Take an unforgettable ride to North Wales on the old iron snake
Posted on the 10th Oct 2014 in the category travel

North Wales is a place close to my heart, my auntie and uncle moved to Porthmadog when I was a child and I have been visiting most years ever since. The older I get the more I appreciat the scenery, sea and pace of life. I've driven there and been driven there but the train line from Brum to North Wales is a wonder of the world for me. The journey holds lots of memories. I remember as a child listening to a couple bickering all the way from Herlech to Welshpool. One of the couple's kids pointed out the window at a cow - "what's that daddy?" he said. The dad matter of factly said: "That son is a cow, just like what your mom has been like all holiday."

Last month Arriva TW were kind enough to give me tickets to ride the line again, a viaduct had just opened meaning the coastal line could run all the way to Pwllhelli without the need of a replacement bus service. Here is my account of the journey.



THE first time I took the train from Birmingham to North Wales was unforgettable.

It was a Bank Holiday Friday in the mid-1980s and as we pulled off from New Street Station a student came bounding alongside the train and tried to jump on.

Though the door was still open he did not bank on the suitcases blocking his path and he fell beneath the train looking desparately in my eye as he went. He reminded this nine-year-old boy of the Lurpak butter man disappearing into a baked potato.  

Thankfully my subsequent journeys on the train to Porthmadog to see family have been memorable for better reasons than that fateful journey.

The Birmingham to Pwllheli line is the kind of route Michael Portillo would still wax lyrical about despite clocking his Bradshaw handbook of UK train routes.

With a new bridge near Harlech recently opening it now can be ridden all the way to its destination at Phllweli.

The storms washed away the 150-year-old wooden bridge last year and travellers have had to get the dreaded bus replacement to Porthmadog ever since.

But as Arriva Trains Wales were so proud of the new bridge I thought it would be rude not to ride the train to one of the most scenic spots in the UK.

The rolling hills of Shropshire are a nice taster of what is to come as is rural Powys. But the fun starts when the train splits at Machynlleth (a great town in itself).

One half of the Cambrian Lines heads to Aberystwyth on the main line and the other goes North to the Llyn Peninsular on the coast line.

The first train station outside Machynlleth is one of my favourites.

Dovey Junction. A lesson in less is more. There is just a platform, and a sign with Dovey Junction written on it.

No ticket office, no coke machine just concrete at its finest. What makes it special is it is in the middle of a valley and defines what us city dwellers calls “in the middle of nowhere.” It is a twitcher's paradise and bird watchers can take a path from the station into the valley.

After Dovey Junction our iron snake speeds through lush green countryside as hills turn into mountains and rivers into streams.

The train station names get longer and harder to pronounce as the feeling of being in a foreign country is reinforced.

But it is the coastal stretch of this route which is magical. Not many places have sea, sand and mountains within one glance. The train line, an incredible feat of human ingenuity itself, splits the sea from the mountains.

Either side of the train gives great views. As the train turns into Cardigan Bay on a sunny day the view is breathtaking. Sparking water laps up to yellow sand as giant green monsters of mountains look down on the picture postcard scene.

The picturesque towns of Tywyn and Fairbourne come and go. Another highlight is the approach to Barmouth, across a bridge spanning the bay.

The sand stretches inland - gold is believed to dwell below ground as well as above - the golden sheen of the sand at sunset is delightful.

Barmouth's painted guest houses, slate roofed churches and enticing pubs come into view as boats bob on the tide.

It is a great Victorian holiday town and if you buy the day ticket which allows you to disembark then Barmouth is a must.

After Barmouth the stations seem to get smaller as their names become harder to pronounce - Tygwyn, Talsarnau and Llandecwyn all have their own charm.

The brilliantly named Tallybont, which as a kid I always thought was the Black Country's very own seaside town, is another little gem.

This part of the world was so popular with Midlanders that for years the Birmingham Mail and Express and Star would be stocked here during the Summer.

As well as the scenery there are some eye-catching homes built on gravity defying spots throughout the train ride. Some modern, some old and some really old.

Harlech Castle looms above Harlech train station and this town is another quaint place to get off and have a wander.

The new viaduct at Pont Briwet is a joy to cross mainly because it is so shiny and new. The relief of not having to get a bus seemed to be written all over my fellow passengers faces.

Views of Snowdonia now fill one side of the train’s windows and it becomes harder to pick a side of the train to gawp out of. Portmerion, the faux Italian folly village which was home to The Prisoner, appears briefly on the coast. The stations of Penrhyndeudraeth and Minffordd are the closest to Portmerion and are walking distance from another.

Porthmadog is a bustling town with plenty of pubs, art galleries, craft stores and shops to keep you entertained but it is a railway town at heart.

The Blaenau Ffestiniog Railway chugs its way into the heart of Snowdonia taking in some of the best views in Wales. And to the delight of train spotters everywhere Welsh Highland Railway now runs up to Caenarfon after reopening a few years ago.

Porthmadog signals the start of the Llyn Peninsula – the part of Wales which looks like a finger pointing at Wales.

This remarkable place has deep religious history and modern history with those two Welsh titans of the 20th Century David Lloyd George and Lawrence of Arabia being born a few miles apart.

Criccieth is another town with a castle. In fact you can see across Black Rock Sands from Criccieth to Harlech and visa versa. And then the line continues to Pwlhelli with its holiday parks and markets. The train line has been taken Brummies and Black Country folk to this part of the coast for over a hundred years. Some fell in love with that part of the world and now live there, like my auntie and uncle.

I'm not sure whether the student who fell beneath the train ever got to North Wales. He didn't die but broke both his legs.

The adults on the train were at first shocked and sympathetic. But after an hour delay they were standing on the platform shouting swear words down at him.

I thought they were mean at the time but I totally understand their despair now – they did not want to get to the best part of this remarkable train journey in the dark.

For more information about prices, offers and routes on the Cambrian Lines visit www.thecambrianline.co.uk.


  Records 1 to 1 of 1