JOURNEYS IN NORTH WALES 2016 – 2019
It is well over twenty years since I spent any time in North Wales and then it was work, which meant train, hotel, pub, curry, sleep, work and train home, so it was a fairly shallow experience. Though I had travelled on most of the (then) BR railway lines in the area, I’d never travelled on any of the narrow-gauge lines. Ted had never been to Wales so in April 2016 we packed the rucky, looked out the wrinkly railcard and set off for a week in North Wales. Since then we’ve been back to the area several times to visit friends who live in Beaumaris on Anglesey. This post is mainly about the 2016 trip though I have updated it where appropriate and added a section about our visits to Anglesey.
In 2016 the British Transport Police had just started their ‘See it Say it Sorted’ campaign and on the train to Manchester a policeman handed us each a card to promote the 61016 number to text BTP if you are on a train and wish to report a crime or something suspicious. One of the examples on the card of the type of thing which should be reported was ‘drunk man on carriage B’. I may be being picky, but I don’t think this in itself qualifies as a crime or as an incident worth reporting unless, (a) the man has been liquefied and then drunk by an enormous human-drinking alien, in which case I doubt the BTP would be of much use or (b) he is actually on and not in carriage B in which case it might be better to pull the alarm before the driver reaches the next bridge. So far, no-one has reported Ted or I to 61016 for snoring drunkenly on a train to Durham.
On the 2016 journey the quickest route from Durham to Chester was via Liverpool Lime Street, rather than Manchester Piccadilly. This means our first new stretch of line on this trip was from Hooton to Chester. There is not a lot of interest en route to report, except for the Urenco uranium enrichment plant at Capenhurst. I wouldn’t have known anything about it if I wasn’t nerdish enough to make a habit of carrying out some quick research on large anonymous unwelcoming buildings that we pass on our travels. Quick, report that man and bear to 61016.
At Chester I bought my ticket for the week – an Explorer for North and Mid Wales. With my wrinkly railcard it was £45.55 (full price £69) for 4 days out of eight by train and 8 days on most bus services within the area. Bears go free. When I checked in May 2022 the price is unchanged.
We were heading along the North Wales coast but we didn’t even try to get on the first train – only two coaches and it was full and standing on a Monday lunchtime. We did manage (just) to get on the next train and though it was packed we were able to bag the last seat. Not a good first impression. The situation was the same each time we took this route to and from Anglesey, except when our timing enabled us to catch one of the occasional Virgin West Coast trains that link Holyhead with London. Transport for Wales took over the Wales rail franchise from Arriva in October 2018, with greater input from the Welsh Government and have promised new and better trains on the route…the sooner they arrive the better.
We have yet to see one, but this is a train in the new Transport for Wales livery at Chester.
First stop in 2016 was Llandudno. After Shotton and Fflint we passed the rusting hulk of a former Sealink ferry, the Duke of Lancaster which has been there since 1979. After 2016 it was painted black and was planned to become a ‘zombie attraction’, whatever that might be. These plans were dropped in 2019 and the ship is slowly being renovated as a venue. Nearby is the port of Mostyn, which had more life in it than I remembered from the 1990s. It turns out that it is now a major base for offshore wind turbine assembly and for servicing the offshore windfarms. There was a ferry in the port called the ‘Airbus’ which seems a strange name for a boat until we discovered that it was being used to transport wings for the Airbus A380 planes from Wales to the final assembly plant in France.
Then the caravans and bungalows began, through Prestatyn and Rhyl. We passed the derelict pier at Colwyn Bay which has a chequered history of attempts to revive it. Part of the pier collapsed in 2017 and the remainder was dismantled in 2018 for safety reasons. A new truncated pier opened in 2021. Through Colwyn Bay the A55 dual carriageway separates the town from the seafront, which can’t help regeneration.
Llandudno and Conwy
Eventually we arrived at Llandudno in time for a drink of lunch. We avoided the seagulls lurking in search of anyone with chips or ice cream and called in first at the Snowdon Hotel, a local’s pub. Next we visited the Kings Head by the Great Orme Tramway station. The barman told a couple that the logs for the woodburner are so expensive he has to sign a log book each time he puts one on the fire and that ‘people think logs grow on trees’. The couple just did not get the joke and the bear and I tried not to giggle too loudly. Finally, we visited the Palladium, where Wetherspoon’s have done a fine job of converting an old theatre, though as usual the tables are laid out like a works canteen and it has as much atmosphere.
A short bus journey took us to our base for two nights, Conwy, where we stayed in Y Bont (The Bridge), a pub close to Conwy castle owned by four local breweries (Conwy, Nant from Llanrwst, Great Orme from Llandudno and Purple Moose from Porthmadog). While the comfortable rooms remain the pub is now a pizza restaurant – Johnny Doughs at the Bridge. Conwy has a complete set of medieval town walls, parts dating from the thirteenth century and the English conquest of Wales. We took a walk round the impressive walls and took in the views through the drizzle over the town to Conwy Castle. By the time we reached the highest point it had begun to rain heavily and walking downhill on a wet narrow stone path was tricky. Time for a few beers to recover. We had a pint of Madog’s Ale, a bitter from Purple Moose Brewery in the Bridge, a pint of Conwy Brewery Welsh Gold in the Castle Hotel and finally visited the Albion Ale House, another pub owned by the group of breweries, this time with 10 handpumps for real ale and cider, but by that time I forgot to note what we drank there. By then it was time for bed. We visited Conwy again on a bright day in December 2017 on a day out from Anglesey, revisited the Bridge and the Albion, where the beer was still as good and enjoyed walking round in better weather.
Conwy castle from the walls in the drizzle in 2016, and in better weather at Xmas 2017
Conwy Valley, Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railways
A better morning in 2016.
Next morning, after a full breakfast, we walked across the River Conwy to Llandudno Junction to catch a train for Blaenau Ffestiniog, on a circular journey to Porthmadog, Bangor and back to Conwy. The rain of the previous night had cleared and this morning the sun was shining on the castle and the estuary. The Conwy Valley Line was opened in stages between 1863 and 1879 primarily to transport slate from Blaenau Ffestiniog down to the quay at Deganwy, near Llandudno, for export. The line follows the valley floor, much of which is marshland, via Llanrwst to Betws-y-Coed. The line suffers regularly from flooding. It reopened in February 2016 after serious flooding at more than 100 places following heavy rain on Boxing Day 2015, with the worst affected stretch being near Llanryst. Further closures followed storms in recent years, despite work to improve the resilience of the line. Hopefully, it is now in better condition. Beyond Betws-y-Coed the line follows the narrow valley of the River Lled, and finally a long tunnel emerges into the slate wasteland that surrounds Blaenau Ffestiniog. We were about 10 minutes late due to another train (a Network Rail track measurement train) on the single-track section. However, the Ffestiniog Railway held their connecting train and a few of us quickly ran across to the Ffestiniog platform and set off on the first narrow gauge journey of the week.
The Ffestiniog railway opened in 1836 to carry slate from the quarries at Blaenau to the port at Porthmadog for export. Originally operated by gravity (downhill) and horsepower (uphill) steam locomotives were introduced in 1863. Passenger services began around the same time. Following closure in 1946 the 1ft 11½in (597mm) gauge railway was reopened by the Ffestiniog Railway Trust in stages from 1955 until 1982. The 13½mile (21.7km) journey drops 710ft (216m) from Blaenau to sea level and takes 70 minutes. Despite the weather turning cloudy, the journey through the countryside was spectacular. We passed Tanygrisiau Reservoir and hydro-electric power station, which necessitated a diversion of the line. The decommissioned Trawsfynydd nuclear power station was visible in the distance, though it looked insignificant amongst the surrounding mountains. There are some forest stretches as we dropped down towards the Vale of Ffestiniog. At sharp bends and the Dduallt spiral I tried and failed to get photos of the steam loco at the front. Finally, the line crosses the Cambrian Coast National Rail line at Minffordd, passes the railway workshops at Boston Lodge and crosses the causeway (known as the Cob) into Porthmadog Harbour Station.
On the Ffestiniog railway. I kept trying but couldn’t get a photo of the locomotive
Following a quick pint of Clogwyn Gold from Conwy Brewery in Spooners Bar on the station it was time to start the next leg of the day’s journey – the Welsh Highland Railway to Caernarfon. The line, the same gauge as the Ffestiniog and owned by the same company, has a complex history. In summary, rails from the Caernarfon end reached Rhyd Ddu in 1881, to facilitate the export of slate. At the other end of the route a tramway ran from Porthmadog to Beddgelert from 1863. Rebuilding the tramway as a railway and construction of the link between the two lines was not completed until 1923, just in time for the local slate industry to collapse and for more frequent and faster bus services to kill off any passenger traffic. The line stuttered on until closure in 1937, and after lengthy attempts it was reopened as a tourist heritage line, in stages from the Caernarfon end from 1997 until 2011.
Today it takes just over two hours to cover the 25 miles (40.2km) through spectacular scenery to the south of Snowdon, and the Explorer pass gives 50% off the fare (as it did on the Ffestiniog). On our trip the engine was an articulated Garratt steam locomotive (pictured), able to go round sharp corners, originally built in Manchester for narrow gauge lines in Africa. Leaving Porthmadog Harbour station the line crosses a new level crossing built to link the Welsh Highland and Ffestiniog railways and, shortly afterwards, crosses the Cambrian coast line at right angles and passes the Welsh Highland Heritage Railway, the third narrow gauge line in Porthmadog. Our train stopped at Beddgelert to take on water while Ted and I took on a bottle of Welsh Gold from Great Orme Brewery from the trolley, then climbed to the summit of the line at 648ft (197m) to reach Rhyd Dhu where we passed the Porthmadog bound train. Paths to the summit of Snowdon start from here and the next station, Snowdon Ranger. From there it is downhill towards Caernarfon and the train pulls into the station on the site of the old slate wharves beneath the castle.
The station and a view of the mountains from Rhyd Dhu
After a short bus journey to Bangor we met our friend Steve in the Waverley Hotel close to the station. After a pleasant few hours (though the beer in the Waverley was past its best – in 2022 it no longer serves real ale) Ted and I poured ourselves onto the train back to Conwy. We ended up at Llandudno Junction – Conwy is a request stop, the conductor thought I said I was travelling to Colwyn Bay so didn’t arrange for the train to stop. I suspect I wasn’t talking too clearly by this time and the walk back over the river to Conwy probably did us good.
Since our 2016 trip to North Wales, Ted and I have paid three visits to Anglesey (Ynys Môn in Welsh) to visit Steve and Stu in Beaumaris. We’ve managed to explore some of the island despite two of the visits being at Xmas with its bus free days. Beaumaris (pictured) is easily reached by bus from Bangor and its railway station though different routes call at various villages along the way and means the journey can take from 30 to 50 minutes. It always seems that the longest way round via Llanddona is after you’ve had a few pints and, while the countryside is pleasant, once you’ve detoured to Llanddona once you don’t really need to see it again. The highlight of the journey is crossing the original Menai suspension bridge (built by Telford and opened in 1826, high above the Menai Strait to allow high-masted ships to pass), where the bus has to squeeze through the arches with inches to spare.
Beaumaris is a pretty town which grew up round a castle (pictured) built by Edward I. By the shore there are great views over to Bangor and Snowdonia. The town also benefits from a warm microclimate due to its sheltered position. It is a small resort and attracts holidaymakers and day-trippers, though we’ve visited offseason when it becomes more typically Welsh. As elsewhere on the island there is plenty of Welsh routinely spoken and it feels a world away from Llandudno and the North Wales Coast.
Beaumaris Pier and views over to Snowdonia
Steve and Stu like a drink as much as Ted and I and we’ve explored the pubs of the town. The Castle Court has the nearest thing to a public bar and the George and Dragon and the Bull also attract boozers – all have decent beer. The Liverpool Arms is popular for its food. On the main street the Midland Tapas and Wine Bar is excellent – they are friendly, the beer and the food are excellent and they welcome people who just to drop in for a drink (though it would be a shame not to try the tapas). They’ve opened a sister restaurant in Conwy which we have yet to try.
The bear enjoys a few Xmas drinks in the Midland Tapas and Wine Bar
Totally unsurprisingly, our days out have focussed around visiting pubs in that corner of the island. In Menai Bridge, the town that grew up around the bridge, the Bridge Inn is fine, as is the Liverpool Arms. A few miles north is the Ship Inn at Red Wharf Bay, an old pub on its own in a great position by the sea, only a short walk from the bus stop. Further on The Kinmel Arms at Moelfre is also welcoming. A little further away we reached the northernmost pub in Wales, the Stag Inn in the village of Cemaes Bay.
Elsewhere on Anglesey, back in 2008 I spent a miserable evening in Holyhead, trying and failing to enjoy myself, before meeting a group the next day for a tour to Ireland. I’m told it hasn’t improved, but it is the exception on the island. Steve and Stu have thoroughly explored and have a number of visits lined up for future visits, so watch this space.
The Ship Inn, Red Wharf Bay
Back to our 2016 journey. We left Conwy once more, this time on the number 19 bus, which heads up the opposite side of the Conwy Valley from the railway, once we managed to squeeze through the gate in the castle walls with inches to spare. The bus called at Surf Snowdonia, which I’d never heard of, which turns out to be the UKs only artificial surfing lake, opened in 2015 on the site of Dolgarrog aluminium works. After a trip round the back streets of LLanrwst we reached some road works with a convoy system in place. When we eventually moved we were led by a dinky little electric vehicle and arrived in Betws-y-Coed 15 minutes late. There was not much time to look round – however the village appears to be tourist central, full of tearooms and olde worlde gifte shoppes – the coach park was full by 1030.
The next bus was the Snowdon Sherpa minibus to Llanberis via Capel Curig, Pen-y-Pass, and the Pass of Llanberis (pictured). The day was bright and clear, the roads were quiet (all the traffic is in Betws-y-Coed) and the views of Snowdon, the surrounding mountains and down the valleys were tremendous.
Llanberis is a slate mining town turned tourist centre – the mountainside opposite is a large, black former slate quarry. The good weather had brought out the day-trippers and the Snowdon Mountain Railway was busy. I thought the trains might be fully booked. However, there was one seat left on the train about to depart, Ted, the rucky and I squeezed in and we headed up the mountain. The Snowdon Mountain Railway opened in 1896 and is 4.7miles (7.6km) long, rising from 353ft (108m) at Llanberis to 3493ft (1065m) at the summit. It is 2ft 7½in (800m) gauge, and is the UK’s only rack and pinion railway, built with Swiss help using the Abt rack system. Our locomotive that day was George, a diesel built in 1992, but looking considerably older – he’s had a hard life. The summit station was not yet open for the summer season, so the train terminated at Clogwyn, on a ridge about three-quarters of the way to the summit. There are no facilities there (I’m glad I used the loo at Llanberis station) and we had a half-hour break before the return journey, but the time soon passed – the views of the mountain, back towards the Pass of Llanberis in one direction and to cliffs, a corrie and mountains we saw yesterday from the Welsh Highland Railway in the other were spectacular. There was some snow on the summit, the permanent way gang were working further up the line and plenty of people were walking to the summit, but we took the easy option and returned down with George.
Clogwyn ‘station’ and the view to the southwest.
Back in Llanberis we walked into the village which was deserted, with the tourists kept to the edge of town. There were a few signs of places being spruced up prior to the summer season but it felt miserable (it doesn’t help that the steep mountains meant that it was already in the shade and cold) so we caught the first bus into Caernarfon. After some shopping and a quick look at the castle we managed a pint in the Pen Deitsh / Palace Vaults, which had a house beer brewed by Marston’s, and I got the Welsh pronunciation nearly right. The default language in the shops and pub was Welsh, unlike in Conwy where we hardly heard any Welsh spoken. Caernarfon looks worth a more in depth visit in the future – there’s a few pubs that look interesting – maybe a day out on one of our next visits to Anglesey.
Porthmadog and Tremadog
Another bus took us on to Porthmadog. The double decker was good for the views, though it was full of kids on their way home from school effing and blinding and talking about bodily functions in very clear English. Quite a few of them travelled all the way to Criccieth or Porthmadog – there must be closer schools. Just before we departed a huge bloke lumbered up the stairs and, of course, sat beside us. He went as far as Criccieth and didn’t move, even once plenty of seats became available. However, during the journey I managed to spot many more signs of former slate working. While I knew about Blaenau I hadn’t realised quite how dominant an industry it had been throughout this part of Wales.
Time for a pint in Australia, which is a pub in Porthmadog, also owned by the quartet of breweries we met in Conwy, so the beer (Purple Moose, Dark Side of the Moose) was excellent. My Welsh was expanded significantly by the realisation that cwrw means beer. The pub was advertising a bus-based pub crawl from Criccieth to Blaenau in a few days time and the tickets were selling well – pity we had moved on by then.
Finally, a short hop to Tremadog where we stayed for two nights at the Golden Fleece. Tremadog is a planned village built in 1805, dramatically situated beneath a crag and envisaged as the final overnight stop on the coach route from England to Ireland – the two main streets are Dublin Street and London Street. The coming of the railway and the development of Holyhead rather than Porth Dinllaen (see below) as the steam packet port finished off that plan, and attention locally moved to building Porthmadog as a port for the export of slate. In every article I read about the place, they are keen to let you know that Tremadog was the birthplace of Lawrence of Arabia – so now you know. Our room was across the road from the Golden Fleece in the old Royal Madoc Hotel, the coaching inn built with the village. The Fleece has converted it to additional rooms in the current style (lots of grey) but it was comfortable. The Golden Fleece itself has also been modernised but has kept much of its character in the oldest rooms and we enjoyed a meal of lamb and a pint.
The Llŷn Peninsula
From Tremadog we spent a day out by bus visiting the Llŷn Peninsula. First we travelled to Pwllheli via Llanystumdwy (birth and burial place of David Lloyd George and home of a rabbit farm), the prison-style gatehouse of the Penychain Holiday Park and a solar farm. Pwllheli felt rough, though it may be have been because the bus station is the gathering place for the feral youth of the town. There were plenty of ill-advised tattoos, some interesting conversations comparing courts, judges and prisons, and a few were already off their heads by 11am. There were also a few visibly poor people around – a reminder that this area is not all picture-postcard. My impression may have been chance – when I looked at the statistics later, the area is not particularly deprived.
From Pwllheli the next stretch was to Aberdaron (pictured) and back by minibus – it would be tricky on some of the lanes with a full-size bus or coach – through small settlements such as Mynytho and Botwynnog. Aberdaron is a small former fishing village turned tourist resort at the tip of the Llŷn Peninsula. There was time for a short walk along the cliffs and a pint on the balcony of the Ty Newydd Hotel before catching the next bus back to Pwllheli.
On the walk from Nefyn to Porth Dinllaen
Next we went to Morfa Nefyn and back. Nefyn Coaches weren’t listed as taking my pass so I had to fork out a whole £3.50. We passed through Nefyn where a sign announced that it is twinned with Puerto Madryn (Argentina). It turns out that Sir Love Jones-Parry of nearby Madryn Castle was one of the founders of Puerto Madryn in 1865 (along with other untitled and un-remembered Welsh men and women). The weather was sunny and Ted and I decided to walk to the Ty Coch Inn at Porth Dinllaen. This is an excellent sheltered anchorage which was envisaged as the ferry port for Ireland. It never took off and these days there’s the pub, a couple of other houses, no public road access and the area is owned by the National Trust. On the way there was a sign saying that the pub closes at 3pm until May, and we arrived at four minutes past. We bet on them not closing on such a glorious day and they hadn’t. We enjoyed a pint outside taking in the view, watching people on the beach and some fish being landed, then made our way back to Morfa Nefyn and the bus to Pwllheli.
Changing buses once more at Pwllheli there was time for a quick visit to the Wetherspoon’s – it was 5pm on a curry club Thursday and it was as awful as expected. Back in Porthmadog we visited the Ship Inn and the Station Inn, then strolled back to Tremadog and the chip shop, followed by a final drink in the Union Inn, which is the local’s pub in the village.
The beach at Porth Dinllaen
The Cambrian Coast
The following day we took things fairly easy as we were tired (nothing to do with yesterday’s booze – honest). The morning passed pleasantly on the Cambrian Coast railway line from Porthmadog south. For the first few miles the line follows the estuary of the River Dwyryd, with views over to the mock-Italian village of Portmeirion, then across the recently rebuilt Briwet bridge near Penrhyndeudraeth to Harlech, where the railway line separates a council estate from the famous Castle. We thought about visiting Portmeirion but on its website it came over as more of a money-making machine than anything else and staying in the ‘village’ was prohibitively expensive. The conductor was kept busy….the stations are unstaffed, the train was fairly full and there are plenty of request stops. South of Dyffryn Ardudwy it is caravan land until Barmouth. The railway
line crosses the Mawddach estuary, much of it sand and mud-flats, on the impressive rail and foot bridge (pictured). Beyond Fairbourne, which looked to us like a miserable place, there is a stretch along the steep cliff side, with an avalanche shelter to protect the line. The town of Tywyn is followed by Aberdyfi and Penhelig, which seemed like pleasant little resorts. After a few miles following the north bank of the River Dyfi the line crosses the river and into Dovey Junction. Our train arrived on time – though the Cambrian Coast line is single track the timetable has been suitably padded to divide the route into half-hour sections between passing places and, as a result, the timekeeping on this line is better than many.
Dovey Junction is a station in the middle of nowhere (there is no road access) where the lines from Pwllheli and Aberystwyth meet before heading through the centre of Wales to Shrewsbury and Birmingham. When we arrived, there were trains from each of the three directions at the station and Ted and I and a few others changed for Aberystwyth. We helped to increase the number of passengers who boarded, exited or changed trains at Dovey Junction from the 1,029 estimated to have done so in 2014-15 to the 2017-18 estimate of 4,434. The number of bears is not recorded. Aberystwyth is a short run from Dovey Junction, over the marsh on the south side of the estuary to Borth then inland to approach the town from the south- east.
The weather had turned grey and cold and we were tired, so after a short walk to the seafront we soon ended up back at the rundown station where the main building is now a Wetherspoon’s. We looked in but it was busy and you are told to form queues at the, as usual, understaffed tills a la Macdonalds. It looked like I would have to queue long enough to get annoyed and take it out on the poor overworked staff on zero hours contracts, so we left without ordering, hung around on a bench and caught the next train to Machynlleth.
We returned to Aberystwyth in early 2019, en route by bus from Pembrokeshire to Anglesey and had an hour to wait for the next bus. We arrived after a journey of more than three hours to find no toilet in the bus station, the one in the train station was out of order and as usual in Wetherspoons it was upstairs and tricky to reach with a wheelie case. The bus station is minimalist – the stands are so short that any blind or disabled person following the tactile paving would walk straight into the side of a bus. However, we managed a bearable pint in a passable pub this time but we have no plans to return to Aberystwyth.
A Lloyds Coaches bus on the Bangor – Aberystwyth service.
After our recent break in Aberystwyth, we caught our next bus, to Bangor, another journey of over three hours, again without a toilet stop, though the driver disappeared into a shed for a couple of minutes when we called in at the Lloyds Coaches yard in Dolgellau. It’s a scenic route via Machynlleth, past the Centre for Alternative Technology, calling at the village of Corris and the hamlet of Minfford at the foot of Cadair Idris before reaching Dolgellau. From there the scenery continued as we travelled through the mountains via Trawsfynydd to Penrhyndeudraeth then on via familiar territory via Porthmadog and Caernarfon to Bangor.
Back in 2016, we had revived by the time we reached Machynlleth (pictured) and managed a pint of Banks’s Bitter in the Red Lion and a pint of Bass in the Dyfi Forester, both of which are good local pubs, before catching the bus to Dolgellau, our base for two nights. From our room at the Royal Ship we had a fine view of the main square. The hotel had recently been refurbished and was comfortable, though bland in the standard 2010s sort of way (a lot more grey paint). I was told that the bar had been pretty run down and I expect 1970s plastic and formica and 1990s bare wood refurbishments had already removed any character before the recent improvements. The bar and restaurant were both full of families eating. We decided on a quiet evening in the room with a couple of sandwiches and salads from the local co-op reading magazines I picked up in Aberystwyth.
The Talyllyn Railway, Barmouth and Dolgellau
It was a clear day, we felt refreshed and after breakfast we headed off to the Talyllyn Railway. The bus route to Tywyn, the starting point of the railway, follows the south side of the River Mawddach to Fairbourne (which was as miserable as it looked from the train the previous day). Along the cliffs the road is at a higher level than the railway line on a ledge below. A couple of miles after Llwyngwril the road, and the bus route, turns inland to serve Llanegryn and Bryncrug, where we picked up people heading into metropolitan Tywyn for the day.
The Talyllyn Railway runs up the Fathew valley for 7.25miles (11.67km) from Tywyn Wharf to Nant Gwernol. It was built to 2ft 3in (686mm) gauge and was opened in 1865-66, so the line had been celebrating its’ 150th anniversary. It was built to export slate from the quarries at the top of the line, but from the beginning carried passengers and goods to and from the quarry workers village at Abergynolwyn. The railway has never closed – though the quarry shut in 1946, the line was taken over by the Talyllyn Railway Preservation Society in 1951, becoming the first preserved heritage railway. The loco for our journey was Talyllyn, built for the opening of the line and still going strong. We pootled up the valley watching the sheep and their lambs, to Dolgoch where a couple of people got out to walk to the nearby waterfalls, and to the end of the line at Nant Gwernol, where we watched the loco run round the train. On the return journey the train called at Abergynolwyn station for a refreshment stop – there were some nice bottles of beer in the chiller but it was a bit early, even for Ted and I, and we stuck with tea.
Back at Tywyn we walked along to the Cambrian Coast line station to catch a train to Barmouth. It was Saturday, and Barmouth was packed with day-trippers and caravanners down for the weekend. We joined the shivering crowds for a walk round the harbour, then called for a pint in the Last Inn, where the food looked excellent (we’d already eaten). From there we walked along the main street to the Royal Hotel. It is a big and busy boozer but well-managed – a large stag party that arrived was subtly packed off to a separate room – and the beer, a summer ale Y Brawd Houdini from The Llŷn Brewery, tasted good.
The Mawddach estuary from the Tywyn to Barmouth train
A bus back to Dolgellau took us along the north side of the Mawddach and there was time for a wander round town and its pubs. Like many of the towns and villages in this area many of the old houses are tiny with very small windows. They reminded me of village houses in Southern Spain but I doubt whether the purpose of the small windows (to keep out the sun) is the same here. The Torrent Walk is a fine old pub with lots of character and a few characters and the Cross Keys is also a good local boozer, and we enjoyed a pleasant early evening in Dolgellau.
The Torrent Walk Hotel, Dolgellau
The GDA Coaches bus from Dolgellau to Llangollen accepted my pass. Though the route was marked on the leaflet that came with the pass the company wasn’t listed. I don’t think the driver had a clue about the pass, but most of the other passengers had concession cards and paying passengers were a rarity. The T3 bus route is part of the TrawsCymru network of long-distance services linking North, Mid, West and South Wales. I was surprised that these routes use ordinary buses and not coaches (similar routes in Scotland would). This was emphasised in 2019 when we took the T5 from Haverfordwest to Aberystwyth and the T2 from Aberystwyth to Bangor. As mentioned above both journeys were more than three hours with no toilet facilities or stops. While the buses are modern and the seats are comfortable, they have minimal luggage facilities. On the plus side the routes are frequent, connect at various places and the fares are cheap.
The Llangollen Steam Railway at Berwyn
It is a ninety-minute journey from Dollgellau to Llangollen, initially up the valley then over the watershed to the headwaters of the River Dee alongside Bala Lake (Llyn Tegid) and into Bala. To be fair, it would be a tricky journey for a full size coach, as it included some narrow lanes and reversals at farm tracks at the far end of villages away from the main road. The route follows the Dee valley between Bala and Corwen, taking an attractive minor road via Llandrillo and Cynwyd. The river has cut deep into the surrounding hills which makes for impressive scenery and views. The Llangollen Steam Railway, a standard gauge preserved railway, reached Corwen in 1914 and there were frequent sightings of the line on the final ten miles into Llangollen.
We arrived in Llangollen (pictured) at noon on a Sunday and the town was packed with tourists and traffic – the weather was sunny and the railway was having a Thomas the Tank Engine day. To escape the crowds, we dropped the rucky in the hotel, bought a paper and walked out of town along the Llangollen Canal for a mile or so to Berwyn. Though the canal carried goods its main function was to provide water for the Shropshire canal network and the public water supply. An 18km stretch of the canal is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Beyond the marina at Llangollen the only traffic is horse-drawn barge trips to the Chain Bridge Hotel, which is where we ended up. We sat outside looking across the river and the bridge to Berwyn station – eventually Thomas the Tank Engine steamed past. Back in town we discovered the Wynnstay Arms, off the main drag and quiet. Though it has an unspoilt bar, it seemed daft not to enjoy the beer garden when we could.
We stayed in the Royal Hotel, patronised by Queen Victoria (and our room hadn’t been modernised since…though it was the cheapest of the trip). It was our final evening in Wales and we wandered out to explore the fleshpots of Llangollen in the early evening, when the daytrippers had left. We took in the Corn Mill pub, in an impressively restored corn mill (surprise), with a smashing pint of Orme Best Bitter and the nothing special Bridge End Inn (Robinson’s Beer, ditto), where it was still warm enough to sit outside breathing in the traffic fumes, followed by a competent curry (and an orange juice – it was unlicensed) at Samirah Spice. A life of luxury and hedonism.
It was time to travel home – and the last day of my pass. It was also my last full Welsh breakfast for the time being – I had reached the stage where I would be more than happy to return to my morning muesli. However, there was time to stop off en route for one last sight and we left the bus at Trevor, walked down the path to the bridge over the River Dee and up the far bank to Froncysyllte village. There’s a view from the bridge of the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and the intention was walk back across it. The aqueduct was completed by Thomas Telford in 1805, it is 336 yards (303m) long and 126ft (38m) above the River Dee and is basically a cast iron trench supported on pillars. More scarily it is only 4 yards (3.7m) wide, the width of a narrowboat and a narrow towpath. On the canal side the unprotected top of the iron trench is only 6 inches (15cm) above the water level (which must be frightening for the person steering the narrowboat) and on the towpath side there are 200-year-old iron railings which seem very far apart.
I had second thoughts about the walk when I saw how fragile the aqueduct looks from below. I had third thoughts when we walked along the towpath to the south end of the aqueduct and looked at it close up. I had my rucksack with me which would have made it tricky to crawl back on all fours if vertigo struck halfway across. And there was no one else around. After a while another couple turned up and we felt less alone. I decided to follow them, egged on by Ted, safe in the rucky pocket. The only tricky moments were having to pass someone coming the other way, when we were pressed against the rusty railings, and when I stopped at the highest point to take a photograph and my legs took some persuading to continue.
Afterwards we chatted to some people at the north end while waiting to get a photo of a barge crossing the aqueduct. Locals use it as well as walkers and everyone I talked to had stories about it and techniques for coping with the height. One cheery man told me that, the first time he walked across, a woman in front of him had thrown herself off, and every time he crosses he can still see her jump and her body in the river. I think he was telling the truth and not just trying to chase away tourists.
It was 1030 and too early for the pub by the canal basin to be open…though we could have done with a pint. Instead we completed the 2016 trip by taking the bus to Ruabon Station and the first train to Chester where the pass ran out. On the way back we stopped off at the Stalybridge Station Buffet Bar (difficult not to) for a couple of pints then reached home in Durham in time for the early evening session in the Colpitts.
A few notes:
Sources: The sources used to plan the trip and to add the factual details to this piece wereThe Rough Guide to Wales, The Ordnance Survey Explorer and Landranger maps of the area, Wikipedia, the websites, brochures and guidebooks of the heritage railway companies, CAMRAs Good Beer Guide and www.whatpub.com, the Electronic National Rail Timetable at www.networkrail.co.uk/running-the-railway/timetabling/electronic-national-rail-timetable/ , the Rail Planner app and the public transport sections of the websites of Conwy, Gwynedd, Anglesey and Denbighshire Councils.
The Explore North and Mid Wales Pass is available from most staffed National Rail stations in Wales and main stations elsewhere. I bought mine at Chester. It is not available online or on board trains. There are other versions for South Wales and All Wales. Up to date information is available at www.railrover.org and www.tfwrail.wales/ticket-types/explore-wales
Photographs: All photographs are by Steve Gillon except for the following, sourced via Google Images: The Transport for Wales train is from http://www.deeside.com. Aberystwyth Station is from wikipedia. The Lloyds Coaches bus on the T2 service is from http://www.railwaymedia.co.uk . Machynlleth is from http://www.dailypost.co.uk and the Torrent Walk is from http://www.whatpub.com. The Trawscymru poster is from http://www.traveline.cymru . The aerial view of the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct is from http://www.sweeneyhall.co.uk, and the top photo of the three on the aqueduct is by Jason Lang, posted on news.bbc.co.uk – despite shaky hands I managed to take the other two.
© Copyright Steve Gillon 2016, 2019. Updated in 2022.