Up until about four years ago, I’d never ridden on a train. (Unless you count subways or the train at Disney World, which I definitely don’t.) We were on a 16-day trip through India when in the wee hours of the morning on day 5, I found myself carefully navigating my suitcase around dozens of huddled, sleeping forms on a dimly lit platform in a train station in Delhi. I was there to catch a train three hours south to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, my first time ever to take a train to get from one city to another. (As it turned out, that train ride ended up being almost as much fun as seeing the Taj Mahal itself!) Since then, thanks to a move to Europe and a renewed love for travel, I’ve ridden on more trains than I care to take the time to count, but none have been so memorable as the first…until our trip to Wales.
When we were in Scotland a few weeks before our trip to Wales, one of the things I’d wanted to do while we were there was to ride the Jacobite steam train, aka the Hogwarts Express, from Fort William to Mallaig. Besides the fact that we’re all big HP fans over here, the other reason I’d wanted to hop aboard the Jacobite was so we could travel this famously scenic route through the Highlands via a steam train, which is something of a novelty for those of us who have become accustomed to the regular old Eurostar. As per usual, we didn’t have enough time to tackle everything on our list and had to sacrifice our steam train ride in favor of more time on the Isle of Skye. (Only a slight disappointment since the Isle of Skye is amazing!) However, when a second opportunity to travel by steam train came up, we didn’t let this one get away. On our second day in Wales, we hopped aboard the Ffestiniog steam train for one epically scenic journey through the Welsh countryside.
Riding the Ffestiniog Steam Train
Unfortunately most of my photos didn’t turn out, because what I thought was a fast enough shutter speed for landscapes on a moving train most certainly was not. The blurry, mostly indecipherable photos I came home with were a much-needed reminder that more important than any photos I bring home are the memories, which are certainly more easily made when not behind the lens of a camera. Thankfully, this was one of those rare times I remembered to heed this advice, otherwise a few crappy photos would have been the only “memories” I came home with!
The Ffestiniog steam train runs from Blaenau Ffestiniog in central Snowdonia to Porthmadog, stopping at several other towns along the way. The entire journey from one end to the other is only about 13 miles and takes just an hour, but it covers quite an array of landscapes in between. From waterfalls and forests to mountains and small farming communities – we saw so many beautiful places in the Welsh countryside that we never would have seen otherwise.
It was such a peaceful ride, listening to the sound of the train running on the tracks and the sharp whistle as we entered towns along the way. Every now and then a cloud of smoke would make it back to where we sat at the end of the train, windows open so we could feel the breeze, and would fill the whole train car with the smell of coal. It was such a unique experience, I was actually a little sad it had to end so quickly, but the promise of a return journey back to Blaenau Ffestiniog in a few hours and a new town to explore in the meantime perked me right up!
The End of the Line in Porthmadog
Porthmadog is not a town we had on our radar when we were making plans in North Wales, but as it is the end of the line on the Ffestiniog steam train, we decided to disembark and spend a few hours here before taking the train back to Blaenau Ffestiniog. (I’m diggin’ these town names!) Back in the day, Porthmadog, a harbor town on the coast of Wales, was the end of the Ffestiniog Railway for one reason – it connected the slate mines of Blaenau Ffestiniog with a flourishing port for shipping. Today, since the slate mining industry in Wales has slowed down and the Ffestiniog steam train is now used solely to transport people, Porthmadog is more of a tourist destination than shipping port, making it the perfect place for us to stop for a few hours. Or it would have been if we weren’t arriving on a Sunday when everything was closed…
After struggling to find a place to eat that was a) open and b) not already full of customers, and settling on ice cream for lunch (yay!), we wandered around the main shopping road for a bit only to discover most of the shops were closed. No big loss since none of us are big shoppers, but since we had no other plan in place, we found ourselves in Porthmadog with quite a bit of time to kill before the next train came around. After walking around the town taking photos, we ended up along the harbor where folks, mostly kids, were trying their hand at crab fishing. Had we known this was a thing in Porthmadog earlier, we definitely would have given it a go, but since our train back was the last of the day going in that direction, we wound our way back to the station to make sure we didn’t miss it.
It probably had a little to do with the fact that so much was closed and a lot to do with the fact that the town was jam-packed with people, but we weren’t really the biggest fans of Porthmadog. I breathed a sigh of relief when our train rolled into the station knowing we would soon be back in Betws-y-Coed, a town much more my speed than Porthmadog. The train ride back to Blaenau Ffestiniog was a lot more crowded than it had been earlier, and I wasn’t able to get a seat on the side of the train I’d been hoping for. No worries, though, because just like airplanes, trains can lull me to sleep like nothing else can and I spent the whole journey back enjoying the afternoon sun on my face and dozing off and on as the scenery zipped past outside my window.
I’m so happy we had the time to take a ride the Ffestiniog steam train while we were in Snowdonia. Riding through the forests and mountains of the Welsh countryside in an antique-style train was such a treat. I hope we’ll get the opportunity to do something like this again sometime. (I’m still planning on a ride on the Jacobite in the future!) If you’re interested in taking a ride on the Ffestiniog steam train, you can buy tickets online or arrive at the station before the train is scheduled to depart and buy them from the ticket agent. Timetables are available here. For more tips, keep reading!
Tips for Riding the Ffestiniog Steam Train
An ‘All Day Rover Ticket’ is the best deal if you plan on buying return tickets. Less expensive than two separate single journey tickets, these allow you to hop on and off at any station along the way and stay as long as you like.
One child rides free with each paying adult. So definitely make sure you bring the kids! This deal combined with the ‘All Day Rover Ticket’ makes for a pretty inexpensive day out for a family of four.
Light snacks are available for purchase on board. But if you’re headed to Porthmadog you’ll have plenty of options for meals or snacks, so keep that in mind!
When riding from Blaenau Ffestiniog to Porthmadog, sit on the left side of the train. Sit on the right for the return journey. These seats get the best views of the countryside and mountains. Seats are unassigned, so it’s first-come, first-served. The train cars are small with large windows, so if you do happen to get stuck on the wrong side, don’t worry, you’ll still be able to see the pretty views. The other passengers’ heads just might be in the way!
Sit at the back of the train if you’re bothered by the smell of smoke. On our way to Porthmadog we sat in the back of the train because I wanted to be able to get shots of the train as it wrapped around corners. I didn’t even think about the smell of the burning coal being too overwhelming until we were on our way back to Blaenau Ffestiniog and were seated much closer to the front. The delightful whiffs of smoke we enjoyed on our first journey were much more powerful in the front and my allergies reacted almost immediately. It’s definitely a good idea to sit in the back if you think this might be a problem!
If photos are a priority, make sure you sit in one of the seats with windows that can be opened all the way. Not all of the windows do this, so check before you commit to a seat. Also, make sure you’re sitting on the correct side I mentioned above. An additional tip would be to ride early. Our first journey was before noon and we had enough empty seats in our car that I was able to take photos from both sides of the train.
Also, although I’m sure I don’t need to tell you – make sure you’re using a proper shutter speed before you proceed to take 40 blurry photos of the countryside. :)
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