The marvel of human invention is never more wondrous than when it harmoniously blends with nature and when technology enables you to view the beauty of this landscape at first hand it is a marriage made in heaven. Gordon Rushton describes how a Welsh national park, two preserved railways and a special steam train are the perfect paradigm of nature, man and machine working together.
It is well known in England and Wales how beautiful Snowdonia is. People flock to see it each year in their thousands as it is so easy to get to. It is not so well known in the rest of the world, as few can imagine how majestic a 1000m mountain actually looks when it rises almost out of the sea! For those that think it cannot be grand - they are in for a pleasurable surprise.
Snowdonia contains the North Wales mountain ranges that after millions of years have created an Ice Age story on old volcanic rocks. The slopes are massive and smooth: not too high; not too flat. The tops are rounded and bare; the hillsides are wooded or grassed, populated with sheep; cool forests clothe the slopes. You can drive through it, dodging the traffic on narrow roads, and enjoy trying to find places to park in among the other cars, or you can do something totally different.
A wonderful railway has been lovingly reconstructed for over 25 miles (40km) from coast to coast, across the Lleyn Peninsula. This is no ordinary train ride: the gauge is only 2ft (597mm); the carriages are small yet comfortable enough to feel snug; you can look out of opened windows; there is even an open car for those who love the outdoors, a buffet car for a snack, a loo for comfort stops, and even a luxurious observation car to look out of the back. This is not a high speed train - it prides itself in gliding along at a heady 20mph (35kmh), and everyone enjoys the view, and the unhurried ride this offers. The big little train, of 10 red and cream cars, is pulled by a little giant of the steam age, a Beyer-Garratt locomotive, built in Britain for Africa, and returned home to do more service after a lifetime in Natal.
In its own right this new railway - finished in 2011, and last used before that in 1937 - carries a big summer load. Nearly 100,000 people booked on it in 2013, most of them starting at the mediaeval fortress of Caernarfon, and travelling right through the mountains to Porthmadog on the coast of Cardigan Bay. The Welsh Highland Railway, as it is known, makes an end-on junction with the world famous Ffestiniog Railway at this point. Even more people travel on this 13 mile (20km) line into the mountains to the old slate town of Blaenau Ffestiniog.
The Ffestiniog Railway is a true main line railway in miniature. It began in 1832, and is the oldest railway company in the world still operating on its original line. An engineering marvel in its day, it had steam locomotives in 1863, some 150 years ago. It is the only place in the world where you can see one of steam's true dinosaurs, the double-Fairlie articulated locomotive that sends steam fans into raptures. The scenery is rapturous too, the view of the mountains on leaving Porthmadog is barely equalled elsewhere in the world. From there on the climb offers great variety: there are meadows, sheep pastures, valley look-downs, rhododendrons in season, a spiral, tunnels, great views, mountain scenery, a waterfall, tunnels, and a station shared with the larger mainline railway under massive slate tips. It is a great ride.
On 12th April 2014 a very special train, aptly named the Snowdonian, will return to travel the complete line and back in its third year of operation. It has become a very special, sought-after occasion, as it takes the full tour of both of these incomparable railways, and all profits raised from it is ploughed back into preserving and improving the WHR and FR. The Snowdonian was devised to offer a full day out, with meal and refreshments, so that the superb scenic experience of the full 40m (60km) route can be enjoyed in one go. It provides a unique opportunity for supporters of the two railways to experience the full journey in one go on what has become a fabulous day out. Since its inaugural trip in 2011 it has become an unqualified success, and a serious generator of funds to help finance the job of restoration. In 2014 Snowdonian will be powered in full steam along the WHR by the first of the revolutionary Garratt locomotives and the last, both built in Britain for service overseas. On the Ffestiniog Railway leg the world's oldest working narrow gauge locomotive Prince, and the FR’s newest locomotive Lyd will be providing the power - a major draw for the railway buffs.
The Snowdonian leaves Porthmadog Harbour Station before 09.00, to chuff through the streets of the town and clatter across the unique level crossing shared with the national Cambrian Coast Line. As it progresses along the flat coastal scenery of the Traeth Mawr, passengers can enjoy coffee and a Danish whilst enjoying the unfolding views. The mountains lie ahead as the train follows the Glaslyn River crossing this fine salmon river at Pont Croesor on a viaduct. The sides of the valley of the Afon Glaslyn deepen as we cross two tributaries, and then suddenly the train begins to climb steeply. Up and up, round sharp curves with the two engines now working hard, the train plunges into a long tunnel. When it emerges, the train is on a rock ledge, and the white water of the river can be seen in a gorge below. More little rock tunnels follow and the train crosses a bridge and sweeps around curves for a majestic arrival into Beddgelert. The locomotives are refreshed, and the train leaves to continue its climb up long, sweeping sharp curves, with the engines straining at maximum effort to lift the train to the edge of the forest. The climb never eases for four miles, until the summit, directly below majestic Mount Snowdon which rises 3560ft (1085m) high. We stop to refresh the thirsty locomotives again, at the mid-point of the line, Rhyd Ddu. For the next 12 miles is a gentle descent. At first with spectacular look-downs into the cool black waters of Llyn Cwellyn, and then by the roadside across the top of the poor beetling cars. From the end of the lake, the beautiful Afon Gwyrfai runs alongside the train, sometimes foaming, sometimes placid, and after Dinas station the train runs through farmland to descend the hill into Caernarfon, to come to rest with the huge castle fortress in front and the wharves of the Afon Seiont alongside.
There's just time for a stroll to see the river, and then with the Beyer-Garratt locomotives filled with water and steam, we climb out of the town, back to the heights of Rhyd-Ddu under Snowdon, ready to reverse the train for a run past, so the photographers can get a picture of real working steam engines in dramatic mountain scenery. Afterwards the train ascends to the summit once again and runs down through cool forests over twisting tracks, to glide in to Beddgelert for a splendid Buffet lunch at the Goat Hotel, right by the station.
After a satisfying lunch and a hospitable drink, the train returns leisurely to Porthmadog, to run non-stop through the new station and across the spectacular Cob Embankment and to where Prince and Lyd take over. From here we climb again on a railway of quite a different character. The pace quickens as the train runs steadily uphill, past the backs of houses, Welsh Chapels, the baker's, a hand-worked level crossing, and then through fields. There are glimpses of far off Harlech Castle, bright twinkling blue water and yellow sand can be seen on the Afon Dwyryd below, and everywhere old oak trees line the route. The track twists and turns until Tan y Bwlch, where the engines refresh, and after a short tunnel the line rises out of the trees and onto the mountain moorland with bleating sheep. A full circle is described on the climbing loop at Ddualt, offering a full panorama from the comfort of the train. At this point a big jam scone with cream is offered with refreshing tea, for those whose courageous appetite continues to be stimulated by all the world class scenery.
The train shrieks into a tunnel, and pops out in a mountain amphitheatre, with a scintillating lake as a stage. This is the Tanygrisiau Pump Storage scheme, with immaculate green credentials, and we slide unobtrusively behind the power station to cross a bridge beneath a roaring waterfall. Then the backs of houses are below, as we skirt the valley on a rock ledge, clatter across beeping level crossings, under enveloping bridges, and find the big railway appearing alongside. The sombre town of Blaenau Ffestiniog has been reached, nearly 40 miles from Caernarfon.
The train returns its delighted revellers to Porthmadog, to complete nearly 80 miles of comfortable land cruising on the 2ft gauge. This is a place unique in the world. It is a railway journey that ranks in the top seed. The delightful scenery of Snowdonia is unlocked by this little train, and the passengers on the Snowdonian have the key for the day.