Wales: Mountain climb by train

By Pamela Wade

Snowdon Mountain Railway in Gwynedd, Wales. Photo / www.britainonview.com
Snowdon Mountain Railway in Gwynedd, Wales. Photo / www.britainonview.com

Sometimes it pays to be last. "You've got the best seats in the house!" beamed the man behind the counter, handing over our tickets. On the face of it, it seemed unlikely: sitting in the guard's compartment of the train that runs up to the summit of Mt Snowdon in Wales. I imagined us stuck at the rear staring glumly back down the mountain as we chugged up it - but this was no ordinary train.

The Snowdon Mountain Railway that runs from Llanberis, 20 minutes outside Caernarfon, up to the highest point in England and Wales is a rack-and-pinion railway, which means that the single carriage is pushed up the line by the engine, which means the guard's compartment is right in front - which means we did indeed have the very best seats.

While everyone behind sat snugly four abreast and knee-to-knee, we had a 180-degree view of rugged Snowdonia in North Wales, where the mountains are hulking beasts, bare and brooding, swirled with mist and legend. They're not towering - Snowdon is just 1085m - but they are ancient, worn by the wind and water of millennia, and have a stature unrelated to their height.

Raw and unpredictable as Mt Snowdon is, it wasn't safe from the Victorians, who were always up for a challenge. "Here is pristine nature, magnificently moody and untamed," they said. "Let's build a railway up it!" And so they did, in just 16 months laying 7.6km of narrow-gauge track up the side of the mountain, some of it on a 1:5 gradient.

The first train chugged out of the station in 1896, notching up yet another triumph for Victorian engineering - momentarily. The achievement suffered a setback when on the return journey the train ran out of control, its engine derailed, and a panicked passenger leaped to his death; and the train behind it did the same thing, stopping only when it ploughed into the first. The invention of a simple "gripper" guard to prevent the pinion wheel on the carriages from jumping out of the rack laid between the rails was all that was needed, however, and the service was soon in operation again, ferrying generations of nature-lovers to the summit.

Less time-poor - or lazy - people walk in droves up the five tracks to the top.

"It takes about three hours to get up," the guard, Nicholas Mason, told us. "But on the annual Fell Run, they do the return trip in half that."

Nothing so precipitate for us: we chugged at a steady 11km/h over a viaduct, past a waterfall and through ancient woodland, pushed by the 1896-built "Snowdon" steam engine, its chuff-chuff sounding almost too perfect to be real.

Once out of the woods, the track climbed through fields edged by dry-stone walls, where sheep grazed. Some, inevitably, stood on the line itself, possibly playing chicken, more probably just dim.

"This is my main job," said Nicholas, suddenly sprouting three arms as he pressed the hooter, blew a whistle and waved a flag. At the last moment, the sheep jumped off the rails. "We haven't lost one yet," Nicholas reassured me.

It took an hour to get to the summit, including a water stop to refill the engine's tank, and short waits at the passing places where descending trains leap-frogged past. Walkers gladly stopped to watch us, many clustered by the 1:5 section where the chuffing of the engine slowed, clearly saying, "I think I can, I think I can ..."

At the top, the new visitors' centre offered tea and other comforts. A short climb led to a cairn at the very summit, which one girl rambler was hugging.

"I don't like heights," she muttered as her boyfriend blithely photographed the view: true love in action.

On a clear day we could have seen Ireland, but for us the horizon stopped at Wales, where legends of Arthur, dragons, fairies and giants swirl around these mountains like the mist that chilled our bones.

It was good to get back into our cosy train and chuff down to the sunny valley. Up and back in two and a half hours: no match for a fell runner but, thanks to those Victorians, much quicker than walking.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Cathay Pacific flies from Auckland to London daily and has frequent early bird or other special fares. Caernarfon is a day's drive from London: we stayed at the Celtic Royal.

Snowdon Mountain Railway: The railway has an excellent website.

Further information: For general information about visiting Wales go to visitwales.co.nz.

Pamela Wade travelled to Wales with the assistance of Cathay Pacific and VisitWales.

- NZ Herald

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