Great little trains: narrow-gauge railways of Snowdonia

Rail travel… it’s romantic, isn’t it? Slowly chugging through glorious scenery, in no rush to get to your destination, meeting new people, seeng new things. But, in North Wales, trains served a higher purpose, helping shape our nation during the Industrial Revolution.

And these are no ordinary trains. Built to serve like faithful packhorses, smaller than mainline engines, these trains are a living reminder of times-gone-by, a time when engineering was in its youth and the world as we knew it was still bounded by imagination, not Wifi speed.

These trains, so-called narrow-gauge locomotives, moved along unique tracks for a unique purpose. Luckily for us, they have survived and now give pleasure to thousands of tourists and enthusiasts every year. Even if you’re not a ‘train person’, you can’t help but fall for the charms of these colourful, cheeky engines.

History

During the Industrial Revolution, narrow-gauge railways (a railway that runs on track smaller than standard size; most narrow-gauge railways are between 600mm and 1087mm wide) played an important part in the mining, logging, construction, tunnelling, quarrying, and agricultural industries of Wales.

In the days before road travel, railways were the lifeblood of industry: transporting raw materials, ferrying workers from their homes to work, carrying the boss and his associates to the office (in their own carriage, of course), supplying the site with food and essential items.

What makes narrow-gauge railways so special is their individuality. Every railway was built for a specific purpose and carried out a multitude of jobs but they were also unique in the way they were constructed sympathetically with the land around them.

As heavy industry in North Wales fell into decline, so too did the engines. But thanks to enthusiasts and passionate community groups, such as the Great Little Trains of Wales, the heritage of the narrow-gauge in North Wales has been preserved for posterity.

Today, visitors can experience the glory days of the narrow-gauge railways for themselves – from passenger rides to theme days, and engine driving tuition to volunteering – the little trains are enjoying a new, very different working life.

If you’re visiting North Wales, why not plan a trip on one of our narrow-gauge railways? Hailing from an era when there was more time to contemplate and take in the splendid scenery of Wales, these trains are a great way of sightseeing at a leisurely pace.

Llanberis Lake Railway

The Llanberis Lake Railway way is located just a stone’s throw from the Royal Victoria Hotel and runs along part of the narrow-gauge railway that served the Dinorwig Quarry – now the site of the National Slate Museum of Wales.

In its heyday the Padarn Railway travelled from the quarry to the Menai Strait to unload its cargo of slate onto waiting ships. Today, the train makes a pleasant 5 mile journey along the lake, taking in some of the principal sites of the Dinorwig Quarry, not to mention some of the most unspoilt scenery in the world.

The return journey takes approximately 60 minutes but there are several stops along the way if you’re keen to explore. For example, hop off at Gilfach Ddu station to visit the Slate Museum and Dolbadarn Castle, or at picturesque Cei Llydan for a picnic beside the lake.

Ffestiniog & Welsh Highland Railways

Caring for not one but two of North Wales’ narrow-gauge railways, the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railways offer the ultimate Welsh rail experience.

The Welsh Highland follows a 25 mile route from Caernarfon to Porthmadog, making it the longest heritage railway in the UK, whilst the 200-year-old Ffestiniog Railway, the oldest operational narrow-gauge railway, winds its way up into the mountains to the slate capital of the world, Blaenau Ffestiniog.

Both railways, unsurprisingly have their origins in the slate industry.

The Welsh Highland travels through spectacular scenery and follows a route that takes in coast, mountains, wood and moorland along the way. It’s a memorable experience, especially from the comfort of the trains’ beautifully restored carriages. This is travel in style!

The Ffestiniog Railway started life as a gravity train, in the days before steam power. Wagons loaded with slate made the 14 mile journey from Blaenau along a slightly sloping track with nothing but the pull of gravity to move them. For the return journey, the wagons were pulled by horses; they accompanied the train in their own specially-designed carriages, called dandy wagons!

Steam power came at the pinnacle of Ffestiniog’s career as a mining town, with up to eighty wagons of slate at a time travelling several times a day between the quarries and the coast.

Narrow-gauge railways of Snowdonia

Welsh Highland Heritage Railway

Not to be confused with the Welsh Highland Railway, this diminutive little railway also resides in Porthmadog but makes a substantially shorter journey than its big brother.

At just 0.75 of a mile long the Welsh Highland Heritage Railway, is a great experience for train enthusiasts young and old. Hop off at the engine sheds and explore the locomotives before learning all about narrow-gauge railways in North Wales. Kids will love the hands-on approach and, better still, the whole family can ride all-day for less than the cost of a meal out!

Bala Lake Railway

A bit further afield, the Bala Lake Railway is something of a rail phoenix. It rose from the ashes of the infamous Beeching Report of th 1960s – a government initiative that saw many small community lines closed to make way for mainline express services.

Making its 9 mile journey along an old stretch of the Barmouth to Ruabon GWR standard gauge line, this narrow-gauge railway was constructed in the 1970s to attract tourists to the area.

Taking in the spectacular Llyn Tegid (home to our very own lake monster called, rather unimaginatively, Teggie!) and the craggy peaks of the Aran Mountains. It’s a pleasant, picture-postcard trip with more than its fair share of historic high points too – including the site of a Roman fort (reputed to be the seat of Sir Kay, King Arthur’s foster brother) and the ruins of a Norman motte-and-bailey castle, Tomen y Bala.

Legendary locos

This year marks the Year of Legends for Wales – it’s a time to celebrate everything that makes our country great in the past and in the present. We think nothing does this better than those legendary little trains of Wales, our narrow-gauge railways.

Images: © Crown copyright 2016 (Visit Wales)

Follow in the footsteps of King Arthur

Why did the story of a king who (almost certainly) never existed become one the most enduring myths of the western world? The legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table is an integral part of British national identity, particularly for the people of Wales.

Love, conflict, death, loyalty and betrayal are the universal themes that permeate Arthurian folklore – themes that have captured the imagination since the Dark Ages.

It seems today, everyone wants a piece of Arthur. Hundreds of communities across Britain claim the legend was born on their soil. Tintagel, the fabled palace of Arthur’s mother Igraine, is said to have been situated in Cornwall; Avalon, the island where the sword Excalibur was forged, is said to be found in a remote part of Sicily; and a tiny hamlet in northwestern France, Carhaix-Plouguer, claims to be the location of King Arthur’s court.

These are just a few examples, we’re sure you can bring many more local examples to mind too – Glastonbury, Cadbury, Carlisle, Winchester and Stonehenge to name but a few.

An ancient legend

Arthur was the son of Uther Pendragon and heir to the throne, but Arthur had been conceived in magic and deceit (you can read the legend here) so he was raised in secret by one of Uther’s trusted knights. When Uther died there was a power struggle over the throne, only a very few knew the king had a son.

To repel claimants to the throne, the wizard Merlin used magic and set a sword in a stone, announcing that only the true heir of Uther would be able to pull the sword from the stone and claim the title King of Britain. Hundreds tried and failed and the throne remained empty.

Many years later, Arthur (as Merlin had planned all along) succeeded in pulling the sword from the stone when his half-brother misplaced his own at a tournament. Seemingly by chance, a humble squire was to become King of Britain.

Noble by birth, the young King Arthur used his new-found power for good and gathered a loyal retinue of knights – the famous Knights of the Round Table – to fight the enemies of the kingdom. At times, these enemies came too close for comfort, numbering among their ranks Arthur’s half-sister, the witch Morgana le Fay, and his ambitious and power-hungry son, Mordred.

Many locations in North Wales have strong associations with the Arthurian legends and, with the backdrop of the mountains and lakes of Snowdonia, it’s easy to believe Arthur and his knights had many of their most celebrated adventures right here.

What better place to begin your quest for the Once and Future King than from the Royal Victoria Hotel in Llanberis? Our hotel is the perfect base from which to explore Snowdonia and follow Arthurian legend back into the mists of time.

An encounter on the slopes of Snowdon

One story tells of Arthur’s meeting with the a giant, Rhitta Gawr. While out riding on the slopes of Snowdon, the giant goaded Arthur, claiming his cloak (grotesquely woven with the beards of vanquished kings) was incomplete without the High King’s royal tresses.

Understandably, Arthur was reluctant to part with his beard and a mighty struggle ensued, with the king emerging victorious. Arthur and his knights buried Rhitta beneath a cairn (yr wyddfa in Welsh) at the summit of Snowdon and this is how the mountain, supposedly, got its Welsh name – Yr Wyddfa.

A watery abode

Excalibur (or Caledfwlch as it is called in Welsh) was the legendary sword of King Arthur, said to be imbued with magical powers. While the true origins of the sword are a mystery locals believe Arthur was bestowed with the sword by the Lady of the Lake at one of two lakes near Llanberis: Llyn Llydaw or Llyn Ogwen.

The Lady of the Lake was the ruler of Avalon; which some believe to be an island, though was more likely to be a small kingdom (a possible site for Avalon or Caer Afallach has been suggested as a hill fort in nearby Flintshire). She played a pivotal role in Arthur’s life, being there at both his beginning and his end, and is intrinsically linked with water whenever mentioned.

Where Merlin soundly sleeps

Ynys Enlli, or Bardsey Island, is a small island off the tip of the Llyn Peninsula. It has very strong Arthurian connections, but no-one can really agree why!

Some stories suggest Bardsey is the burial site of Merlin, a powerful magician and Arthur’s closest adviser. Others disagree, claiming it to be the home of the Lady of the Lake and the true Isle of Avalon.

Whatever the truth, Bardsey has been a sacred place for centuries and it is still possible to visit the island by boat today. You can even follow in the footsteps of medieval people, like the brave Grail Knights, on the North Wales Pilgrim’s Way. We wrote a blog on it recently, why don’t you take a look?

District of dragons

Dinas Emrys is a wooded hill above the Glaslyn River, near Beddgelert, where once stood the hill fort of the mighty chieftain Vortigern. Legend has it, it was the site of a mighty power struggle between Vortigern and a youthful Merlin, a young wizard still grappling with his powers.

Vortigern chose Dinas Emrys as his base and ordered his men to build a stronghold but, despite all efforts, every night the structural work of the preceding day was found crumbled to the ground. No matter how swiftly and how strongly the fortress was built, each morning it stood in ruins.

At his wits’ end, Vortigern appealed for help. Merlin explained that the fortress would never stand as it was built above an underground pool that was home to two slumbering dragons: one an icy white beast and the other fiery red worm.

Vortigern had his men dig into the hill to expose the pool and drain it. The dragons awoke and began to fight, shaking the mountains with their terrifying roars and howls. Eventually the white was vanquished by the red and flew away, never to be seen again. The triumphant red dragon returned peacefully to his lair and resumed his slumber.

In the footsteps of Arthur North Wales

Afterwards, Merlin explained to Vortigern that the battle was a prophecy. The white dragon represented the Saxon hoard and the red, the British people. The red’s triumph signified that one day the British would defeat the invading Saxons and so the red dragon was adopted as the guardian of Wales, immortalised on our national flag.

Arthur’s last stand

Snowdon’s neighbour, Cwm Tregalan is said to be the site of Arthur’s last battle. The battle between the ageing king and his ambitious son raged all day, but Mordred had the advantage and pushed Arthur and his knights into an ambush at Bwlch y Saethau (the Pass of the Arrows).

Struck a mortal blow, Arthur died on the slopes of Snowdon where his faithful knights buried their beloved sovereign under a cairn known as Carnedd Arthur, or Arthur’s Cairn; the exact location of which has, sadly, been lost in the mists of time.

The knights resolved to await their king’s prophesied return and took refuge in a cave just below the summit of Y Lliwedd. Here, it is said they slumber, fully-armed and ready to wake and fight again at Arthur’s side in Wales’ hour of greatest need.

Images: ‘The Death of Arthur’ by John Garrick, 1862, via Wikimedia Commons. ‘King Arthur’ by Charles Ernest Butler, via Wikimedia Commons. ‘The Battle of the Dragons’ by Unknown – 15th century manuscript of Historia Regum Britanniae.