21.7.09

A wet weekend in Wales


Princess in the bar
Originally uploaded by fred pipes
My third coach trip weekend with Newmarket was to a very wet and windy North Wales. It was a day longer than the previous ones, but that meant that two days of holiday were sandwiched between two whole days of monotonous tedium (or was it tedious monotony - I did warn you in my top tips page) - early mornings, motorways, traffic jams and motorway services. Maybe it's a light and shade thing, you need the tiresome days to make the other days more exciting.

So on Friday 17 July, after a 6.30 start and a taxi to Madeira Drive, a group of us travelled by minibus to Crawley to join the main coach. On board was our Tour Guide Will, with a voice like Richard Wilson's in Tutti Frutti. After pick-ups in Sutton and Croydon, the coach made its way through central London. Three hours later we were in Brixton, caught in road works, and four hours later we were in South Mimms services for our first stop. After stops in Norton Canes (tea £1.95 - but they had free wifi!) and Chester services, we eventually arrived at our hotel, the Westminster, in rainswept Rhyl.

Now the photo on the brochure looks like it's in its own grounds, but it was cunningly shot from a tiny strip of flowers and palm trees on a wall by the bus station. Inside it was faded grandure, with food to match. My single room was tiny, despite paying a single supplement, overlooking the back so I was able to watch a couple of baby seagulls on a flat roof try to stay alive in the wind and rain. I thought one of them only had one leg, but it was probably trying to preserve heat! I know how it felt - I should have packed a scarf and wooly hat.

Day 2 (Saturday 18 July) started with a good hearty breakfast brought by chirpy scouse waitress: porridge, scrambled egg plus beans on toast. Then it was off to Llandudno to drop off those not going on our excursion. It would have been nice to have time there going up the Great Orme on the cable railway, for example, but no time even for a quick dash along the seafront. First stop was Caernarfon and a few minutes to buy a paper, look at the castle (there was some kind of military display going on) and then it was on to the Welsh Highland Railway to catch the 11.35 to Beddgelert (it doesn't yet join up with Porthmadog).

Joy of joys, the train came in pulled by a K1 Garrett, the first ever, built in Manchester to Mr Garratt's patent no. 12079-1909, and shipped out to Tasmania and thence to Wales. Now, I've never really liked narrow-gauge locos much - until now - this was a full-size loco on 2ft-gauge wheels! Half way along the line, at Rhdd Ddu, we saw another Beyer-Garratt coming the other way, this time a much bigger 2-6-2+2-6-2 (built 1937) in 'photographic grey'.

We alighted at Beddgelert and I had time for a half of dark mild in a pub with a Welsh name (the chap at the bar and the barmaid were also talking Welsh, so I hope they weren't being rude!) before we set off over the Llanberis Pass for views and a stop at Snowdon base camp at Llanberis. There was some kind of race going on by very thin lanky people up to the summit and back, but I spotted the Lake Railway train in the station so legged it and got on for a short ride to Penllyn and back pulled by the dinky No. 1 Elidir, a Hunslet 0-4-0ST. The youngish driver put a couple of baked potatoes into the smokebox for his tea. We saw a steam boat in the lake too.

I managed a quick look at the Snowdon Mountain Railway, but although there were two steam locos in the shed, the engine I saw setting off was a diesel No. 11 Peris. Then it was back in the coach to Rhyl and the hotel. They'd booked a lady singing entertainer so I retired to my room and Casualty 1909 (running late cos of the golf) on the tiny telly perched high in the corner of the room.

Portmeirion, north Wales

On Day 3 (Sunday 19 July) we drove straight to Portmeirion, a colourful Italianate village built by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis between 1925 and 1975. It's best known as being The Village in cult tv drama The Prisoner, starring Patrick McGoohan (with whom I share a birthday!). It's like Charleston Farmhouse on acid, with statues and wall paintings everywhere. And the houses are not just facades - people actually live in them! It's basically a long road that sweeps downhill to the estuary, with squares large and small off it. I had a cappuccino (a hefty £2.45) in Battery Square, but did get to read the Indy and write a couple of postcards in the drizzle. Of course I visited The Prisoner shop but didn't buy a No. 6 badge.

The coach then took us to nearby Porthmadog and I had a pint of Dark and Delicious (Carvedale Brewery) whilst admiring Princess, the world's first narrow gauge loco (1863), on static display in the bar. Then the train came in pulled by push-me pull-you loco 0-4-0+0-4-0T No. 10 Merddin Emrys, the oldest operating double Fairlie on the Ffestiniog Railway (it was built in 1879). The trip to Blaenau Ffestiniog is quite breathtaking, starting with The Cob, a long causeway, out of Porthmadog, then climbing up into the mountains, including the spiral loop at Dduallt. Spotted Blanche coming the other way at Tan-y-Bwlch.

At Blaenau Ffestiniog we crossed the line to take the Arriva diesel back to Llandudno Junction along the Conwy Valley Line, via Betwys-y-Coed (which looked a riot with all its miniature railways and trams) and Conwy Castle. The wind had dropped so I had a quick walk round the town, which apart from a nice Art Deco cinema (now the Apollo bingo hall) near the station, has little to recommend it, sorry. Back at the hotel, they'd booked a Frank Sinatra tribute act so I retired to my telly and emergency tins of Mackeson and hip flask.

On Day 4 the sun was out for the first time and it was time for the long drive home, revisiting Norton Canes and South Mimms motorway services on the way. This is probably the last coach trip like this I will take - the getting to and from the location are just too tedious to justify coach travel, I'd much rather take the train and join the coach trip when I get there, if that's possible.

Railways visited:

  1. The Welsh Highland Railway: the best locos in my opinion and I will deffo go back when the line is completed.

  2. The Llanberis Lake Railway: very scenic and enjoyable, but one to tick off.

  3. The Snowdon Mountain Railway: only caught a glimpse, but would love to go back and let the train take the strain to the summit of England and Wales's highest peak.

  4. The Ffestiniog Railway: well worth a visit, with very unusual double boiler locos and magnificent scenery.

  5. The Conwy Valley Line: not a heritage railway as such, but reasonably scenic.

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