerphilly seems the only likely option), but I do remember entering through its gates and stepping into the world entirely different, a magical medieval fantasy. History rules, yay!
As a self-professed history buff (with huge gaps in his knowledge, no less), North Wales is a must for Castles. During the Middle Ages, Edward I had constructed a series of fortresses as he attempted to subjugate the Welsh heartlands. While the relative stability that followed allowed many of them to be fallen into disrepair, it also saved them from… gunpowder. And tanks. And missiles. Therefore, we can now find some of the best-preserved castles in the world in North Wales, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
So it is settled. A long weekend of trains and castles. My Great Welsh Railway Journey. Volume One.
(In Michael Portillo’s voice) I start my journey at the Royal Town of Caernarfon, with its World Heritage Castle; then trek around Snowdonia on steam, firstly on the Welsh Highland Railway and then the Ffestionig Railway to the slate town of Blaenau Ffestionig (or as I called it, ‘the FF place’), changing at Porthmadog by the edge of Cardigan Bay. Next, I return to the mainline towards Conwy, with another UNESCO Castle, finishing my journey at the grand promenade of Llandudno, “the Queen of the Welsh Resorts.”
(I’ve always wanted to do that.)
I arrived in Caernarfon, via bus from Bangor, at around midday. Walking into the walled town of North Wales’ spiritual capital, the high street is a traditional, even ordinary, British affair, stacked with your standard staples. Perhaps a few more independent shops, but with a twist: EVERYTHING is in Welsh.
This is the heart of Welsh-speaking Wales (86.1% per 2001 Census), after all.
It is really exciting to hear another language used exclusively in an otherwise very British setting. The entire town is signed with Welsh first and foremost and only followed by English on occasion – with a welsh of shops supplying Welsh materials.
What I found the strangest, though, was a standard cash point trip. HSBC’s posters all adhered to the same styling and (presumably) slogans as those in London or Newcastle, yet other then ‘Cymru’ I did not understand a word of it.
Fast food joints like Subway or KFC retained English menus, merely providing a Welsh open sign (word is ‘Aragor’ – this *is* the land of the Druids), although the patrons and attendants all spoke Welsh. I went for lunch and ordered a chicken burger. Picking up the food, sat down, started scrolling down my phone while sipping sprite, I realised that I have had the exact same experience as I would in Croydon, yet everything else around me was so different. How fascinating.
Onto the sightseeing. Dominating the walled town and the entrance to the harbour, Caernarfon Castle is the biggest sight in town both literally and figuratively. According to Welsh mythology, a fort – even a Roman capital – had existed for centuries. Legend has it that the Emperor Macsen Wledig once dreamt of a lovely maiden from a far-away land. Naturally, he dispatched all his men all over the empire in search of her. After much difficulty, they found her in Caernarfon. The Emperor then made his way to Wales, encountering everything as it was in the dream.
And in standard legend fashion, they fell in love, got married, lived happily ever after and became ancestors to all the Welsh princes.
When Edward I conquered Wales, he was keen to exploit Caernarfon’s Roman and Imperial connection and made the town his Welsh capital. A capital requires a fitting seat, and this is the magnificent, if brute, result.
You can tell this was once a very important place, right from the ascend towards King’s Gate. In front of you, hexagonal towers rise high up into the sky; it’s rather fortunate that there are no archers waiting for me there. As I would discover later on, the masons of Caernarfon went to great lengths on the fortress’ visual department so that it is fitting for the royals – descendants of the Romans or so they claimed. Apparently, the walls are modelled and coloured (gone, as always) on those from Constantinople.
And Caernarfon wasn’t even finished. Falling into the common finance trap of medieval projects, the strive towards excellence and the need for garrison it continuously drained Edward’s finances: £25,000 is one massive sum now, let alone in the 1300s. Well, at least, the bloody expensive stonework was excellent and survived throughout the ages. Moreover, much of the connecting passageways had now been repaired, and you can now climb to its zenith and enjoy some unspoiled views across the town and the Menai Strait.
It was here at Edward I ‘crowned’ his son, also Edward (ah, the ever-changing variety of royal baby names) as the Prince of Wales, continuing the tradition of granting even more titles to your heir. Many years later into the 20th century, the Queen decided to return this grandeur ceremony to Caernarfon, with Charles invested in 1969. Extensive restoration was completed for the occasion, although as the roofs were all gone, all guests had to stand out open on the Welsh weather…
Indeed, much of the castle was restored to an ‘authentic’ state, with poorly-lit medieval alleyways connecting exhibits on the castle’s construction and its inhabitants in different parts of the castle. Visiting on a quiet day in March, the only guide on directions was the occasional medieval music permeating from exhibits. It’s a lot creepier than expected. I survived. I did not run away scared. I did not take out my phone as a flashlight.
After the castle, I spent some time walking around the walled town. They always it is in Italy or Japan that you’d find a well-preserved set of walls, but I guess Caernarfon’s really should be on the list too! A garrison church built into the walls, anybody?
End of the day: sitting a the pub by the castle walls as the sun (surprisingly) reappeared for a sunset across the Menai Strait.
Next up: TRAINS!!