From lush border countryside around Shrewsbury, through sweeping upland moors, peaceful villages and Victorian spa towns, to therugged Welsh coast and vibrant university city of Swansea, the 120-mile Heart of Wales line offers visitors unparalleled variety. Completed in 1858, the line provides the most direct route between the English Midlands and South West Wales. Today it is a local transport link, a relaxed alternative to the main line and one of Britain’s most picturesque sightseeing routes. There are no big towns or industrial infrastructure, but the 34 halts and stations unlock a horde of hidden treasures.
Victorian elegance and eccentric events
Soon after Dolau, the railway passes a series of old spa towns: the wells of Llandrindod, Builth (near Builth Road station), Llangammarch and Llanwrtyd. The railway brought thousands of Victorian and Edwardian visitors flocking here, hoping the “magical” properties of the mineral waters would cure a variety of ailments. Guesthouses, golf courses, pleasure lakes and shopping emporia all sprung up. Much elegant architecture – and many of the hotels and attractions – can still be enjoyed today.
Spacious, unhurried Llandrindod celebrates its Victorian heritage with a festival every August. Visitors also come for the spa facilities, championship bowling and National Cycle Museum; in the middle of the lake is a 140-foot copper fountain, representing a “fabulous water beast”. Collections at the Radnorshire museum range from fossils and flint tools to Edwardian bath chairs and include relics from a nearby Roman settlement, Castell Collen. The long-distance T4 bus,from Llandrindod, links the Heart of Wales line with Newtown, Brecon, Cardiff and even the Cambrian Coast service.
The annual Royal Welsh Show takes place in Builth Wells, which has lots of independent shops and the Wyeside Arts Centre. At Cilmeri is a popular monument to Llewellyn ap Gruffydd, last native Prince of Wales, killed in battle nearby in 1282. The village of Llangammarch was once another busy resort; the mock-Tudor hotel just north of Llanwrtyd Wells was the only pre-war barium spa outside Germany. Llanwrtyd, the fourth spa town, hasa number of award winning restaurants; its modern reputation for enjoyably eccentric gatherings rests on events like the Real Ale Wobble and Saturnalia beer festival (there is a popular craft brewery in town), the Man vs Horse marathon and, every other year, the World Alternative Games, which feature belly-flopping, bog-snorkelling and husband-dragging.
Red kites and retail therapy
The red kite, symbol of the Heart of Wales line, is one of the most noticeable features of the area’s varied and abundant wildlife; there are feeding centres and nature reserves not far from the railway here. From Llanwrtyd, the line starts its long descent to sea level. After the remote Sugar Loaf Halt, the line enters Sugar Loaf tunnel before crossing the curved Cynghordy viaduct, with wonderful views of the Brecon Beacons, to reach Cynghordy station. Walkers love this area and are well catered for by nearby B&Bs and bunkhouses.
The beautiful Tywi Valley, home to lakes, castles and the Dolaucothi gold mines ,can be accessed from the market town of Llandovery. The Heart of Wales Line Development Company has taken over the station building, where volunteers run a popular café and gallery.There’s an extraordinary range of places to shop and eat in the colourful, historic streets of Llandeilo, once the county town of Carmarthenshire;’ from posh frocks to handmade chocs’, visitors can buy everything here. The National Trust’s Dinefwr Park is a short stroll away, an 800-acre estate rich in Welsh heritage and natural beauty. Hay meadows, woodlands, bogs and parkland designed by Capability Brown surround a ruined castle, gothic manor and medieval deer park.
After Pontarddulais, the railway follows the Llwchwr Estuary to Llanelli, with its thriving covered market. Newly restored Llanelly House is a fine Georgian mansion and the Millennium Coastal Path offers walkers and cyclists seven panoramic, traffic-free miles starting from the iconic Discovery Centre. Reversing, the train finally crosses the estuary and heads for Swansea, set on a sweeping bay.Trains for London and the South East leave every hour, but there’s a lot to explore first. Often described as Wales’ second city, Swansea has lovely parks and gardens (try the Clyne Valley at rhododendron time), the splendid Glynn Vivian art gallery, the Dylan Thomas Centre, the largest covered market in Wales,and good bus links to the nearby Gower peninsula.
Medieval castles and spectacular walks
With its castle, theatre, museum and galleries,Shrewsburyis a significant tourist attraction and a lively place to start this epic cross-country adventure. Colourful Church Stretton, 18 minutes away by train, is a charming market town, packed with pubs, cafes and antique shops. With its panoramic views, mountain streams, and heather-covered hills, the surrounding countryside invites walkers and cyclists.
At Craven Arms, near 13th-century Stokesay Castle, the Heart of Wales railway leaves the main line and becomes single track; the Discovery Centre here is a gateway to the beautiful Shropshire Hills, offering varied walking routes from two-mile riverside strolls to hilly eight-mile hikes. From late 2017 Craven Arms will be the start of the Heart of Wales Line Walking Trail: you can walk this exciting new long-distance path end-to-end or use the railway to sample bite-sized chunks.
The next town, heading south by train, is Knighton, midpoint of the 177-mile Offa’s Dyke National Trail. The Offa’s Dyke Centre explores this eighth-century earthwork built by Offa, King of Mercia. Near Knucklas, six minutes further, is a ruined 12th-century castle; leaving the station, the train crosses a 13-arch viaduct, looking down on village and valley, and, at Llangynllo, passes the summit of the line, 980 feet above sea level.