Whether you’re a train enthusiast, tourist or simply appreciate a good view, there’s a rich heritage to be explored along the rails of North and Mid Wales…
Great Britain has harboured a proud heritage of steam hauled rail ever since the method of transport was first dreamed up by Richard Trevithick. This pioneering Cornishman operated what is considered to have been the world’s first railway journey on 21 February 1804, when his steam locomotive hauled a train from the Pen-y-darren ironworks, near Merthyr Tydfil. His groundbreaking discovery secured Wales as a leader in the field and the area continues to boast proud links with this method of transport. The rest of the North West has enhanced this reputation, none more so than when Robert Stephenson built his famous Rocket which was entered in and won the Rainhill Trials – a success that led to the Liverpool and Manchester Railway opening a year later, in 1830. It was the first steam powered railway in the world for passenger and goods trains and sparked a passion for train transport, in particular steam hauled, which the area still embraces today. Now operated purely for tourism and enthusiasts to enjoy, we are lucky enough to be surrounded by meticulously restored and cared for heritage lines that not only celebrate the golden age of steam and reflect the romance of travel in times gone by, but also make the most of the stunning scenery and landscapes that surround us. In our feature we have picked out just a few that deserve a mention as a great way to explore the area and enjoy a journey back in time.
It is no wonder that our region boasts so many delightful steam rail lines and visitor attractions when it is home to the oldest railway company in the world – the Ffestiniog Railway. Originally built to serve the slate industry of Blaenau Ffestiniog, the line used to be operated by gravity. Wagons laden with slate rumbled down the hillside, kept under control by intrepid brakesmen who leapt from wagon to wagon tightening or loosening the brakes while their colleague on the front wagon blew his horn to warn others of its passage.
Steam locomotives were introduced in the 1860s and, today, some of those same little engines haul carriages of holidaymakers through the stunning scenery of the Snowdonia National Park With 200 years of proud history and some of the most comfortable carriages on any preserved railway, this train line certainly knows a bit about what makes a journey special.
Based in stunning surroundings, the Ffestiniog Railway allows you to step back in time to a more civilised age, while relaxing and enjoying the scenery in comfort, with at-seat buffet service, snacks, refreshments plus a bar featuring locally-brewed award-winning real ale.
The Ffestiniog Railway still operates three of its original locomotives and carriages taking passengers on a 13½-mile journey from the harbour in Porthmadog to the slate-quarrying town of Blaenau Ffestiniog.
The historic trains climb over 700 feet from sea level into the mountains through tranquil pastures and magnificent forests, past lakes and waterfalls, round tight bends (even a complete spiral) clinging to the side of the mountain or tunnelling through it.
Looking forward to the 2017 summer season, Chris Parry from The Ffestiniog Railway says: ‘Here at the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railways we’re looking forward to a very busy 2017 to build on our success last year. We have a lot of new exciting developments in the pipeline, not least of which is our £1.5 million station being built in Caernarfon which is due to open next year.
‘This should significantly improve the quality of our offer to customers which is something we are always striving to achieve.’
Not only that, the railway links to another equally enchanting one – the Welsh Highland Railway – giving a total of 40 miles of Snowdonian surroundings to explore by scenic rail. This second line operates between Caernarfon and Porthmadog, and was completely rebuilt by volunteers at a cost of £28 million after the original railway closed in 1936. A further £1.25 million two-platform layout at Harbour Station at Porthmadog provided the connection with Ffestiniog Railway and together the lines offer travellers some of the most appealing rail journeys in the country.
TRAVEL IN STYLE
The opportunity to travel in an open carriage behind the world’s most powerful narrow gauge steam locomotives will appeal to any rail enthusiast and those looking to admire the scenery will appreciate the trip though the Aberglaslyn Pass - voted the most beautiful place in the UK by members of the National Trust. Between the two organisations there is a wide range of full and half day excursions available and helpful staff are on hand to share their knowledge and passion for this ancient form of travel.They welcome dogs and bikes and there are buffets on all trains while those looking to truly appreciate the splendour of the golden age of steam can pay a little extra to travel in the sumptuous style of one of the First Class Pullman carriages. Find out more at www.festrail.co.uk.
Take in the air on the WLLR
The Welshpool and Llanfair Light Railway was opened in 1903 to link the market town of Welshpool to the rural community of Llanfair Caereinion. Now it operates as a thriving tourist service for all the family and a welcome change from the rush of everyday life. As the line was originally built as a ‘light railway’, which at the time avoided some of the costs of full railway construction, the narrow gauge allows for tight curves and steep gradients, enabling the line to follow the contours of the stunning surrounding countryside. The line was closed in 1956 to passengers and freight, but in 1963 a group of enthusiasts began to progressively re-open the line until it became the railway you see today. Now drawing visitors from far and wide, the line boasts many unusual features – not least its carriages that come from Hungary and Austria. Their unique design gives passengers access to the enclosed seating area via an open balcony - a great way to watch the world go by. For more information on the Welshpool & Llanfair Light Railway visit www.www.wllr.org.uk
Trams and Trains at Telford
The Telford Steam Railway is built on a rail legacy that stretches back to the very beginnings of the industry.
The existing locomotive shed, was based around the building used in 1860 to facilitate the transfer of goods from the Severn Junction Railway to the Coalbrook Company’s narrow gauge plateway system. Although the line enjoyed a long and productive service, the opening of the first section of the Severn Junction Railway from Ketley to Horsehay, its origins can be traced back to when blast furnaces at Horsehay made it a vital element of the industry from 1755.
By the late 19th century the booming mining business, Coalbrookdale Company relied on the railway to transport raw materials until 1886 when The Horsehay Company was established on the site. It was a pioneer in the fabrication of bridges which were assembled on-site before disassembly and transport to the furthermost corners of the British Empire. For the next 40 years, the yard at Horsehay was a scene of intense activity with 10 sidings and works access lines with a capacity of over 200 wagons.
After the line ceased to operate in 1964 it took the vision of a dedicated group of enthusiasts to recreate and restore aspects of the historic Telford Steam Railway, (originally called Telford Horsehay Steam Trust) Many years of commitment and refurbishment later the line now boasts a steam hauled tourist train trip and one of the UK’s only remaining steam tram journeys in operation today. www.telfordsteamrailway.co.uk
Lakeside leisure on the Llanberis
For the ultimate relaxing rail experience, the Llanberis Lake Railway gives passengers the chance to discover the timeless appeal of narrow-gauge steam trains as well as the perfect way to savour the grandeur of Snowdonia.
The little steam engines take in a five-mile return journey alongside Lake Padarn, past the 13th century Dolbadarn Castle, birthplace of the Welsh Prince Llywelyn the Great, across possibly Britain’s shortest river and alongside the twin lakes of Llanberis. Through the Padarn Country Park the train joins the historic 1845 slate railway route to run along the shores of Lake Padarn to Penllyn, and giving stunning views of Snowdon. There’s a short stop at Cei Llydan, a beautifully tranquil place that’s ideal for a lakeside picnic, and at Gilfach Ddu, where you can visit the National Slate Museum and you can also get the chance to watch the driver stoking the fire or the engine taking water. Make the most of the scenery with a stroll along one of the country park’s woodland paths or a walk by the lake. The five-mile return trip takes around 60 minutes, and all trains are hauled by one of the vintage steam engines rescued from the nearby Dinorwic slate quarries and lovingly restored. www.lake-railway.co.uk.
Recreated with passion and precision
Another vital part of our local steam heritage is the delightful Llangollen Railway – the only standard gauge heritage railway in North Wales.
Located in an idyllic spot beside the historic Dee Bridge, built in 1345, and in the centre of the lovely town of Llangollen town is where the line begins. From there it takes passengers on a relaxing 10 mile route through the stunning Dee Valley to the pretty town of Corwen, following the river Dee, an area classed as a Site of Special Scientific Interest for its entire length.
In its day the Llangollen Railway went all the way from Ruabon to Barmouth, taking people to the seaside on holiday and transporting various goods including slate and chemicals.
THE RAILWAY OF THE PEOPLE
In 1965 the old main line closed to passenger traffic, ceasing to transport goods in 1968. Much of the infrastructure, including track, operating functions, signals and stations was demolished but the original station buildings at Llangollen, Berwyn and Carrog survived.
The Llangollen Railway of today was started in 1975 by a group of rail enthusiasts. They saw the appeal to tourists for a scenic heritage line through the Dee Valley and that vision has been realised with the popular attraction you can see today.
They launched their refurbished line in 1975 with just 60 feet of track at Llangollen Station, but have steadily expanded ever since. Berwyn was reached in 1985, Deeside in 1990, Glyndyfrdwy in 1993 and Carrog in 1996.
Dedicated and committed teams set about recreating the destroyed signal boxes at Llangollen Goods Junction, Deeside Halt, Glyndyfrdwy and Carrog and now they are fully operational once again. Every reconstruction has been done with historical accuracy and the attention to detail is second to none. All the stations along the track are of a typical Victorian design and each uses the true 1950s Great Western colour schemes.
Speaking about the gradual transformation of the line, commercial manager Liz McGuinness explains: ‘In 1975 the first open day was held at Llangollen station and over 1500 visitors attended. It took from 1975 to 1996 to finally reach Carrog station.
‘Llangollen railway is now at an exciting stage in its development; we are launching the second phase of our share offer to help us raise £325,000 to realise our dream of having a terminus station in Corwen.
‘The temporary station has so far brought 6,000 additional passengers in to Corwen, that have visited shops and cafes. Completing the station will not only benefit Llangollen Railway but it will also benefit the people of Corwen by bringing in visitors and linking the crossroads of North Wales to the rest of the Dee Valley.’
Most tours are hauled by the railway’s steam engines, but there are also diesel locomotives that run some trips and Heritage Railcar services on selected days throughout the season.
Highlights include Berwyn Station which stands out from the others as it has a very different design and it’s one of the most photographed stations – visitors can even stay in the former stationmaster’s house as a holiday let. Llangollen Railway offers a sample of the sights and sounds of yesteryear and passes through some of the finest natural beauty North Wales has to offer as the train gently meanders through the Dee Valley. For more information or to book tickets visit www.llangollen-railway.co.uk