Saturday, 16 July 2016

The Five Valleys (Part 2, Caernarfon to Rhyd Ddu)

Caernarfon Welsh Highland Railway station is rather basic. There are plans for something grander, but it may be some way off. However, it is staffed - more than can be said for many mainline stations these days - and you can walk up and buy a ticket. I was in plenty of time for the train, but then I needed to be. On my day of travel it was the only one running with a through connection.

It is not the cheapest ride. The full return trip to Porthmadog is roughly comparable to a cheapish ticket for a Premier League Match. However, several shorter but still interesting trips are possible and if you have children, they go free on a one-per-adult basis. On the other hand, if you are making your first or only trip it's well worth investing in the extra and going first class, as those coaches are rather special. I booked a third class through ticket to Blaenau Ffestininog.

Even third class (no second class) is reasonably comfortable, and someone comes round with a food and drink trolley. The engines are Beyer-Garratts, very large for a narrow gauge railway and very powerful. They were, like me, created in Gorton, Manchester. Unlike me they spent their youth in South Africa before being brought to Wales. To add to the international dimension, the coach I chose to ride in came from Romania. (Most are made in Wales, in the company's own works in Porthmadog.)

The first part of the journey is over what was once part of the standard gauge line from Caernarfon to Afon Wen, and it is a little odd to think that as a boy I travelled over it several times in its original form. These first few miles are pleasant enough but nothing special scenically. Eventually you arrive at Dinas. This used to be the junction for the North Wales Narrow Gauge (as the Welsh Highland was up until 1922) and the break of gauge and necessary change of trains was one reason why local traffic declined pretty quickly once buses became available. Dinas is where the engine shed and carriage shed are located and is a great, sprawling sort of station.

The train now turns sharply left and starts to climb, a climb that continues all the way to the summit at Pitt's Head.This is Welsh farming country, with plenty of cattle and sheep to be seen, though the fields look, well - rather unpromising for agriculture. Some of the railway fences hereabouts are still made from local slate, and if you look to the rear there are some fine views of Anglesey.

After Tryfan Junction the train enters more wooded country and runs along the side of a valley to Waenfawr. If you only want a short trip, this is a good place to get off as there is an excellent pub next to the station that serves good food. There's also a camp site if you've brought your own tent.

Beyond Waenfawr the train really starts to head into the mountains, and the track twists and turns as it seeks to follow the contours. (This was a railway built on the cheap.) There are some very impressive views, especially around Llyn Cwellyn. However, on this particular day the clouds were relatively low and it wasn't possible to see the tops of the biggest mountains.

At last we wriggled into Rhyd Ddu. This was as far as the original North Wales Narrow Gauge Railways ever got. Victorian and Edwardian tourists (intrepid souls!) had the choice between catching a horse bus to Beddgelert or walking up to Snowdon summit. For many years this was the nearest station to that summit which is only (only!) three or four miles away as the crow flies. Human crows should note that there are many painful feet of ascent in those three or four miles, and if they are using the railway they need to go on a day when the full summer service is in place to allow adequate time. Needless to say, they should also wear good boots and go fully equipped for the mountains. (I add this just in case someone thinks it's an easy stroll.)

For many years Rhyd Ddu station was actually known as 'Snowdon' or 'South Snowdon', at least partly because English passengers found Rhyd Ddu difficult to pronounce. However, that is rather like calling Base Camp 'Everest'. There is a small village here, and indeed a pub, about a quarter of a mile back down the road, but the station itself is gloriously isolated. On a bright summer day it's a beautiful place to spend an hour or so. On a wet or cold day, less so. You have to admire the optimism of the people who thought that building a railway to this place would be profitable. But I am very glad they did.

No comments:

Post a Comment