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They're Still Riding the Rails in Wondrous Wales

October 26, 1986|ROSEANNE BURKE | Burke is a Santa Monica free-lance writer.

BLENAU FFESTINIOG, Wales — This town has two claims to fame. It is the slate capital of the world and the embarkation point of the Ffestiniog Narrow-Gauge Railway, one of several trains from the 1800s that thread their way across the landscape of northern Wales.

The trains are reason enough to journey here.

Years and years ago, when the late Welsh bard Dylan Thomas was so high and, as he claimed, "so much nicer," he wrote fondly of his childhood, of Christmas and summer outings by charabanc. His literary legacy holds scant reference to travel by train, but surely his boyish curiosity must have led him to journey on one of the great little trains of Wales, and he would have begun here in Blenau Ffestiniog.

At the foot of a towering mountain of slate, Blenau Ffestiniog in sunlight holds a certain charm; it reminds one of a mining village in "How Green Was My Valley." On a gray day it is the color of the man-made mountain that overshadows it. Other than being the terminus for the narrow-gauge railway, its sole attraction is the mine that belched forth the mountain that broods over the town.

Once a mystery to all but the quarrymen, a level section of the mine complex's underground workings was opened to visitors in 1972. The miners' tramway enables you to tour the circa-1846 network of tunnels and caverns where early Victorian mining conditions have been re-created with period equipment.

Literal Tunnel Vision

The deep mine allows visitors to walk 100 feet below the surface through chambers unmatched anywhere else in the world. As you walk through the huge caverns, the saga of the men who mined these enormous chambers unfolds. But with a ticket on the Ffestiniog Railway in your pocket, there is little reason to tarry more, so all aboard.

The railway lies in the heart of Snowdonia National Park, and its route encompasses scenery from mountains and rivers, farmlands and woodlands, to views of the estuaries and the sea.

Sometimes the vintage train clings tenaciously to the hillside like a mountain goat, at others it tunnels under it. Much of the area it traverses is so remote that there are no paved roads, so the train stops occasionally at isolated cottages whose inhabitants depend entirely on the railway.

The one-hour, 13 1/2-mile journey is one through time in a train whose steam locomotive has been serving the line for more than 100 years. The engines dates from the 1800s, but often the coaches are modern. The Merddin Emrys engine, however, leads three coaches dating from 1879.

Membership Offered

If you want to do more than just ride on the railway, the Ffestiniog Railway Society invites railway buffs to join them. Membership allows three free journeys a year and a magazine published quarterly. For information, write to John Manisty, 4 Kingsgate St., Winchester, Hampshire S023 9PD, England.

From Porthmadog you can board another great little train of Wales, the Welsh Highland Railway (Rheilffordd Ucheldir Cymru). This line was opened in 1980 and operates between Porthmadog and Pen-Y-Mount, only 3/4 mile.

Several other narrow-gauge lines are worth the journey. The Talyllyn Railway travels 7 miles from the quiet resort of Tywyn on Cardigan Bay in the heart of the country near the village of Abergynolwyn.

The Snowdon Mountain Railway will take you to the 3,560-foot summit of Mt. Snowdon, highest peak in England and Wales. Opened in 1896, the railway climbs more than 3,000 feet in less than five miles. Normal mountain practice prevails here and the locomotive always runs chimney first up the mountain, pushing the coach in front.

Up to Devils Bridge

A significant historical role is played by the Vale of Rheidol Railway, the last operational link with British Rail and the Age of Steam. Starting from British Rail's mail line at Aberystwyth Station, the rails cling to the hillside on the climb to Devils Bridge, following curves that become so sharp you can see the engine ahead of you snorting its way into the station.

The views are superb, a mixture of broad river valley, precipitous and thickly wooded mountainside and the glorious open moorland of Plynlimon.

Connecting the mid-Wales market towns is the Welshpool and Llanfair light railway, which runs between Welshpool and Llanfair Caereinion. The line has an international collection of steam engines from West Africa and the West Indies, and passengers ride in vintage coaches from Austria or comfortable modern ones from Africa.

One of the great scenic wonders of northern Wales is the area around Llanberis Pass, and what better way to see the area than by the Llanberis Lake Railway. The 40-minute ride from Llanberis Padarn Park to Penllyn to Ceillydan takes you along the shores of Lake Padarn. Pack a picnic lunch and break your journey at Ceillydan, then catch the return train to Llanberis.

Mastering the Double L

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