Seaside Special - The Cambrian Line: Ceredigion and Gwynedd

I’d already been travelling for a couple of hours, but the journey only felt like it was properly beginning as we left Shrewsbury. Something to do with the train reversing out of the junction station in the direction it had entered. As if a newly configured service.

Where once I had been sat in the front two coaches, as the electronic signage had directed me at the newly rebuilt Birmingham New Street, I was now in the rear two. And on the wrong side for the view of sweeping coastline that I was keenly anticipating from my carefully chosen window seat.

Not long out of the station, we skirted the Shrewsbury signal box on the opposite side to my arrival a few minutes earlier. Not just any old junction control housing, though. This was the largest working mechanical signal box in the world. Oh yes. 

The conductor appeared. This proved to be the catalyst for a passenger migration only surpassed by the partition of India. Slightly fewer fatalities, in truth. Every time the portly conductor squeezed his oversize girth through the narrow aisle, he was asked the same question about where they should be sitting for Pwllheli, Aberystwyth, etc, etc, followed by sighs of relief or the gathering up of possessions and a move forward. Or back. The couple next to me were particularly aggrieved that they had to shift.  Moaning about rubbish information on the platform and the general incompetence of Arriva Trains Wales. Harsh, I thought.

I was learning a lot about Welsh language pronunciation from the conductor, looking increasingly jaundiced of completion. I also learned that I was in the right part of the train for that anticipated picture-window experience after all.

A more obvious reason for the sense that the real journey had started was the changing scenery. The world seemed to open out in the Welsh Marches. The land steadily rose into ancient, round topped upland hills, mostly marked out for pasture, but with a few coniferous plantations punctuating the horizon. Only the higher peaks were left to open heathland and sparse deciduous woodland. Agriculture had gradually taken over the landscape.

The further into Wales we travelled, the fewer industrial developments we saw. The cargo handling centres, gas and water plants and cavernous distribution terminals that had dominated the north West Midlands became increasingly rare. The water beside the rail tracks changed from canal infrastructure to sparkling rivers and brooks. Houses became greyer, with more whitewash and the appearance of Welsh slate on the roofs. Beyond the settlements, farmsteads became rugged in construction and handsomely uncomplicated by architectural finesse. Flinty, even.

There was further passenger anxiety when the train split at Machynlleth. The on-board indicator and automated announcements were both determinedly telling us that the train destination was Aberystwyth, testing once more my confidence that I was in the right bit of train. When a new, much more relaxed conductor breezed through the carriage and said we were Pwllheli-bound, the lads who had joined the train on my right performed an ironic fist pump/knuckle touch duet.

The journey actually splits after Dovey Junction, where there is a station and literally nothing else. Even the Cambrian Railway guide describes the lonely platforms as “convenient for nowhere”. We crossed over the wide river Dovey by means of a low bridge; and the south bound-tracks arced away on the far bank. This was estuary-land where the coast and the mountains of Snowdonia met the broadening river valley. The track followed the brackish water’s edge, sandwiched between all three. Buddleia clung to the rock on the right-hand side of the train, scratching the windows. Botany right in your face.

Anthony Lambert in his book ‘Greatest Train Journeys of the World’ describes the route from Dovey Junction to Pwllheli as “perhaps the finest stretch of coastal railway in Britain”. Lambert recalls the Cambrian Express during Rail’s Golden Age when you could board a train for this destination at Paddington and take advantage of the dining car through Leamington Spa, Wolverhampton Low Level and Snow Hill before an engine change at Shrewsbury necessitated by the weight restricted Cambrian Line. No hint of train reversing out of stations, dubious signage and passengers clambering around for window seats. A Golden Age indeed.

Nevertheless, I lapped up the picture-window experience in this Information Age, happy that the journey still existed even in this utilitarian form. Hazy sun was glistening on the water’s surface. The estuary was busy with fishers of all description: rod and line together with beak and bill. The area is good for waders apparently. I guessed that the gangly-legged specimens on the sandbars across the estuary were members of the local angling club. Sandpipers and Redshanks were also on view. (That’s a joke.)

Across the estuary the windows and greenhouses of Borth, first stop on the southbound branch, glinted in the sunlight. We headed away north. The partition was complete.

The first station on this branch was Penhelig. The platform’s elevated position offered a view over the perfect little pastel shaded village onto the esplanade and out across the bay. The settlement was hardly big enough to warrant a station in this day and age, even if it was only a two-hourly single-track service. Maybe the village wasn’t so perfect: I was fascinated by the array of spikes at various angles and of different lengths on all the chimney pots and nearly all the buildings. There was obviously a significant problem with gull guano.  

By the time we reached Aberdovey the caravan parks had made an appearance. Hurray. Plenty of them too. As my journey continued, I applauded, through gritted teeth, the developers who had managed to cluster the flocks of caravans around every decent coastal vantage point available. I’ve really tried not to be snobby about them in this series, all too aware of my stylistic wrestle with Paul Theroux. But bloody hell, they are rarely pretty. Unlovely tin boxes crushed up against each other, with little attempt to disguise, camouflage or blend them into the landscape. A defiant and brash statement occupying all the best spots by the sea.

The train turned inland and we passed another characteristically coastal feature. The links golf course. I’m not saying trains are rare in these parts, but the ladies on the twelfth tee waved at us.

Maybe the trains should be less rare, because by Tywyn, the service was really busy. Spontaneously lured, I speculated, by the prospect of a day by the seaside on a baking hot day. One extended family gathering was obviously beach bound, advertised by giveaway clues like brightly coloured, overstuffed nylon bags, fold up chairs and p├ętanque sets. It wasn’t a shopping trip at any rate.

The Llyn Peninsula twisted away westwards as the train meandered northwards with Snowdonia now up close and personal to the east. Rounding the headland near Fairbourne Bay, the track seemed to balance precariously on a ledge in the mountains with a sheer 40-foot drop into the sea on my left. The track, literally carved out of the cliff, was pretty hairy at this point and I noticed that the 20mph speed limit was being adhered to. Blocks of boulders in wire mesh cages were piled at the water’s edge, and stacked up against the cliff in neat rows. They were the only thing between the train and a wild-west style ravine plunge. (One should never be shy of injecting a bit of travel drama. Michael Palin shouldn't get all the fun.)

I later read that a landslip on New Year’s Day in 1883 derailed the evening train from Machynlleth at this point. The loco and crew were smashed on the rocks below, whilst the carriages teetered on the edge. The incident prompted the construction of an avalanche shelter above the track.

Fairbourne itself was an odd, reasonably modern place with a miniature railway station adjacent to the station which meandered out to the headland. Maybe the recent (ish) construction of Fairbourne as a dedicated resort town was the reason that there was no Welsh name at all on the station sign. The only town on the line not to have one.

As we pulled away, I attempted to temper my abuse of the caravan park. So many parts of the coastline were uncluttered by such manifestations. The rolling stretch in which the small village of Dyffryn Ardudwy sat was wonderfully unsullied. The further north and west we travelled the more sparse became the landscape. And the tinier the stations. Tonfanau was almost closed in 1995. The guide to Aberystwyth observes that “Tonfanau doesn't really serve anywhere now. Indeed, it's rural enough that it was easier to put up a wind turbine to power the platform lights than try to connect to mains electricity.” At Tygwyn the train pulled into a station so small that the last carriage blocked the level crossing beyond the platform. Set back from the coast, the station was framed neatly by woodland and rolling hills, with a placid river winding down to the sea.

Pwllheli. End of the line. I found the town a little disorientating at first. The area round the station was fairly uninspiring with its modern functional buildings occupied by Wilko, Costa, Subway and the like. I found a chippie on the new market square and munched on battered sausage as I considered my options. I thought I was on the way to the coast. In fact I had found a dead-end at a car breakers just beyond a dreary looking amusement park. This was not a great start. Doubling back, I sat by the inner harbour to finish my snack.

A couple from Colwyn Bay joined me on the bench. They had come here on a restored 1950’s Britannia service bus as part of a magical mystery tour. After lunch in a posh restaurant in Betws-y-coed and high tea in Criccieth, they looked a bit underwhelmed by Pwllheli. “Not many seats are there?” He was a Lanc by birth. Never happy.

I trundled on in my search for the beach. After a schlep across a bit of scrub land adjacent to part of the inner harbour fenced off by ugly 10-foot metal railings and then onto a council estate, I was beginning to feel the same way as my Lancashire cousins.

Cutting through the housing, I found a path over the dunes that finally revealed the sea! This was more like it. There was a fine walk along the top of the dunes as far as Gimlet Rock which marked the entrance to the sheltered, if convoluted harbour approach. A few teenagers were clambering over the rocks and sunbathing. I guessed this was the haunt of a few parties judging the shards of glass crunched into the fescue and bits of discarded clothing lying about…

The beach was mostly sand and shingle. And deserted. I passed two dog walkers and that was it. I retraced my steps and then carried on to a row of buildings where the dunes dropped down to road level. Maybe an esplanade, I thought. No. One closed hotel, one closed cafe and, round the corner, a closed and derelict tapas bar. This was Summer 2017. We can’t even blame the pesky pandemic.

I traipsed back along the path to what a tourist sign told me was the town centre. Surely I must be missing something, whilst the thought ‘sometimes it is not the destination but the journey itself that is the reason’ played around my head.

Back the town centre, the concrete square near the station looked even less appealing after the coast. I ventured further back in to the town. A good looking pub had been turned into an estate agents. There was a bookies next door to it. The Welsh for bookies was written on the sign. ‘bwci’, it said in lower case, which is pronounced bookie. Was this an example of retro language fitting?  

Probably. There was no doubt, however, that indigenous Welsh-speaking is on the march as a first language in this part of nationalist Wales - Plaid Cymru was founded in the town, after all. The days of switching from English to Welsh just to wind up the Southerner who has walked in to the pub appear to be over. The majority of people I passed in the street, in shops or in their front gardens were speaking Welsh. And I received the friendliest of welcomes everywhere I went. The stats would appear to back up this anecdotal observation. According to the 2011 census, 65.4% of Gwynedd residents are Welsh speakers. Though these numbers are spectacularly useless in supporting my friendliness assertion.

Venturing passed the bwci, I had to revise my opinion of the town. A grid of attractive, narrow, Welsh stone streets ascended the Cambrian foothills and hosted a fine array of independent shops and galleries offering something more characterful than the functional outlets around the square. There was a rewarding view over the town and out to sea from a winding road out of the shops and up a steep incline Meirion-Dwyfor college.

The town was very quiet though. By then it was about 5pm and it seemed that hardly anyone was about on the streets.

I stopped to read a plaque set in the wall of the Pen Cob pub and immediately understood the curious geography of the town. Pwllheli was originally a fishing settlement around a salt pool by the sea. Shipbuilding yards sprang up by the pool – now the inner harbour - along the foreshore and the creation of an embankment, known locally as the cob, protected the harbour. Following the draining of land to the south, the embankment connected the town to the new coastline. A new quay was built in the 1900’s. Subsequently, declining port trade led to the conversion of the inner harbour in to a marina. 

Time to move on from quiet Pwllheli. I took a train from the near-deserted station back down the line to Porthmadog. I was staying the night here. The place had a very different feel to the town I had just departed and also to the other traditional seaside towns on the line. Here, the history of slate quarries, shipbuilding and railway infrastructure explained why Porthmadog wasn’t a chocolate box town, but a handsomely made port and transport hub proud of its industrial heritage.

The port was originally named after William Maddock, an agricultural reformer in these parts. The Council's splendid town trail explained in lyrical terms that “Years ago this quay resounded to the squeaking sound of crane chains loading ships and the shouted instructions of stevedores. The steam train would have puffed and whistled to and fro and the sound of the creaking timber of tall masted ships would have echoed across the waters.” In its late 19th century heyday up to a thousand ships and 116,000 tons of Blaenau Ffestiniog slate passed through the harbour. The mine was deep in the hills above the town. Slate came down the narrow-gauge line on trains of 60-odd gravity-powered wagons. No other motive power was needed. The line and terminus next to the harbour still exists. This video is of a recent reconstruction of the bonkers slate gravity roller-coaster journey into Porthmadog. 'Faster, more reliable and more comfortable than Northern Rail' comments one wag! 

Harbour traffic is now resolutely small scale fishing and pleasure craft. In the other direction, Snowdonia.

Beyond the harbour I picked up a hydrangea-rich path over the headland. Sea air and plenty of moisture is obviously the thing for these giant blooms. The track dropped into the delightful village of Borth-y-Gest, best kept village in Caernorfonshire declared a sign sunk into a tidy flower bed. It spoke nothing of the perfect horse shoe bay, whitewashed and flower bedecked harbourside houses with Snowdonia as a backdrop and the crystal waters of the Afon Glaslyn channel in the foreground. A pint was just the thing to help properly contemplate the view.

Back in Porthmadog, my anticipated lie in was interrupted by unruly gulls delivering a cacophonous dawn chorus somewhere between a Valkyrie onslaught and a Stuka blitzkrieg.

My combat with the gulls was only just beginning. Exploring the town before a return train trip, I went up to the war memorial near the station. Immediately my feet ascended the stone steps I was under attack. The assault became more intense the further I climbed. Presumably there was a nest on the top of the Celtic cross that prompted strafing manoeuvres by white-headed gulls more akin to North African desert warfare. The memorial, created by Griff Morris, architect of Porthmadog, remained unviewed by me. His carefully designed approach intended to achieve a sense of procession from street level saw instead my unceremonious helter-skelter exit.  

Over a decent breakfast earlier that morning in the high-celinged dining room of the Royal Sportsman hotel, I thought about breaking my journey home at Portmerion. I’d been fascinated by Clough Williams-Ellis’s fantasia since watching reruns of The Prisoner in the Eighties. Having enough time to do the flamboyant village justice was my chief concern. Now on the train, I decided to skip it and head on to Barmouth.  

Two elderly friends either side of me in the carriage were Swindon bound for a family visit. The woman opposite me had bright red hair and piercing blue eyes. All the while we were talking she reminded me of my friend Ruth. I almost asked her if she had a younger sister, only just biting my tongue against such rudery and an abrupt end to conversation.

She said my decision in favour of Barmouth over Portmeirion was definitely the right vote. She leaned across the table and rubbed her thumb against her fingers.

“It’s all about money. £12 to get in to the village. Never mind a cup of tea or, Lord forbid, an overnight stay!”

We talked about the train and how much I enjoyed the journey. She told me that the service was a lifeline. Much faster than the road. She said it was quieter in winter, but still relatively well used. It had improved massively since the direct service was extended to Birmingham, including more comfortable, air-conditioned coaches. I certainly agreed with that point. There was a nervousness locally because the franchise was up in 2018 and no-one knew what the future held for the service.

I thought back to my great railway journeys book and considered that a resurrection of the dining car service and through trains to Paddington were unlikely. That said, the efforts to grow tourism in former industrial towns like Pwllheli and Porthmadog was gaining traction. The line was an economic as well as a social asset. I felt at the time that the Welsh Assembly would be mad to pull funding. Of course a lot has happened since that Summer, and as of October 2022, I note that a service still exists, though it is less frequent and a change is required at Machynlleth. No through trains exist to Shrewsbury at the moment.

In Barmouth the gulls still had not done with me, though it was more of a lucky escape than a direct attack. A massive herring gull swooped over my head and I instinctively ducked. This vulture of the seaside was close enough for me to see the blip on his bill and the beady look in his eye. He had spotted a woman with an ice cream directly behind me. The bird deftly knocked the cone out of her hand with its outstretched feet. She screamed. I turned round there was a little humorous/horrified banter between us as Herman the Herring Gull and his ravenous mates gathered round to hose up the ice cream. A cunning and ruthless plan, oft-repeated no doubt. 

I spent a few sublime minutes at the end of the harbour wall looking over a few yachts  and fishing boats in the wide Afon Mawddach estuary, backed by the sweeping, low-rise railway viaduct. Sitting on the train whilst crossing it gave the impression of riding on water.

The sparkling shoreline and rising hills provided a spectacular setting for the town’s handsome townhouses, stoutly built to three or four stories of mellow stone punctuated by large stone-mullioned windows. On the prom, there were a few amusements, rides, cafes and gift shops but nothing too garish or tacky. The place was busy and yet clean, refreshing. It retained the right mix of bucket-and-spadeness combined with just enough elegance to tick all the boxes for me. I liked Barmouth very much. It’s on the list, if only for completeness. I know that this one is way outside the relocation radius that Mrs A will contemplate. Wales is off the radar.   

On way back to Machynlleth, legendary Led Zep frontman and all round rock ‘n’ roll hero, Robert Plant casually stepped off the train. He had a mobile jammed to his ear and was wearing the sort of orange shorts that would look a bit weird on any other 65 year old who didn’t happen to be the voice of the most influential rock band on the planet. We didn’t get chance to banter. Shame. I think he would have liked my anecdote about puking up after too much tequila during his ‘Fate of Nations’ set at Glastonbury in 1991. Neither did I have the opportunity to ask him what he was doing getting off the train in one of the most remote spots in mid-Wales.

It was another two hours before I was to get off the train myself. Delays and diversions all along the line into Shrewsbury gave what had been a superb journey a rather tortuous and frustrating finale. But I won’t let a ‘trackside maintenance issue’ spoil my memories of a revealing, absorbing and thoroughly enjoyable round trip on the spectacular Cambrian Line. 

Series navigation - Seaside Special: Excursions to the Coast

 Previous post - Tipping Point: Pembrokeshire

Next post: Bank Holiday blackspot - North Wales 


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