(Visit Wales / David Atkinson)

Riding the Welsh Highland Railway

Traversing magnificent Snowdonia, the newly-extended Welsh Highland Railway is a joy for train buffs and hikers alike. David Atkinson hops on board

David Atkinson | Issue 105 | August/September 2009

It must have been the most cultural little boys’ room in Britain. Aung San Suu Kyi greeted me. Nelson Mandela grinned. Václav Havel looked pensive, and I turned to see shards of the Berlin Wall. Finally, as I washed my hands, I found myself eyeballing a grey-slate canvas daubed with blood-red nationalist slogans by the artist Ogwyn Davies. Spending a penny at Y Goeden Eirin is worth taking your time over.

The guesthouse is typical of the new wave of homely havens in Wales: welcoming, unpretentious and value for money. It’s also close to Caernarfon, where the newly extended Welsh Highland Railway is putting Snowdonia on the map this summer.

With its pristine mountain landscape, Snowdonia National Park is one of Britain’s best weekending destinations. Think great walks, cosy country pubs, hearty local food and, now, a steam train ride that harks back to the golden age of rail travel. But it also feels like a proper trip. The county of Gwynedd is 80% Welsh speaking, the menu intriguing and the landscape strikingly alien.

“People soon realise they’re in a foreign country when they read the local place names,” said John Rowlands, a retired professor of Welsh literature, who opened Y Goeden Eirin as a cultural-immersion guesthouse for people interested in Welsh language and literature. His wife, Eluned, is the art enthusiast; her private collection brings splashes of colour to the converted farm buildings.

After a dinner of Anglesey pork followed by roast rhubarb and apple, John took me through his groaning bookshelves in search of bedtime reading. The Welsh literary tradition, he explained, dates back to the sixth century. “Welsh is the oldest surviving Celtic language. It’s not just romantic bards and druids but a language full of humour and angst.” We settled on the uncompromising prose of Twm Morys, son of the travel writer Jan Morris.

Chug through rugged panoramas

The next morning a cooked breakfast sent me on my way to catch the 10am to Beddgelert. The Welsh Highland Railway was first opened in 1923, connecting the slate and mineral quarries that dominated a then-industrialised north Wales.

However, the line closed in the 1930s; by the end of the Second World War, all of the track had been removed. But the campaign to revive the railway was passionate and now a 32km section from Caernarfon to Beddgelert is back in action, plus the line on to Hafod y Llyn – you can’t get off there yet, but it’s worth the round trip.

It’s a gloriously scenic route that cuts a swathe through the rural heart of the national park. The final section to Porthmadog should open late 2009, joining up with the 21km-long Ffestiniog Railway route from Porthmadog to Blaenau Ffestiniog to form the longest narrow-gauge railway in Europe.

I sat back in the first-class Pullman carriage and let the scenery dazzle. Clumps of yellow-flowered gorse bloomed, gurgling brooks streaked under mossy bridges, and isolated, grey-stone cottages cowered stoically below the mountainous slate runs. We trundled at a gentle 40km/h, stopping occasionally for sheep wandering onto the track, and craned our necks as Mount Snowdon, at 1,085m the highest peak in Wales and England, first loomed into view at request stop Plas-y-Nant. Ospreys circled overhead to greet us.

This is a hop-on, hop-off service, with regular stops en route to deposit walkers at trailheads such as Snowdon Ranger, which enables you to pick up the path to summit. Services pass by roughly every two hours in high season, so you can head off for a short walk or a pub lunch, and catch the next train for another chug through rugged panoramas.

'Muddy Boots Welcome'

Arrival at Rhyd Ddu was marked by a flurry of walking boots and Gore-Tex on the platform. The station acts as the gateway to a series of day walks, including an 13km-round-trip Snowdon ascent along well-marked paths, or tackling the Nantlle Ridge walk, a calf-burning circular yomp round a steep, zigzagging rim.

I could have tackled the latter and still been back in time for the next train, but instead I opted for a gentler hike through rolling woodlands, then down to explore Rhyd Ddu, a tiny hamlet of granite cottages set around a village pub and tearooms, where the sign outside enthused: ‘Muddy Boots Welcome’.

As late-afternoon sunshine threw shadows across the mountains, the train heaved round a series of twists and turns on the final leg into Beddgelert, the most striking village in the national park and an ideal base to explore further. I celebrated by tucking into two scoops of world-class ice cream from Glaslyn Ices.

Mists were starting to roll down from Moel Hebog, the mountain looming over Beddgelert, as I crossed the bridge at the heart of the village, and headed out on one last stroll before dinner. I followed the River Glaslyn past fields of lambs frolicking shakily on their new pins, then doubled back on myself to visit the grave of Gelert, Prince Llewelyn’s faithful dog, the legend of whom is one of the best-known Welsh folk tales and gives the village its name.

After some pub grub and a pint of local bitter, I checked into Plas Tan y Graig, my homely guesthouse for the night. The bathroom was a more traditional white Anaglypta affair but, even without an audience of political leaders, I was still ready for a good, long soak.

North Wales essentials

How long do I need? Two nights for a flying visit; a lifetime to explore.

Getting there and around: Caernarfon, the journey hub, is signposted from the A55. The nearest train station is Bangor, from where buses shuttle to Caernarfon; contact Traveline Cymru.

The Welsh Highland Railway offers returns from Caernarfon to Beddgelert for £22 (first class: £5 extra, one way). Leave your bicycle in the bike wagon for an extra £2.50. The ticket is valid for the day; there are up to five services per day in high season. Trains run April to October, with less-frequent winter departures.

Where to stay: Y Goeden Eirin, Caernarfon has doubles from £80 B&B; a four-course dinner costs £28. Plas Tan Y Graig, Beddgelert has doubles from £70 B&B.

Where to eat: Lyn’s Café (01766 890374) is a simple but satisfying place in Beddgelert; meals around £5. Don’t miss Glaslyn Ices in Beddgelert.

The bill (per person, based on two sharing):
Train tickets: £27
One night B&B Y Goeden Eirin: £40
One night B&B Plas Tan Y Graig: £40
Evening meals: £40
Ice creams: £3
TOTAL: £150

More information

For more information and trip ideas head to the Visit Wales website.

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