The Ffestiniog Railway and the Great Little Trains of Wales

Ffestiniog Railway, Blaenau Ffestiniog, Gwynedd

Ffestiniog Railway, Blaenau Ffestiniog, Gwynedd

Blaenau Ffestiniog, Gwynedd, Wales

Some of my best family memories during my son’s growing-up years revolve around taking trains and visiting train and trolley museums.

As I wrote in ‘Bittersweet: Afternoon at the East Anglia Transport Museum’, Clive and I enjoyed taking his father to see (and ride) older vehicles in England. We also love travelling on more modern trains, especially the Eurostar between Paris and London

Wales has an interesting mix of modern trains and restored ‘little trains’.

The Great Little Trains of Wales

The Great Little Trains of Wales is a tourist initiative developed in the 1970’s to showcase and promote Wales’ narrow-gauge steam trains, along with its history and scenery.

These Welsh trains are ‘little’ because they used to carry slate from quarries to the sea, and had to go inside mines and confined spaces to collect their cargo.

Today there are ten railway lines included in the Great Little Trains of Wales. One is the Llanberis Lake Railway, which runs to and fro along the shores of Llyn Padarn, as we discovered on our Accidental Walk.

Llanberis Lake Railway, Llyn (Lake) Padarn

Llanberis Lake Railway, Llyn (Lake) Padarn

As with similar endeavours the world over, much of the success of Wales’ little trains is due to the dedication and support of volunteers.

Railway brochures encourage everyone to get involved, and many of the trains are driven by enthusiastic, silver-haired retirees.

The Ffestiniog Railway

Like many of Wales’ little trains, the Ffestiniog Railway in northwest Wales grew and declined with the slate industry.

The Ffestiniog line runs for 13.5 miles, starting at the coast in Porthmadog and gradually climbing through places with names like Minffordd, Penrhyn, and Tan-y-Bwlch.

Ffestiniog Railway stop at Tanybwlch, Gwynedd

Ffestiniog Railway stop at Tanybwlch, Gwynedd

The day we took this train was grey and damp, not great for walking but good for experiencing the mysterious, dreamy aspects of the Welsh countryside when it’s shrouded in clouds and fog.

Welsh countryside near Blaenau Ffestiniog

Welsh countryside near Blaenau Ffestiniog

The Ffestiniog Railway climbs through hills and forests, eventually ending in the mountains at the slate-quarrying town of Blaenau Ffestiniog.

Railway station at Blaenau Ffestiniog, Gwynedd

Railway station at Blaenau Ffestiniog, Gwynedd

We loved the scenery on our train ride, and riding in the old carriages, complete with an attendant coming around with a nice cup of tea.

The little trains of Wales are popular with all ages. Our train was full, and we wished we had more time to take the recently-restored Welsh Highland Railway from Porthmadog to Caernarfon.

Seeing the little trains of Wales reminded me of ‘Travel,’ the poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay, especially this stanza:
  My heart is warm with the friends I make
  And better friends I’ll be knowing;
  Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,
  No matter where it’s going.

On the Ffestiniog Railway, Gwynedd, Wales

On the Ffestiniog Railway, Gwynedd, Wales

Ffestiniog & Welsh Highland Railways
Llanberis Lake Railway
The Great Little Trains of Wales

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10 Responses

  1. Hi Carol,

    Oh, if only more Americans had a love affair with trains as opposed to automobiles because the United States would have a much better train system. Even so riding the train from here to New York is still entertaining and less stressful than driving into Manhattan. Don’t always arrive on time, however. Nice picture of you next to the engine.

    I love a house with a slate roof. My father grew up in Slatington, PA when the slate industry was still going strong. Many Welsh immigrated to the Lehigh Valley to work in the slate quarries. Do you know that you can’t tell the current manufactured slate from the real thing. I have been watching roofers work on the alumni center here at Penn State, and am fascinated with how closely the manufactured stuff resembles the real thing, and supposedly can last even longer than real slate.

    I have always heard that a slate roof should last 50 years, but most of these have gone over 75 years. Unfortunately it is such a huge expense to replace, and few people are available who do that kind of work that replacement roofs are often conventional asphalt shingles. Too bad.

  2. The Welsh Tourism board should be paying you for this series of blogs, because now I want my next trip to be to Wales! How beautiful and full of history! Kudos for the fascinating blog posts, Carol!

  3. Hi Carolyn,
    How I love trains ! Hats off to groups such as in Wales that preserve this part of their heritage and also share it with everyone.

    The mining aspect of Wales is interesting also. I have a link to the miners elsewhere, as my gr-gr-grandad mined coal in Central PA. It is a very hard and perillous way to earn a living, but generations of men and children have been to the mines.

    As usual, great pics my dear !

    Cheers to you & Clive :)

  4. Eleanor, I’d forgotten about the Pennsylvania mining connection – really interesting.

    Amanda, thank you for your very kind post – it means a lot to me! I think Wales is a great destination for all ages, including young children.

    Barbara, how fascinating your ancestors were also part of the Pennsylvania slate mining industry. It’s a small world :) After visiting Wales, we have increased appreciation and respect for the miners’ lives.

  5. Hi Carolyn,
    Very nice story about the Welsh Railways. This must be the best kept secret in the travel industry.
    I’m a train buff, and found the Ffestiniog Railway by chance.
    Back in 1980 on my first trip to the U.K., I went out to Port Merion, near Porthmadog to take some pictures of “The Village” from “The Prisoner” BBC show, for my Brother. While making my way down the valley from Ffestiniog, I became aware of some tiny tracks along the road, and followed them to the station at Porthmadog. As I remember one of the Double Fairlies, and “Prince” back then in green paint where working.
    I instantly fell in love with the little railway, and have been back several times since. It would be many more, but for me it is a minimum 14 hour plane ride to Manchester. That and I’m not a wealthy man, just a truck driver, so these trips have to be planed for.
    Next year though, got to get back, what with the Welsh Highland being finished. That must be quite the ride.
    Let’s not forget, a hour south, the Talyllyn Railway and Museum. Wonderful little ride and don’t pass up the Tea room at the end of the line. Makes a nice trip. And quite frankly the little Talyllyn could use the business as their bottom line needs to improve this year. Be a shame to lose this great bit of history.

    • I will second the need for support for the Talyllyn Railway … it was the first railway in the world to attract the attention of a Preservation Society, and definitely has a place in railway history.

      • travelrat, that’s interesting about the first railway to attract a Preservation Society – fantastic!

        We will put this railway on our travel wish list :)

        Cheers and thanks.

  6. Klaus, thanks for your comment and tip regarding the Talyllyn Railway – it sounds great. Interesting how you originally found the railways, too!

    Cheers and good luck – hope you do get back to Wales and their wonderful little railways soon.

  7. They recently commemorated the 100th anniversary of the birth of their founder … see http://travelrat.wordpress.com/2010/02/10/tom-rolt-and-the-talyllyn-railway. I’m hoping to visit before too long, & get some video.

  8. Interesting, travelrat — thanks for the link and cheers to Tom Rolt for his vision in saving a great ilttle railway of Wales.

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