The Great North Welsh Railway Journey: 3– Ffestiniog
It has, in my standard fashion, taken a good while to chronicle my journey across Gwynedd. Nonetheless, today is the day for the world-famous Ffestiniog Railway to Blaenau Ffestiniog: what is quite possibly the most beautiful grey town in the United Kingdom.
As usual but particularly true today: do not inquire here for pronunciation.
After completing my first preserved rail line, the Welsh Highland, and spent some time walking about the picturesque port of Porthmadog, I returned to the Harbour Station for my journey back into Snowdonia, this time via the historic Ffestiniog Railway.
Much like the Welsh Highland, the Ffestiniog Railway was also conceived out of a need to carry the lucrative slate trade, from the mines in Snowdonia to the port at Porthmadog, then onwards to the world (mostly Germany). However, unlike the Welsh Highland, the Ffestiniog Railway is much, much older.
In fact, courtesy of an Act of Parliament from 1832, I was travelling with the oldest existing Railway Company in the world. 1832. That’s pre-Victorian.
The railway was initially powered like my childhood train set; namely, by letting it race down the hill (a.k.a my bed) through gravity. Meanwhile, horses would drag the empty carriage uphill back to Blaenau Ffestiniog. As I was travelling upwards that day, it was fortunate that steam had superseded horses (or manpower…) by the 1860s.
Given that Germany was the prime importer of the Welsh slate, the two World Wars were clearly a hindrance, to put it mildly. As the industry collapsed, the line quickly became unprofitable and promptly closed in the post-war austerity, a whole twenty years before Beeching had the opportunity to reshape the British railway network.
The train slowly trotted out of Harbour station and made its way onto the Cob, the famed sea embankment now preserved as a railroad between the drained farmland, not entirely different from how the railway was saved by preservation in the 1950s. One particular perk of Acts of Parliament is that another legislation in equal power is required to reverse any of its mandates: therefore, while the railway had ceased to operate by late 1940s the tracks cannot be removed.
Enter the concept of heritage rail which proposed to turn this 13-mile route into a tourist attraction tended by the local enthusiasts who loved the line. Within a few years, the initial restoration was complete and the Ffestiniog Railway would (eventually) grow into one of the flagbearers of railway preservation, saving countless other lines.
And how fortunate that this spectacular line is saved. The Ffestiniog was a far more popular ride than the Welsh Highland on the day. Maybe it’s was the mainline rail connection, or simply that more people chose the afternoon service, but there is no half-a-carriage-on-my-own for me. Shoved to the single seats, I may have missed out on some of the best views. Pardon the photos.
After a cute interchange with the mainline at a place with a bunch of ‘F’s (edit: “Minffordd. just 2 Fs, it turns out), the train slowly began its ascend 700 feet up into the remote Snowdon hinterland. Whereas paved roads were visible on the Welsh Highland, here on the Ffestiniog we passed through areas inaccessible by road and so undisturbed by the world of 2016. But for a medieval stone hut here or there, the scene may as well be 2000BC.
That is until we reach the Tanygrisiau Reservoir. Built to accommodate a hydro-electric power station, part of the original railway was forever submerged. Yet the steam train strived on, hugging the hills, on a new diversion route built completely by volunteers. How wonderful.
Pass the reservoir, the train eventually arrived at my destination, welcomed by this stunning view. Just giant man-made mountains of slate spoil and remains of inclined planes. The town was surrounded by valleys of slate quarries which rather than an eyesore may have been the most beautifully bleak landscape I have ever witnessed.
This was Blaenau Ffestiniog, “the town that (once) roofed the world”. At the heart of Snowdonia, Blaenau was world-famous for one thing and one thing only – slate. While massive open-air quarries were about least compatible structure for a national (and Blaenau is indeed deliberately left off Snowdonia despite its location), I would argue that the industrial heritage merely enhanced the atmosphere and the panorama. In any event, Blaenau took the opportunity to reinvent itself as a tourism hub, the less stringent limits on activities facilitating its transformation as an outdoor adventure town.
Having planned the trip on the railway timetable, I have managed to give myself plenty of (read: too much) time for the few streets that composed Blaenau Ffestiniog, yet not nearly enough to make the trip to the town’s main attraction, a disused slate quarry, about a mile away. On a quiet March afternoon, with the smell of incoming drizzle, I elected for the local pub and joined the bands of Welsh rugby fans on their hammering of Italy. Well, at least Wales won and they were not playing England (Grand Slam later in the day). I would not have fancied watching that game deep in Welsh-speaking Wales.
The reason that I was ‘stuck’ in Blaenau Ffestiniog was for the last leg of my railway journey on the Conwy Valley Line. A part of the national network and run by Arriva Trains Wales, it might as well be a heritage line: during the height of tourist seasons, more trains leave from the joint station at Blaenau Ffestiniog on the heritage line than on the ‘normal’ railway. That day, the departure interval was 3 hours.
Transversing the (you guessed it) Conwy valley, the line has seen deemed ‘perhaps the most scenic standard-gauge railway in Wales’ by my holy grail of a railway book. Unfortunately, lights had begun to fade in one of the rainiest parts of Wales so photo-ops were not readily available.
Also, it does not help that the railway’s main claim to fame for anoraks is the longest single-track tunnel in the country. Try to take photos of that wonderful darkness!
An hour or so later, I got off the train and began the (surprisingly mountainous) “stroll” towards my hostel. Managed to catch this across the river Conwy, for the last chapter of this (very) drawn-out travelogue!