With glorious summer weather in prospect, friend James and I had planned out a short break over to North Wales, the idea being to visit four railways in four days. We've both been visiting the area since the late 1960s, our respective fathers having much to answer for.
Setting off early Sunday morning, first stop was the Ffestiniog Railway
. Never well found for accommodation, since I last visited Porthmadog a Premier Inn has opened there directly opposite Harbour Station. With six car charging points in the newly opened facility it seemed like the ideal place to spend our first night, with the chance to refuel after the 220 mile journey.
First hitch was to be told, on arrival, that the whizzy new car charging points had never been connected up from new - apparently they don't own the car park, so are unable to make them work. Something of a setback, however the view from the bedroom window made up for it - an ideal spot for watching trains go by, second only to sitting on the platform with a pint in hand...
We travelled up to Tan-y-Bwlch on the 14.35. The Ffestiniog, post-COVID, have modified their offering, the lady in the booking office explaining that their trips were now based more on "experiences" than a "hop on and ride" service. That said, she cheerfully sold us two tickets, although sadly the train no longer features the fabulous observation car, our invariable choice in days gone by. You buy a ticket for a compartment of six and sit in splendid isolation, a throwback to social distancing during the pandemic.
The ride up the line in a vintage First Class carriage was enjoyable, although the views are becoming somewhat obscured due to tree regrowth following their cutting back operation some years ago. As ever the tea shop at T-y-B provided satisfying fare, we sat in the sunshine and watched our engine, the double Fairlie "Merddin Emrys" run around ready for the return trip.
We came back in an open third carriage to enjoy the warm afternoon sunshine. Again, we had a compartment of six to ourselves, created by tie-wrapping plastic sheeting between successive rows of seats. It felt like the panic of 2020 all over again, when nobody knew quite what to do in the face of COVID.
I have great faith in the FR's business acumen, but one can't help feeling that the "new normal", whilst perhaps allaying the fears of a small majority of travellers, significantly impairs the enjoyment of the majority (as well as drastically reducing the capacity of their trains).
A long time fan of the Ffestiniog - and life member of the society - it remains my favourite railway in the world. Adapting to change is often difficult - especially when you've known the place for fifty years - but our visit to the Vale of Rheidol Railway (see below) showed, to my eyes at least, that for the first time the FR have serious competition in terms of quality of engineering, permanent way, locomotives and professionalism of the staff. On balance, the VoR - without the COVID era restrictions - feels more like an old style railway. It's doing the job it was designed for, without feeling the need to offer "experiences" - just a nice ride through lovely scenery behind a beautiful locomotive.
However, history shows that it never pays to write off the FR - it's a finely engineered, well run railway with a long history in preservation of commercial success and a proven abilility constantly to reinvent itself.
Sunday night supper was at the Union Inn in Tremadog, of which the least said the better... However, we did find out that the pub opposite had two car chargers, which got us out of a hole given that the only other two chargers in town, both in a council car park, didn't work.
Tuesday morning, after an excellent breakfast at the ever-wonderful Jenny's
(I know it's called The Port now, but it will always be Jenny's to me), saw us setting off for Tywyn to visit the Talyllyn Railway
. A favourite of James', in the past I'd always favoured the Ffestiniog although, with advancing years, I've come to appreciate the gentler pace and modest vision of the smaller railway.
We travelled up the line behind No.7 "Tom Rolt", in the fabulous Corris third class coach, watching the world go by from the slatted wooden bench seats.
We decided to forgo lunch at Abergynolwyn - there was a coach trip of seniors riding on the train, resulting in a long queue out of the cafe door moving at a slow shuffle, hampered by stiff joints and indecision once the counter had finally been reached. It always seems a cruel irony that, the older one gets and the less time one has left left, the longer it takes to do anything...
Back at Tywyn Wharf we found the cafe there offering only tea and buns - in fairness, they hadn't expected anybody arriving wanting lunch at three in the afternoon! We contented ourselves instead with a walk around the excellent narrow gauge museum which is always interesting.
On this occasion we enjoyed seeing the Fletcher, Jennings side tank "William Finlay". James and I last saw the locomotive at Beamish when we spent a day crawling all over it with a tape measure and camera. It was up for sale at that time and only the earnest opposition of our respective partners stopped it coming down to join the Heywood engines and rolling stock in Lincolnshire!
Exhibits catching our eye and falling into the category of "things we'd most like to take home" included this lovely 7 1/4 inch narrow gauge box van...
...and the entire contents of the Heywood plates display case (which would, admittedly, have been a little greedy, given we have a good quantity of original plates already!)
Late afternoon - after a quick stop at the Co-op to pick up a picnic by way of a late lunch - saw us journeying on to Aberystwyth, ready for the Vale of Rheidol Railway
James and I both first visited the VoR nearly fifty years ago as boys, on holiday with our respective families - in those days the locomotives were painted in British Railways blue, carrying double arrows on the sidetanks. My enduring memory of that time was the grubbiness of the place - it seemed terribly lack lustre compared to the wonderful Ffestiniog.
How times have changed. On our last visit, a few years ago, it was a railway transformed. Beautifully turned out locomotives, comfortable - if rather basic - rolling stock and views from the upper reaches of the line far better than I remembered from childhood.
Visiting again now, some five years later, the work has continued - it has become what, to anybody's eyes, has to be a world class narrow gauge railway.
The locomotives - Nos 7 and 8 were in steam on the day, we went up behind No.7 - are kept in immaculate condition; in superb mechanical order, they sound like brand new engines climbing up the tight, steeply graded curves on the way to Devil's Bridge.
Since we last visited, a super period-style ticket office has been built, along with another large shed nearing completion featuring ground to eaves windows along the sides.
The views, particularly from the top half of the line, rival those of the Ffestiniog with densely wooded slopes flanking the valley floor where a river meanders down into a lake along the route.
Arriving at Devil's Bridge we avoided queues at the cafe (they were becoming something of a theme of this holiday), walking across the road to the excellent chocolate shop where, in addition to buying some of the excellent chocolate and fudge which they make on the premises, we were able to get a cup of coffee.
The return trip deposited us back at Aberystwyth where we spent some of our our pocket money in the well-stocked station book shop. I picked up a replacement for my copy of "H.C.S.Bullock - His life and locomotives" which I gave away to a deserving recipient some years ago (and have missed ever since); a history of Thomas Green & Son Ltd - who made quirky traction engines, rollers and a fabulous steam lawnmower - and finally a book on the making of "The Titfield Thunderbolt" which I saw recently - for about the fiftieth time - at our very own "Kinema in the Woods"
, a vintage cinema eight miles distant from home (and highly recommended if you're ever in the area).
With an hour spare before heading to our hotel, the splendid Plas Nanteos Mansion
, we had a ride up Constitution Hill on the Aberystwyth Cliff Railway
which opened in 1896, the longest electric funicular in Britain. An interesting experience - we loved the kink in the track allowing the two cars to pass halfway!
The railway has to pass under several bridges on its short ascent which carry a zig-zagging footpath up the hill for those hardy souls preferring to walk.
Notices in the carriages and top and bottom stations emphasise the safety of the railway, including the fact that it relies on no fewer than five brakes, capable of stopping the car within nine inches in the event of mishap!
That said, we liked the notice in the carriage giving a phone number in the event of emergency - we calculated you'd have about fifteen seconds to dial if the brakes let go!
In actual fact it felt completely safe, we'd highly recommend this one - the splendid cafe and superb views from the top well worth the price of a return ticket.
That evening we drove East to Welshpool, staying at the Royal Oak Hotel
there who supplied a very welcome pint and excellent dinner that night.
Wednesday morning dawned fair as we drove back West to Llanfair Caereinion for a trip on the Welshpool and Llanfair Railway
. Again, a railway we each first visited over fifty years ago although I hadn't ridden on it in some thirty years - partly due to their somewhat restricted timetable which meant that, on those days that I was in the area, trains weren't running.
This time I'd planned carefully to be visiting on a Wednesday, the first day of the week they were running. All seemed to be going according to plan until, arriving at the ticket office, we were told that the train was fully booked! Indeed, looking outside at the blackboard, somebody had crossed through the 10.30 departure and written words to that effect, confirming its popularity.
Whilst I was prepared to walk away with pet lip stuck out, James is a man of rather more persistence - he wanted to know why it was full - and why they couldn't simply put another carriage on? A charming lady volunteer - it was her first day as assistant stationmaster apparently - engaged with the problem and went off to find an explanation. On her return, she'd found out that the return trip, up Golfa Bank (a mile of 1 in 29 climb) was on the limit for the locomotive ("The Earl" on this occasion) - putting an extra carriage on would carry the risk of the engine throwing sparks and causing lineside fires.
Seeing two potential paying fares about to leave, she wasn't prepared to let it rest there! Next thing we knew, the general manager had been summoned, who straight away asked why the first class carriage - already coupled to the train - was about to leave in ten minutes time with only two of its sixteen seats occupied...
So - happily, James and I had a very comfortable ride to Welshpool in the utterly wonderful ex-Sierra Leone first class saloon. Built in 1961, from the outside it's a rather plain, slab-sided vehicle painted in drab green, looking like something which would have run on an Eastern European railway in the Cold War era. But, in complete contrast, inside it was furnished with fabulous Art Deco style armchairs upholstered in white leather, set on polished floorboards.
It felt like something from "The Grand Budapest Hotel" - absolutely enchanting, I wouldn't have missed it for the world!
A nice end to the holiday - the railway is well-kept, the engines in super condition. And thank you to the lady who relentlessly chased down a pair of first class seats for us - you're a veritable asset to the company!
Earl" is currently the only steam locomotive in running order, although
the 0-8-0T No.10 "Sir Drefaldwyn" stood in the yard in light steam - we
were told it was getting ready to go back into service next week.
"The Earl" is currently the only steam locomotive in running order, although the 0-8-0T No.10 "Sir Drefaldwyn" stood in the yard in light steam - we were told it was getting ready to go back into service next week.
We finished off the holiday with a couple of hours around Powis Castle
- the gardens so spectacular that Mrs P and I have booked to return next month - before heading home.
A great trip - we've already made plans to do it again next year.