“Ever since I was young, I’ve been fascinated by older, slower ways of travelling, especially the drama, clamour and glamour of steam trains; I loved how they would sweep across Britain’s green and pleasant land in much loved childhood films. So the chance to experience these machines in the beauty of the Brecon Beacons was too tempting to pass up. Travelling by train, and the odd bus, my three days in Wales proved extremely relaxing and memorable, with incredible vistas, fantastic food and a friendly welcome.
From Bristol, we headed to Merthyr Tydfil, via Cardiff, by train – a journey of less than two hours with lovely scenery. Accommodation for the night was Nant Ddu Lodge, an incredibly scenic, fifteen-minute bus ride from Merthyr. The hotel itself was gorgeous – set by a river that lulled us to sleep after a delicious meal of locally sourced fish and an excellent crumble. Next morning I had a spa treatment whilst my friend enjoyed the swimming pool; then a leisurely breakfast, before heading off to the Brecon Mountain Railway, a 30-minute bus journey away in Pant.
The inviting tagline to “Steam into Superb Scenery” was spot on – it was thrilling to stand outside the carriage, right behind the engine, as it accelerated, pulling us up and away, high into the Brecon Beacons. The sun broke out as forest dropped away and the vast and sparkling Pontsticill Reservoir came into view. On either side of the track verdant foliage is interspersed with moment after moment of breathtaking beauty. It was my first time on a steam train and it was magical; you can’t beat the thrill of the engine’s high pitch whistle as it lets off its steam – and, being so close, you could see the workings of the gleaming pistons below us.
The sun broke out as forest dropped away and the vast and sparkling Pontsticill Reservoir came into view
I shared the view with four-year-old Isaac and his father; Isaac was completely transfixed and we all whooped together with each whistle. The train stopped for a short break at Pontsticill and I wandered through bright yellow welsh poppies and buttercups sprouting across the banks. On the return journey, the guard let me into the cab itself to see the shoveling of coal into the glowing furnace and chat to the drivers; the experience really felt like going back in time. Whether you love trains, or just exquisite scenery – or indeed both – this is a wonderful day out.
Early Saturday evening, our next stop was Brecon, staying in the Peterstone Court Hotel – a 40-minute ride from Pant by bus. The sun was out and we were welcomed to an opulent Georgian Manor with a gorgeous backdrop, huge, freestanding baths in the rooms and views across the Beacons. During a sundowner on the outdoor terrace, we rested our ears and eyes with bird song, the sound of the rushing river below, the vivid, lush forest and dramatic mountains. In the spacious outdoor pool, set in the grass with a 14th-century church behind it, I enjoyed a long swim, with the pool all to myself, on Sunday morning, working up an appetite for the incredible menu on offer – all locally sourced and served with impeccable attentiveness by the staff; the scallops and prawns were exceptional and will be recalled with hunger for many years to come!
To finish off our wonderful weekend, we travelled to north Wales for a final adventure, staying at an excellent former coaching inn, Ty Gwyn, which dates back to 1636 with beautiful stone work and low beamed ceilings. The hotel has an award-winning, cosy restaurant where everything on our plates came from a mile or two away, the furthest distance being a whopping 12 miles for our very delicious trout from Llyn Brenig reservoir! With the country’s strong connection to nature, my impression is that, all over rural Wales, hotels like these are successfully championing sustainable, locally-sourced food – indeed, they are simply continuing traditions which have never gone away.
Betws-y-Coed is the perfect access point for Snowdonia – a friendly village with an Alpine feel, enhanced by the dense Gwydyr Forest and the rivers and waterfalls that surround it. It also has its own railway museum with the most exquisitely detailed working miniature railway: a perfectly-formed city and countryside vista complete with funfair, shops, campsites, hospitals, and ports all lit up and working. With the sun now blazing, we set off upriver from Pont y Pair Bridge to the roaring Swallow Falls. Taking you past tranquil sheep pastures and up through forest next to dramatic, ancient slate mines, it’s a good two hour walk and incredibly beautiful. It can get slippery, though, so be sure to wear good footwear!