Trains stir romantic visions of travel, the anticipation of new sites to see, the excitement of being bound on a journey. The irony of our love of steam trains is that from a 21st century perspective they evoke a time of leisurely travel, while when they were introduced in the 19th century they were the epitome of speed, the quick, mechanical clickety-clack of train wheels replacing the slow clippity-clop of the horse-drawn carriage.
There are eleven narrow gauge steam railways in Wales. Each was originally built to move slate in the north, and coal in the south, so these lines are short, ranging from three to forty miles in length. “Like bringing coals to Newcastle” is an old expression which today takes on supreme irony, as this once coal-rich country no longer produces railroad grade coal, so the coal used to power these trains must be imported from Russia!
If you’re in the north, I can recommend a day trip that includes three train rides, the best view in Wales, and one of the prettiest villages in all of Great Britain. Two railways run from Llanberis. One runs along the twin lakes of Llanberis, taking about one hour to complete its five mile roundtrip journey, with a couple of stops along the way. The other, runs from the base to the summit of Mt. Snowdon which, at 3,500 feet, is the tallest mountain south of the Scottish highlands. The little cogwheel train takes about half an hour in each direction, with a twenty-minute stop at the top. The view from the top, I’m told, is breathtaking, but it is dependent on the weather. The day I visited the clouds moved in, a thin rain obscured the view, and most of the passengers hung out in the comfortable café at the top of the line. A few of us more intrepid travelers ascended the few steps to the very summit, where the wind was blowing (I swear) at over 100 mph — a sign in the café claims that gusts of over 200 mph have been recorded. The valley on the lee side of the mountain is known as the Valley of Lost Hats, for obvious reasons. Despite the lack of panorama, I found it an exhilarating experience.
Driving up Llanberis Pass the terrain turns steep and rocky. It was here that Sir Edmund Hillary trained for his assault on Mt. Everest. He stayed at the Pen-y-Gwyrd Hotel, and the ground floor pub is filled with his memorabilia. It’s a nice place to stop on a cold day. The pub grub is warm and hearty.
The hotel is at the junction of A 4086 and A 498, the latter of which descends through the green and beautiful Nantgwynant Valley, past woods reputed to be the ancient home of Merlyn the Magician, to the picturesque village of Beddgelert (pronounced Beth-gelert). If you go in May and early June the surrounding hills are pink with Rhododendrons. The village is built at the confluence of the Glaslyn and Colwyn rivers. A short walk along a paved path beside the Glaslyn will bring you the grave (Bedd) of Gelert.
The myth (for so it must be called, as no proof can be made of the story’s veracity) is that a 13th century prince, named Llywelyn, returned from a hunt to be greeted by his happy blood-stained hound, Gelert. Seeing his son’s overturned crib and assuming the worst, the prince killed the dog with a thrust of his sword. At the dog’s dying yelp, the infant began to cry. The prince found the boy unharmed, and also discovered thenearbybody of a wolf, which Gelert had killed in defense of the home. Filled with remorse, it is said that the prince never smiled again. The burial site of Gelert the dog gave its name to the village.
On the way to the train station in Beddgelert, we took a break to enjoy an ice cream (Welsh ice cream may be unheralded, but it’s the best I’ve had outside of Italy). In April of 2009, the Welsh Highland Railway opened a line connecting the village to the coastal town of Caernarfon, fifteen miles distant, where you can visit the largest of Edward I’s 13th century castles. When fully completed in 2010, the line will connect Caernarfon to Porthmadog on Tremadog Bay, and at 40-miles will be the longest of the historic railways in Wales.
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