Rail travel is one of my favourite modes of transport, so add the nostalgia of steam engines and the glorious scenery of Snowdonia and you have the recipe for a perfect few days.
I start at Caernarfon, with its sprawling castle, to join the Welsh Highland Railway. The narrow gauge line opened to passengers in 1923, running all the way to Porthmadog, but closed in 1937, a dismal commercial failure. The track was pulled up but, in the early 1960s, a group of railway enthusiasts started working to restore the line. In 2003 the first 13 mile section from Caernarfon to Rhyd Ddu was opened, with the rest completed by 2012.
It’s the No. 87 engine pulling my train today, built in Belgium 80 years ago, then serving in South Africa and still going strong. The carriages, though, are all new, and there’s even a kitchen on board, delivering bacon sandwiches and Welsh rarebit. My overwhelming memory of the steam era is of muck and grime, but the Welsh steam coal we’re using today seems to be much cleaner. Trying to take pictures out of the window, however, I do get the occasional bit of grit in my eye.
The train climbs out of Caernarfon onto the Arfon Plateau, with the Snowdonia Mountains on the left and Caernarfon Bay and the Lleyn Peninsula on the right. Top speed is 25mph but who’s complaining when we’re treated to stunning mountain views. The highest point of the line is at Pitts head and then the train zig zags down the hillside to Beddgelert. From here it goes through the picturesque Aberglaslyn Pass and on to Porthmadog.
From here I take the Ffestiniog Mountain Railway, the oldest surviving railway company in the world. My engine is the Merddin Emrys, named after a Welsh wizard, and the first engine to be built for the railway in 1879. I’m lucky enough to get a ride on the footplate, careful not to burn myself on the hot machinery in the cramped cab.
Paul, the engine driver, tells me that it’s dirty work, although it seems to me that his mate constantly shovelling coal into the boiler has the worst job. Sheep are grazing in the fields on either side of the track and I wonder whether they ever get in the way. Occasionally, he says, and we have to compensate the farmers. Fortunately there’s no lamb on the line and we arrive at Blaenau Ffestiniog without incident.
My final journey is on the Snowdon Mountain Railway which opened in April 1896 and has been running ever since. It starts in Llanberis and climbs almost five miles on a narrow gauge rack and pinion railway to the summit of the highest mountain in England and Wales.
There’s only one carriage and the engine pushes us out of Llanberis and begins to climb the steep gradient. At the halfway point, we stop to take on water, before climbing along an exposed ridge to Clogwyn Station. If the weather is bad, trains terminate here, but we’re given the all clear and finally reach the terminus, at 1085m.
There’s no time to linger, however, as I’m anxious to reach the top whilst it’s still clear. As I scramble to the summit, the cloud begins to swirl around, but I’m blessed with clear views of the Isle of Man and the Wicklow Mountains in Ireland. There’s something to be said for letting the train take the strain.