Blog of Justin Cheuk, home to writing on London, Hong Kong, Studying Abroad, Trains and Travels.

The Great North Welsh Railway Journey – 2. Highland Railway to Porthmadog

Justin Cheuk: When HK Meets UK

After the day at Caernarfon Castle, it is finally time for steam trains!

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The Aberglaslyn Pass, from the Welsh Highland

North Wales is a region blessed with heritage railways (or cursed with those so unprofitable that preservation is the only solution?); so much so that two were among a list of “impossibly beautiful” railways of Britain as chosen by the esteemed journalists at Buzzfeed. 

However, I chose to begin my day of heritage rail on one of their scandalous omission: the Welsh Highland Railway.

Or to throw in some Welsh, Rheilffordd Eryri.” Do not inquire here for pronunciation.

Formed by the amalgamation of old narrow-gauge lines dedicated to the transport of slate, (the old industrial pillar in this part of Wales, also the reason why these railways were built) the Welsh Highland connects Caernarfon to Porthmadog, a picturesque port on Cardigan Bay. A decades-long extension project restored through traffic between the towns in 2011.

The big daddy of preserved rail in the region must be the nearby Snowdon Mountain Railway, a Swiss-style funicular that ascends to the summit of Snowdon. It had not fully reopened at my time of visit, so I decided on the Welsh Highland instead. At over 25 miles in length and almost two hours in duration, it is no fairground ride either. It is a proper working railway going through some of the most spectacular landscape of Snowdonia, propelled by steam.

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Caernarfon station, with the Castle in the background

Incredibly, the heritage journey on the Welsh Highland begins at a newly-build platform. Having opened in 1997, Caernarfon station is younger than me. Back when Caernarfon had a mainline connection, the trains tunnelled through the walls (a phenomenon to visit later on the journey); whereas the narrow-gauges never reached Caernarfon but only to Dinas, 2.7 miles down the line. A new station was needed when the heritage line reached Caernarfon again.

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Grand Depart

The current station is situated a short distance south of the walls, with the magnificent castle at its backdrop. (I had originally planned to do the entire trip in reverse, if only to catch a glimpse of the train steaming towards the castle town. Alas it was not to be; train schedules did not coincide.)

Heritage railways commonly run between March and October, and I arrived at Caernarfon for the first running weekend of 2016. It would seem that the railway was yet to wake fully from hibernation: fellow travellers were few and far between, mostly hanging around the shop or at the platform, waiting for the ten o’clock departure.

No matter. The main attraction is on the platform, alive and well. However, the main attraction is already waiting for me on the platform. LOOK AT THE RED TRAIN!!

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Actually photographed in Porthmadog. At Caernarfon, I was too focused on the carriages

It may have been a quiet weekend, but the railway company went out with this beauty of an eight-car set regardless. There was plenty of space, enough for half a carriage all to myself, and great for landscape photos too. I seriously considered switching carriages every ten minutes en-route for a different view, just because I could.

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Healthy steam

The quieter day also allowed time aplenty to speak to the train crew before and during the journey. The driver first demonstrated to us how exactly the brakes function: brakes of steam trains were notoriously inefficient (even inadequate) in the Victorian era, so it was very reassuring to see that they are safe and sound!

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Sheep

Shortly after ten o’clock, the train set off and began to twist and turn through the Snowdon countryside. As the train travelled along the fields, my eyes followed hurriedly the panorama on show in front of the train windows, trying to soak it all in. With this view, I could have been it Switzerland, or Patagonia even. Yet this is North Wales, a few hours on the train from London.

Menu of the Day

Menu of the Day

The train guards rolled around, offering guide books (bought as a souvenir and help for this blog post) and the menu from the buffet car. Surprised by the table service, I decided to order a sandwich, to be enjoyed as we climb near Snowdon. Nothing fancy, but delicious. Come on, mainline train companies, railway sandwiches do not by definition had to be terrible food!

As the there were only a few travellers we had plenty of time to chat. Apparently they are just local people who’ve decided to spend their Saturday on the trains. A heritage railway like the Welsh Highland is not merely a toy for anoraks but a full-fledged community and charitable project. The entire line is is run and cared for by volunteers who spends their spare time keeping a piece of local history (and tourism infrastructure, no less) alive. From running the services to maintaining and cleaning the trains to staffing the cafe, all under the spectacular landscape of Snowdon. Sounds ideal, if you ask me.

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The train whisked around the valley, arriving at Rhyd Ddy at the base of Snowdon, also home to a Youth Hostel designed for some of those half a million people who come from all over to climb Snowdon every year. Unfortunately, Snowdon is also infamous for a piss-poor weather and the summit was, as always, under a thick fog as I visited. Of those half a million hikers, I wonder how many left disappointed.

(it did mean that avoiding the Mountain Railway was a good shout. I’ll be back for it, I’m sure)

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Trains passing through Clyn Lleywellyn (a reservoir). Lakes, hills and greenery, all in one.

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Then onto perhaps the most breathtaking bit of the journey. The Aberglaslyn Pass, voted by National Trust members as having the most beautiful scenery in Britain. And you can count on National Trust members on these decisions.

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People often ask me why I love trains: there are for sure many reasons, but I contend that this picture sums it all. Travel. Adventure. Scenery. History and Heritage. Movements. Chasing hopes and dreams.

We pulled into Porthmadog the terminus for the first leg of my journey. In the 19th century, Porthmadog prospered and rapidly expanded as the outlet port for Welsh slate. The beautiful (if very slate-heavy in architecture) harbour remains, as is the Cob, the imposing sea wall that straddles in front of the town.

Station

Station

Porthmadog has grown into the hub of the Ffestiniog Railways, with a recent project that took the Welsh Highland through the town centre into a new interchange station at Porthmadog Harbour, by the sea wall.

I guess the stoppages would wear out the locals, and may already have done so, but as a traveller the idea of steam trains running parallel to the streets is just so exciting!

Harbour

Harbour

I had about two hours to spare in Porthmadog before the next connection, so I decided on a walk around. The quaint town is pretty compact but does have a lively high street with a collection of interesting shops. After a detour to peek at the mainline station (nowhere near as impressive), I settled on lunch at a surprisingly trendy cafe at this corner of Wales.

Then I returned to the Harbour station for the second leg, the bigger billing, the Ffestiniog Railway into the world of slate.

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