“Combining a ride on the Welshpool & Llanfair light railway with a visit to medieval Powis Castle made a beautifully varied outing with a strong sense of history. Rolling through green hills, with sheep-scattered slopes and banks of bracken and foxgloves, I already feel as though I’ve travelled back in time since leaving London. And there’s a nostalgic air about the bunting-strung market town of Welshpool, even before we reach the steam railway at the far end of its main street. There are woodcarvings and colourful bird sculptures outside the Powysland museum, housed in a cheerful old warehouse beside the Montgomeryshire canal; and the High Street has old-fashioned sweet shops, Georgian coaching inns and a series of wonderfully ramshackle stalls under the brick arches of the clock-towered market.
The Welshpool & Llanfair railway carriages have balconies at either end, so passengers can stand in the open air to watch rivers, fields and wooded valleys chugging past, and smell the sooty whiff of history. There’s nothing half-hearted about this train ride, with its deafening whistle and thick white steam, dislodging drops of water onto us from the leafy canopy overhead.
The engine puffs hard as it pulls us up to Golfa summit, nearly 200 metres above sea level. We cross the six stone arches of the Brynelin viaduct before running downhill and alongside the sepia-tinted River Banwy.
At the far end of the line, there’s just time to stroll along a waterside path into the small, sleepy town of Llanfair Caereinion, with its hilly streets, bowling green and old pubs, before heading back to the retro station tearoom, for sandwiches and fruity Welsh bara brith. Returning, as honey-pungent meadowsweet drifts past outside the window, we ride in a wooden carriage originally built in 1906 for the Austrian state railway, a time-traveller’s delight with elegant slatted seats and curving luggage racks.
Five hundred metres back along Welshpool’s High Street, Park Lane leads right to the wrought iron gates of Powis Castle. A mile’s stroll up through the steep landscaped park, with herds of antlered deer and lily ponds, we reach the red, gritstone walls and find, inside, rooms hung with faded tapestries or lined with marble emperors.
A cream tea on the top terrace, complete with jewelled and predatory peacocks, revives us…
The state bedroom, which survives from the 1660s, has an opulent, crimson-curtained four-poster in its own royal alcove (although we’re amused to read that Prince Charles, a frequent visitor to the castle, prefers a different, lighter room just along the grand corridor). We wandered through the Powis treasures: an 18th-century painting of Verona, with its sweeping cloud-softened distances, or a medieval book of hours, with intricate, gilded foliage twisting around gothic text and pictures that still glow royal blue and scarlet.
A cream tea on the top terrace, complete with jewelled and predatory peacocks, revives us enough to visit the Clive Museum, a collection begun by controversial adventurer Robert Clive, of Indian objects, from tiny ivory elephants to Tipu Sultan’s ornate tent and palanquin. The terraced garden, over which the castle presides, is even more remarkable than the interior. With views that stretch as far as the Shropshire hills, the walkways are lined with peonies, roses and delphiniums, dancing statues and urn-topped balustrades.
The herbaceous borders are sweet with lavender and the little trees outside the orangery are hung with both fruit and citrusy blossom; an Ozymandian stone foot stands in the woods, near glades of common spotted orchids, and a fountain splashes on the lowest lawn, beneath tiers of winding box-hedged walks and topiaried yew.
Eventually, it was time to head back into town for supper at the vintage Bay Tree tearooms. Surrounded by period newspapers and vinyl records, with a soundtrack of fifties music, we had some stylish modern dishes: smoked salmon with pickled cucumber, slabs of butternut squash lasagne, home-cooked chips and a pleasing Snowdon lager from Great Orme brewery in Llandudno. Strolling back to the station in the gathering dark, we felt a happy sense of timeless pleasures: exploring the richness of history, enjoying tasty food and gentle, car-free travel through the countryside.”