June 19th, 2010
The packing was done, except for the last minute items and the oh-I-nearly-forgots, but we had an early train so we skipped breakfast, intending to buy baguettes and coffee at the station. We were out in the street by 7:35, waiting for the 205 bus.
Our departure station was Marylebone, and our train left at 8:14. As planned, we bought our breakfast and trundled our baggage along to platform 4. This is one of the farthest platforms on that station and even though we had plenty of time, the long walk induced a certain nervousness.
It was on checking our reserved carriage that we realized we had made a mistake in buying breakfast. This because we are travelling on what has become our favourite train service, the Wrexham & Shropshire. At weekends, for a little extra, you can travel first class. While that may seem an extravagance, the added comfort is very enjoyable and makes a fine start to the holiday. The mistake, of course, was forgetting that a complimentary breakfast is provided in first class, making our baguettes and coffee superfluous.
The sky is blue but there is plenty of cloud cover, giving shifting light patterns as we speed through a countryside lit now with golden sunshine, now with cloud light.
This leg of the journey takes us to Shrewsbury, a town that we already know having previously visited it. Today it is only a staging post for here we change trains for our final destination, the ancient and picturesque city of Chester.
Chester will be the centre for our explorations. As usual, we have rail rover tickets (in this case North and Mid Wales Rovers) and expect to clock up quite a few miles during our stay.
For now, there is breakfast to look forward to in a dining room whose windows afford a continually changing panorama to interest and delight the eye.
At Shrewsbury we make the change to the Holyhead train. It is good to see Shrewsbury station again with its striking station building and the castle perched above it. We have been through here many times on previous expeditions so it is familiar to us and a reminder of happy times.
We reached Chester at 1:20 and walked down the road to the hotel which is only 5 minutes or so away. We have room 214 on the second floor. Our room is quite small but adequately appointed to the Premier Inn standard. The bedroom window, which is locked shut, looks onto a quiet backstreet. The view is not as pretty or as interesting as some we have enjoyed but we can at least see the tower of the old Steam Mill.
Having spied out the number and positions of power points (essential in the Electronic Age), we lunched on the baguettes we had bought for breakfast, adding some vegetarian sausages that we had brought with us from home.
As is usual in British hotels, there is a kettle in the room and we have brought our own tea with us. Mine is loose leaf Russian Caravan which I can brew in a mug with the aid of a nylon teapot filter. It’s the next best thing to making tea in a proper pot.
The only criticism I have of Premier Inn (which I think I will communicate to them in due course) is the squashy pillows. My head sinks into these and I feel as though I am drowning. We asked whether they had any alternative pillows but they did not.
After settling in and having a little rest (resting from doing nothing is something you can do on holiday), we went for a walk in town. The old part of town was packed with people. We soon discovered that this was because Chester was celebrating its Midsummer Watch Parade today and tomorrow.
There were many people in costumes of various sorts and of course, the Giants. All of this colourful spectacle provided plenty of material for photos but because spectators and participants were all mixed together, it was difficult to get clear shots.
After a coffee break, we continued exploring the town and then followed the canal back towards the hotel which we could easily locate by looking out for the Steam Mill tower above the other buildings.
Just opposite the hotel we found two Indian restaurants. It was too early for supper but we noted them for later.
The restaurant we chose is called the Gate of India and was quite full when we arrived. They found us a table upstairs and we ordered a vegetable thali and mattar paneer side dishes. Unfortunately, they did not serve lassi so we ordered Cobra Zero, the alcohol-free version of the popular restaurant lager. I used to drink alcohol-free beer but gave it up because of the unpleasant taste. I thought that after all this time the technology might have improved. It hasn’t: I encountered the familiar unpleasant taste and will not be trying it again.
The food was fine and the servings generous, though we suspect that Chester may suffer from the Galway Effect1 as the dishes were not at all spicy.
After our meal, we went for another walk and saw a rather imposing tower. We approached for a closer look. Notices say that this site is being redeveloped but without so much as a word to explain the nature of the tower or its history.
The sun was now going down, taking its warmth with it and there was a definite chill on the air so we headed back to the hotel where we made tea and planned our activities for the morrow.
1When we were in Ireland in 2006 (not blogged) we had a meal in an Indian restaurant in Galway. All the dishes were labelled "mild", "medium", "hot", etc. We asked the waiter which we should choose. He thought for a moment and then asked "Are you from Galway?" When we said no, he replied "Then you will need ‘hot’". The citizens of Galway apparently do not like their food too spicy! Ever since them, when we have encountered lacklustre Indian food, we have referred to it as "Galway".
June 20th, 2010
Today being Sunday, we will avoid rail travel as there are bound to be works on the line. For breakfast, we found a pub called The Square Bottle, which is owned by Wetherspoons and therefore offers the same breakfast menu that we enjoyed in Swansea.
At this time in the morning, there are relatively few people about in Chester and it is a good moment to take a few photos without people getting in the way.
After breakfast, we took the bus to Wrexham. This town too is very quiet on a Sunday morning (until the church bells start banging and disturbing the peace, that is). Everything is closed. This is bad luck if you need the toilet as all public conveniences are locked up, including disabled toilets.
Fortunately, we found a Wetherspoons pub that was open. This one is in a magnificent old bank building, whose name it has kept: The North & South Wales Bank.
We had a look around a largely closed town, which does contain some interesting features and we should probably visit it on another occasion during the week.
Today, though, we decided we should take a bus to somewhere else.
We spent 20 minutes at the bus station where the toilets were locked up tight, including the disabled toilets (do you spot a pattern?), waiting for a bus to Mold or, in Welsh, Yr Wyrddgrug. Though apparently dissimilar, it is thought that both names refer to the motte of the old castle.
Mold was even quieter than Wrexham but is a pleasant enough small town, especially on a sunny day like today. It even has a work of art in the small bus station, “Machina” by Sebastien Boyesen. Not necessarily everyone’s cup of tea, of course.
We looked for somewhere to have lunch. Choice was limited because every cafe and restaurant that we found was closed (no surprises there, then). The only exception we could find was the Golden Cape, a Wetherspoons pub. Inevitably, the pub was crowded but I eventually got served. We had a reasonable if not exciting lunch.
Mold has a few rather pretty buildings, such as the pocket-sized Flintshire County Hall (built around 1911) or that originally built for the Territorial Force Association. I don’t know the date of this one.
After lunch we worked our way back to the small bus station and investigated the availability of buses. We found that the timetable of nearly every bus route showed no service on Sunday. Everyone in Mold stays at home on Sunday, apparently, unless they go to Chester or destinations along that route.
According to the timetable, there was a bus to Chester in 35 minutes but then one turned up out of the blue. During the journey we both found ourselves falling asleep. Perhaps it was a combination of early rising, travelling around and the warm weather. When the bus dropped us off at Chester station, we could think of nothing better than to return to the hotel and take a long nap.
In the evening, refreshed, we set out again, walking along the canal towards the town centre. There are always things to see beside the water, whether birds and buildings, people and barges.
The town itself is always picturesque and the old buildings have been carefully maintained, restored or sometimes copied, faithfully in the original style. Everywhere you look in this town there are beautiful sights to be seen and as the sun moves across the sky, the changing light shows features in a different aspect or reveals details you have previously missed.
A city like Paris shows some sort of overall plan and a consistency of design whereas Chester is like a jewel box in which artifacts of different styles and inspiration are thrown together somehow creating harmony out of their disparity. Perhaps the unifying factor is quality.
After supper, we went for a further walk. Tigger’s inner pigeon was guiding us so that although we seemed to take turnings at random, according to whether the streets they revealed looked worth visiting, we nonetheless gradually approached the hotel, but by a circuitous route.
Sunday tends to be a low-key day on these trips because we avoid rail travel and are therefore faced with the often inadequate Sunday bus services. Today too, we took time out for a nap because we were both tired.
Even so, we took another look at Wrexham, made the acquaintance of Mold and saw some parts of Chester that were new to us so, all in all, we didn’t do too badly.
June 21st, 2010
Today is a fine sunny day and we are making it our first train day. Our rover tickets are valid after 9 am and the first available train – the Holyhead train – leaves at 9:25, so we have a leisurely start.
We have learnt the value of having a hotel within easy walking distance of a main station. It takes only a few minutes to walk along City Road to Chester railway station.
On the way, we kept a lookout for breakfast. Near the station there was a pub open and already serving beer at 8:30 in the morning. They offered breakfast but the place smelt of urine so we did not tarry.
On the station is a small coffee shop called Caféxpress where we bought heated breakfast baps and coffee.
A little after 9 we went through the barrier onto the platform. This is a popular train and there were already plenty of people waiting. These shuttles usually consist of only two carriages (or sometimes just one), so there is a certain amount of competition for seats.
We got a pair of seats at a table. The seats on the other side of the table were reserved from Chester but the occupants did not turn up, leaving us with comfortable leg room.
Many of our fellow passengers are young people with rucksacks, presumably heading for Snowdonia to go hiking and perhaps climbing. This is good to see. These islands contain many areas of beauty and it is only if people admire and enjoy them that they, and the wildlife to which they are home, will be preserved.
The train carries us through green countryside with impressive views of the estuary and then the sea. The sky is summer blue with a light scattering of white cloud. It is an archetypal British summer day.
We changed trains at Llandudno Junction and took the 10:33 to Blaenau Ffestiniog. This too is a route with spectacular views of estuary, river and green hills, dotted with cattle, and scattered with farms and hamlets.
The train strikes resolutely uphill and on occasions passes through tunnels in the steepening environment. We stop at little stations that are served only on request. The river is left behind and we enter a landscape of hills, valleys and rocky outcrops.
We stop at Betws y Coed and then press on up the slope. It is green country pierced here and there by brown or grey rocks. Sheep graze and cows chew the cud in the shade of a copse.
A long-legged insect flies fretfully up and down the carriage, bumping against the strip lights. Eventually it comes close enough for me to catch it in my cupped hands. I thought it was a crane fly but it isn’t. Maybe it is a small species of dragonfly.
We are in a tunnel so I keep the insect in my hands wondering whether it will bite me. It doesn’t, and when we emerge from the tunnel I try to release it through the narrow window. It clings to my hands and my bracelets, seemingly reluctant to choose liberty. Perhaps it is the wind of our movement that perturbs it. A little gentle persuasion and at last it is gone.
At last we reach the end of the line at what feels like the roof of the world. Slate mountains tower above us but over all there is the blue sky and its ermine fringes of white cloud. We walk up the main street, lined with shops and “coffi2 places but we know where we are heading: to DeNiro’s cafe for a return visit and an early lunch. We are recognized and greeted, which is always nice.
In Blaenau there is a small (one room) museum to the vanished slate industry. It consists mainly of photos, posters and similar documents from times past and a few implements and souvenir objects. An elderly curator showed us around and added details about the slate industry, obviously from personal memory. Admission is free (donations invited) but photography is not allowed, although in fact, there is little that is photogenic. Up in the hills is the Llechwedd Slate Cavernes but as I have never visited this site, I cannot say how interesting it is.
We took the bus to Porthmadog. I made a toilet break here and emerged to find Tigger already calling from the door of a bus whose driver she had persuaded to wait for me. So, with barely time to draw breath, we were off again.
This bus took us to Pwllheli, where we managed a couple of photos and a brief coffee break before crossing the road to the station, a little single-track terminus. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to visit Pwllheli harbour which is probably the town’s most picturesque feature.
So, trusty map in hand, we boarded the two-carriage train and set off once more. The bus ride into Pwllheli had shown some pretty views but the countryside seen from the train was even better, showing hills, green fields populated by various breeds of cattle and then the sea.
We left the train at Barmouth, having carefully checked that there is a later train to take us back, by whatever stages may be necessary, to Chester.
This was my third visit to Barmouth though Tigger had been here before. Both my previous visits were short and this was the first chance to get an impression of the town as a whole. Barmouth (or Abermaw) is very impressive. It is a pretty town still with a certain oldworld charm, an extensive harbour and a long sandy beach. The town is overlooked by a steep-sided hill on which there are also houses.
We had our evening meal in the Isis Pizzeria near the harbour and then made our way slowly back to the station.
The train was 10 minutes late but we were told that if necessary the connecting train would be held pending our arrival. In the end, I think we probably made up for the delay. At Machynlleth we changed to a train to Shrewsbury where we would change again for our final destination, Chester.
Today, June 21st, is the longest day. As our second train of the evening carries us through the green countryside, the shadows are beginning to lengthen, areas of golden evening sunlight alternating with shaded regions, throwing the texture of the land into relief. Sheep are still grazing on the hillsides, sometimes scampering away from the train. The sky is a duller blue and the lower clouds are taking on a duskier hue.
We reached Shrewsbury to find the Holyhead train waiting a few yards along the same platform and station staff urging us to hurry aboard. If they had managed to keep to timetable, such haste would not be required. Three more stops and we were finally back in Chester with a half moon riding high in a hazy sky.
This was something of a whirlwind tour day, though we did renew our acquaintance with Blaenau Ffestiniog and see more of the intriguing town of Barmouth than on previous visits. This suggests that it might be worth staying there for a few days and getting to know it and the area better.
June 22nd, 2010
Today is another train day and we are going to take things a little easier. Well, that’s the plan. We shall start off as yesterday by stopping for breakfast at Caféxpress and taking the 9:25 Holyhead train. Instead of carrying on to Blaenau, however, we shall get out at "Betsy", aka Betws y Coed (pronounced bettus-a-coid).
As we crossed the bridge over the canal on the way to the station, we were excited to see a heron swoop down onto the tow path and start fishing! He seemed quite unconcerned by the people passing by on their way to work.
While we were waiting for the train, I noticed a rather active sparrow. It kept flying into the narrow space between a metal girder and the wood frame. I suddenly realized it was feeding a chick.
It was hard to get a photo because it was dark in that corner and it was above our heads. The parent flew away to get more food and the chick, quite cramped in the narrow sparrow looked at me, not afraid but interested. Perhaps you can see its eye shining and the base of its yellow beak.
There was quite a crowd waiting for the train and a bit of an unseemly scramble for seats but in the end we were all accommodated. I was worried that because the train was already running 14 minutes late we would miss our connection but in fact, on arrival at Llandudno Junction, we had a train to our destination within 2 minutes.
Betws y Coed station impresses with its size and with its beautiful old stone and yellow brick buildings. Once a rather busier station than today, it is now reduced to single-track operation but the space once used by other tracks and station buildings has been put to good use. There is a shop and a museum (we visited the former, not the latter) and although there is a cafe on the main platform, there is another cafe restaurant housed in old railway carriages in a siding.
We had coffee in the railway carriages and watched the miniature railway train (suitable for children of all ages) run past the window. The surroundings being comfortable and interesting, we decided, after refreshments, to stay on for lunch. From the carriage window, the view of the station buildings with the wooded slopes of the hill rising behind it added to the pleasure.
Out in the street, on the other side of the station building, it was a different story. The place was crowded and lined with eateries and shops, not useful shops but the usual gift shops selling rubbishy "souvenirs". Here too, the coaches stop to disgorge their loads of tourists so the scene is pretty animated.
Walk on from there, however, towards the Waterloo Bridge, and the scene changes again. Here too the buildings are of stone and reveal that Betws became famous in an earlier age and a stopping place for a more genteel type of visitor.
There is the broad rocky river, the Conwy, crossed by the Waterloo Bridge, still bearing the proud inscription of its builder, Thomas Telford. There are fields with grazing sheep and tree clad slopes. Only the road, which divides at the bridge, is a disturbing factor with its near-continuous streams of traffic.
After this walk we returned to the station and, even though it was a train day, took the bus to Llandudno. The journey took nearly an hour and I have to admit that I was feeling sleepy by the end. From the bus we went the the Coffee Centre, a sweetly old fashioned cafe with table service.
The difference between Betsy and Llandudno is immediately obvious. Whereas the former is small and quiet (apart from the visitors), Llandudno is a big town of shops, stores and shopping arcades.
Llandudno is a seaside resort through and through. Is it the Brighton of North Wales? Not quite, but there are similarities. There is still something of the bygone age in the air that Brighton has brashly abandoned. While the young and the trendy would be drawn to "London by the sea", the staid and the elderly will be comfortable here. Perhaps we might liken it to an up-market Eastbourne.
It was therefore a disappointment to struggle up the hill in the heat to the Great Orme Tramway station, only to find that the lower section was closed for maintenance and we would have had to take a coach up to the next level.
We returned to the centre and took a coffee break while planning what to do. We checked bus and train times to make sure we did not leave ourselves stranded. Then we decided to have supper here, even though it was still early.
Tigger was sure she had seen an Indian restaurant somewhere in town so we set out to look for it. I am not sure we found the one she had originally seen but we discovered the Bengal Dynasty. (You may spot it in one of the photos above.)
We had quite a good meal and then set out to find a bus to take us to Llandudno Junction, where we could get a train back to Chester. Finding the right bus stop was not easy and the information posted is not very user friendly. In the end, we asked a native who confirmed that the bus we needed left from the stop where we were standing.
Although this was supposed to be a more relaxed day, we still managed to cover a fair amount of ground. Betws y Coed and Llandudno are almost at opposite ends of the spectrum of towns. Betws is both a jumping off point for Snowdonia and a genteel holiday location with an old-world feel while Llandudno is a busy and energetic modern seaside town but also has a certain air of gentility about it that tempers its atmosphere.
June 23rd, 2010
The weather is a little cooler today with more cloud cover, leading to longer cloudy intervals, but it is quite warm enough for our purposes.
We have started the day in what has come to seem the routine way: a walk up the road to the station, crossing the canal on the way, breakfast on the station at Caféxpress, and then a wait on platform 3 for the Holyhead train.
Today we disembark at Y Fali (Y Fali). I cannot say what this small town or village is like as we had very little time to spend there.
When we walked to the nearby bus stop, we saw that the bus was timed at 11:12 and it was now 11:19. We were lucky: the bus was late. It took us into Holyhead where we stopped at the pleasantly oldfashioned Gateway for tea and hot chocolate. (Guess who had which.)
We took a bus, hoping to go further round the island but though the bus became very full, it only took us as far as the commercial sector where people got out to shop at the supermarkets. The bus took us back to town, leaving us no better off.
Finally, we got a bus out. This one took us back to Y Fali where we changed and were taken to Llangefni where we had lunch.
We chanced upon Llangefni, not having heard of it before, but it is apparently the county town of Anglesey, which obviously confers a certain importance upon it.
As there didn’t seem to be much to see in Llangefni, Tigger proposed a ride to the north coast of Anglesey. We chose Amlwch, in the mistaken impression that it was at the seaside. We realized our mistake only on arriving there.
Amlwch has a rather fine police station and a pleasant little park (dogs not allowed) but is in other ways an unremarkable town (but perhaps not to those who live there), so we were soon on our way again.
The weather had been cloudy for most of the day but now, belatedly, the sun reappeared. We found a bus that would carry us to Holyhead where we could take the train back to Chester. With the evening sunshine lighting the countryside we could relax and enjoy the scenery. The bus delivered us at Holyhead with about 20 minutes to wait for the Birmingham train that would take us to Chester.
The low evening sunlight showed the landscape to best advantage. On one side fields stretched, speckled with sheep, cows or horses, to meet the hills, green and rocky, while on the other side the sea, now distant and now almost beside the track, sparkled in the evening sun, bordered by far coasts or hills, grey-blue with distance. Overhead, heaped clouds made cliffs, mountain and snow fields in the sky.
We rumbled over the Menai Bridge, guarded at either end by massive stone lions, and then slid smoothly over the Conwy river, which like a broad stream of liquid light, dotted with boats whose colourful hulls and sails shone in the sunlight.
How many people visit Llangefni or Amlwch, other than for purposes of work, I wonder? Not many, probably. That is not to demean them, just to say that they are probably not on the conventional tourist track. They have an interest of their own in that sense.
Anglesey has that island feel to it. It is hard to characterize it. Perhaps it is the fact that the sea is never far away whichever way you turn, a certain air of self-containment or a feeling of a world slightly apart that the installation of a bridge to the mainland reduces but does not dispel.
As we leave the train at Chester and look around us, Tigger jokingly asks why notices are written in only one language. We have spent the day in Wales where bilingual signs are the norm but that is not the only evidence that we are back in England. Even the air seems different somehow.
Walking back down the now familiar road to the hotel, we scan the canal towpath but our friend the heron is not to be seen.
June 24th, 2010
The run of good weather has faltered and we awoke this morning to grey skies and drizzle. Nothing daunted, we started out on what is intended to be a bus day. Heading into town for breakfast, we walked along the canal, accompanied by a paddling duck. I was surprised how far he went and with such determination. His speed was less than walking pace so we stopped from time time time to let him catch up.
We were making for the Forest House, a Wetherspoon’s pub, for breakfast. Perhaps the weather will clear up while we are inside. Either way breakfast will make us feel better!
We are told that the Forest House is the surviving part of a fine Georgian mansion built for a rich citizen around 1759 by architect Sir Robert Taylor, who also has the Bank of England to his credit. Much of the extensive dwelling has been demolished but enough remains to hint at its original splendour.
After breakfast, the rain had stopped and there was blue sky and even a glimmer of sunlight. A short walk later, we boarded a bus to Wrexham and there, we chose another for Llangollen. The driver, however, steadfastly refused to acknowledge our rail and bus rover tickets even when shown the information pamphlet. These hiccups arise when information filters only slowly through the system.
Instead we boarded a bus for Denbigh. We assumed the bus would terminate in that town but it in fact changed route in the course of the journey so we nearly missed the destination. (Changing number and route is another sneaky trick of local bus services that you need to watch out for.)
We got off the bus and walked up the hill towards the town centre. The day had warmed and so when we came across the Secret Garden cafe and gift shop we went in. The name gives no indication of the nature of the place. It is really a garden furniture shop with a cafe. The chairs and benches you sit on, and everything around you, are all for sale.
Tigger was much taken by the tame rabbit that was collecting mouthfuls of grass and carrying them away to make a nest. I tried to photograph it as it raced past but it was just a blur. I’ve never seen a rabbit move as fast!
We were told that there is a 1950s museum in Denbigh and that we could get to it by a short cut. We set out up the steep Bull Lane towards the ruined castle.
It was now so hot that we decided to rest on the grass in the shade of some trees and perhaps explore the museum on another occasion.
As you might expect, the view from the castle hill was extensive, revealing a Lilliputian world stretching to the distant hills, lit by patches of sunlight between the shadows of the clouds.
Walking down the hill , we came to the 13th century Burgess Gate, once the principal entry into the town. Can you see the pigeon, trying to remain unnoticed on his ledge?
From Denbigh we took a bus to Rhyl. This was quite a long journey and there wasn’t much leg room, so we were glad to arrive. We set out to look for lunch.
We soon found that Rhyl seemed to be closed. Every cafe or restaurant we encountered displayed the word "Closed". This is odd, considering it was not yet 3 pm. Eventually, we came upon Harker’s Corner Cafe which has a play area for children. The food was simple and straightforward. Good enough.
After lunch we went for an exploratory walk. There is a funfair on the seafront and the usual seaside amusement arcades but many places were closed or not working.
The broad beach was virtually deserted despite the sunshine and the heat, perhaps because the tide was out and the sea far away.
Overall, there is a half-hearted air about the place, as if the participants have given up and are waiting for it to fall apart. It’s hard to see what could inject more life into the place.
Once more we took the bus, this time to Flint. This too was a long journey by bus. Ever and anon the bus departs from the direct route to serve towns and villages off the main track.
Flint has a ruined castle, unusually at the edge of the sea, and we went for a look. Flint also has a railway station but as this is a bus day, we will not be availing ourselves of its services. When we checked the time of the next bus, we found we had an hour to wait. We therefore set out to find somewhere where we could have supper.
Unfortunately, Flint is the sort of place that closes down at 5:30, with the exception of the odd fish and chips bar and, of course, the pubs. The pubs, though, do not serve food in the evenings, if at all. Finally, we had recourse to The Swan where a sympathetic barmaid served us a drink and a packet of crisps each. Not quite the supper I was hoping for.
Keeping a careful eye on the clock, we presented ourselves at the bus stop opposite The Swan in time for the 19:46 bus to Chester. It is always a good idea to get to the stop ahead of time as buses often arrive early and don’t wait.
The journey back to Chester was quite pleasant and it was still daylight when we arrived. Our way to the hotel took us through the centre of town and we stopped off at the Coach House for a proper supper.
Then we continued through town, stopping here and there, as interesting sights presented themselves, until we reached the canal and followed the tow path to City Road where our hotel is situated.
Today we visited Wrexham but merely to change buses. We made the acquaintance of Denbigh, Rhyl and Flint. I cannot say that any of these towns impressed me particularly but I do not want to be too negative, given that our visits were short.
Travelling and seeing the country is also an end in itself and we certainly did that today. In fact, I feel more immersed in the country this time than on previous trips to Wales. Whatever the effects of individual towns, the country as a whole has made a new and positive impression on me.
June 25th, 2010
Today is our last full day and it is a sunny one. We also have a day left on our rover train ticket.
After the usual breakfast at the station, we caught a different train, this time the 9:30 to Birmingham which will take us to Chirk. There we will take the bus to our destination.
We arrived at Chirk station without more ado but that was where the problems began. It seems the the timetables posted at bus stops are works of fiction because the running times of the buses do not reflect them at all.
We eventually got a bus to town and then waited while the times of advertised buses came and went without any sign of the buses themselves.
At last a bus came that would take us where we wanted to go, Llangollen Wharf, but with many a detour into the hinterland, where it often had to turn around to follow the same route back but without ever picking up any passengers.
The town itself seemed to be in festive mood as suggested by the many flags fluttering in the breeze.
From the town, Llangollen Wharf is reached by a short but very steep hill. The wharf is on the Llangollen Canal and has a cafe and the usual shop. Here you can buy tickets for trips by canal barge. The most popular is the motor barge that goes to the Aquaduct.
When we arrived, this trip had been sold out so we took a ride on the horse-drawn barge. This doesn’t go anywhere particularly spectacular but the scenery is pleasant, enlivened by the antics of the waterfowl, especially the ducks who at this time of year have broods of ducklings, and the experience of travelling in this way is interesting in itself.
Another attraction is the Llangollen Railway. This had closed down and the tracks had been removed, though many of the buildings remained.
It has been taken over by enthusiasts who run it as a steam railway. From Llangollen, the train calls at three stations including Carrog, the terminus.
Here the steam loco changes ends ready for the run back to Llangollen. This operation attracts a crowd of interested people. I am unable to tell you the age and model of steam engine but if you are interested you may be able to identify it from the photo.
The carriages were of different ages and provenances but all were old with slam-doors operated from the outside. We chose a compartment and sat at the window where we had a good view of the countryside. Stations were either side of the track.
After our train ride, which lasts about an hour and a half for the round trip, we took a turn around the town and then caught the bus for Wrexham. However, when the bus stopped at Ruabon, we realized we could catch a train here for Chester, and left the bus hurriedly.
The train was due at 17:54 and was late. There was nothing odd about that, of course, as trains and buses in Wales tend to be late as a matter of routine. However, this did present the chance to observe a little trick that they play here that I have often observed in Wales but nowhere else.
Say the train is due at 17:54. The departures board alternates the time with the phrase "On time". Then when the train is late, the time is updated to, say, 17:58 but the phrase "On time" continues to show. That way, your train is never late! It is always "On time"! The railway company (Arriva, in this case) maintains a record for punctuality. This is deceitful and shows how little respect they have for their paying customers./p>
The train, several minutes late but still indicated as "On time", arrived and carried us to Chester. After a brief foray in town for some shopping, we walked back to the hotel via the canal tow path.
It was now very warm and we went up to our room to cool down and rest. For supper, we decided for once to have a meal in the hotel restaurant to save going out. It wasn’t bad.
Despite the the difficulties caused by the Welsh bus services with their fictional timetables, we enjoyed our day out. It was worth the struggle to get to Llangollen, though if we go there another time, we shall try to find a more efficient route.
It was strangely peaceful travelling along the canal in a horse-drawn barge and it made me realize how long it must have taken the old freight barges to work their way through the waterway system to their various destinations when this was the standard form of motive power.
For anyone who loves old railways, the Llangollen steam train offers a fun ride. Many of the passengers were elderly folk who would no doubt remember when all rail travel was like this but I also spotted some younger railway buffs carefully photographing the rolling stock. Such resuscitated railway lines not only provide fun but are a valuable form of history affording not only exhibits to look at and admire but also a chance to experience their use in action.
Tomorrow we return to London with memories of enjoyable days travelling around North Wales and exploring Chester and plenty of photos to back up those memories.
June 26th, 2010
Our train leaves Chester at 10:22 so we can get up at the usual time without any rush. Toting our bags this time, we follow the usual road to the station. We had hoped to catch sight of the heron beside the canal but he is not there.
Ironically, the man at Caféxpress asks if we are on holiday as he has seen us several times. He stamps our loyalty card for the last time and I put it away in case we ever come back this way.
The Cardiff train that takes us to Shrewsbury is on time. Even more surprisingly, they have put out the reserves and our reserved seats are waiting for us. So far, so good.
It is another splendid sunny day, but with a haze veiling distant views and a powder blue sky. The journey to Shrewsbury was without incident and we arrived with 48 minutes to wait for our Wrexham & Shropshire service to Marylebone.
When the train arrived we installed ourselves comfortably in window seats and prepared to enjoy the ride. We are travelling first class on this leg and intend to derive maximum pleasure from it.
The sun is now high in the sky, playing hide and seek between big white clouds whose shadows sail across the landscape. The countryside is lush green but here and there are golden patches where the corn is beginning to ripen.
Some of the larger clouds have dusky undersides and in the hazy air, the sunlight shining through gaps makes rays as in a romantic painting.
In addition to free coffee, on this train ride we are served a two-course complimentary lunch and quite pleasant it was too.
As we make our rather sedate progress towards London with only occasional stops, it is easy to drift into a contented, almost dream-like, state, watching the countryside slide by, interrupted by towns, factories or tunnels. Yet, curiously, though I have a pernicious tendency to doze off on buses and trains, I stay lucidly awake on this journey, despite the good lunch, bolstered by a paid-for dessert!
In places the clouds are so dense that the sunlight is blocked and we pass through an overcast world. Then, suddenly, we emerge into a region of more scattered cloud and are bathed again in sunlight, now tinged with afternoon gold.
Without pausing, we pass empty little wayside stations, the fences of whose deserted platforms seem only with difficulty to hold back the press of invading greenery.
Lost somewhere in the middle of England, I have no idea where we are. It is a strangely pleasant feeling.
At last we are back in known territory and the stations that flash by have familiar names. We pass a red tube train and soon there is an announcement that we shall shortly be arriving at Marylebone.
We step out into the London air as into an oven. It is so hot that we walk slowly to the bus stop. We board a 205 bus which departs so precipitously that I am sent flying and crash into another passenger.
As we drive through the streets, London seems to be experiencing a heat wave. At our home stop we disembark and walk, still slowly, to our door.