Snowdonia Trip – Day 2: Ffestiniog Railway

Our day started waking up in Birmingham, with news stories of Storm Brian heading over Ireland and into Wales. We left before six, checked out of our budget hotel and headed for the train station. When we walked in, we heard a station announcement that the train to Aberystwyth had been cancelled between Birmingham and Wolverhampton. We checked the boards, and saw a train leaving to Wolverhampton in a few minutes. A quick check online confirmed that we could make the connection, so we raced down to the platform and boarded the train. We only made it because we were at the station early, otherwise we would have been playing catch-up all day.

Instead of going direct to Wolverhampton, the train stopped at quite a few times, so we only had a few minutes to change trains. Fortunately, both trains parked at the same platform, so it was the easiest connection possible. Our train sped through the dark of England, and crossed the border into Wales just as dawn was breaking.

Already, the rain was coming down fairly hard. We watched out of our muddy and wet window as the rolling hills started to grow into bigger mountains. Soon, we could see Snowdonia in the distance through the fog. We got off at Machynlleth, where the Aberystwyth and Pwllheli branches diverge. Our connecting train arrived shortly after on the other platform, but only after we had to wait out in the now heavy rain and wind.

Our train took us along the west coast of Wales. The effects of Storm Brian were clear. The sea was approaching high tide, coupled with heavy rain and strong winds made a fairly bad storm surge. For parts of the journey, the railway followed along a breakwater, and the waves were lapping up at the tracks. Strong waves would crash into the rocks and splash up onto the train. One point was covered in foam from the ocean, which spilled over onto the tracks, splashing foam onto the window beyond. Our guard looked nervous; the railway was essentially underwater which is unsafe, especially for braking.

The track rose higher above the coast, and we could see the spray coming up from the rocks below. The conductor got a message on her phone, saying the train had been cancelled beyond Porthmadog, which was fortunate for us because that was our intended destination. We later found that the line we had just traversed was also closed; so we were fortunate to have made it this far. When we were pulling in to Porthmadog, we could see a steam train puffing smoke in the distance. We knew we were going to make it.

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We disembarked at Porthmadog, and were greeted by extremely strong winds and heavy rain. Covered in scarves and rain coats, we walked through the high street to the Ffestiniog railway station by the harbour. Our short walk left us cold and wet, so we huddled into the station kiosk to warm up with some food and drink. We collected our train ticket and watched as the steam train shunted carriages around the yard. The Ffestiniog railway was originally built to transport slate from the mines in Blaenau Ffestiniog to the port. It is a narrow gauge line that has now been converted to tourist operations. The line is serviced by a number of locomotives, notable for their double ends. Each engine has two funnels, two fireboxes, two boilers and so on, connected at one cab.

Shunting complete, we boarded the train and it took us briefly along the coast before heading inland. We stopped for a while at our first stop, Minffordd, because the fires in one of the engines had gone out and they were having trouble restarting them. Before too long, we were on our way again. Our journey took us by beautiful lookouts through Snowdonia, showing us mountains and valleys. We climbed the only railway spiral in Britain, and despite the wet and cold, thoroughly enjoyed the journey.

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An hour and a half after we set off, we arrived at our final destination: Blaenau Ffestiniog. Here, the narrow gauge and mainline railways sit side-by-side. We stopped briefly by the gift shop before heading for the nearest cafe we could find for soup and warm food. Rain and wind still hammered us, so we went to check into our hotel. Unfortunately, the hotel wasn’t going to open and check us in until 3 pm, so we needed to find something else to do. Faced with the terrible weather, we found another cafe and had some apple crumble to spend the time. Finally, we could check in, and so made our way up to our room. We turned up the heaters and hung up our wet clothes, taking the afternoon to warm up.

Come evening, we headed out in search of food. Not a lot seemed to be open; two of the pubs in town were missing their chef, so we ended up at a Bangladeshi restaurant, which was the only non-takeaway restaurant in town. Again, the food was warm, which we greatly approved of. Finally, we headed back to the hotel and got some rest, waiting for the storm to end.

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