Car-free holidays: Porthmadog by train

The British have a bizarre habit of going on holiday by car, as though rolling down a bland motorway and sitting in smelly smoggy traffic jams to queue for car-park blighted destinations is an attractive way to spend leisure time.  Previously I’ve given a couple of suggestions for really simple inexpensive and fun breaks without a car: the Highlands by bicycle and the Lake District by bus.  Those are great options for lovers of landscape and wilderness.  But what if you have kids to entertain?

A train passing Harlech Castle (2 for 1 on your rover ticket) on the Cambrian Coast line.
A train passing Harlech Castle (2 for 1 with your ticket) on the Cambrian Coast line.

How about taking the train to Snowdonia? Snowdonia has vast sandy beaches; massive well-preserved mediaeval castles; great craggy mountains full of quarries, ruins, and the remains of strange industrial operations; and best of all, it’s full of quirky narrow-gauge steam railways — all things that will appeal to the grown-up kids too.  It’s also relatively easy to get trains from population centers like London, Manchester, Birmingham and South Wales.  As always, book train tickets a few weeks ahead to get the bargains.

Caernarfon Castle
Caernarfon Castle: 2 for 1 entry with rail ticket, and conveniently situated at the end of the Welsh Highland line.

You can make the whole thing cheaper and easier with one of the best kept secrets of the railways: rover tickets.  The “Explore North and Mid Wales Flexi Rover” ticket costs £57 for adults (£37.60 if you have a railcard) and £28.50 for the kids.  The ticket lasts for eight days, during which you get four days of unlimited train travel in the region, plus all eight days unlimited bus travel.  And if you don’t think that compares favourably to the price of petrol (and buying a car, driving lessons, insurance, tax…), note that it also gives you lots of big discounts on the things that kids (including grown-up kids) will want to do.

Borth-y-gest, Porthmadog
Borth-y-Gest, Porthmadog

If you’re spending a week on holiday with kids, you probably don’t want to be moving accommodation every night.  You want somewhere stable you can leave the suitcases and come back to at the end of the day.  How about Porthmadog?  Porthmadog is on the Cambrian Coast Line from Shrewsbury (Shrewsbury is within the rover ticket area and has trains from London, Birmingham, Manchester, Cardiff), and the train journey through the hills — the deep cuttings, high viaducts, and the long bridge over the estuary at Barmouth — is a tourist attraction in its own right. Though a long and slow journey due to the constraints of the line, it’s never a bore. Porthmadog itself has a small harbour and beaches, and is close to the vast beach at Black Rock Sands.  It’s also home to two of the most spectacular narrow-gauge steam railways.

Black Rock Sands near Porthmadog
Black Rock Sands near Porthmadog

The Ffestiniog Railway and the Welsh Highland Railway are the longest of the narrow gauge heritage railways in North Wales, they both start from the harbour station in Porthmadog, and they both offer a 50% discount to holders of a Rover ticket (a considerable saving).  The Ffestiniog Railway crosses the Glaslyn estuary at Porthmadog and winds up the wooded valleys to the slate quarry town of Blaenau Ffestiniog, with trains pulled by bizarre double-engines.  The Welsh Highland Railway briefly runs along the main road in Porthmadog before heading up into the steep sided valley of the river Glaslyn, along ledges high above the rocky river and through a series of rough hewn tunnels, crossing over the mountains in a pass alongside Snowdon itself, and descending again to the Menai Straits beside the castle at Caernarfon.

One of the Ffestiniog Rwy's bizarre conjoined twin engines.
One of the Ffestiniog Rwy's bizarre conjoined twin engines.

One of the Welsh Highland Rwy's powerful double articulated engines.
One of the Welsh Highland Rwy's powerful double articulated engines.

There are other narrow gauge railways in the area. The Talyllyn railway, an hour south of Porthmadog on the conventional railway, offers 20% discount to Rover ticket holders.  And a short narrow gauge railway runs alongside the lake in the vast old Dinorwic quarries — now the National Slate Museum (free entry with the Rover ticket) — at Llanberis, in the shadow of Snowdon.  Indeed, Llanberis, which is just an (free with your Rover ticket) open-top double-decker bus ride up the valley and over the pass from Porthmadog, is home to a variety of weird and wonderful things, from a ruined World War 2 munitions store to the Electric Mountain underground hydro-electric power station.  And it’s at the bottom of one of the best railways of all, the Snowdon Mountain Railway, which rises a thousand metres over an eight kilometre line from the lake at Llanberis to the summit of Snowdon.  At the top you can buy a cup of tea and sit in the warm, seeing what mountain climbers get to see, but without putting in any of the effort.

The railway to the summit of Snowdon
The railway to the summit of Snowdon

If that’s not enough to fill a holiday, there is Criccieth Castle along the Black Rock Sands in the next town from Porthmadog, and Harlech Castle in the opposite direction, down the railway to the south — the opposing castles of the medieval Welsh and English.  Or make use of the other railway lines that are on your ticket: the Cambrian Coast line down to Aberystwyth; or take the Blaenau line through its long tunnel and down the Conwy valley to the castle at Conwy, the national trust gardens at Bodnant, or to the traditional seaside resort of Llandudno with its tramway, cable car, and pier.

The North Wales Coast line is also accessible from the Blaeneu line, or on the fast bus from Porthmadog, and runs through spectacular scenery and impressive engineering from Holyhead to Chester, via Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, the Britannia Bridge over the Menai Straits, and through the town walls of Conwy.

And you could always just walk up a hill…

The view from Moel-y-Gest, the hill above Porthmadog.
The view from Moel-y-Gest, the hill above Porthmadog

More photos at my photography site.

Car-free holidays: Keswick by bus

Derwent Water on an April morning
Derwent Water on an April morning. Click the images for larger versions.
Download the Google Earth layers
Download the Google Earth layers

The Lake District is generally agreed to be England’s finest national park.  Unlike last week’s Scottish Highlands suggestion, though, during spring and summer in the Lakes you won’t be alone in the wilderness: you’ll meet hundreds of others out enjoying the countryside.  Which is great, except that most of the people out enjoying the fresh air on the hills will later be spoiling it by driving back to their hotels and cottages.  Like most English national parks, the Lake District is easily accessible from a major motorway, and 93% of the 8-9 million annual visitors come by car.  So, despite its low permanent population, it has a serious seasonal problem with congestion, car parking, and other blight from the influx of car-bound tourists.  Visitors are literally destroying the same wildlife and spectacular natural landscape that they are coming to see, as dual carriageways, bypasses and ever bigger car parks get built — merely inducing more demand and congestion.  In 2003, the local authorities even looked at the feasibility of introducing a Lake District Congestion Charge.  Clearly it would be irresponsible to drive to the Lake District and add to these problems.  But surely it’s not possible to have a break in the lake district without a car?

Normal everyday buses. (By flickrer soloM920, CC BY-NC-SA)
Simple everyday buses. But sometimes with the roof off. (By flickrer soloM920, CC BY-NC-SA)

I’ve had several.  Mostly they were by bicycle (and I might give some bicycle route suggestions in a future post), but one time it was by bus.  In february.  Which was excellent.  I imagine it would be even more excellent in April-June, when the full bus services are running, but before the schools break up and the families flood in with their mock military personnel carriers.  (I’ve also been to the Lake District once by car, and can honestly say that not only is possible to go there without one, it’s much better to go there without one — with a car you have to plan your day around it at least as much as you do with buses: where do you park, how are you going to get back to where you parked, etc)

Derwent Water from Latrigg
Derwent Water from Latrigg; Keswick is below the photographer, just out of view.

The buses are not tourist coach packages — the kind with a cheeky middle-aged northern failed comic giving distracting commentary between set 30 minute stops at “attractions” only the most senile of the passengers would want to visit.  They are simple normal everyday buses on reasonably frequent timetables.  Normal buses that get people to work, or the market, or the post office on pension day.  Buses are not complicated.

Derwent Water
Derwent Water

(Many Motorists, of course, will not have seen the inside of a bus in decades, and the idea of using one on a holiday in unfamiliar terrain will sound awfully difficult and complicated to them — especially if their only idea of a public bus is something that they’ve picked up from the worst Radio 4 or Daily Telegraph portrayal of a Brixton night bus.)

If you’re not already familiar with the Lakes then Keswick, in the north, is a good place to start — a small market town with the full spectrum of accommodation from youth hostels to luxury hotels.  It’s on the shores of Derwent Water, one of the prettiest of the lakes, and is surrounded by small hills with fantastic views which you don’t need to be a hardcore fell walker to climb.  Plus, if the weather turns bad one day, you can visit the world famous pencil museum.  (I’ve never been, but I know dozens of people who have and they all say: “not as awful as it sounds”.)  Or maybe an ironic trip to Cars of the Stars.

Continue reading “Car-free holidays: Keswick by bus”

Car-free holidays: bicycle over Rannoch Moor

Rannoch Moor. Click the images for larger versions.
Google Earth paths for this tour
Download Google Earth paths

It’s January and all the magazines are overflowing with supplements trying to sell you Mediterranean cruises and horrible beach holidays 4,000 miles away.  AWWTM will therefore overflow with easy-to-organise alternative holidays, giving far greater satisfaction at a fraction of the price.  They involve no sweltering traffic jams, no crowded beaches, no 2 hour check-ins and no 15 hours in economy seats.  Nor do they need to involve lycra or mud — though for some you might want sun cream, and a bicycle with at least three gears.

From the train home over Rannoch Moor at sunset

My first suggestion for a car-free break is a really easy way for southerners to see the mountains, glens, lochs, and castles of the Highlands.  It only takes a weekend, combines one of the best railway journeys in Britain with two days of 50-60 mile bicycle rides, and if you’re clever with the booking it could cost less than £60 for the whole thing.  Londoners get there on the Caledonian Sleeper train, leaving Euston at just after 9pm on a Friday evening (others can board at Crewe or Preston later in the evening).  Decide when you want to go (I recommend May, as it’s late enough to have long days, but too early for the midges) and set a reminder for 12 weeks in advance, when the £19 advance train tickets go on sale (prices can rise to over £100 each way when the advance fares run out, and in May the train is liable to be fully booked days in advance, but deciding at the last minute would at least give you the benefit of being able to pick a weekend that you know will be sunny).  On the sleeper, you get a bed; a retro lounge car that will serve you breakfast as you cross Rannoch Moor in the morning sunshine, and dinner as you return the next day at sunset; a real old fashioned luggage van for your bicycle; and you get deposited at Fort William ready to start your ride on Saturday morning, and then back at Euston in time for work on Monday.  Since it’s only a weekend trip, all you need is a small backpack or pannier to carry a change of t-shirt and pants, your sun cream, and a supply of bananas.  Preparation couldn’t be less stressful. Continue reading “Car-free holidays: bicycle over Rannoch Moor”