Setting off from Birmingham New Street on a comfortable Arriva train, we passed Shrewsbury and began to thrill to the green and woolly welcome of undulating farmland. Our anticipation rose as the train sped on into the heart of a land steeped in story. A storyteller by profession, travelling with my wife, two teenage boys and six year old daughter, who all adore folklore in their own right, we were looking forward to finding some of the fabled fairy glens; we were also keen, if possible, to capture at least one untold tale somewhere on our four day trip. With jovial guidance from the railway volunteers, we were not disappointed in either of those aims.
Our daughter shouted with glee as we went under a bridge and out along tracks lined with foxglove and fern…
After a worthwhile stay in Aberystwyth, with its easy surf-town feel and generous waterfront, we caught a mainline train to Tywyn and taxi to our accommodation at Dolgoch Falls, handily situated just below the Talyllyn railway. Waking up to rain next day, we decided that a bad beach day was a good day for trains. We picked up some supplies in Tywyn and then walked up the road to the Talyllyn railway station for the first steam train trip of our stay. The pretty station, with its teashop and museum, is exactly what you’d picture: full of charming, historical character and overflowing with friendliness. Once we were sitting comfortably in a Victorian carriage, our train chugged off with a joyful whistle and smiling waves from the station workers: we were on our way!
Our daughter shouted with glee as we went under a bridge and out along tracks lined with foxglove and fern, past farmers’ fields full of lazy sheep and finally along the tree-lined slopes to Dolgoch, where we dropped off our supplies and caught the next train to the end of the line.
I asked the ticket master the meaning of Dolgoch and he pointed to the mauvey-red heather on the field beside the station and told me dol means ‘meadow’ and goch means ‘red’. It was then that the glory of that train trip came into its own: the clouds lifted, giving us marvellous views of the oak and fir-coated peaks across the way, stilling our tongues and opening our eyes in awe all the way to Nant Gwernol.
After stretching our legs, with a view of the vigorous river below, we travelled back to Abergynolwyn station and stopped off for an hour or so – time for a cup of tea in the café and a chat with the men who were running the train that day as they ate their lunch. One of them, Phil, said he’d been working on the railway for 36 years. We laughed when he told us how he’d let his wife-to-be know, on the day of their wedding: “You’d better get on with these steam trains if you’re going to be with me, because that’s what I’m about!”
Tywyn to Barmouth via Fairbourne
The second part of our steam train adventure started on the mainline route to Fairbourne: a spectacular coastal ride past the low brick walls of seaside farms that reminded my daughter of Benedict Blathwayt’s “Little Red Train” stories. The track then cut into the sea cliffs, giving us views of the choppy turquoise sea below and of the whole wide bay. Blessed by a spell of sunshine and some time to spare in Fairbourne, we walked quickly down the road to the beach. A sandcastle, some splashing and many laughs later, we ran over to the small train track at Beach Halt, where the cutest train you’ve ever seen came puffing round the corner and slowed to let us on: a toy train set come to life!
The perfect, slow pace of the little engine let us take in the jaw-dropping views of lush mountains: forested ridges and hills with low drifts of will-o’-the-wisp cloud creeping over them, as though giants were smoking pipes in the trees. All of us were mesmerised by this untouched, untainted earth, we have so seldom seen. Amazement turned to amusement when we suddenly went through the fun ghost-ride blackness of a short tunnel, coming out the other side to the picture-postcard vision that is Barmouth.
The train came to a stop beneath a proudly billowing Welsh flag and we jumped off and pottered over low, grassy dunes to the ferry that took us, in keeping with an old, old tradition, across the small mouth of the estuary. The first written records of the crossing describe an eleventh-century cardinal going over to Monks’ Hill (the mound of grassy sand on the Barmouth side of the harbour) where said monks grazed their sheep.
In the last of the sunshine, we ate fish and chips on the harbour and I talked to one of the ferry owners, before we caught our train back. John had delved deeply into the history of the area so out rolled the stories: an Elizabethan survey of the land had reported four houses and an inn here; a boy in the 1900s, spotting fire in one of the cabins that used to line the railway bridge, ran to the town, raised the alarm and saved the bridge. John even told me about the time eight nuns climbed onto his own ferry; far from being the quiet passengers he expected, they asked him to cross again and again, over the incoming wavelets, so the boat would bounce and splash them all with laughter!
These stories and more made me smile all the way back to Tywyn, along our now-beloved Talyllyn railway, and my mirth turned to sheer delight when the sun dropped beneath the clouds to warm the Dolgoch valley. We took a walk and found it easily the most splendorous place we have discovered in all our travels: waterfall after waterfall with their secret crystal pools, where the water is sweet and tasty. Moss, fern, stone, sacred ash and oak surround you in an otherworldly place so you can almost hear the faerie laughter bubbling down the jubilant river.
Tywyn to Devil’s Bridge via Aberystwyth
An easy ride next morning on the Talyllyn line and then the mainline train to Aberystwyth gave us time for an ice cream and a walk along the pebbly beach to the cliff at the Northern end, before heading for the Vale of Rheidol station. The pristinely polished and notably heftier engine (though still small by normal train standards) has long taken tourists up the steep climbs to Devil’s Bridge.It does so in three distinct stages: a flat ride along the river plain, the gentle climb along the Rheidol valley and then the magnificent rise into the mountains.
Red kites skim low over meadows on the deceptively gentle incline beside the river until we begin to pass through valleys which rival Switzerland in their idyllic splendour, and on up to high waterfalls, cliff vistas and crowding, bottle-green mountains which seem to close up if you look too long, as though they guard age-old faerie folk secrets between their majestic slopes.
By the time you arrive at the end of the track, it seems impossible there can be more still to see, but the waterfall way, which runs under Devil’s Bridge, is a thing of feral wonder. Having scoured out whirlpool holes in the dark rock, the water spins and spills from one drop to the next with exuberant power, spraying its replenishing mists all around. The path winds round its course, past the great gurgling cauldron and back to the station, where it feels almost overwhelming to enjoy the views once more.
Our whole experience left us with the feeling of having had a holiday of holidays, each outstanding enough to hold their own against half a lifetime of happy tales – and all thanks to the (aptly named) Great Little Trains of Wales!”