Thursday 19 June 2014

The Circumnavigation of Mount Snowdon by Train and Bus

In the nineteen twenties and thirties, the real hardcore railway fanatic would attempt the ‘Circumnavigation of Mt Snowdon by Rail’, it was often referred to, probably sarcastically, as ‘The Grande Tour’. Having been present by pure chance at the official re-opening of the first part of the Ffestiniog Railway, and keeping an interest in the gradual reopening through to Blaenau Ffestiniog, I vowed to do the journey myself as soon as possible after the re-opening of the Welsh Highland through to Porthmadog. There was just one snag, there is no longer a railway between Bangor and Caernarfon. After much studying of timetables it looked to me to be possible. I outlined it to my wife and she was keen to try it.

Why would you want to repeat our exploit? Well, if you don't already know the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railways it's a marvelous way to experience them for the first time, it's also a good way to see the Conwy Valley line which is worth it for the scenery. If you are any kind of railway enthusiast you don't need an excuse, it's just there to be done.

Staying at Campbell's Cottage is a help as you can do part of the journey using the Campbell's Platform weekly pass. You will need to check the timetables as those for the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland have different service patterns on different days. I found that for all of the Summer 2014 timetables, on yellow days for the two narrow gauge lines, it could be done starting at Blaenau Ffestiniog at just gone half past eight in the morning.

As well as the scenery being quite different on the Welsh Highland compared to the Ffestiniog you will also discover how different are the locomotives and coaching stock of the two lines. What follows is a commentary on our journey.

We got ourselves to Blaenau for just gone 08:30, there was plenty of space in the car parks so we put an all day ticket on the windscreen and walked towards the mainline platform. If it is raining it's worth knowing there is a waiting shelter on the platform, hidden from view the other side of the old building. About ten minutes before its allotted time a two car Arriva Trains unit rolled into the station. Tickets are bought from the guard, don't forget your travel card, they might not all be as accommodating as ours who overlooked the fact that unlike my wife I'd left home without mine. The train left exactly on 08:46 and for the first few minutes picks its way through the slate strewn slopes around Blaenau. It then dives into a two mile tunnel before coming out at the top of the Conwy Valley which is as full of greenery as can be. For the next hour or so the train speeds downhill between stations stopping for some, slowing then accelerating away from others which are request stops. Sometime around 10:00 you'll arrive in Llandudno Junction.

The next stage is fraught with difficulty. You need to find the correct bus stop for the X5 to Caernarfon. No matter how many people you ask and no matter how likely they should know, you'll get a different answer from them all. It's the one on the approach road to the bridge over the estuary, not the bridge over the railway. The bus numbering is unfathomable; ours was an X5 which morphed into a 5C when it changed drivers at Bangor. I don't know what it is about Arriva buses, but like every other one I've travelled on it's best to sit at a seat with an adjacent grab rail. On arrival in Caernarfon it's a walk straight ahead to the T junction, turn left and walk ahead again until you can see the castle across an open square on your right, then take the road which slopes down to your left at the foot of the castle wall and you'll see the railway station straight in front of you. Take care as you walk down the slope, traffic emerges on your left from the old railway tunnel. You should have time to purchase sandwiches and drinks and consume them in the square, before buying your tickets and boarding the train.

The Welsh Highland station is on the trackbed of the former main line heading west out of the town. For the first couple of miles the railway uses the old trackbed which it shares with a cycle/footpath. At Dinas the line abandons the old mainline, does a short sharp wiggle to the left, and picks up the course of the original Welsh Highland Railway, and its predecessor the North Wales Narrow Gauge Railway. The line snakes from left to right affording a view of the locomotive at its head as it struggles to gain height, the landscape on the way to the summit is mainly boggy moorland. On the descent towards Beddgelert the loops are bigger and at one point the track is parallel to two previous sections higher up the hillside, and the whole area is wooded.

From Beddgelert the train passes through the Aberglaslyn Pass, on a ledge cut into the rock high above the river. This short section is the jewel in the crown of the Welsh Highland. Don't waste your time photographing it, look and take it in, there are better photographs of it than you will take on sale at the stations. The train leaves the pass by a short tunnel and makes its way first across and then down the Glaslyn estuary. On the Approach to Porthmadog the line crosses the Cambrian Coast line on the level, the only place in the UK that a narrow gauge railway crosses the national network. The line threads between river and the car park before the train halts with the locomotive at the side of the main road out of town. Sirens sound and lights flash and once all of the traffic has cleared, with much hooting the train snakes forward, across the road and into the long platform of Porthmadog Harbour station.

The Welsh Highland and Ffestiniog trains stand on either side of the platform, looking at them it's difficult to accept that  both run on the same track; by comparison to the WHR trains the FR ones are minute. The first surprise for those new to the FR is that before departure the guard comes along checking tickets and locking the doors. There are warnings above the windows not to put your head out. They mean it! In places there's barely six inches between the train and solid rock or stone walls. Whereas the Welsh Highland crossed open moorland and wooded slopes the FR is very different. It starts crossing the wide embankment known as the Cob, which it shares with a road and a footpath. Then it swings left on top of a vertical slate wall with no space between the sides of the carriages on the drop to the road below. There's a halt for the company workshops at Boston Lodge then it's narrow cuttings, squeezing between buildings and crossing the tops of more vertiginous walls, constantly climbing. In places there are extensive woodlands all around but on the right hand side the train is at the treetop level giving views over the whole of the Vale of Ffestiniog.

At various stops along the way the train crosses with one heading down hill to Porthmadog, shortly after crossing at Tan-y-Bwlch you will pass through Campbell's Platform, don't miss it, climbing trains can't afford to stop here, then at Dduallt comes another unique in the UK feature; to get back to the original route the train needs to gain height to pass above the lake created for the Tanygrisiau pumped storage power station. It does this with a spiral, curving round through a full circle passing above the line just traversed, before striking off towards a higher ridge. A new tunnel was needed to breech the ridge, fortunately they made it a bit bigger than the original, which dictated the small size of the original trains. Out of the tunnel the train passes the back door of the power station and threads its way through the houses and slate mines to arrive in the station where this journey started all those hours ago.

For all those who just want to get on with it, here are the times using time tables for the summer of 2014.

  • Blaenau Ffestiniog – Arriva Trains 08:46 to Llandudno Junction.
  • Llandudno Junction Arriva bus X5C to Caernarfon via Bangor. There are two or three buses per hour and there's plenty of time. The bus may be numbered X5 or 5C. The one we got was an X5 which got a new driver at Bangor and became a 5C.
  • Welsh Highland Railway Caernarfon – 13:20 to Porthmadog. Summer 2014 timetable, yellow day.
  • Ffestiniog Railway Porthmadog -15:50 to Blaenau Ffestiniog. Summer 2014 timetable, yellow day.

This blogpost was contributed by John Williams in June 2014. Many thanks.

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