In a region stuffed with wonderful views, PORTHMADOG, at the crook of the Cambrian Coast and the Llŷn, has some of the finest – up the Vale of Ffestiniog and across the estuary of the Glaslyn River to the mountains of Snowdonia. The bustling town itself makes little of its wonderful position, but it’s a good base for exploring. Wales’s heritage railway obsession reaches its apogee here with two fantastic lines – the peerless Ffestiniog Railway and the newly restored Welsh Highland Railway – and if steam trains don’t blow your whistle, you can head for the strange but wonderful Italianate folly of Portmeirion.
The Ffestiniog Railway ranks as Wales’s finest narrow-gauge rail line, twisting and looping up 650ft from the wharf at Porthmadog to the slate mines at Blaenau Ffestiniog, thirteen miles away. The gutsy little engines make light of the steep gradients and chug through stunning scenery, from broad estuarine expanses to the deep greens of the Vale of Ffestiniog, only fading to grey on the final approaches to the slate-bound upper terminus at Blaenau Ffestiniog. In the late nineteenth century the rail line was carrying 100,000 tons a year of Blaenau Ffestiniog slate, but after the collapse of the slate roofing industry the line was abandoned (in 1946) and fell into disrepair. Reconstruction of the tracks was complete by 1982.
Leaving Porthmadog, trains cross The Cob and then stop at Minffordd, a mile from Portmeirion.
Welsh Highland Railway
In 2011 the narrow-gauge Welsh Highland Railway once again connected Porthmadog with Caernarfon, 25 miles away. One of the most scenic lines in a land packed with charming railways, it rises from sea level to 650ft along the southern flank of Snowdon and passes a gorgeous river estuary, oak woods and the Aberglaslyn Gorge, where the line hugs the tumbling river.
The full Porthmadog–Caernarfon round trip gives you a full five hours on the train but only an hour in Caernarfon. Alternatively, ride to Beddgelert then walk down the Aberglaslyn Pass to Nantmor (1hr) and catch the train back to Porthmadog from there.
Best known as “The Village” in the 1960s cult British TV series The Prisoner, the Italianate private village of PORTMEIRION, set on a small rocky peninsula in Tremadog Bay, was the brainchild of eccentric architect Clough Williams-Ellis. He dreamed of building an ideal village using a “gay, light-opera sort of approach”, and the result is certainly theatrical: a stage set with a lucky dip of buildings arranged to distort perspectives and reveal tantalizing glimpses of the seascape behind.
In the 1920s, Williams-Ellis bought the site and turned an existing house into a hotel, the income from this providing funds for his “Home for Fallen Buildings”. Endangered structures in every conceivable style from all over Britain and abroad were brought here and arranged around a Mediterranean piazza: a Neoclassical colonnade from Bristol, Siamese figures, a Jacobean town hall, a campanile and a pantheon. Painted in shades of turquoise, ochre and buff yellows, it is continually surprising, with hidden entrances and cherubs popping out of crevices – eclectic yet somehow all of a piece.
More than three thousand visitors a day come to ogle in summer, when it can be a delight; fewer in winter, when it seems just bizarre.