Head for The Ffestiniog Railway and take the train through the Welsh Highlands from Caernarfon to Blaenau Ffestiniog
The Ffestiniog Railway is the world’s oldest narrow gauge railway with almost 200 years of history, taking you on a 13½-mile journey from the harbour in Porthmadog to the slate-quarrying town of Blaenau Ffestiniog. The Welsh Highland Railway is the UK’s longest heritage railway and runs for 25 miles from Caernarfon, past the foot of Snowdon to Porthmadog.
Your journey starts on the Welsh Highland Railway at Caernarfon. Before boarding take a tour of the imposing castle, which Edward I hoped would cement his triumph over north Wales. Once on board, your route snakes through Bontnewydd and Dinas (where you can often spot unusual wagons in the sidings) towards Waunfawr, where Marconi made his the first radio transmission from the UK to Australia. Moderately easy, circular walks start from each of these stations.
Distance: almost 40 miles in all (13 1/2 on the Ffestiniog Railway)
Duration: 2 hours on Welsh Highland; 1 hour 15 mins on Ffestiniog (not including stop-offs)
The train then climbs steep gradients and tight turns to arrive at Rhyd Ddu, a jumping-off point for Snowdon-bound walkers and climbers. You pass the glistening waters of Llyn y Gader and climb to the summit of Pitts Head, rapidly zig-zagging down to pretty Beddgelert. Here, alight to visit St Mary’s Church, built on the site of an Augustinian priory, and learn about the region’s mineral wealth at the Sygun Copper Mine. The railway then heads for the dramatic Aberglaslyn Pass (alight at Nantmor for walks) before descending towards Porthmadog.
Here you can simply cross the platform to the sister Ffestiniog Railway for the next leg of your journey. Your final destination, Blaenau Ffestiniog, was once the heart of the 19th-century Welsh slate industry. The line was initially constructed for wagons laden with slate to rumble down to the port, powered only by gravity and controlled by skillful brakesmen who leapt from wagon to wagon tightening or loosening the brakes.
Steam locomotives were introduced in the 1860s. Minffordd is your first main stop: alight here to visit Portmeirion, the bizarre but captivating Italianate village created by visionary Welsh architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis and used as the backdrop for the 1960s TV series The Prisoner. Leaving Minffordd, the train passes Bron y Garth hospital (a workhouse in the 19th century) and climbs up to Penrhyn and into the Snowdonia National Park.
Sir Clough Williams-Ellis’ family home, Plas Brondanw, with its beguiling gardens, lies a mile from Penrhyn station.
After Tan y Bwlch (watch out for the tunnel barely wide enough for the train) and Dduallt (where the line crosses over itself on the UK’s only railway spiral) you pass Llyn Ystradau reservoir and its power station, and rows of classic 19th-century cottages at Tanygrisiau. The journey finishes at Blaenau Ffestiniog, where you can discover the full story of the slate mines at the Llechwedd Slate Caverns (a bus runs from the station).