Little Trains in Wales I say, “Round Them Up. ”

Leonard Lea Frazer
Left: A young passenger, in a couch car, enjoys views of the Welsh countryside.
Right: Looking in the direction of Blaenu Ffestiniog, near the Minffordd Station.
Left: A young passenger, in a couch car, enjoys views of the Welsh countryside. Right: Looking in the direction of Blaenu Ffestiniog, near the Minffordd Station.
Leonard Lea Frazer photos

Still following the “Travel Writer’s Formula” on my 1992 self-made tour of Wales… you know… study the country, set the dates, write ahead to let them know you’re coming, be prepared for all types of transportation and accommodation, make your contacts, take the photos, do the interviews, visit the attractions and basically do all your homework… and now I was in Wales on the 14th day of a three-week tour.
At last, it was my chance to write a “Round Up” story. “Round Up?” you say. That’s right, round up. Just like what the cowboys do. Except, in the case of a Travel Writer, you’re not rounding up “Little doggies,” you’re rounding up material about the Ten Best Hotels in Cape Town, South Africa, the Top Attractions in London, England or the Castles of South Wales. As a result of my completed homework I received a brochure in the mail entitled “The Great Little Trains of Wales.” These small gauge railway trains were put on my list of things to do while in Wales and inserted into my travel itinerary.

My research into “How to be a Successful Travel Writer” had told me that a “round up” story could be written without staying at all Ten Hotels in Cape Town, or visiting all the Top Attractions in London, or exploring all the castles in South Wales. In the case of the “Castles” story all one had to do was visit one or two and pick up the guide-books on the other eight. You could still write the story, including your own angle, observations, and photographs and by mentioning all the castles the piece becomes a Round Up story.
After spending two days exploring the Llyn Peninsula in Northern Wales, I headed for Minffordd by train. I checked out the morning market at the nearby harbour town of Porthmadog while waiting to take a ride on the Ffestiniogg Steam Railway.
This railway has narrow gauge track (1ft. 11 ½ inches) and is roughly 13 ½ miles (21.7 km) long and runs from Porthmadog on the coast to the slate mining town of Blaenu Ffestiniog up in the Welsh mountains. The “Festiniog Railway Company” is the oldest surviving railway company in the world (although not the oldest working railway - a record that goes to the Middleton Railway in West Yorkshire), having been founded by an Act of Parliament on May 23, 1832 with capital raised in Dublin by Mr. Henry Archer, the company’s first secretary and Managing Director. Most British railways were amalgamated into four large groups in 1921 and then into British Railways in 1948, but the Festiniog Railway Company, like most narrow-gauge railways, remained independent.
The line was constructed between 1833 and 1836 to transport slate from the quarries around the inland town of Blaenau Ffestiniog to Porthmadog were it was loaded on ships.
During the 1860s steam locomotives were introduced to the railway. Before that time the slate cars, which came down the mountain by gravity, were pulled back up using horses.
The loaded slate trains operated using a gravity-system until 1939. Slate trains eventually became very long - trains of less than eighty slate wagons carried two brakemen but over eighty wagons required three brakemen.
By the 1920s, the demand for slate as a roofing material dropped owing to the advent of newer materials and to the loss of the overseas market during World War I. As a result the railway suffered a gradual decline in traffic.
Today the railway has been restored, and original steam engines and diesel engines transport tourists on a scenic journey into the local highlands. The Ffestiniog Railway,  one of eight narrow-gauge lines, operates as one of the “Great Little Trains of Wales” and is a special way of seeing some of the best scenery in the United Kingdom.
The other lines include: the Bala Lake Railway, Brecon Mountain Railway, Llanberis Lake Railway, Talyllyn Railway, Welshpool and Llanfair Light Railway and the Welsh Highland Railway.
You will find, as I did, a trip on any of those Little Trains of Wales a novel and memorable experience.

Leonard Lea Frazer photos
Leonard Lea Frazer photos