The golden age of steam moves further away with each passing year, but for Silver Travellers, the sounds and smell of Britain’s heritage railways will always be evocative. If you’ve ever read Thomas the Tank Engine to your children or, like me, have fond memories of Ivor the Engine in the Postgate-Firmin cartoons from the 1960s, then you already know the feeling.
I’m no great train buff but I still can’t resist an invitation to sample the scenery and stories of that timeless ‘top left corner of Wales’ where Ivor the Engine and Jones the Steam had their gentle adventures alongside Dai Station and Owen the Signal. I’m being treated to highlights from two escorted itineraries, one with Great Rail Journeys, the other with sister company Rail Discoveries, which between them offer a mix of trains, castles, and gardens.
So it doesn’t matter that I don’t know my firebox from my footplate, nor have any deep engine interest beyond knowing that this is a very old, very pretty and very shiny model. Let the men get technical. I’m here to enjoy the ride.
First thing that strikes me is the enthusiasm of everybody involved with these heritage lines. From the people in the ticket office to the trolley assistants who serve refreshments, the volunteer drivers to the station officials, everyone is happy and smiling. Clearly playing with full size trains is high on the wellbeing stakes. And that happiness is contagious. As I take my seat on the Welsh Highland Railways for our first trip, I feel totally relaxed.
By the afternoon, a second thing has struck me about heritage trains. They’re all different. The Welsh Highland this morning climbed steadily round some extraordinarily bends and up steep inclines, whilst we relaxed over Snowdon bottled water and local beer. We trundled past a large reservoir and enjoyed glorious mountain views on our 18-mile narrow gauge journey from Caernarfon to Bedgellert.
But this afternoon, we are boarding the Ffestiniog Railway at the coastal town of Porthmadog for a totally different narrow gauge experience. The track may be the same – or so I’m told – but the carriages are much narrower so the train can cling to the steep wooded hillsides. At the end of the line, Blaenau Ffestiniog is where slate from deep mines was once loaded on board for transport to the coast.
I’ve ridden the Ffestiniog once before, many years ago on a family holiday when our children were small and I still clearly remember my son clapping his hands with excitement as the engine whistle blew. So I’m secretly thrilled to be allowed to stand in the cab – if that’s the right technical term – and blow that very same whistle. Just call me Gill the Steam!
Third thing I learn is that not all Welsh heritage trains are narrow gauge. Next day we enjoy a tranquil trundle on the Llangollen Steam Railway which runs for 7.5 miles from Llangollen to Corwen. The fact that it exists at all is a testimony to the enthusiasts who banded together to restore the disused and dismantled line as a tourist attraction. And I’m so glad they did. Again, I feel I’m part of an Ivor the Engine cartoon as we stop at immaculate little stations decked out with leather suitcase and painted trolleys. There are no gradients involved this time as we chuff merrily along beside the river Dee, the sun sparkling on the meanders and gentle hills.
The sun shines too on our final journey, an unforgettable ride up the Snowdon Mountain Railway to the roof of Wales. Our single carriage is pushed by a steam engine – some are diesel, but the view from the carriage doesn’t change – and I watch captivated as mountains and lakes, ridges and gullies unfold beneath us like something from a physical geography lesson. It’s so clear that I can even see distant sandy beaches.
We disembark at the visitor centre before taking the short walk up to the summit cairn for that glorious 360° view. I’m just taking it all in when I hear a phone ringing. Good reception up here, I’m thinking, till I suddenly realise it’s mine and am covered in embarrassment. But it’s the lovely people at the Dunoon Hotel in Llandudno to tell me they’ve found my missing glasses. Everybody laughs, happiness prevails, and we linger a little longer for those obligatory selfies. Don’t step back though – it’s a long way down!
Heading back to gift shop level and journey’s end, I sit on the opposite side of the carriage for a different perspective. There’s time for a browse round the station buildings where I’m thrilled to find an episode of Ivor the Engine being screened in the little cinema. Parp-parp!
In fact for someone who has zero knowledge of steam trains and really no wish to learn, this trip ticked all the boxes. It’s impossible not to enjoy a ride through Snowdonia on those wonderfully atmospheric trains and the steam rides are punctuated with heritage visits when you travel with Great Rail Journeys or Rail Discoveries.
I was fascinated by Portmeirion, one of Britain’s most unusual and eclectic resorts. Built by visionary architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis between 1926 and 1976, it’s a mix of landscaped gardens, Italianate village, and woodland walks. Setting for the Sixties’ cult series The Prisoner, it has also hosted many celebrity guests in its hotels and self-catering villas.
Depending on which escorted itinerary you chose, you may also enjoy a visit to Caernarfon Castle or Conwy Castle, the National Trust gardens at Bodnant or a ride by horse-drawn barge on the Llangollen canal. There’s free time to explore the area too, including the charming seaside resort of Llandudno where both tours are based on a half-board basis.
I stayed at the family-run Dunoon Hotel which has rightfully been awarded an AA Rosette for its imaginative cuisine. Strategically located just five minutes’ walk from the broad bay lined with its smartly painted villas, it’s ideally placed for strolling along Wales’ longest pier or taking the cable car to the top of the Great Orme for views towards Anglesey. And if you’re feeling peckish at lunch time, I can also recommend the informal atmosphere at Wildwood Italian restaurant in the heart of the retail area. So whether you’re keen on sand, sea, shopping or steam, North Wales really does have something for everyone. Parp-parp!
Great Rail Journeys, from £675pp for the 6-day Railways & Castles of Wales
Rail Discoveries, from £465pp for the 6-day Railways of Wales
GRJ Independent for a tailor-made holiday – price on request
Dine at Wildwood Restaurant Llandudno
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Great Rail Journeys