The epic 120-mile ride from Shrewsbury to the Welsh coast is one of the great scenic railway journeys of Britain, crossing the border between England and Wales and running through hills and mountains to the sea. The line divides at the wonderfully remote Dovey Junction station, with the shorter mainline heading south to historic Aberystwyth, and Coast Line running north along the sea to Pwllheli on the Llyn Peninsula.
Down the coast:
drowned forests and police dramas
Take a stroll on Borth beach at low tide and you might catch a glimpse of the ancient woods that grew there about 5,000 years ago. This sunken forest may have inspired the local legend of a lost kingdom, Cantre’r Gwaelod (“parish of the deep”), a Welsh Atlantis, which was drowned when the gatekeeper Seithennyn forgot to watch the rising tide. Walking among the wildlife-rich dunes at nearby Ynyslas, you can spot rare orchids among the spring flowers, nesting plovers, russet-breasted stonechats and hear skylarks, singing as they fly. And out to sea, you might see dolphins, jumping through the waves.
Aberystwyth, at the end of the branch line, is a vibrant, coastal university town, home to the National Library of Wales as well as the Vale of Rheidol Railway. For a taste of the sea, head to harbour-side Pysgoty (“fish house”), an eco-friendly café serving local lobster, samphire, wild turbot and other maritime specialities. www.pysgoty.co.uk Don’t worry if you see a lot of police cars near the promenade – it’s the location of the police station in TV detective drama, Hinterland. And if you’re passing, don’t forget to “kick the bar” at the end of the prom – it’s supposed to bring you luck!
Through the hills:
rebels & royal underwear
From the bustling medieval market town of Shrewsbury, your journey takes you through the rolling sheep-speckled hills of mid Wales and on to the Cambrian Coast. Pick up one of the window gazer guides from Shrewsbury station to find out more about people and places along the way, many with important links to Welsh history and culture.
First stop after Shrewsbury is Welshpool, home to the Welshpool & Llanfair Railway, and to Powis Castle, a thirteenth-century fortress towering over enchanting gardens with Italianate terraces and herbaceous borders (www.nationaltrust.org.uk/powis). The Pryce Jones warehouse at the next stop, Newtown, operated the world’s first mail order service – supplying underwear to Queen Victoria!
Welsh rebel Owain Glyndŵr established the first true Welsh parliament at Machynlleth in 1404 (www.canolfanglyndwr.org). Today “Mach” is a friendly market town with a bohemian feel, where you can find everything from male voice choirs to meditation. Welsh designer Laura Ashley opened her first shop here in 1961. Just north of town you can visit the Centre for Alternative Technology and see solar or hydro generators, wind turbines, filtering reed beds and other sustainable systems, all set in pleasant organic gardens, www.cat.org.uk.
Up the coast
seabirds, castles and sandy coves
The other branch of the Cambrian Coast Line heads north, from Dovey Junction, on one of the UK’s most spectacular railway rides. Look out for seabirds from the train window – there’s even an osprey’s nest on a pole right beside Dovey Junction station! The line runs beside the Dyfi Estuary, its saltmarshes, sandbanks and mudflats teeming with birdlife, and passes five of the Great Little Trains, two imposing castles and a constantly changing panorama of Snowdonian mountains and clear sea.
From the pretty fishing village of Aberdyfi, three miles of sandy beach stretch north to Tywyn, home of the Talyllyn Railway. There are more beaches all the way up the coast, including Fairbourne, where you can ride on the Fairbourne Railway and ferry across to Barmouth. The Cambrian Line crosses the Mawddach Estuary on the 113-span Barmouth Bridge, a wooden viaduct, which will be 150 years old in 2017.
Huge, grey-sandstone Harlech castle, rising from its rock above the sea, is linked to legends of the Welsh princess Branwen and inspired the rousing song “Men of Harlech” www.cadw.gov.wales. From Minffordd station, where the line turns west, it’s a mile’s walk to the to the fantasy Italianate village of Portmeirion, colourful location of cult 1960s TV series, The Prisoner, www.portmeirion-village.com. Next stop is Porthmadog, for the adjacent Welsh Highland Heritage Railway, and the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railways at Harbour Station at the other end of town. The train goes on past Criccieth Castle, perched on a hill above the beach, to reach the end of the line at Pwllheli, on the Llyn Peninsular, with staggering views over Cardigan Bay.
Half of the 26 stations on this line are request stops: to catch a train at these smaller stations, you’ll need to stick your arm out in time for the driver to brake and, if you want to get off at one, make sure you ask the guard in plenty of time. These remote stops give access to some great off-the-beaten-track walks and beaches. Twenty minutes’ stroll from Dyffryn Ardudwy station near Barmouth is one of the UK’s best naturist beaches, with a mile of golden sand. The atmospheric, 13th-century church of St Tanwg near Llandanwg Halt has very ancient carved crosses and a churchyard half buried in the dunes.
The extraordinary 870-mile Wales Coast Path follows the Cambrian Coast railway for some of its length, offering easy walks between stations; Pensarn and Llandanwg stations (both request stops) are actually within sight of each other!