One of the best ways to see a country is on a slow train. Perhaps the most enjoyable of these are the 19th-century railways of Wales.
In 1996, I came across a site called The Great Little Trains of Wales as I was researching my first book on using the Net for travel.
In 2003, I rode those trains when I went to interview the legendary Jan Morris. A couple of years later I learned how to drive the trains for a Lexus magazine story. And this spring I wrote a piece for American Airlines’ inflight magazine, American Way.
By Michael Shapiro
Talyllyn’s black locomotive glistened in the Welsh mist, hissing steam as an inferno roared in its belly. Behind the coal-fired engine were four lovingly crafted wooden cars, perched atop rails 27 inches apart. My heart leapt, it looked like a Thomas the Tank Engine train set come to life, and I couldn’t wait to get on board.
“Welcome,” boomed John Smallwood, the greeter at the Talyllyn Railway on Wales’ west coast, which opened in 1865 and has been running its steam locomotives ever since. Dressed in a red jacket with the golden Talyllyn logo and a pink carnation pinned to the lapel, Smallwood told us that our Victorian train would have three cars with brasswork from the 1860s.
Talyllyn’s rail line, like many of Wales’ narrow-gauge trains, was built in the 19th century to haul slate from mountain mines to the coast, where it was loaded onto ships. As Wales’ slate trade waned after World War II, many of these rail lines fell into disrepair. By the 1950s some were in danger of being lost, so volunteer groups across Wales mobilized to rebuild the historic rail lines as tourist trains, replacing slate wagons with passenger cars.
And then with a trill of the conductor’s whistle and cough of silver steam we were off, gently chugging into the resplendent Welsh countryside. Talyllyn is part of a collection of 10 railways, known as the Great Little Trains of Wales.
These rail lines are an ideal way to peek into the hidden corners of this indomitable nation – its emerald forests, gushing waterfalls, shuttered mines, imposing castles and mountaintop views – and to slip back to a time when travel was slower but you could see more.
Some of the rail lines have guest driver programs: In a single day you can learn how to operate the steam engine, and then – under strict supervision of course – drive the train over hill and dale, your friends and family riding along in the passenger cars.
Last June, I rode four of Wales’ most celebrated narrow-gauge railways – here are the highlights:
Talyllyn Railway: The train embarks from the hamlet of Tywyn on the Cardigan Bay coast and runs just over seven miles through the Fathew valley to Nant Gwernol, a station with no road access but plenty of forest trails worth exploring. Driver Chris Parrott, who Americans would call the engineer, said Talyllyn is the first preserved railway in the world. He invited me into the engine for part of the journey.
On a rainy afternoon I viewed the rail lines through porthole-like windows as waves of heat from the engine warmed my sodden legs and dried my soaked jeans. The typical roundtrip takes two and a half hours, an hour each way and a half hour at the end of the line for a walk or tea. “British people like a tea break,” said Talyllyn spokesman Phil Eaton.
Allow time to visit the Narrow Gauge Railway Museum at Tywyn Wharf, a collection that spans two centuries of railway history, from locomotives to signs, from tickets to signaling equipment. In the museum I learn that Thomas the Tank Engine’s creator, Rev. W.V. Awdry, was an early volunteer at Talyllyn, and his Skarloey Railway engines are modeled on Talyllyn’s locomotives.
Ffestiniog Railway: Located in the handsome port town of Porthmadog, this line was established in 1832 and runs 13.5 miles through Snowdonia National Park to the slate mines at Blaenau Ffestiniog. From sea level it’s a 700-foot climb to the mines – in the railway’s early years, horses lugged wagons uphill then gravity pulled the slate-filled trains down to Porthmadog. Today there are several tight turns, including a complete spiral, possible only because the railway is so narrow (23.5 inches).
The train huffs through residential neighborhoods at a top speed of 20 mph, coming so close to the windows of compact homes that you can see photos of children atop dressers. The signsong sounds of sheep bounce over the hills as sapphire lakes shine through the drizzly afternoon.
Most of the railway is single track, but near the halfway point we slow down at Tan y Bwlch (the ‘w’ in Welsh can be a vowel and sounds like our “oo”) where there are two tracks. The train isn’t allowed to pass the station until the driver goes into the trackside station house and removes a footlong notched “token,” our key to continuing on.
The Ffestiniog is split into four sections. Each of these stations has a token machine linked to the next station by telegraph, says Andrew Thomas, a spokesman for the Ffestiniog railway. “The machines are interlocked, allowing only one token for the section to be removed at a time.”
For a final safety check, the driver shows the train’s guard and fireman the token, and they read out loud the station names stamped on it to ensure it is the correct token for the section about to be entered. This ingenious system, devised about 150 years ago, prevents head-on collisions by ensuring that trains pass one another on separate tracks before continuing along the single track that makes up most of the line.
At Ffestiniog riders can hike over to the slate mines or watch as the engine is detached and pulled around to the other side of the train for the return journey. On the way back I meet Ken Ward, an octogenarian hiker and author of Six Feet to Land’s End, who told me how excited he was as a boy on his first train ride to the sea. The steam engine is “a splendid living beast,” he says. “It’s alive!”
Welsh Highland Railway: Completed in 2012 after decades of volunteer effort, this line is the granddaddy of Wales’ narrow gauge trains. The trains run 25 miles from Porthmadog to the city of Caernarfon, best known for its towering castle. The route traverses some of Snowdonia’s most spectacular scenery – you can soak in the views of soaring mountains, churning rivers and spring-green hills dotted with sheep, or disembark for a hike or a pint of “real ale” before returning to the train.
This is no toy – the mammoth 1958 Beyer-Garratt locomotive weighs more than 60 tons, powerful enough to pull the long trains up Snowdonia’s steep slopes. The interiors are polished wood with plush chairs and belt-like straps to hold the windows open. A highlight is the view at Aberglaslyn Pass, where stone cliffs plunge into a deep, river-carved valley, voted by members of the National Trust as Britain’s most scenic vista.
Intrepid hikers can get off at Rhyd Ddu to hike up Mt. Snowdon, Britain’s highest peak and training ground for the climbers who were the first to summit Mt. Everest in 1953. And be sure to allow time to explore the Romanesque fortress at Caernarfon, one of Wales’ most majestic and commanding citadels, which for centuries guarded its northwest coast. From Caernarfon you can see the adjacent isle of Anglesey, part-time home to Prince William and Kate Middleton.
(ed note, it’s same URL as for Ffestiniog line. There’s another train, the Welsh Highland Heritage Railway, that also runs out of Porthmadog and is geared toward children which has a different URL. I don’t think it’s worth covering here but could add a line if you like.)
Snowdon Mountain Railway: No visit to Wales is complete without surveying the countryside from the top of Britain’s highest mountain. You can hike to Mt. Snowdon’s 3560-foot summit or you can relax and ride up on the Snowdon railway. Open since 1896, this is a popular rail line so be sure to book in advance, otherwise you may have to wait a couple of hours.
The Snowdon railway has narration describing this land of fairies, giants and kings and the myths that swirl around the mountaintop. The boulders that pock the mountainside were, according to legend, stones flung down “by a giant in a fit of pique.” Don’t miss the waterfall early in the trip. Nearing the summit the view rolls out in all directions; as we disembark the narrator warns us to be careful at the peak. How often do people fall off the mountain? “Only once.”
We have a half hour at the blustery summit, where, on a rare clear day, it’s said you can see Britain’s five kingdoms: Wales, Ireland, Scotland, England “and the kingdom of heaven.” From the top we’re eye level with darting gulls. I look toward the Llyn Peninsula, home to Wales’ finest writer Jan Morris, and can see the peninsula’s terminus tumbling into the sea, which feels like looking out to the end of the world.
To learn about other Welsh trains, see: greatlittletrainsofwales.co.uk
Michael Shapiro last wrote for American Way about the burning of the devil ceremony in Guatemala. He is the author of A Sense of Place.