“When I was about ten my mother took me and a school friend on holiday in North Wales. We toured around in her pale green Morris Minor convertible, went walking, rock climbing and swimming, and explored quite a bit of Snowdonia. I remember to this day the impact that landscape had upon me. The only train journey on that holiday was the memorable experience of being pushed slowly up to the summit of Snowdon by a panting steam locomotive. There have been many subsequent visits to North Wales, by train and car, for work and pleasure, but the excitement generated by that first trip has never diminished.
The growth of travel and holidays, from the late-Victorian era onwards, made these landscapes familiar, but the story starts earlier, in the late 18th-century, when artists discovered and depicted North Wales: Richard Wilson and, later, Turner and the first generation of watercolourists. More recently the physical nature of the landscape, and those who live upon it, and the constantly changing quality of light, has been expressed magnificently by Anglesey-based Sir Kyffin Williams, arguably Wales’s most famous painter. Generations of artists have come to North Wales by train, and it was really the railway that made the region both accessible and popular.
Despite this, North Wales is still, for many people, a very long way away and the journey there by car can seem interminable and devoid of pleasure. With this in mind, I decided to spend a few days exploring the region by rail, simply because trains offered the best and most relaxing way to explore the landscape that had impressed me so much as a child. My starting point was London; the gateways, Chester and Shrewsbury, are both served by rapid Virgin trains from Euston, and visitors can pack a huge amount into a weekend or short break in North Wales. The two-hour journey to Chester flashed past in first class comfort, with complimentary food and drink; it is one of the many mysteries of the national rail ticketing system that advance first class tickets can be cheaper than standard class.
I took the train a couple of stops back to Llandudno Junction, a hub for a range of interesting journeys. I chose the best by far…
From Chester, it was a short hop along the coast on an Arriva service to Llandudno, a classic and still thriving Victorian resort, with a range of traditional seaside hotels overlooking the beach (again, internet booking can produce surprising bargains).
After breakfast next day, I took the train a couple of stops back to Llandudno Junction, a hub for a range of interesting journeys. I chose the best by far, Arriva’s Conwy valley line to Blaenau Ffestiniog: it starts with a great view of Conwy Castle across the estuary, and gets better and better as it winds up the valley beside the tumbling waters of the Conwy. Viaducts, cuttings and tunnels add excitement, and the views are constantly varied, especially around Betwys-y-Coed. This famous, well-equipped Snowdonian resort also makes a good base for those not wanting to stay in a town.
For those wanting more, the magnificent Bodysgallen Hall, one of three country house hotels owned by the National Trust and run by them with great style, is only a taxi ride away. A bit further afield (but easily accessed from the Cambrian Coast line) is Portmeirion, the remarkable Italianate village and hotel created by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis in the 1920s.
Near the end of the journey, the train plunges into a two-mile long tunnel, from which it bursts out into a dramatically different landscape. All around are towering mountains of slate, the spoil from centuries of quarrying and mining. It is an extraordinary and curiously exciting landscape, formed by the remains of North Wales’ greatest industry and most important export, and the reason for many of the railways in the region.
Eventually, what is now Ffestiniog & Welsh Highland Railways acquired the track bed, raised a vast amount of money and rebuilt the entire line, which reopened all the way to Caernarfon in 2011. This is a real railway with a proper service, reconnecting important parts of North Wales; it is also a glorious journey, in carriages far larger than those normally associated with narrow gauge trains. The 25-mile route is a constant delight, offering views not easily accessible to car travellers, attracting visitors from all over the world, boosting the local economy and benefitting villages along the route. It is a slow journey, taking about two hours, but there is no need to hurry through this landscape and the end of the line at Caernarfon, facing the castle and beside the harbour, is worth the wait.
Caernarfon is a fine town, still fully walled, with plenty to enjoy, and a wide range of hotels, pubs and B&Bs. The only disadvantage is its relative isolation; apart from taking the Welsh Highland back to Porthmadog, the car-free visitor has to rely on buses and taxis. I spent the night here, in a comfortable pub/hotel, and, early next morning, caught the cheap, rapid, regular Bus 88 to Llanberis. I arrived easily in time for the train to the summit of Snowdon, a not-to-be-missed chance to revisit my childhood.
The Snowdon Mountain Railway has been operating for over a century, and still uses some of the original steam locomotives. The steep ascent, made possible by the use of a rack and pinion system familiar in Switzerland, is unique on the British mainland. It is, if the weather behaves, possibly the most exciting railway journey in Britain, an hour of glorious landscape only accessible otherwise to those who choose to walk to the summit.
There are limited seats in the single carriage, though, so advance reservation is a good idea. It is also sensible to come down on the same train that carried you up, after the 30 minute break at the top. If you miss it, there is no certainty that there will be space on a later train, and it is a long walk back down the mountain to Llanberis.
An alternative to the Snowdon train – which will particularly appeal to families with small children for whom the Snowdon experience may be too much – is the little Llanberis Lake Railway, just over the road. The lakeside route is pretty and passes the National Slate Museum, housed on the former site of the Dinorwic slate quarry which the railway was originally built to serve. The combination of impressive industrial architecture and machinery, including a huge working waterwheel, and the spectacle and drama of the actual quarries makes this an essential visit.
Getting home from Caernarfon can be a challenge, but there are two good options: a regular bus to Bangor connects with the train back to London. Alternatively, returning to Porthmadog, by train, bus, or taxi, take the Arriva’s Cambrian Coast route and then cross-country to Shrewsbury or Birmingham, both of which have fast Virgin trains back to London. The slow but famously spectacular journey along the coast of West Wales, a formerly busy main line, is now one of Britain’s great country railways.