Steam trains in a land of sheep and dragons
1st to 6th August, 2019

It's relaxing to be able to drive on the side of the road that's familiar to you, and hear locals speaking your native language. Admittedly, some of the bollocks we overheard made it abundantly clear why they're in such a political pickle just now.

I don't think they know the British Empire imploded a century or two ago. The British tea clipper isn't essential now in bringing it all home to Blighty. That same tea can now be sent by Danish company Maersk, on a Panama-registered ship, from a plantation in northern India that's probably half-owned by a Chinese guy. It'll be interesting to see how far Brexit unravels.

Despite my cynicism, it was sobering to stand near the Mayflower Steps, then walk up onto the Plymouth Hoe where, in 1588 Drake reputedly played his famous game of bowls. Across from the green was the world's first lighthouse, originally built on Eddystone Rocks. I gave it a pat. Straightaway, there were so many things you could see and touch, that had stood for centuries.

We'd found the best transport option was to a hire car. It was surprising but, when everything got added together, the trains and busses were more expensive than getting our own car. It was also a hell of a lot more convenient to drive ourselves about. I wanted to see some old caving mates in Cardiff first, so we picked up the car and drove north.

We thought going up through Dartmoor would be a nicer option than the motorway. The inn at Two Bridges at the southern end of the moors served Devonshire Tea. Since A had been going on about this local treat for years without me knowing what it was, we ordered two. It's tea, with scones, jam and clotted cream. Jolly good and tasty, too. Straight from the lips and onto the hips.
Another thing Dartmoor was famous for, but I'd never heard of, was wild horses. My only experience with horses has been as a common ingredient in Norwegian salami. First I knew of these was when a herd appeared over the rise to one side of us and crossed the road. They were beautiful! Looking past A and out the driver's window, I could suddenly feel the percussion of galloping hooves right next to me. A solitary horse paced us, it's long mane flowing, before peeling off down the slope to join the others. I've never seen anything so dynamic and graceful.
Dartmoor Ponies - I'd never seen anything so graceful
After that treat, navigating to the M4 and getting over to Cardiff was a bit of a come-down. The tide was completely out from the Bristol Channel, with grey mudflats showing all around, waiting to be covered by those huge, fifteen-metre tides.

We arranged to meet my friends in the evening and went for a walk through the city centre in the meantime, to see what Cardiff was all about. It seemed to be about desperate-looking people! The concentration of drug users, homeless, disabled and assorted odd-balls was upsetting. Having spent the last few weeks in idyllic French countryside, we were shocked to see such desperate humanity. I couldn’t bring myself to take pictures.

Time has a way of playing tricks, when you meet old friends. The last time I'd seen one these guys was almost fifteen years ago in New Zealand. The other I'd only met again on a recent caving trip in Austria. They had both come to NZ in 2005 to dive some caves, beyond the limit of exploration. They were pushing far back into the Riwaka Cave resurgence, ferrying tanks and other gear through long sumps and up climbs, before diving on again. I only helped out in support and was able to learn a huge amount from them. Cave diving is a test of technical ability coupled with physical and mental stamina. It enabled me to explore incredible places very few people have seen. I dived for a few years after that, until a near-miss with death made me rethink my motives. But even though I've stopped, those memories are still magical.

So, seeing them both again reminded me of things, including how understated people like these are. They're competent, yet don't brag about it. They're the real deal.
Our main plan for the UK was to visit Snowdonia for some walking. Before Snowdonia, we decided to see some of the Pembrokeshire Coast. We drove west from Cardiff until we ran out of land, stopping at St. David's. With no idea what to expect, the coastal village of Solva, and the cathedral at St. David's itself, were lovely surprises. It was the first time I got an idea of the historical rift between Wales and England, too. A nice old bloke at the cathedral told me something about it.

The ruined bishop's palace next-door looked much older, but was built in the thirteenth century, two hundred years after the cathedral was consecrated in 1131. A bishop had been sent to St. David's in 1536 from England, but hated the Welsh and believed such a remote posting was beneath him. Possibly in retribution, he took all the fittings from the Bishop's palace and most of the lead from the roof. The local story was that he sold it as dowries for his five daughters, who were also bishops. Clearly he'd been spreading the Lord's word outside working hours.

Good old Wikipedia said he didn't have any daughters, but who knows.

St. David’s
Lovely and peaceful
Later on, Oliver Cromwell's troops billeted there in the sixteen hundreds and pinched the last of the lead. The palace didn't last unprotected and so had become quite dilapidated in the roughly three hundred and fifty years since. The cathedral looked and felt very different to that. Some old religious places just felt like buildings, but this church had softness and tranquility in its old bones. There was a finely-carved wood ceiling and quiet stone flags on the floor. At the top of the grounds, a woman sat in the shade, playing a harp.

Parking had been non-existent in Solva on the way through, but there was space on the drive back. We went for a walk, had an ice cream and watch brits frolicking on the sand. Kids made sand pies or played with dogs, and one sad bugger grubbed about in the muck with a metal detector.
Tourist Tat
“The tribes of tantrum-ridden kids fighting over fluffy pink stuffed dragons and plastic Harry Potter wands drove us away more effectively than any Expeliarmus Charm."
Apparently Welsh shepherds had lived in small wheeled huts, so they could move house and follow the flock. Our host for the evening, who turned out to be local actor and director Peter Doran, had bought one and done it up. He was a friendly and welcoming host, and the hut was cosy, with a pull-out bed and new paint. There was a kitchen area inside an old barn, but we dreamt of a pub meal. Peter recommended the local, but they weren't so welcoming. They were booked up, and saw no need to be polite about it. We found a nicer reception at the local supermarket, made a healthier food choice, and the view from outside the barn was better. It was decorated with old theatre props and posters, including a giant tin of Brasso, frilly umbrellas and a string of pink flamingo lights.

We left the next morning in good time and drove up the coast. There were lots of villages along the way, but nowhere to park! The houses were built right up along the roadside and high stone walls lined the way. There were a couple of bigger towns we could have looked at, but it was school holiday season and they were heaving with tourists. We popped into the Centre for Alternative Technology as well, which had a twin-track water-powered tram, lifting visitors up a steep hill. It was pretty neat, filling a tank in one carriage at the top to lift the carriage at the bottom. We were cheap Kiwis on tour, and since it looked to be their main attraction, we watched it gush water for a cycle or two, then got into our air-conditioned petrol car, and drove off.

Next stop was a seemingly-promising craft centre at Corris. The tribes of tantrum-ridden kids fighting over fluffy pink stuffed dragons and plastic Harry Potter wands drove us away more effectively than any Expeliarmus Charm.
To avoid more such horrors, we turned off the main way onto a smaller coast road, that lead to Barmouth. It was a nice spot, but choked with people as well, so we kept motoring to Penrhyndeudraeth. Try saying that place name, three times fast in a row.

I don't know if Penrhyn (that's how the locals shorten Penrhyndeudraeth) was originally built near a quarry, or was just a village where some of the workers at Blaenau Ffestiniog lived. The old railway ran from Porthmadog, right up above Penrhyn and on to Blaenau Ffestiniog. It even had a station directly above the place we would stay. Heh, heh. It was a nice spot, regardless of ulterior motives.

First task after dumping our gear was drive to Llandudno Junction and meet our Kiwi friend S off a train. She was with the International Red Cross for many years until recently, living and working in some of the most interesting spots you could think to name. No tourists allowed. We think she's awesome.

Off to Llandudno we went, until nearing Llanwrst, where a traffic queue magically appeared and stopped us dead. Many, many Welsh were gathering here for an annual festival called Eistedfodd.

No Relevance
I couldn’t find a vertical format that matched the text, so here’s one of a train
Tents, temporary traffic lights, and signs that seemed to say, "Harps this way, please" all dripped in the heavy rain. An hour later than planned, we picked S up and took the faster way home, around the coast past Bangor. We were treated to Indian takeaways for our driving efforts and all tried some Delicious Welsh Cakes for dessert. Our host had left them as a welcoming gift, but I'm always doubtful when the word "delicious" is used on packaging. A and I had tried one at a cafe earlier that day. We'd thought the fact it was dense, uninterestingly dry, crumbling and tasteless, was because it'd been left on the tray too long. Nope, it seems they're supposed to be like that.
Best view in town
“The sun shone, and the beauty of the landscape came alive for us. Dull grey turned to silver, with black shadows and rich greens."
We all relaxed next morning, walked around Penrhyn, then drove back up to Blaenau Ffestiniog. We'd gone that way to Llandudno the afternoon before but were on a mission and it was bucketing down, so we didn't stop. I'd been up there before in 1997, on a solo bike tour and taken the train down to Porthmadog. I went back the next year with my folks, when they came over from NZ to see me. It felt strange to be there again and there were a few ghosts trailing after me. This village was the perfect setting. The whole place seemed to loom over us. Blaenau and the mountains around were slate grey. The rainclouds overhead were leaden, hiding the tops. Dark green heather was the only relief from stone.

My other cunning plan while in the UK, when the subject of North Wales first camp up, was to base ourselves in Porthmadog, to be close to the terminus of two vintage railways. There's the Ffestiniog railway, first laid to get the local slate from the quarries and running between Porthmadog and Blaenau Ffestiniog village, It was closed in 1946, then rebuilt between 1954 and 1982 as a tourist line. The second line from Porthmadog is the Welsh Highland Railway, which runs from Porthmadog up to Caernarfon. I was especially keen to see it, because they run some Beyer Garratt articulated steam locomotives, which are so much fun to watch, their multiple sets of valve gear cranking away.
The contrast at the station between standard gauge and the old narrow gauge line was stark. Blaenau has been a quarry town since the 1750's and the railway was opened in 1836. I have an abiding love for narrow gauge railways and this one was a real treat.

A couple of local kids teased us, then ran off and played jungle-gym on a bike stand outside an old building where a sign said it had been restored with funds from the EU. Not for much longer, kids.

On the way back to Penrhyn, we followed an impulse and turned off onto a side street, ending up in the cemetery. Best view in town. The sun shone, and the beauty of the landscape came alive for us. Dull grey turned to silver, with black shadows and rich green.

A blustery, rainy day shrouded the station as I asked about train rides. I have a photo of Dad smiling on that very platform, having ridden the train down twenty-one years ago. The trains are still running and he'd have loved it.

The narrow gauge track at Blaenau Ffestiniog was easy to spot
We gave S a ride to the station the next morning, said goodbye then went into Porthmadog again. The Beyer Garratts were running on the Welsh Highland, and we got tickets to Rhyd Ddu the next day, where we would switch trains and come back down.

It was about time we got off our bums and went for a proper walk. The cottage had some great notes and maps of favourite local walks and, of course, we chose the most recommended. After an hour, we seriously considered that we might have gotten the map from one walk and the description from another. Farms, ridges and fence stiles weren't where they were described to be. Tracks turned left when the directions said turn right, and signs said straight on. The whole thing was too much of an obstacle and orienteering course to be relaxing, but we enjoyed the exercise and the country was lovely. On our way up a hill near the end, we heard the toot of a whistle and a train steamed past. Over the tracks, the way on lead up a hill and over another stile, but we could see there would be a road walk to get home, so we retraced back down a farm lane. More old trains went past. By now, Ange was becoming very aware of my conspiracy.

I have a fascination with all the whirring links and hissing valves of an old steam loco, combined with the smell of smoke. Like driving our old Mini, trains always puts a smile on my face. The ride up to Rhyd Ddu the next day took us into moss-covered gorges, through higher pine forests, then under the smooth, grassy flank of Snowdon. On the way back, we rode behind another Beyer Garratt and were back in Porthmadog for a late lunch. I couldn't believe my luck when A suggested we walk up to Penryn station and take the Ffestiniog line that same afternoon. Okay, twist my rubber arm.
Penrhyn was a flag stop, so we waved our very own train to a halt. A little girl about two years old was waiting with her grandmother, just to see it. The woman said her father had been a driver on the line and that the little girl loved to come and watch, much as she'd done herself.

We waved and chuffed off, the rails crossing roads then threading through the trees. Compared to the morning run to Rhyd Ddu, this line had more views, more twisting curves, more stops, more bridges and more tourists. The ride back down from Blaenau was distracted by some British passengers talking about British politics, themselves, British weather, and themselves. Even their fingernails got conversational space, for God's sake. Fascinated, I watched for a while but never saw them even glance out the window. Why not take the bloody bus?

Even so, riding along the hillsides and through villages gave an idea how it might have been for quarry workers travelling each day to the grey rock faces. I bet their carriages weren't as comfy, but the conversation mightn't have been so different.
We did look out the windows, and saw many old stone cottages buried in heather and long grass. Thick stone walls meandering over the slopes. Sometimes the rail cuttings blurred past within a hand-span of the windows then would disappear, as we trundled along a wall or rattled over a small bridge.

The train deposited us back in Penrhyn and a short walk got us home to leftovers and a DVD. A quiet end to a great day, with stream trains and lovely views. Tomorrow we just planned to go for a walk, but trains had a small part in that adventure, too. So did wizards.
A morbid way to finish this post perhaps, but there were a lot of graveyards about
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