The Rail Holiday Maker
Welsh Wonderland - Coast to Coast
Hi folks! I thought I'd share my grand tour of Wales with you, as it appeared in a piece I wrote for the 2020 Heritage Railway Association annual.
After over a decade designing and organising rail holidays I joined Airedale Tours in 2018. We have been providing bespoke holidays for groups by coach, air or rail since 1985 and last year I received, for me, the dream job. Could I design a coast to coast tour of Wales ticking off as many heritage railways as possible? Well, Wales is so packed with steam superlatives and huge heritage hits that I even donned my Tour Manager cap, fuelled my firebox and off I steamed!
8 days, 13 heritage rail experiences, but nobody felt unlucky! We began at the charming Welshpool & Llanfair with one of their original locos, the Countess, pulling beautifully restored Hungarian wagons with open balconies. A morning shower made everything glisten slightly, the volunteers were so welcoming and we got a bit giddy, stealing the guard’s hat and flag.
What a start! Next up Llangollen, steaming amidst superb scenery behind the railway’s pride and joy, Foxcote Manor. A ponderous pause at the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, a cheeky stop at Chirk, then the Airedale coach sped to the coast and lovely Llandudno, home to our first superlative, the Great Orme Tramway. Why is Llandudno special? Where else can you enjoy an ice cream on the beach, then 15 minutes later a warming hot chocolate at the top of the mountain?! Why superlative? It’s Britain’s only funicular tramway that drives on public roads.
How do you beat that? How about the Snowdon Mountain Railway, Britain’s only rack railway to the highest peak in Wales. We basked in clear weather almost to the top, where a few hardy souls from the group made it through the mist to the summit. Back in the valley bottom we were smitten with the little Llanberis Lake Railway, whose driver was so engaging about the history of the line and the secrets inside his cab. On the return journey we took a detour via Llanfairpwllgwyn…. how does it go again?
How do you beat that? We trundled along the coast, where we boarded the Welsh Highland Railway beneath the keeps of Caernarfon Castle. Superlatives? The WHR is the best, most scenic steam excursion on this island. In my opinion. But I’ve done quite a few, so please trust me; it’s magical. A pause for liquid lunch in sunny Porthmadog, then all aboard for our next superlatives, the Ffestiniog Railway to Blaenau with the world’s oldest railway company and looping around the mountain on Britain’s only railway spiral. The Conwy Valley Line took us back to Llandudno through slate hills to the blue sea. How many is that so far? 8 railways, 7 of them heritage, in just five days, including a day at leisure with no trains! (Actually, many of the group sneaked off on trains on their free day too!).
How do you beat that? Maybe with a private charter of the world’s first heritage railway, the Tal y Llyn, mother of them all. If you have never been, why not?! The Tal y Llyn is wonderful. We toured the sheds at Pendre, then rode the line, stopping for a superb picnic lunch at Abergynolwyn. The drama continued as the train backed along the line for us, we lined up along the bridge, then they steamed through empty so that the photographers in the group could get their prized shots of the loco in full force.
The next experience was one of those incredible unexpected hidden gems. I had never ridden the Vale of Rheidol. Oh my goodness, what a beautiful line. The views! Our journey began at Devil’s Bridge, but I can assure you we were in heaven!
Onwards to South Wales for the final two days of our coast to coast extravaganza. The Heart of Wales line took us from Swansea to Llandeilo, where our trusty Airedale coach was waiting to take us to Teifi Valley Railway. I could write a whole chapter about this place. In fact I have. Please visit https://www.railholidaymaker.com/post/love-hope-belief to read the TVR’s extraordinary tale.
Onwards to the Gwili, which for me will always be “Jeremy’s Line”. Who is Jeremy? He is a volunteer, a charming, retired gentleman but also Gwili’s Sales and Marketing force. He’s also sometimes the guy in the pinny serving your tea, bara brith and Welsh cakes. And the guy who made sure we had steam on a scheduled diesel day. Thank you Jeremy, the lifeblood of this scene, Heritage Railway Britannia.
Our finale was the Brecon Mountain Railway, riding up the incline through a stunner of a landscape behind a German loco that once hauled a travelling circus. Our climax was at the Pontypool & Blaenavon for a private charter, our own train performing just for us, photo opportunities galore and the amazing volunteers showing us their latest restoration projects. Truly a magical end to a magical tour amidst a UNESCO World Heritage site.
So, that’s just one part of our island’s heritage summed up in 900 words. If your group fancies a small part of this tour, or maybe the whole experience, please give me a shout. Who knows, I might even dust off my Tour Manager’s cap again for you.