Yesterday, the sun shone, we wore short sleeves, and we took a train ride on one of the most spectacular routes in the whole of Wales - from Machynlleth (known as 'Mach')to Porthmadog.
In places, the line ran right beside the sea and, in others, it gave us views of mountains we simply couldn't hope to enjoy from a car. The day's outing was an absolute bargain too - two hours there and two hours back, a Day Rover ticket for us oldies with Senior Railcards cost just £5.95 each! We could have hopped on and off along the way (although we didn't) and we could have travelled another half hour each way as far as Pwllheli for the same price.
You're dying to know how to pronounce Pwllheli aren't you? Well, the 'w' is pronounced 'oo', the double 'l' as 'th', and the 'h' is almost silent (like the ‘p’ in 'bath', as the old joke goes). So it's Pooth_eli.
Anyway, we only went as far as Porthmadog (say 'Port_maddock' in English).
The comfortable, two-carriage train with big picture-windows came complete with driver, friendly conductor/fare-collector and an on-board cleaner wearing a t-shirt proclaiming 'Train Presentation Team'.
Aberdyfi (Aberdovey)Although busy at holiday times, the beach and dunes are wonderfully deserted in term-time
Our route was just part of the Birmingham-Wolverhampton-Telford-Shrewsbury-Machynlleth-Pwllheli service, either all the way through or with a change of trains in Mach. Wales is a very popular holiday destination for Brummies!
From Mach, the line snaked west along the edge of the Dyfi estuary, passing a nest on a pole that’s currently home to a family of rare Ospreys at the Dyfi Osprey Project(we popped in there recently as we were passing and saw Monty and Nora, the parent birds, with one of three eggs about to hatch, being monitored on closed-circuit screens).
As our journey continued, ornithologists would have been thrilled with good views of the many Oyster Catchers and Shelducks, and even a pair of Herons, feeding on the estuary’s low-tide mud as the train clackety-clacked along rock ledges just feet from the water’s edge. Through a few short tunnels, we reached a request halt at Penhelig, then on to Aberdyfi, mentioned in my previous blog (You're welcome to Wales...).
From here, the line turned north, hugging the coast, with stunning seascapes, to Tywyn (pronounced Tau_win). We’ve visited this little seaside place numerous times and we’ve travelled on the Tallylyn Railway that has its home here. The
Tallylyn narrow-gauge steam railway was built to carry slate down to the main line and, in 1951, it was the first railway in the world to be rescued from closure by volunteers.
No time today though as our train sounded its horn and picked up speed, passing the distant Birds’ Rock (Craig yr Aderyn); once a sea-cliff, Cormorants still nest here, though the sea’s now several miles away.
Further on, across a lagoon formed by the River Dysynni, was another request stop, Tonfanau. No-one had asked the conductor to stop here – not surprising really as, amid flat arable land, the army base and farm for which the platforms existed were now demolished or in ruins.
Further up the line, dozens of tents of all sizes, shapes and colours were pitched within feet of the cliff edge – very dodgy if nature calls in the night and you don’t have a good torch! If we’d been capable of higher speeds, some would have been in danger of being blown away too as we passed on their landward side, just feet from their canvas doors!
Around Llwyngwril (they’re not strong on vowels hereabouts and I’ll have to
Fields and mountainsThroughout the route, the mountains formed a superb backdrop to the green fields.
leave you guess how this one might be pronounced!), mile after mile of fields were edged by characteristic dry stone walls keeping flocks of sheep from straying. From a ledge along the cliff top, after passing through an avalanche shelter, there were terrific views towards Barmouth and the Llŷn Peninsula.
The line continued on a reinforced ridge where, in 2005, there’d been a massive landslip that closed it for many weeks. Far below, approaching Fairbourne, a sweeping crescent of pale golden sand, edged with huge, concrete ‘dragon’s teeth’ tank defences from WWII, was deserted except for a few people braving what looked like a very chilly Irish Sea.
Morfa Mawddach, once a busy junction with the Great Western Railway to Wrexham, was almost as deserted but heralded the mile-long wooden bridge across the River Mawddach to Barmouth. Above the town, although we couldn’t see it from the train, was Dinas Olau, the first piece of land ever given to the National Trust. You'll find photos of Barmouth and its bridge on my previous blog.
Three or four minutes later we reached Llanaber, halfway point on our journey to Porthmadog. Here the railway ran right along the beach
on huge concrete blocks held together by chains to protect them from the sea.
The train now turned inland, sounding its horn at occasional unmanned road crossings and stopping briefly at Dyffryn Ardudwy to allow a family with beach chairs and a picnic basket to get off. They must have had a taxi waiting because the sand dunes were on the horizon and the only other place of interest here was a Neolithic burial chamber dating back to 3500BC.
Approaching the coast again, the disused hangars of a former airbase at Llanbedr came into view. Before the base closed five or six years ago, unmanned aircraft were flown from here and used for target practice. Just beyond, at distant Shell Beach – so called because it’s strewn with shells after winter storms - lay the largest campsite in Europe.
Two more halts followed – Pensarn with its picturesque sailing creek and Llandanwg, where the 13th-century church is sometimes engulfed by the sand dunes after a storm.
Then the UNESCO World Heritage site of Harlech Castle came into view, perched high on the rocks above the station. This is another of those places associated with the 15th-century
rebel Owain Glyndŵr, who spent five years here. The later seven-year siege of the castle during the Wars of the Roses has been immortalised in the stirring song “Men of Harlech”, much loved by Welsh male-voice choirs. I can hear it now. So can you - in or, if you prefer, in <a href=" Although unrelated, some may also recall the song with a version of the English lyrics in the horrific final battle scene of the film <a href=" Tygwyn, the towers of the Italianate village of Portmeirion appeared across the estuary. We’ve visited this fantastic creation of architect Clough Williams-Ellis several times over the years and it never ceases to amaze with its creative re-use of buildings and sculptures and its exotic gardens. Some, like us, may also remember it as the sinister village in the 1960s cult TV series "The Prisoner", which starred Patrick McGoohan. We recommend a visit if you’re ever in the area.
A vast area of salt marsh followed, with large flocks of sheep noted for the unique flavour that grazing here gives to their meat. There were hundreds of geese around the water’s edge too.
the little request stop at Llandecwyn had to go to the centre of the train as the platform is so short there’s only room for one door to be opened. Just after, the railway and a road share the same bridge. Cars have to pay a toll and cross one at a time.
Then, after the nature reserve at Penrhyndeudraeth (pronounce it: Pen_rin_die_dreth), where once there was an explosives factory, it was on to Minfordd. This is the station you’ll need for Portmeirion, although it’s still at least a mile away by car or on foot. Minfordd is also an interchange with the Ffestiniog Railway that climbs for 1 hour 15 minutes up into the Snowdonia mountains to the slate capital of Blaenau Ffestiniog. You can also join this narrow-gauge heritage railway from the Harbour Station at Porthmadog, about ten minutes away.
Our train then crossed the marshland of the Glaswyn estuary, reclaimed in the 1820s by the visionary William Maddocks. His was a grand scheme to create agricultural land and improve transport links between London and Ireland. It transformed the area, allowing slate from Blaenau Ffestinog, some 11 miles away, to be loaded onto tall ships for
CrabbingA popular pastime for kids and their dads: catching small crabs (which are later released back into the sea) from the quayside at Porthmadog.
export all over the world. It’s thought that Porthmadog was named after him. From the 1830s until 1974, when it was renamed to the Welsh pronunciation and spelling, it was actually called Port Madoc. There’s an alternative theory that it was named after Prince Madog ap Owain Gwynedd who is said to have discovered America by sea 300 years before Columbus!
The town of Porthmadog starts a short walk from the station, although one’s first real encounter with a shop is a large Tesco supermarket and car park. The ‘port’, where you first see the sea, is about a quarter of an hour's leisurely walk. Along the way, you’ll find a wide variety of one-off shops and eating houses busily catering to family visitors. While you’ll receive a warm welcome in these little, independently-owned places, you may find some of them a little bit ‘tired’. One exception for a snack lunch, if you want to avoid dull fish & chips and hamburger joints, is a deli called Y Bwtri at 78 High Street that sells cheese, pâté, cold meat and the like but prepares lovely fresh baguettes, baps and sandwiches stuffed full of good stuff, to take away or
Cader IdrisThe mountain from across the Mawddach estuary.
to eat at one of their three little tables.
Away from the hustle and bustle, you’ll discover the old harbour with pleasure boats at anchor, children crabbing from the quaysides, some smart houses, and a couple of little places for a cuppa.
We found just about enough here to while away a couple of hours before returning to the station for the journey back to Machynlleth. We’d sat on the left-hand side of the train on the way here to enjoy the sea views. On the way back, we took the same seats to enjoy the mountain views, including the one in the panorama at the top of this blog (and repeated in full here) of Cader Idris towering over the Mawddach estuary.
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