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.