ANN and PETER FROST visit North Wales simply to play trains.
The North Wales resort of Llandudno is a pleasantly Edwardian town with a fine beach, pier and everything else you would expect but we had come to ride a curious tramway up Llandudno’s own little mountain – The Great Orme.
As you will learn, our break in this corner of North Wales was all about playing trains and riding on as many different and unusual kinds of railway as we could.
San Francisco is famous for its cable cars but you don’t need to go to America’s West Coast to experience this unique type of transport. From a pretty little Edwardian station in Llandudno smart cable cars take visitors up the steep 679 feet (207 metre) climb to the summit of the Great Orme.
From the top on a clear day you can see as far as the Isle of Man, the Lake District, Blackpool and Snowdonia.
From Llandudno we were heading for Snowdon but first we had to take a short detour across the Menai Bridge on to the island of Anglesey. It may have been a short detour but our destination was a long one.
We just had to see a railway station called Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch the longest place name in Europe and one of the longest in the world.
The name means: St Mary’s Church in a hollow of white hazel near the swirling whirlpool of the church of St Tysilio with a red cave – but you probably worked that out for yourself.
Back across the MenaiBridge we headed for Llanberis. There are two steam trains here. The LlanberisLake steam railway runs along the lake edge but we were planning to take a ride on a unique rack railway up Wales’s highest mountain. Puffing steam engines climb the 3,560 feet to the summit of Snowdon.
The track is so steep that a normal train would slip and slide on the rails, particularly in snowy and icy weather. The Snowdon Mountain Railway uses a technique developed on Swiss mountain railways.
A gear wheel on the locomotive engages with a toothed rack between the rails of the track. The railway dates back to 1896 when the first steam engines arrived from Switzerland.
This year the trains are particularly busy delivering holiday-makers to the new visitors centre at the summit. We took the train up and the exhilarating walk down and back to our motorhome.
After all that bracing air on Snowdon we were keen to bed down. We chose the Forest Holiday site at Beddgelert, frankly it’s a bit of a dog’s grave. Don’t get me wrong – Beddgelert is Welsh for the grave of a very famous hound – the much revered Gelert.
Legend has it that local hero Llewelyn got back from hunting to find his baby’s cradle overturned, the baby missing and his dog Gelert standing over the crib with blood dripping from lips and teeth.
An enraged Llewelyn slew the dog with his sword. Then, to his dismay, our hero hears the muffled cries of his baby and finds it unharmed under the crib, along with a dead wolf which had attacked the child and been killed by the faithful Gelert.
Llewelyn was broken hearted and buried the dog with great ceremony. From then on the town took the name Beddgelert – Gelert’s Grave. Llewelyn never smiled again. We slept well and heard no wolves or howling dogs in the night.
Next morning we were off to Portmeirion, an amazing fantasy village created between 1925 and 1976 by one of Wales’s most unusual and eccentric architects William Clough Ellis.
It is an incredible place to visit, like some beautiful Italian coastal village, with scores of fascinating arts and crafts and classical buildings and superb gardens. Today it’s perhaps best known as the setting for the recently revived TV series The Prisoner.
From the Porthmadog station the Ffestiniog narrow gauge steam railway sets off across the wonderful Welsh landscape. Along the way there are loops and tunnels and spectacular views. The railway climbs 700 feet over the 13 mile route to the slate quarries of Blaenau Ffestiniog.
Amazingly The Ffestiniog Railway is the oldest independent railway company in the World – being founded by an Act of Parliament in 1832.
The railway was first built to bring slates from the quarries to the docks. Slates that roofed houses all over Britain and made children’s school slates.
In the early days trains ran by gravity, simply rolling down the hill and being pulled up again by horse. The railway even had unique wind powered trains – they still run gravity and wind powered trains occasionally even today. Only later did they introduce the steam locomotives that are the main attraction today.
Now there is another railway running from the Portmadog station. The Welsh Highland Railway has been rebuilt
On this new old railway you can take a train behind the most powerful two foot gauge steam locomotives in the world as it hauls its long line of vintage carriages on a 15 mile journey through the fabulous scenery of the Snowdonia National Park from Caernarfon Castle to its terminus in Porthmadog.
The train takes you through the fabulous AberglaslynPass. Trains run beside, then high above, the fast flowing Afon Glaslyn before plunging dramatically into a tunnel through the hillside. The Aberglaslyn Pass was recently voted Britain’s most scenic landscape by members of the National Trust.
We finished our short break in Wales on a serious note at the Lloyd George Museum at Highgate his boyhood home. David Lloyd George was one of the greatest statesmen of the twentieth century – he introduced the old age pension, he led the country as its last Liberal Prime Minister during World War I and he gave women the vote.
In the Museum you can see a film about his life, an astonishing ‘talking head’ and a Victorian schoolroom where children dress in Victorian costume and still write on good Welsh slates quarried in the hills of Blaenau Ffestiniog.
This article first appeared in Practical Motorhome Magazine in 2010