“ Travel behind a steam locomotive through the fabulous scenery of the Snowdonia National Park from Caernarfon to Porthmadog, North Wales. „
Earlier in the year we were scratching our heads trying to think what to buy our two friends for their birthdays when my husband suggested treating them both to a ride on the newly extended Welsh Highland Railway. So on each birthday we sent them an IOU for a special journey and we all went for our train ride last Saturday.
Until earlier this year the Welsh Highland Railway only ran from Caernarvon to Rhyd Ddu and back again; a distance of 12 miles each way. In fact we did this journey with my parents when we were all on holiday in Anglesey just before we moved up to Llandudno to live and we all enjoyed it.
For the last few years work has been ongoing to extend the railway to Porthmadoc and the line opened as far as Beddgelert at Easter 2009 (16.5 miles each way) and along the Aberglaslyn Pass to Hafod Y Llyn (19.5 miles each way) at Whit Bank Holiday 2009. The final part of the track to Porthmadoc will open sometime after the summer season of 2009. This will then link the Welsh Highland Railway to the Ffestiniog Railway.
So, since we had decided to travel on Whit Bank Holiday Saturday, our journey was to take us from Caernarvon through the Aberglaslyn Pass as far as Hafod Y Llyn and then back to Beddgelert for lunch. We would then catch the next train back to Caernarvon.
The cost of this journey for an adult paying full fare is £25 return with an additional cost of £6 each way to travel first class. Since Dave and I live in the area we have each purchased 'The Card' for £15 which is a pass entitling us to 66% off any journey, including the first class surcharge, on the Welsh Highland Railway and the Ffestiniog Railway. This is great value as The Card is valid for 5 years and it has paid for itself after just one journeyv.
Anyway by the time we had booked 4 first class adult return tickets with our discounts and a concession as one of our friends is over 60 the whole thing cost us about £96, but we were happy with this as it was for their birthdays after all.
The fares vary as to how far you wish to travel and include a sunset fare of £14.50 valid for one round trip on the final train of the day.
We got to Caernarvon in good time to catch the 1000 train and parked at the station. There is limited parking here at a cost of £2 for the day. The station is very near to Caernarvon Castle and can easily be found by following the signs. There is a large car park next to the castle which would be suitable if the station car park is full. Since the station is so close to the castle and the town it would also be convenient to use public transport.
Anyway as I said we parked in the station car park and watched the train steam into the station. Most journeys are steam pulled with the occasional one being pulled by a diesel engine.
We boarded the train getting into the first class Pullman Observation Carriage, which was at the back of the train. The end of the carriage was a huge glass window which gave fantastic views back down the line. We had seats halfway along this carriage and the views were excellent. We sat in arm chairs with a small table between two people. As the seats all had fairly low backs we could see all round the carriage and thus out through any of the windows.
The other carriages on the train were a couple of what I would call ordinary train carriages, an open carriage with a roof but no windows and an open truck at the back which was used to carry bicycles.
There are toilets aboard the train, although I didn't need to visit the facilities I was told that they were very nice and clean.
There is a buffet service on the train and we were given a menu as soon as we boarded. They sold hot and cold drinks, alcohol, snacks, sweets and cakes. The steward came to the carriage and took our orders for refreshments and we all had a cup of tea on the outward journey which was very nice.
On the return journey my friend and I decided to do this posh journey properly and we each had a gin and tonic! How decadent was that? Sipping gin and tonic in a first class carriage - what more could I ask?
The train left Caernarvon on time, of course and our adventure began. The first part of the journey took us along the coast to Dinas and then through farmland and the wooded valley of the River Gwyrfai towards the next stop at Waunfawr. Whilst the scenery here was lovely it wasn't yet spectacular but all this was about to change.
The train left Waunfawr and the scenery changed dramatically as the train approached the foothills of Mount Snowdon. The line continued climbing through the upper part of the river valley and went along the edge of Llyn Cwellyn - a beautiful lake and the views were gorgeous.
The next stop was a request stop called Snowdon Ranger, next to the youth hostel, and this stop and the next one, Rhyd Ddu, are both at the start of recognised paths up Snowdon. If you're feeling really fit and adventurous this is the stop for you. I'll give you a word of warning though, if you are thinking of climbing Snowdon please make sure you are prepared for any eventuality. You would be surprised how many times the mountain rescue teams are called out to climbers in sandals, shorts and t shirts who thought a stroll up Snowdon was a good idea!
Anyway back to the train as we travelled towards Rhyd Ddu the line climbed and as we looked back through the panoramic carriage window we could see the lake that we had just passed stretching out along the valley floor below us.
We then began the descent into Beddgelert and to do this the line zig zags meaning that we could lean out of the windows and take photographs of the steam engine as we went round the sharp bends. The views were amazing with mountains at every turn and sheep running away from the strange 'monster' noisily passing their field. I did wonder if they would ever get used to it and remember that it wasn't actually going to hurt them!
On our outward journey we stayed on the train at Beddgelert so that we could then travel down the Aberglaslyn Pass. The train travelled next to the river crossing over it and then climbing above it. There were tunnels through the side of the mountain and all the pretty little lights of the train came on. As we left the tunnels the windows of the train had all misted up due to the steam from the engine but they soon cleared in the fresh air. We had walked along part of the route many times when we had visited Beddgelert so it was really interesting to see it from a different perspective.
The Aberglaslyn Pass has recently been voted 'The Best View in Britain' and we could see why - it was a beautiful ride. The view would have been lovely from any of the carriages but from the observation carriage it was nothing short of stunning!
The final bit of our outward journey took us to the temporary loop at Hafod Y Llyn where the train stopped and the engine transferred from one end to the other. This obviously had the effect of limiting the view from the end of the observation carriage as the back end of the steam engine filled the window but the views from the side windows were still uninterrupted so it didn't spoil anything for us.
We headed back to Beddgelert where we got off at 1225 and made the ten minute walk into the village to have lunch and sample the home made ice creams and sorbets - incidentally if you want more information about Beddgelert I have written a review about it.
Our return train was due to leave at 1410 so we made our way back to the station platform (the station building hasn't been built yet but it is under way) to await the train. It was a bit cold waiting as the wind had strengthened but the train soon arrived and we did the whole journey from Beddgelert to Caernarvon again only the other way round!
The observation carriage was slightly different on the train on the return journey as it didn't have the huge window at the end of the carriage but the views were still fantastic and the whole thing was wonderful. Sitting sipping the gin and tonic just added to the sense of occasion.
We finally got back to Caernarvon at 1545 so the whole journey including our stop for lunch had taken almost 6 hours and it seemed to fly by.
We all thought it was a superb day out and Dave and I will certainly be doing it again soon.
The Welsh Highland Railway runs from Caernarfon to Rhyd Ddu in Snowdonia, this is currently being extended to Portmadog and final phase should be completed this year (2009). Of course, you don't have to start in Caernarfon, you can board the train in Rhyd Ddu or one of the stations inetween if you wish.
We started our journey in Caernarfon. The Welsh Highland Railway begins beneath the town's castle and is easily found using the brown tourist signs. There is a small car park at the train station, but you can also use the car park just a couple of minutes walk away (which we did) - this is situated by a habour below the castle. Toilets are available in a portacabin at the station or you can find some opposite the other car park.
The litte railway station has a shop in which you can buy your train tickets, but you can also book in advance by telephoning 01286 677018. We bought our tickets on the day (prices below), arriving early to ensure we would be able to travel. Upon buying our tickets we were given a little card each which gives us 10% discount on the Ffestiniog Railway (Porthmadog) when we go there.
Fares as of December 2008:
Third Class (Return) All Day Rover
Caernarfon to Rhyd Ddu (or vice-versa)
Children under 3 travel FREE. One child under 16 years can travel FREE with each adult or senior citizen paying ordinary 3rd class fare. Additional children can travel at half fare.
You can upgrade to First Class should you wish for a few pounds extra. Just board the First Class Carriage and Observation Carriage and pay on board.
There are also other fares if you wish to only travel in one direction (e.g. when walking or cycling back) or only wishing to go halfway.
The shop also sells refreshments (although we could only see ice creams, which weren't appropriate on a very cold New Year's Eve!), toys, clothing, souveneirs, puzzles, books, DVDs etc. They also had many leaflets for other attractions in Snowdonia and the surrounding areas (ideal if you are holidaying in the area), we found a couple with discount vouchers for various places, so they'll come in handy for our next trip up to North Wales (I live in Mid Wales).
As the steam train pulled into the station, everyone headed to the platform. Our train was the Beyer-Garratt NGG16. It's one of the most powerful narrow gauge locomotives in the world and is needed to pull up to 12 coaches up some of the hard gradients in Snowdonia. While the engine was being moved to the other end of the coaches, we boarded the train. I didn't feel the engine coupling up to the carriages, which surprised me (as you usually get jolted on the mainline trains!).
Despite our carriage being "Third Class", it was warm and comfortable. The 3 of us sat at a table for 4 and the only problem I had was Dad's knees hitting mine if he moved. It was a little cramped but not so it was uncomfortable, however I'm only 5ft 7inches, I'd imagine it would be best for somebody taller to sit in an aisle seat rather than by the window.
The steam train departed Caernarfon and headed towards Rhyd Ddu ("Black Ford" in English) in the Snowdonia mountains. Tickets were checked and the refreshment trolley made its way through the carriages.
I was quite surprised at the amount they carried in their little refreshment trolley (it's narrow as are the carriages!). It holds hot drinks (such as tea, coffee & hot chocolate), juice, fizzy drinks and even alcohol (including local real ales, wine, sherry, whiskey etc), as well as crisps, chocolate, biscuits and more. Dad chose a bottle of the local real ale, they only had the "dark" one on the trolley, but one of the staff (volunteers) went and fetched a "light" ale for Dad and it was nice and cold. We found all the staff members friendly, helpful and knowledgable. The refreshment prices were quite reasonable as we'd been expecting the same kind of prices you get on mainline trains, so we were pleasantly surprised.
On it's way to Rhyd Ddu the steam train goes through Bontnewydd (this is a request stop), Dinas, Waunfawr, Plas-y-Nant (request stop) and Snowdon Ranger (also a request stop). Along the way there are stunning views of the Snowdonia landscape, including the wonderful view over Llyn Cwellyn ("Llyn" means "Lake").
Getting off the train at Snowdon Ranger will enable you to walk up Snowdon via the aptly named Snowdon Ranger path.
However, if you stay on the train until Rhyd Ddu you can walk up Snowdon via the Rhyd Ddu path. This path will take you along the edge of Bwlch Main which is safe in normal conditions, but can be very dangerous in snow and ice conditions.
Other walks can be found along the way and you can see details of these at http://www.welshhighlandrailway.net/walks.htm
As the train approached Rhyd Ddu we could see a number of photographers stood taking photos of the train. In fact, we could see a handful along the whole journey, including one man who seemed to be "chasing" the train in his car!
Alighting the train at Rhyd Ddu, you can take in the stunning scenery and walk or visit the nearby tearooms or real ale pub. There is also a car park here, so you can start from Rhyd Ddu rather than Caernarfon, if you like.
We were on a tight schedule, so we stayed on the train and headed back to Caernarfon. The train had only been half full on our New Years Eve journey to Rhyd Ddu, but it was full to the brim on the way back (no standing though, not like on the mainline trains!).
The journey took us around an hour and 15 minutes, each way. While we initially thought the fares were a bit steep, but considering the views and the fact that many of the staff members are volunteers, I think the trip was well worth the money. Next time I go on the Welsh Highland Railway, I'm going to make sure I've got plenty of time for a wonder around at Rhyd Ddu!
You can also hire a bike in Caernarfon and cycle one way and ride the train the other. The trains have a carriage especially for the bikes to go in. I fancy having a go at that sometime... although I think due to the train climbing uphill from Caernarfon, I think I'd ride the train up and cycle back down!
The Welsh Highland Railway runs in the summer months, but you will also find the trains running at Easter and Christmas.