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HOME AT FIRST's

ADVENTURE

NORTHWEST WALES

 GREAT RAILWAY JOURNEYS

===The Ffestiniog Railway===

          What makes a great railway journey? A modern train with comfortable spaces, big, clean windows, a personable, attentive crew, sleepers, a lounge, a dining car with picture windows, cut flowers, and a chef? How about a cramped old wooden car on a slow, bumpy one-hour journey to a remote 19th century industrial town known for cutting roof slates? Unlikely? Yes, but in Wales, the unlikely is often the norm, and the surprise can make for great experiences.

ONE OF THE GREAT LITTLE TRAINS OF WALES

 

Snow at Minffordd. Ffestiniog Railway Photo.
SNOW AT MINFFORDD STATION

          The scenery doesn’t quite rate "spectacular", but it is ever changing along its steep route from Porthmadog harbor up the flanks of the Snowdonia mountains to Blaenau Ffestiniog.
          Despite frequencies of up to 10 trains a day in each direction on summer weekdays, trains are often filled to capacity. Expect some passengers to be overeager "enthusiasts" — steam buffs, narrow gauge junkies, brass kissers, and others — who appear like get-a-lifers on their way to a Star Trek convention.

          No. What makes a great rail journey is simply this: departing with anticipation from one interesting place; arriving exhilarated and refreshed in another. The Ffestiniog Railway qualifies. Here’s why:

 

 It’s fun.  The full round-trip is as much an antique Rube Goldberg amusement park ride as anything. It lasts just long enough to fill your nose with coal steam and valve grease, and your ears with locomotive sounds ranging from impatient sighs in the station to urgent tries on the steep uphill gradients. Although the line averages a manageable 1% incline over its 13.5-mile profile from the sea at Porthmadog to 710 feet high at Blaenau Ffestiniog, there are some steep sections where the tiny engines are tested. There’s time for a picnic or a restaurant/café stop, if you wish, at Blaenau Ffestiniog, an hour above Porthmadog. Walkers have the option of traveling only to the half-way mark (Tan y Bwlch station), where

Little Engine that Could. Ffestiniog Railway Photo.
LITTLE ENGINE THAT COULD

nature trails lead to Llyn Mair lake and other destinations.
 

Welsh Steam. Ffestiniog Railway Photo.
— WELSH STEAM —

 It’s historic.  The line traces its roots (and route) to a horse-and-gravity railway chartered in 1832 to haul slate from Blaenau Ffestiniog down to the new harbor at Porthmadog. A two-foot (almost) gauge was built — less than half the width of standard railways — so the line could handle the curves and hills the challenging topography provided. In 1863 the railway changed over to steam locomotion, and a year later the railway added passenger service.

          While slate continued to be hauled

down of Blaenau Ffestiniog, a new commodity — tourists — began to be hauled up. By the 1920’s tourism was as important as slate to the railway. But the coming of the automobile and the decline of the roof slate market closed the line suddenly in 1946. The decaying line was pillaged for the remainder of the decade. Starting in 1951, however, it was rescued by a group of amateurs, whose creativity, volunteer labor, and non-profit passion has restored the old line and even built a new section around an area where the old line had been flooded by a water power station. They have done an outstanding job. The equipment — some of it almost 140 years old — is exquisitely cared for. BritRail — which connects to the "amateur" Ffestiniog Railway at Minffordd (near Porthmadog) and at Blaenau Ffestiniog — should take notes on how to run a railroad.
 

 It’s quirky.  The trains feel like toys. The passengers are like children. The landscape itself seems somehow compacted — trains scrape through the forest and step over dozens of tiny rills along the way. Although the train averages less than 13 miles an hour, the scenery changes often and suddenly. And then there are the special theme excursions, dozens of them, cleverly drawing back the faithful frequent Ffestiniogers for Fish & Chips trains, Jazz trains, Bangers & Mash trains, Halloween trains, Easter Bunny trains, Santa trains, Double-header trains, Vintage trains,

Thomas the Tank Engine Day. Ffestiniog Railway Photo.
"THOMAS THE TANK ENGINE" DAY

Classic Car Rally trains, Railway Anniversary trains, St. David’s Weekend trains, and Kids’ Week trains.
          Our favorite new idea is for "Interactive" trains, billed this way: "Another world first from the Ffestiniog Railway. At most railway events you get to watch from the sidelines but not with Ffestiniog Interactive. In the first ever event of its kind guests can select from a menu of activities: ride the foot plate, help the guard, be the signalman, run control, be part of the prep crew, walk the track with the track inspector. You name it you can do it or you can simply watch as the extravaganza unfolds before your very eyes." Sounds to us like Tom Sawyer’s interactive fence painting scheme.
 

Coming round the mountain...  Ffestiniog Railway Photo.
NEARING BLAENAU FFESTINIOG

 It’s a great day out in
 northwest Wales.
 Getting there — and getting home again — can be much of the fun. Coming from Home At First lodgings in the Snowdonia region, drive (or take the BritRail train) from Betws-y-Coed up to Blaenau Ffestiniog for the round-trip downhill to Porthmadog and back. Once back in Blaenau Ffestiniog, if you brought your car you can explore some of the highest roads in Britain in this part of Snowdonia National Park with extensive

views over the wildest territory south of the Scottish Highlands.

          Coming from Home At First lodgings in Mid-Wales, guests can drive as far as Machynlleth or Minffordd and park. Catch the BritRail train at Machynlleth for the extremely scenic run to its convenient interchange with the Ffestiniog Railway at Minffordd (and less convenient interchange at Porthmadog). Along the way pass the outstanding Harlech Castle (a World Heritage Site) and neighboring Royal St. David’s Golf Course links along the beach. There are more great castles and great walks and great train rides in this region than anywhere else in Wales (and than most places in Britain!). But these are tales for other adventure columns.

 

DOUBLE-HEADED STEAM PULLS A TRAIN ACROSS THE MOUNTAINOUS WELSH HIGHLAND RAILWAY

 Connection with the Welsh Highland Railway:  
          To double your railroading pleasure, combine your Ffestiniog trip with a ride on the Welsh Highland Railway. The Ffestiniog Railway connects at Porthmadog with the 25-mile-long Welsh Highland Railway to enable the longest narrow-gauge through rail journey in Britain. The steam-powered trains of the Welsh Highland Railway depart sea-level at Porthmadog for the northbound trip to sea-level at its terminus in Caernarfon, near the
World Heritage Site Caernarfon Castle. En route the line climbs the hills flanking Mt. Snowden before descending to the coast again at the northwest corner of mainland Wales.


More Information: For fares, schedule, events calendar, detailed history, and other comprehensive information about the Ffestiniog Railway, the "Oldest Independent Railway Company in the World", and the Welsh Highland Railway, visit the Ffestiniog Railway web site.

Learn more about HOME AT FIRST's travel program to: NORTHWESTERN WALES

— HOME AT FIRST