Travel: A mystical magical tour

For the best views of north Wales, says Jeremy Atiyah, put the coast behind you and head for the bleak hills
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The Independent Online
North Wales: what a daft place to put a seaside resort. Llandudno is the kind of town where the first wisp of cloud in a clear blue sky introduces a torrential downpour.

Only when you look back on the esplanade from the Great Orme hills just west of town, do you begin to understand. Those perfect, curving stucco terraces were built in an age when the Costa del Sol was not an option. Llandudno is a place where people kept their ankles covered.

And outside the warmest months of the year, it still is. I saw more sheep on the pavements than people. The resort waits until April to begin getting its kit off. The pier, the highlight of any British seaside resort, has been closed for repairs over the winter but is due to reopen at Easter; the century-old Great Orme tramway, which trundles up the hills overlooking the town, opened for the season last weekend, while the cable car that glides up into those same hills is still thinking about it.

But, sadly, the wind will continue to blow cold off the sea until June at least and, personally, I advise trippers to north Wales to turn their backs on the shore. Get on the train instead, and try out the following easy circuit, arriving in England at the end of the day. Well, you'll arrive if you can work out the timetables. Welsh trains are so small and local that not many people know whether (or where) they run. The Conwy valley line, from Llandudno through Snowdonia to Blaenau? A clerk at Llandudno had no idea. A call to National Rail Enquiries tentatively cleared up the matter: I went to catch the train at 10.17am.

It turned out that on Sundays they run a substitute bus. "Not too many passengers Sundays," remarked the driver as I boarded. The two of us - the driver and I - were soon chugging alongside Conwy Bay, through heather- bound valleys under glowering skies. Edward I's monstrous Conwy Castle came and went, and we began climbing into the wild heart of Snowdonia. The main stop in the middle of the park was Llanrwst, a dripping-wet village surrounded by ferns and bracken and rushing streams, and the launch pad for 1,000 Snowdon treks.

Finally, we came down through the remote pastures of the Lledr valley to Blaenau. The barren, heaped-up rubble from a century and a half of slate-quarrying entirely surrounds this benighted town. I think it would look a lot better under snow. Cottages in the high street go for pounds 35,000.

What Blaenau does have, though, is a scenic railway. As well as being the terminus of the Conwy valley line, it is the jumping-on point for the narrow-gauge Blaenau-Ffestiniog line. Opened in 1836 to lug all that slate down to the sea, this descends the 640ft to Porthmadog in just 13 miles. These days it's a steam-engine job, having been restored for the benefit of tourists in 1982. Me? I took the bus (the train cost pounds 12 one way) but I did have the pleasure of seeing the steam engine in a siding, with men in frock coats and toppers clambering over the engine.

The bus to Porthmadog incidentally also went via Portmeirion, a bizarre Italianate village built in the Twenties by the architect Clough Williams- Ellis. If you get off, you can see what Wales would have looked like had we remained a Roman colony. It is a one-hour downhill walk from here through trees to Porthmadog, where the first thing I heard was a pair of school kids abusing each other in Welsh. Later I found bus drivers trying and failing to express themselves in English. This was Wales all right. Having admired the boats in the harbour and the views over Snowdon, I set off on the next leg of my journey - along the Cambrian Line, down the west coast. It was then that I discovered just how unspoilt is the Cambrian coast. My nomination for the remotest station in Britain goes to Dovey Junction - a mere platform in the middle of nowhere.

The only trouble with doing the journey in this direction is that the wild coasts and magical valleys of Wales are soon replaced by the West Midlands. Go too fast, and before you know it you're in Birmingham. No danger of that for me. The day I travelled, a bewildering succession of substitute buses had been laid on to cope with a familiar Welsh problem - torrential rain had led to flooding on the line.

Notes from the Welsh Overground

On days when the trains are running, eight narrow-gauge railway networks gather together under the banner of "The Great Little Trains of Wales". A Wanderer ticket is valid for unlimited travel on any four days out of eight, price pounds 28, or eight days out of 15, pounds 38.

The line that Jeremy Atiyah missed out on performs a useful function as the missing link between the Mid and North Wales rail networks. The 13-mile Ffestiniog Railway (01766 512340) runs from the grown-up station at Blaenau Ffestiniog to Porthmadog; the best place to change trains to rejoin BR is Minffordd. A one-way ticket is pounds 6.40. On Sundays, it is impossible to complete the loop to or from the north coast because no trains run between Blaenau Ffestiniog and Llandudno.

Wales & West Railways operates most of the standard-gauge trains in Wales. It has rail pass deals, such as the Mid Wales Day Ranger, covering the lines from Wolverhampton to Pwllheli and Chester to Shrewsbury.

Notes from the Welsh underground

It's not as easy as it was to scratch beneath the surface of Wales, since a couple of mines closed to the public. The world's biggest slate mine in Blaenau Ffestiniog is no longer open to visitors; neither is the Gwynfynydd gold mine, the main source of Welsh gold, where visitors used to pan for the precious metal and keep what they found.

There are still a couple of opportunities for going underground. In the Rhondda valley, the Big Pit Mining Museum in Blaenafon (01495 790311) describes the story of the coal industry in Wales in the days when the country had one. It opens daily at 10am, with the last tour at 3.30pm: pounds 5.50 adults, pounds 3.75 for children (who must be at least five).

The Sygun copper mine in Beddgelert (01766 510100) describes the history and geology of mining the metal. It is located beside the A498 in Snowdonia, and opens daily from 10.30am to 4pm. Adults pounds 4.50, children pounds 3.

Simon Calder

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