PORTHMADOG STEAM RAILWAYS – WALES
Rheilfford Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railways
Most towns in the Britain from the smallest village to big cities have long long histories attested to by ancient churches with worn gravestone somewhere covered with thick grass. Porthmadog on the North Wales coast was almost entirely the result of the beginning of the industrial age. The mountainous wild stretch of Snowdonia in west Gwynedd began producing slate in the late 1700s for a worldwide building boom with the introduction of mechanized equipment. William A Madocks needed a port to ship the grey shale stone to the world. He acquired land along the Glaslyn Estuary and built a great long embankment to protect his harbor from the flood tides. His harbor for ships loading slate was casually named for him, Port Madoc, the town which grew around the harbor for housing the workmen and shipping crew is now called Porthmadog (but pronounced madoc). A railway was needed to haul the slate from the mines at the hills of Blaenau Ffestiniog to the port and in 1832 an act of Parliament founded the first independent railway company in the world, the Festiniog Railway.
The Rheilfford Ffestiniog Railway (rheilfford is welsh for railway) was originally a horse drawn and gravity rail line, then steam came along. The Ffestiniog Railway now operates as a narrow gauge passenger heritage steam railway, one of the areas most popular tourist attractions, carrying visitors to north Wales on a 13 mile journey from Porthmadog to the quarry town of Blaenau Ffsetiniog, crossing on the high long embankment called “the cob” out of the harbor, then climbing over 700 feet from sea level into the mountains, engine chugging through bucolic pastures and thick forests, past lakes and waterfalls, curving around horseshoe bends, through tunnels and even making a complete circle as it rises up the steep slopes of the Snowdonian hills.
The Ffestioniog Railway is probably best known among rail enthusiasts for its operating Double Fairlie steam locomotives, that peculiar style of engine with two boilers and engineer cabins facing in either direction so no matter which way it was hauling it was going forward. The Ffestiniog Railway has three of them, the most recent addition being the David Lloyd George, named for the politician and Prime Minister associated with the area, along with a unique single Fairlie, the Talisin, and the Blanche. Which of the engines is operation on any given visit will vary. Many of the engines come out for Vintage Weekends, held a couple times a year. The railway operates buffet cars for snacks on the way and has its own pub at the Portmadog station for a local ale while waiting for the ride or after return. The Festiniog Railway also hosts a “Thomas the Tank” engine a couple time per year and special Santa Trains in December. The station is at the southern edge of Portmadog at the harbor where most of the vestiges of the port’s state days are gone. Where great sailing ships once docked and loaded stone from wharf warehouses, now sail boat slips and yacht morrings remain. There is a small maritime museum with Portmadog’s history near the train terminus at the Britannia Bridge.
Welsh Highland Railway
At the other end of town of Portmadog is another narrow gauge steam railroad, the Welsh Highland Railway. The Welsh Highland’s tracks only run about a mile from Porthmadog, with the narrow gauge station across the road from Portmadog's main rail station on the Cambrian Coast line. The restoration workshop has a lot of activity and there is alos a miniature railway for kids. A one hour trip on the rail line can includes a walk to the unique little village of Tremadog, the purpose built town for Maddock’s workers that remains essentially as it was in the late 18th Century, watched over by the house Maddock built for himself. The preserved village is a few buildings, but a curious look back. An ambitious construction project is underway to re-connect the Porthmadog end of the Welsh Highland line with the longer more major run from the Caernarvon station (see Caernarfon Castle), with the connection of the through line to Porthmadog expected some time in 2011. Both railroads are now operated by the same company, though tickets are separate.
In addition to its two steam railroads, Porthmadog makes for a particularly unique tourist haven for its nearby attractions. Just outside of Porthmadog is the unique little world of Portmeirion, an Italianate village of hotel and holiday houses designed by visionary architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis – perhaps best known as the filming location of the Patrick McGoohan 1960s TV series “The Prisoner” (see Portmeirion Village). On the outskirts the estuary is the hard beach of Blackrock Sands where a car can park without making a dent, attracted the likes of poet Percy Shelley and T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) who lived close by until his death in a motor accident. The famous Harlech Castle, one of Edward I “iron ring” fortresses is a few miles to the south (see Harlech Castle Snowdonia Coast) and Criccieth Castle, built by the welsh lord Llewelyn the Great in the l3th Century is just to the north, in the town which is the home of Cadwaladers Ice Cream. © Bargain Travel Europe
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