Story by Norma Davidoff
Photos courtesy of Visit Wales
CHUGGING INTO THE PAST
on the Great Little Trains of Wales
Have you ever had the opportunity to actually live in the past? I did, taking some of The Great Little Trains of Wales. When you're riding in a railroad car and a locomotive built in the late 1800's, you are thrown back in time. In 1905 one railroad route was described as "giving comfortable access to views unobtainable by any other means." We found that to be true today on the only train available to take us to Portmadog, on our way to the Italianate village of Portmeirion.
On our return, going to Blaneau Festiniog, we took the steam train again. We trundled our bags onto the platform, past boxes and hanging baskets of pink petunias and red geraniums over to the narrow gauge tracks, just two feet apart. The locomotive's brass was so shiny it looked like it had just come off the assembly line. These are really old trains and engines that have been rebuilt with bits and pieces of the past, we were told by one proud worker. Our car, labeled first class, had velvet-tufted seats covered with the letters FR (for the Festiniog Railroad) and a petite mahogany table in front of it, along with lots of wood on the cars and window frames.
The only signs (there is no advertising onboard) say "Mind Your Head" over the small exit doors. Adding to the feeling of stepping into the past were the sheep sitting right at the railroad stop and the horses grazing in their pastures. Large cows chewed their cud 20 feet from the train track where lobelia and impatiens sat in little buckets,
This kind of railroading is big in Wales, where there at least eight little steam trains. All are run by volunteers. They dress the part. Our conductor wore an outfit from what seemed to be the late 1800's, right down to a pocket watch on its chain. The men who stoke the engines wore denim overalls, the same ones as in children's picture books. Local enthusiasts can join the Railway Society, become a volunteer, and, as the literature says, “"after polishing and training, become an engineer."
We heard the screech of the locomotive as we started through fields of ferns, wild flowers and bushes with purple flowers, winding our way past pretzel-shaped trees. We enjoyed the rhythmic chug chug of the train while munching on snacks delivered to our seat by a friendly waitress. Up at 700 feet, going at a leisurely pace, we gazed down on little villages nestled into the hillside.
We were tempted to get off at Tanybwich because you can pay less if you get off here and turn around. On all these little trains, you can take a break from the train and re-board later, after lunch or a hike. Many stops looked enticing with their picnic tables set out with food and drink.
We saw hawks following the birds that had been scared away by the train. Wild deer clustered in the hills. Domestic sheep wandered right by the train stop where stone walls fence them in. Due to the precision with which each stone is set exactly at the right angle, these dry stone walls last hundreds of years against the wind. There is no mortar placed in between the small and big stones but they stay put.
The little trains seem like a particular treat for families because for each adult fare, one child rides free. The grey brick station house held a café and a gift shop that was a railway buff's dream come true. There was a large collection of books with pictures and text documenting this stretch of railroad. There were even books on narrow gauge railroads in France, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Greece, and, for a departure, Sierra Leone, with scores of historic photos, diagrams and information, even a booklet with train times.
There was still more for train aficionados: model trains, all kinds of Thomas the Train models, socks, bags, art sets, and battery-powered railroad cars. A framed poster gave the schedule and some selling points: "away from the dusty and crowded roads, seeing beautiful scenery, not visible from the highways." Indeed that was so.
The most exciting train trip we took was up the side of Mount Snowdon. This is the only rack and pinion railway in Britain. It is also the steepest train ride as Mount Snowdon is the highest mountain in England and Wales. The first party that climbed Mount Everest trained here, and on a clear day you can see across to Ireland 100 miles away. The Snowdon Mountain Railway has been around for over a hundred years and was restored with public funds and a one million pound donation by Welsh native, Anthony Hopkins, the notorious cannibal Hannibal Lecter of Silence of The Lambs.
We arrived at the train station at the base of the mountain and the place smelled as though it were on fire. Along came our locomotive, named, of all things, George. We took our seats on antique green wooden benches with cushions in a car for eight.
The engine, which in this case, can be either steam or diesel is behind the cars, instead of in front. The chug-a-chug, along with the small stone houses and sheep dotting the countryside, fascinated the children aboard as we set out in a big cloud of black smoke. There were bushes and grass to see but no trees, alongside hills that look as though they had been hollowed out. We saw people walking both up and down on a crisscross of trails separated by stone fences. Lavender flowers clung to the mountainside where a wide well worn path held a stream of people.
About half way up, George, our train, stopped to let off people and get water to make more steam, and to pick up passengers. Shadows of clouds moved across the mountains and gray rocks with deep gouges where the sun shone on them. Our whole train was wreathed in smoke by now or was it clouds? As we got closer to the top, we saw a lake below and grass clinging to craggy outcroppings. When we reached the summit station, 1065 meters above sea-level, we found ourselves in a new world.
It was winter up there on that July day: cold, gusty, rainy. The wind was whipping our clothes around so much that we gave up all thoughts of walking around the peak. We were in a different season, almost otherworldly. We raced into the shelter that offered snacks, souvenirs and pictures of the early days atop this mountain. One picture from the 20's showed waitresses serving at the summit, in traditional Welsh clothing, right down to the high hats that looked like those of witches.
We ventured outside again. "It's pea soup up here," said Richard who could see practically nothing. We were enveloped in clouds but finally made out a few hardy back packers and a sign that said "hot embers can be discharged from the steam engine".
We were glad to board the train for the descent during which Charley and Harry, two young Brits with their dad, asked the perennial question, "Are we there yet?" As we rode along, the rocks looked like at any moment they'd come rolling down, but they didn't. Soon enough we'd come back from the past and into the light of day.
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