A trip to South Wales, 2019
Several times between the mid-1980s and about ten years ago I visited South Wales for work, usually staying in Cardiff and travelling out. I had reached as far as Pembrokeshire for brief work visits on a couple of occasions. Socially Colin and I visited Cardiff for a long weekend in the late 1980s, but Ted had never been to the area. I felt that we had never properly explored South West Wales in particular. There were also a couple of railway lines in South Wales we hadn’t travelled. We had a few days to spare before visiting friends in Anglesey in February 2019, so we packed the rucky and set off. The plan was to stay in Cardiff for two nights to travel the railway lines, then base ourselves in St Davids, recommended by several people, for a few days to explore Pembrokeshire.
Cardiff and around
Cardiff on a Sunday morning (after a Welsh rugby game the day before)
We arrived in Cardiff on a Saturday evening after a long train journey from Durham, including a lunchtime break in Manchester, and checked into the Royal Hotel close to the station. It had changed since I was last there, with the ground floor now let out to bars and restaurants, reception on the second floor (once we found the entrance) and beehives on the roof. Our room overlooked the area in front of the station, which has also changed. The old bus station has gone, making connections more difficult with city and regional buses, and replaced with a windswept public square. A controversial new bus station and tower blocks have been approved nearby (see note 1). Nearby the 60s and 70s office blocks are also being demolished and replaced. However, the core of the city centre around St Marys Street hasn’t changed and we wandered out to explore.
The entrance to Cardiff Castle
We caught the last twenty minutes of an Italy v Wales rugby international in the packed Queens Vaults then found a seat in the City Arms where we ended up involved in someone’s birthday party. The pub is owned by the local brewery Brain’s which brews some excellent beers, though the City had a wide selection of guest beers from other breweries in addition. Finally we called into Tiny Rebel, owned by the eponymous small brewery near Newport, where the punters were having a good time though it was little bit too achingly trendy for us. While in Cardiff we also visited a couple of old-school Brains pubs which are still there on the main drag (St Marys Street/High Street) – the Goat Major and the Cottage.
Sunday was our day out for exploring by rail The main Newport – Cardiff – Bridgend line was closed for engineering work and we spent a fair bit of time on replacement bus services (which the bear soon got used to). The Welsh rail franchise has recently been taken over by Transport for Wales – see Railway Buffery 1 at the end of the page for a few details. The two lines we planned to explore, the Ebbw Vale and Vale of Glamorgan lines, both reopened in the past fifteen years and were operating as normal. We wouldn’t recommend them as a tourist experience but, like anywhere visited for the first time, they have their interest.
My visits to Wales in the 80s and 90s involved visiting many unemployment black spots but for some reason had never included Ebbw Vale. On the day of our trip the railway service was running to and from Newport which, as rail nerds will know, involved travelling on a small section of line not normally used by passenger trains – the service usually runs to and from Cardiff. There is more about the line in Railway Buffery 2. The journey up the valley through Crosskeys and Newbridge was on a sunny day, there were hardly any signs remaining of the former industries and the are looked quite pleasant. Much of it is built up and there were several areas of classic Welsh terraces along the valley sides – presumably the towns have become commuter country for Newport and Cardiff. Finally, the train passes through the former steelworks site to terminate at Ebbw Vale Town. The area is now The Works Enterprise Zone but there are no signs of enterprise except from the public sector – a college campus, council offices and a hospital. The station is in the valley (as were the steelworks) the town is above and an inclined elevator, the Ebbw Vale Cableway, connects the two. However, it only operates Monday to Friday daytime, much to Teds disappointment – the bear loves a funicular and we had to clamber up the hill to reach the town.
Ebbw Vale today has a population of 18,000 and depended for most of its existence on the iron, steel and coal industries. By the 1930s the steelworks were the largest in Europe and in the 1960s 14,500 were still employed there. Much of the works closed in the 1980s and became the site of the 1992 National Garden Festival. When the final section of the works closed in 2002 only 450 were employed. Since then there have been efforts to prettify and regenerate the town (including lots of road developments cutting areas off from one another). However, seventeen years after the works closed the town still looked poor and depressed to us. We had lunch in the Picture House, a Wetherspoons, which seemed to be the only pub left in the town centre and we were clearly spotted as strangers in town – we can recommend the Welsh sausages. There is two hours between trains on a Sunday so we wandered over to the Kings Arms across the valley in Newtown which looked good in whatpub.com – the beer was fine but there were only a few people around and the atmosphere was dreary.
Ebbw Vale steelworks in full production
On the return train I got chatting to the conductor after he had dealt with some kids who were only too obviously trying to hide and dodge their fare. He had spotted my notebook (and a stranger) and wondered what I was researching. The train is slow, there are signs of abandoned work to double the line and there are communities without stations – the conductor said after the initial reopening of the line money had run out. At one station lads jumped off to collect more booze from a car in the car park while the train waited for them. At Pye Corner there was a bus waiting to return us to Cardiff. The line has a lot more potential and hopefully will be improved during the new Transport for Wales franchise.
Before darkness fell in late afternoon we caught a train to Bridgend along Vale of Glamorgan line to Bridgend (see Railway Buffery 3). The main sights are the Dow Corning silicone plant at Cadoxton near Barry, Barry Docks (the largest coal port in the world one hundred years ago), the coal-fired power station and cement works at Abertawe power stations, Cardiff Airport and the former RAF St Athan, used for aircraft repair and maintenance. Not exactly tourism central. There’s plenty of recent housing development around Rhoose and Llantwit Major and the train was fairly busy with people travelling home from Cardiff. The streets of Bridgend were deserted on a Sunday evening and it didn’t look like the most invigorating place. However, should you end up there we can recommend the Coach Inn – a friendly pub with a mixed clientele selling good beer including their own BPA (Bridgend Pale Ale)
Since I first visited, Cardiff has developed from a dreary provincial town into a capital city full of life and self-confidence. The city centre has been spruced up, there is a lot of development, and pedestrianisation has made it more walker-friendly. On the downside much of the new high-rise architecture is hideous, though it has been concentrated in former rundown areas. Something I don’t remember from previous visits was the number of street homeless people and a fairly obvious drugs problem (though probably no worse than other UK cities). There is a lot more to see in Cardiff which we didn’t have time for. In the city, the Victorian shopping arcades, Cardiff Castle (pictured) and Bute Park are all worth a visit and we’d like to see how Cardiff Bay looks, following the location of the Welsh Government there and the regeneration of the surrounding area. Back in the 80s we visited the cliffs at Nash Point near Llantwit Major and the Big Pit Coal Museum at Blaenavon and there are plenty of other places in the surrounding area easily reached from the city. So the intention is that at some point we’ll spend a few days and have a proper look round.
Notes: (1) ‘Cardiff bus station and apartment block plans approved, 7 Nov 2018, www.bbc.com/news/uk-wales-46114122
St Davids, Haverfordwest and Fishguard
We headed for our base for the next few nights by train. The three coach train is en route from Manchester to Milford Haven (a 6.5 hour journey). Our three- hour journey is comfortable enough – the train is quiet and there is a buffet trolley. We pass Bridgend, the steelworks at Margam, Port Talbot and Neath, reverse at Swansea, and continue via Llanelli. There are views over to the Gower peninsula and, as we approach Carmarthen, the pretty village of Llansteffan is seen across the estuary from Ferryside (pictured). See Railway Buffery 4 for some history of the line. Surprisingly for a TfW train all the announcements both on screen and loudspeaker are only in English. From Carmarthen we are joined by a lad who has very loud conversations with his mother and others, pleading for money, telling contradictory stories about his brother’s problems, and threatening to beat up his partner. From the conversations it is clear that he is already known to social services, the police and probation. Fortunately he remains on the train when we alight at Haverfordwest. En route the line to Pembroke Dock heads off at Whitland and the line to Fishguard Harbour at Clarbeston Road.
Llansteffan from Ferryside
We don’t reach Milford Haven on this trip as I have no desire to return. When I visited in the 80s there were queues outside the project office looking for part time work on the then Community Programme. Everywhere else the programme was a last resort but in Milford it paid better money than the other opportunities available locally. I had wisely stayed in Haverfordwest (or maybe Milford had no hotels) and I was the only person on the Milford train in the morning – the ticket office at Haverfordwest gave me a pile of blank tickets to drop in at the shed used by a travel agent in Milford who sold railway tickets.
A Richards Bros bus at Newgale Sands en route from St Davids to Haverfordwest. Our journeys were less eventful.
The Richards Brothers bus to St Davids departs from outside the station and I bought an excellent value weekly ticket (small bears are free as usual) – we will be using their buses a lot over the next few days. Off we trundled, calling at the bus station, retail park, hospital and top of the town before we eventually escape from Haverfordwest into some excellent countryside. There are extensive views over St Brides Bay, a lovely beach at Newgale Sands, popular with surfers in summer, through the village of Solva, partly by the harbour in a deep valley at the mouth of the River Solva and partly on the hill above. We reach St Davids fifty minutes later and the few remaining passengers wander off. We had thought about renting a cottage but it worked out cheaper for a single person plus bear to stay in a hotel, so after a post-journey pint we check into the City Inn. As we become familiar with the bus route it seems like an fine excuse for a pub crawl – there are some nice looking pubs en route. It would only be practicable on a Saturday when both the buses are running and the pubs are open all day, but by that time we’ll be in Anglesey.
St Davids cathedral at dusk
St Davids main claim to fame is that, with a population of 1,841 in 2011, it is the smallest city in the UK. The major site is the cathedral and neighbouring ruined thirteenth century bishop’s palace.The cathedral is the final resting place of St David, patron saint of Wales. It is built on the site of a sixth century monastery, was consecrated in 1131 and, while some parts date from then, it has been restored several times and most of the current building dates from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Unusually, the cathedral and palace are not visible from the surrounding area as they sit in a dip on the edge of the village (sorry, city). We visit the area a few times including at sunset (there a tremendous one on our first night) and it is impressive. St Davids is popular with tourists and, though it is quiet in February, you can tell by the craft shops, gift shops and the number of holiday cottages that it is busy during the season. It is an attractive place in its own right with mainly nineteenth century terraces and views over the Pembrokeshire countryside.
The surrounding area is part of the attraction of St Davids. The city sits on a peninsula and the cliffs and sea can be reached easily in three directions. The Pembrokeshire Coast Path is a well known 186 mile walking route along the cliffs that make up the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park. There are glimpses of the cliffs and bays from the main roads into St Davids and we would love to walk it if our knees were fit enough. In summer there are bus services (limited in winter) linking the key access points to the Coast Path. We did manage a short morning walk to St Non’s Chapel and Well and the neighbouring cliffs on a windy morning with the rays of the sun shining through clouds over the sea (see note 2). Other local options include boat trips to Ramsey Island (an RSPB nature reserve) and several beaches for relaxation and surfing.
It is a friendly little place, certainly outside the main season. People chat to you in pubs, on the bus, at the bus stop and say hello as you walk past. I chatted a couple of times to a bloke in his seventies heavily into blues and met the resident Scots exile. Several people said hello to all the other passengers, including us, as they boarded the bus. I suspect there are not many secrets round here. Ted and I had been suffering a little from winter blues and I noticed my mood pick up significantly during the course of my visit – the bear would have had a smile on his face if he had a mouth.
Inevitably, we explored the pubs of St Davids. On the main square, the Bishops is mainly food-based though people drop in for a pint. On the road in from Haverfordwest is the Grove, very quiet when we were there though it should be fine in summer. The City Inn has probably the least character but it is friendly and attracts some locals. Home became the Farmers Arms, a well-restored old pub. It is more of a drinkers pub than the others, particularly in winter when it doesn’t do food. It is an easy pub to get chatting to people at the bar or by the large open fire in the Glue Pot bar. All of the pubs have real ale. We stayed in the City Inn – the room was fine, the breakfast ditto (while there are limited hours for breakfast they were happy to provide a packed lunch instead when I had an early start), and there is evening food available. The people are friendly, it is not expensive and provides value for money.
Notes: (2) St Non was the mother of St David and the chapel is on the site of his birthplace.
We passed through Haverfordwest at some point every day we were in the area. It is the county town of Pembrokeshire, a market town which grew up at the lowest fording then bridging point on the Western Cleddau River. It is has the remains of a thirteenth century castle and a pleasant high street and side streets climbing the castle hill. However, the town looks as though it is suffering. The shopping centre by the bus station is run down, with empty shops and closed toilets – even the Bright House was closing. The high street similarly has many empty shops. The town is the centre for a fairly wide area so it should be thriving, even in the present climate. The problems appear to self-inflicted – the town is surrounded by retail parks. Their approval and construction has sucked the life out of the town centre.
The Pembroke Yeoman, Haverfordwest
We managed to call in for a pint between buses on a couple of occasions. The Three Crowns at the foot of the High Street was fairly busy of a late afternoon (maybe because there is a bookies directly across the road) and had a beer on tap from a small brewery in Tenby. On another day we managed to reach the Pembroke Yeoman, an excellent locals pub in Hill Street at the top of the town – a horrendous climb from the bus station but a worthwhile destination.
The other route out of St Davids leads to Fishguard. It is another typical rural bus journey where everyone knows everyone else, and the bus diverts down lanes to hamlets off the main road. There are views over towards the cliffs, the coast and the coastal path. In Fishguard, the bus terminates in the market place, which looks very depressed with several boarded-up shops and pubs. A new Co-op has opened in the centre of town and there are one or two new coffee shops and craft businesses, so maybe it will revive. On the market place the Royal Oak has a sign above the door saying that it was the site of the last invasion of Britain, by the French in 1797. It was thwarted by the locals and the peace treaty was signed in the bar of the Royal Oak. Outside, in the middle of a roundabout, is a cannon pointing straight at the pub, so maybe an element of duress was involved. In one direction, down in a steep hill, is Lower Fishguard, the original fishing village by the River Gwaun. In the other direction the road leads down to a seaside promenade and eventually the ferry terminal for boats to Rosslare, Ireland. After a pint we walked in that direction, to Fishguard and Goodwick station, to catch a train to Whitland. The station reopened recently to provide a station for the town, the Harbour station is hidden well inside the ferry port. The service is not the best – had we missed our train it would have been six hours until the next one.
Tenby and Pembroke
The vagaries of train and bus timetables meant that it took two visits to the Pembroke peninsula to include the places we planned to visit – one day by bus taking in Tenby and another taking in the length of the Whitland – Pembroke Dock railway line, a new one for Ted and I.
The bus trip took us to Tenby and back – there are two routes between Haverfordwest and Tenby, one direct the other via Pembroke. The Taf Valley Coaches bus on the direct route had announcements in Welsh – I’m starting to pick up the odd word though they used stop nesaf for next stop while the phrase safle bus is used on road markings and elsewhere to mean bus stop. Direct isn’t quite the word – like most proper country bus routes we diverted via plenty of places such as Robeston Watten, Arberth, Princes Gate, Kilgetty and Pentlepoir, and included the finely-named hamlets of Cold Blow and Wooden. By Saundersfoot we began to see the park homes and holiday parks announcing a coastal resort.
The town of Tenby was a pleasant surprise. I was expecting a miniature Blackpool but it is an old walled town and genteel resort. The sheltered harbour meant it was the site of a hill fort and Norman settlement though it then declined until the early nineteenth century when it became a bathing and health resort. We enjoyed our walk round – the cliffs provide plenty of views, many of the terraces have been painted pastel shades and the harbour is attractive. Then disaster stuck. I was hungry and decided to have a Greggs sausage roll on my way to the pub. After one small bite, a seagull swooped down, pinched the rest and its claws gave me a cut on a finger. Once I stopped bleeding I went into the Crown Inn, a Brains pub in Lower Frog Street, to recover with a pint and to give my finger a good clean. The barmaid and punters were highly amused and I felt stupid – I’ve spent plenty of time in seaside places and know what seagulls can be like. The punters were familiar with that particular seagull, which has a reputation in the town, and knew where it lay in wait for unwary tourists. Sure enough, on my way to Boots for some antiseptic cream I passed the bugger sitting there with a smirk on its face waiting for the next victim.
The next bus took us to Pembroke – The First Bus driver didn’t have a clue about my rover ticket but let me use it anyway. We pootled through Skrinkle and Manorbier. There seemed to be lots of military stuff around. – there was a training camp and firing range at Penally outside Tenby and the former RAF Manorbier is now an MOD artillery range used to test high velocity missiles ( note 3). A bloke on the bus chatted to me – it turned out that he thought he recognised me as a regular passenger – there’s someone lurking around the area who looks me. Pembroke seemed a bit run down with empty shops and the castle (note 4) was closed (I think they were filming) but we managed a pint in the Old Kings Arms. The next bus took us back to Haverfordwest – once more the driver didn’t have a clue about the rover ticket. We had thought about a break in Pembroke Dock, but it looked so grim that we stayed on the bus over the Cleddau toll bridge, opened in 1975 to replace a ferry journey, back to Haverfordwest (note 5).
We travelled the Pembroke Dock railway line after our visit to Fishguard and a lunch break at Whitland, the junction where the branch leaves the main line. We had time to spare and fortunately next to the station is the Good Beer Guide listed Station House (pictured). It was a worthwhile stop for the beer and food and is obviously popular with locals. The train to Pembroke Dock (there is some more detail about the line in Railway Buffery 5) was a single coach class 153 – I thought they had virtually all been retired. It was reasonably busy as far as Tenby but for the final stretch there were only three of us on board. It takes 70 minutes to travel the 27¼ miles, not helped by several ‘stop and hoot’ level crossings. The only passing place on the single track line, at Tenby, makes an hourly service impossible, though it wouldn’t take huge expenditure to sort out. We were a few minutes late arriving at Pembroke Dock due to a bridge strike, which meant we had just missed a bus and there was time to explore. Pembroke Dock became a Royal Navy Dockyard in 1814 and the new town was built to serve it on a grid pattern. Today it is a deep water cargo port and ferry terminal, but feels grim. (Useless Fact: Wikipedia tells us that Hans Solo’s iconic craft the Millenium Falcon from Star Wars was constructed in secret in an aircraft hangar at Pembroke Dock in 1979). However, things looked up when we made it for a pint to the First and Last – a Beer Guide pub in a grotty location on the main road which turned out turned out to be a busy boozer with fine beer, the price of a pint depending on a roll of the dice. Then it was back to Haverfordwest and St Davids once more.
The Pembroke Dock Flyer pauses to collect the crowds at Whitland
Notes: (3) There is also a military presence near St Davids, where the former RAF/RNAS Brawdy and Cawdor Barracks are now home to the Signals Regiment (Electronic Warfare), whatever that may be.
(4) A Norman fortress, which Wikipedia tells me was the birthplace of Henry VII of England.
(5) The bridge collapsed during construction in 1970 due to errors in the box girder design. The bridge tolls were abolished in March 2019, a few weeks after we crossed.
Carmarthen and Llandeilo
On our way to Carmarthen we passed the local funeral directors on the approach road to Haverfordwest station and discovered they had personalised black and white traffic cones to use to reserve funeral cortege parking places. We have no idea whether this is a common thing or just their idea. In Carmarthen there was a little time to wander round and it looked like quite an attractive town – maybe one to explore when I have a little more time. The shopping centre is in the centre of town and seems to have enhanced it rather than the opposite. The photograph shows Guildhall Square, Carmarthen, around 1952. The station could do with some improvement – it is reached by the Pont King Morgan, a bright new pedestrian bridge opened in 2005 but it looks semi-derelict from the outside, though it is on the Transport for Wales list for improvement. We were in Carmarthen to catch a bus to Llandeilo and return via the southern section of the Heart of Wales line to Llanelli. On my only previous visit to the area, thirty years ago, the infrequent train service meant I had to catch a bus from Llanelli to Ammanford for a project visit, then returned home by rail northward. So we went to fill the gap. There’s more detail about the line in Railway Buffery 6.
During our week the weather just kept getting better and the bus journey was through rolling countryside in bright sunshine (pictured). Llandeilo was a pleasant little town. Most of the shops in the centre were occupied by local businesses, though all the banks except for one had moved out as had the original post office. The White Horse was a good boozer, easy to miss in a courtyard, with range of Evans and Evans beers.
The Miramar Hotel at Llanelli fails to live up to its name, with a view of the station and level crossing
Seven of us (plus a bear) boarded the 1318 train, which already had a fair few passengers and before long we left rural Carmarthenshire and reached the ex-industrial towns. Ammanford, a former anthracite mining town didn’t look too bad – thirty years ago unemployment must have been high. There were more signs of former works at Pontarddulais – it had been a centre for tinplate works before they moved to a modern works at Trostre, on the outskirts of Llanelli. Former freight lines headed off towards old collieries, then we crossed some wetlands into Llanelli. By the station is the quaintly named Miramar Hotel, though the only view is the level crossing. Rather than spend an hour looking for a decent pub in Llanelli, when our pre-trip research suggested the best option was a Wetherspoons, we caught the first train to Whitland for a second visit to the Station House, before returning to St Davids.
On our final day in South Wales we left St Davids and travelled by bus via Haverfordwest, Cardigan, Aberystwyth and Bangor to arrive in Beaumaris on Anglesey ten hours later. The main stretch in the south was from Haverfordwest to Aberystwyth with just a quick change at Cardigan – three hours and twenty minutes with no toilet on the bus or at any of the bus stations. They must have strong bladders in this area. The stretch north of Fishguard becomes very scenic through Dinas and Newport to Cardigan, which looked prosperous. We passed through a hamlet with the wonderful name of Plwmp. New Quay looked pretty though surrounded by caravan parks – a couple of old gents got on for the hour long journey to Aberystwyth for their weekly cheap beer in the Wetherspoons. We called in at Aberaeron which seemed very upmarket. On arrival at Aberystwyth this page ends and our travels in North Wales are here: Around North Wales
To summarise, we enjoyed the trip and would happily recommend St Davids and Pembrokeshire to the non rail and beer nerd. Cardiff we’ll visit again (the photo is another view of the Principality Stadium), and the Cardigan – Aberaeron stretch of coast may be worth a visit. We’ll also have to travel the length of the Heart of Wales line – it has faded from memory but it is one of the best railway journeys in Wales.
1 Transport for Wales.
Transport for Wales, a Welsh Government owned company, took over the regulation of the Wales rail franchise and the previous operator Arriva Train Wales (which did not bid) was replaced in October 2018, by Keolis Amey Operations trading as Transport for Wales Rail Services, with their franchise running until 2033. Transport for Wales aim is that by 2023 95% of journeys in Wales will be on new trains, with 29% more services each weekday (and 61% more on Sundays). Past experience suggests this may slip somewhat but new trains have been ordered from Stadler, CAF and Vivarail.
2 Ebbw Valley Railway.
The Ebbw Valley Railway was opened by the Monmouthshire Railway and Canal Company in 1850, based on old tramways and plateways that served the local ironworks and soon became part of the Great Western Railway. The line was closed to passengers in 1962 but remained open to freight serving the steelworks at Ebbw Vale. Though much of the works closed in 1980s the final closure was not until 2002. Reopening the railway to passengers was part of the Welsh Government commitment to help former steel communities. With part-funding from the European Union the line reopened as far as Ebbw Vale Parkway in 2008 with an hourly service to and from Cardiff. The line was extended to Ebbw Vale Town in 2015. Though the cost was well over budget passenger numbers have greatly exceeded forecasts. There have been plans for several years to raise the speed limit on the which is 35mph in many places (trains take 1 hour to travel the 30 miles from Cardiff) and redouble certain sections, to enable the introduction of an hourly service to and from Newport, which is avoided by the present service. Transport for Wales state that improvements to the line will be completed by 2023 and the new service to Newport will be introduced by May 2021.
The Valley Lines network, before Ebbw Vale Town opened (and it is still not double track)
3 Vale of Glamorgan Line – Barry to Bridgend
The line from Cardiff via Barry to Bridgend was opened by the Barry Railway company in 1885, primarily to provide access to Barry Docks from the collieries in the area. It soon became part of the Great Western Railway. Branches to Penarth and Barry Island remained opened as part of the Cardiff commuter valley lines network, but the Barry-Bridgend section was closed to passengers in 1964. It remained open as a line for freight serving the large coal-fired power stations at Aberthaw, opened in 1963 and 1971, the nearby cement works and the Ford Engine Plant at Bridgend, opened in 1977. It has functioned as a diversionary line when the South Wales main line from Cardiff to Bridgend was closed. With the case strengthened by the proximity of the line to the expanding Cardiff airport at Rhoose, the line was reopened to passengers in 2005. Currently the hourly service runs from Bridgend through Cardiff to and from the Valley Lines. Transport for Wales plan to increase the frequency to 2 trains per hour by the end of 2023.
4 Cardiff to Swansea, Carmarthen and Pembrokeshire
The Cardiff to Swansea line was opened by the Great Western Railway as a double track broad gauge line in 1850. The West Wales line was opened from Swansea to Carmarthen in 1852, reaching Haverfordwest in 1854 and Neyland in 1856. It was also built as a 7ft broad gauge. The lines were converted to Standard gauge in 1872.
The terminus at Neyland was remote from settlements and traffic there was low, particularly once ferry services from Neyland to Ireland ceased. As Neyland was the site of a substantial depot, it remained open until 1964. The branch to the present Milford Haven station opened in 1863, and freight branches to nearby oil refineries opened in the 1960s.
After various attempts to reach Fishguard by rail and build a harbour to compete with the Great Western Railway and the ferries from Neyland, the GWR itself decided to develop Fishguard as an ocean-going port. The GWR direct line to Fishguard Harbour from Clarbeston Road junction opened in 1906. The harbour was liable to silting which prevented larger ships from calling and Fishguard instead became the port for Irish ferries to Cork and Waterford transferred from Neyland. Today the port is still used for ferries to Rosslare and the station is owned by Stena Line (according to Wikipedia this gives rise to the ability to smoke on the station platform, banned in all Network Rail stations). Stopping trains on the Fishguard line ceased in 1964 and boat trains to and from London Paddington in 2003. Trains still run in connection with ferries. Fishguard and Goodwick station was reopened in 2012 to provide a station for the town and services were (slightly) increased – it is a long wait if you miss the 1253.
In 2012 electrification of the main line from London to Cardiff and Swansea was announced. In 2017 electrification of the Cardiff – Swansea section was abandoned. The section from Bristol Parkway to Cardiff Central is running late and is currently expected to open in 2020. Swansea will be served by bi-mode electric/diesel trains from London. On the West Wales lines Transport for Wales aim to introduce new Diesel Multiple Units by 2023.
5 Pembroke Dock Line
The line was constructed by the Pembroke and Tenby Railway Company and opened between these two places in 1863, extending to Pembroke Dock in 1864 and Whitland in 1866. It was constructed to standard gauge and was not directly linked to the West Wales line at Whitland until that line was converted from broad gauge in 1872. The company was sold to the Great Western Railway in 1897.
Following rationalisation in the 1960s, including the closure of some stations, the line is single track with one passing loop at Tenby and the running times of just over 30 minutes on both sections make it difficult to operate a frequent regular service on the branch.
6 Heart of Wales Line Llanelli – Craven Arms
The Central Wales line, now marketed as the Heart of Wales line, between south Wales and Craven Arms in Shropshire was constructed by several companies, all closely linked with the London and North Western Railway (LNWR), and opened throughout in 1868. Initially it used a separate line than the GWR to reach Swansea and its docks. The south end of the line was important for freight traffic to and from coal mines and iron and steel works all of which has now ceased, with the northern portion always being a rural railway. The line was planned for closure in the Beeching report but this never happened, probably because of the number of marginal parliamentary constituencies it passes through. In 1987 four passengers were killed when a bridge near Llandeilo collapsed after flooding. However, the bridge was rebuilt and services today operate Swansea – Llanelli – Craven Arms – Shrewsbury and passengers numbers are increasing. The northern part of the line is scenic and provides access to good walking country as well as the towns of Builth Wells and Llandrindod Wells.
The Explore South Wales pass was good value at £45.55 with a railcard (£69.00 full price). It allows free rail travel (after 0930 Mon-Fri, all day weekends) throughout South and South West Wales (and as far as Gloucester and Shrewsbury) for any four days in eight, plus bus travel throughout the eight days on buses operated by First, Arriva, Stagecoach and Cardiff Bus. It is available from most staffed National Rail stations in Wales and main stations elsewhere. It is not sold online or on board trains. There are other versions for North Wales and All Wales. Details are available at www.railrover.org and www.tfwrail.wales/ticket-types/explore-wales .
The weekly ticket for Richards Brothers was excellent value at £18.50 – the price hasn’t increased since 2013. In addition to the local services to St Davids it covers the TrawsCymru service from Haverfordwest and Fishguard to Cardigan and Aberystwyth. Also available is West Wales Day Rover (£8) and Weekly Rover (£30), which can be used on virtually all bus services in Pembrokeshire, Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire. These tickets are available from bus drivers.
Making the best use of public transport in the area does take a bit of planning. As in most rural areas today, evening and Sunday bus services are very limited or non-existent. The train services aren’t particularly frequent either. There are some connections between bus and train at Haverfordwest though the morning peak hour journey to Haverfordwest just misses a train. The morning bus from St Davids to Fishguard misses a Fishguard – Aberystwyth bus by 2 minutes. Facilities at bus and railway stations are limited but, where they are around, staff were helpful.
St Davids cathedral and bishops palace
The sources used to plan the trip and to add the factual details to this piece were The Rough Guide to Wales, the Ordnance Survey Explorer and Landranger maps of the area, Wikipedia, 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 Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire Councils, www.tfwrail.wales for train times and www.tfw.gov.wales for future rail plans.
All photographs are by Steve Gillon except for the following, sourced via Google Images: Ebbw Vale Steelworks from http://www.jomec.co.uk, the view of Llansteffan from Ferryside from http://www.coastalwalker.co,uk ,the Richard Brothers bus from http://www.westerntelegraph.co.uk , Haverfordwest High Street from http://www.youtube.com , the Pembroke Yeoman from http://www.listofpubs.co.uk , Guildhall Square Carmarthen from vintage photos online, the Valley Lines map from http://www.projectmapping.co.uk, Barry Docks from Peoples Collection Wales, Haverfordwest station from http://www.pgmodels.wordpress.com and the Pembroke Dock line map is from Wikipedia.
© Copyright Steve Gillon 2019