I haven't visited Wales for this blog yet. However, Wales has some long, rural railways which are perfect for discovering little stations with low annual patronages. Visiting most of Wales from my base in southern Scotland is quite a tough ask, and most of it is out of reach. But, there are parts which are possible to visit in the day, and the Conwy Valley Line is one of them.
The Conwy Valley Line runs from Llandudno to Blaenau Ffestiniog, mostly following the route of the river Conwy (surprise, surprise), especially in the northern half of the railway. It links a few towns in North Wales: Llanrwst, Betws-y-Coed and Blaenau Ffestiniog to the rest of the railway network, but is a very rural railway line, with the remaining 7 stations being request stops serving much smaller populations. Half the stations (5) are small enough to justify a visit for the blog. Being able to visit a maximum of 3 at a time (with careful planning), I selected my trio for the day, booked the tickets, and turned up at Edinburgh on the correct day.
Because the Conwy Valley line has roughly a train every 3 hours, there are few opportunities to connect without long waits. The first train worth getting from Edinburgh is just after 8am. I took it as far as Preston, where I had an 11 minute wait for my next service. That train was slightly late, so I risked the brisk walk out of the station to Fishersgate where I could buy something hot to eat. I returned with 1 minute to spare before the timetabled departure time, and 5 minutes before it actually turned up. As it departed, I realised that my 6 minute change at Warrington Bank Quay was looking very tight. A nervy 20 minutes passed, as I checked various open information sources in an attempt to work out if my connection was also going to be delayed. On the approach to Winwick Junction (north of Warrington Bank Quay), my connection was held to allow my train to run in-front. I whispered to myself, earning a look from a nearby tracksuit containing a person.
Now on my third train and fourth ticket of the day, I slept for part of the journey across to Llandudno Junction, making sure that I didn't miss the scenery of the North Wales Coast once I got beyond Chester. At Llundudno Junction, I had the option to take a quick detour to Llandudno during the 40 minute wait I had for the Conwy Valley service. In fact, it was the same train that would operate the Conwy Valley service. On the return, it had a 15 minute dwell at Llandudno Junction, where I got out and observed a seagull using the train as a perch. I hope it got a good fright when the engines started firing on departure.
Almost immediately the line skirts the River Conwy, passing through various small settlements. We stopped at every request stop, although I wasn't able to observe if anyone actually got on or off at all of them. I had already requested Roman Bridge from the conductor all the way back at Llandudno, so I didn't have to worry. We skipped Dolwyddelan, (the only request stop that the service skipped all journey) and continued to hug the hills round until the driver braked for Roman Bridge. I got off, gave a wave, and watched the train as it departed.
Roman Bridge doesn't serve a settlement as such, instead there are a number of farm buildings and a couple of houses dotted around the valley that are within eyesight of the station. Roman Bridge has some quite modern facilities for such a remote stop, including quite a large station shelter and an electronic departure board. There are also various pieces of history, such as an old bench (which every Conwy Valley Line station seems to have) and a wooden shelter by the former station house (which is now a private property).
I then walked to the station's namesake, which is an ancient stone bridge over River Lledr. Over the years it has clearly been added to; I am unsure that the Romans built metal railings in the same way that councils in central Manchester do now. The closest proper settlement is Blaenau Dolwyddelan, a tiny village of no more than a few houses.
I had just under an hour at the station. Roman Bridge is the penultimate stop on the Conwy Valley line, meaning that the southbound and northbound services run quite close together, with a long gap before the next two trains. The nearly 1 hour gap from 14:13 to 15:07 is the longest of the day. I spent the remaining time wandering around on the platform, and experimenting with different photography positions from the platform. 4 minutes before the train was due, I jumped. There was an automatic announcement system which had just triggered, surprising me. It was possibly one of the most comically awful announcements ever. If Welsh people think English people trying to pronounce Welsh places properly is hilarious, just imagine an electronic American voice that has been poorly edited attempting to pronounce “Dolwyddelan”. It couldn't even pronounce Llandudno properly, instead opting for “Lendidnow”. It was one of the worst examples of electronic pronunciation, only being beaten by another electronic American announcement in France, which proudly announced the next bus service to Val-d'Isère (pronounced Val diz-air) as “Val dee eyes-are”. The best part about that is that the French voice pronounced Val-d'Isère properly, so the French clearly thought that English-speaking people were too stupid to understand the proper pronunciation, and had deliberately edited it to be wrong.
The other thing about Welsh stations is that everything is meant to be bi-lingual. However, the salt bin was not. This made me sad.
A Short Hop to Tal-y-Cafn
The hilarity of electronic voices aside, my train arrived and I flagged it down. My next station was Tal-y-Cafn, which is not a request stop southbound, but is one northbound. This is because there is a manned level crossing which requires trains to be manually waved across. Going southbound, trains have to stop at the station anyway, so it becomes a normal stop. Northbound, trains are accelerating away from their stop just before the crossing when going past the platform, so only stop on request. I requested the stop from the conductor and got off when the train stopped.
Tal-y-Cafn used to be a passing loop. The former platform 2 still exists and is maintained by volunteers. The former station house is mostly a holiday home, although there is still a single room that looks out onto the platform for the Network Rail crossing attendant to use. The person on-duty was a very pleasant chap who, after seeing me hanging around on the platform for a while, asked if I was OK and offered me a cup of tea in the office. Slightly taken aback and not quite being able to process things, I declined the offer. I took a quick walk to the bridge to see the river, but otherwise I stayed in the station taking photos from various different angles.
Shortly before the next service was due (the one I was to take to Llanrwst), he emerged from the office to close the gates. The gates are still the manual type found in many-a Thomas the Tank Engine book. Very few of these still exist in the UK. I can only think of 2 (Tal-y-Cafn and Brundall in Norfolk). After he had closed the gates, we had a quick discussion, part of which involved me talking about why I was in Tal-y-Cafn in the first place, and part was being invited back to the station to have a proper look around. I hope to take this offer up at some point.
Another Short Hop: To Llanrwst
The train arrived and I boarded. I showed my ticket to the guard, which was a return from Tal-y-Cafn to North Llanrwst. I asked if I could be excessed up to Llanrwst, but he was happy to let be go the additional 1 minute without buying an extra ticket. There is no different in price. I was one of a number of people to get off at Llanrwst. I didn't take any pictures, because it is one of the few mandatory stops on the Conwy Valley line and is used by over 30,000 people a year. I took a walk through the small town, debating if I should buy some fish and chips. I eventually decided against. The walk from Llanrwst to North Llanrwst is only 10 minutes, so I arrived with plenty of time before the train returned to get me to Llandudno Junction and eventually Edinburgh.
This is the only remaining station on the line with 2 platforms. In theory it can be used as a passing place between two trains, although this doesn't happen in practice (certainly not in normal service). Despite it being the only passing loops, it is still a request stop. This is because trains actually have to stop to exchange tokens a few metres north of the station by the signal box.
Unfortunately, by the time I got to the station it was dark and the station lights were not working. This meant taking pictures of the station was very difficult, as the picture below demonstrates. That means a description will have to suffice.
The station itself is situated in a bus depot, specifically Llew Jones' base in Llanrwst. There is an old stone church hall type building which used to be the station house. I am unsure what it is now. The entrance is a gate at the Llanrwst end of the station on the Llandudno/northbound platform. On this platform there is a normal departure board and bicycle racks. Along the walls of the former station building there are a few pictures which show the beautiful scenery on the Conwy Valley line, as well as a wooden canopy at the other end of the building towards the signal box.
The only means of gaining access to the southbound/Blaenau Ffestiniog is by foot crossing at the Llanrwst end of the platform. On the southbound platform, there is a more substantial shelter, with various notices, including a plaque on the 150th anniversary of the line and some artwork from local schoolchildren. There are plant pots scattered around, including one that is shaped like a boat.
After I had walked around the entire station area, I sat down on the correct platform for my train and ate the remainder of my pasta whilst listening to some podcasts. At this point, a group of local teenagers arrived and sprawled themselves across the shelter on the opposite platform. They proceeded to shine their phone torches around whilst they busied themselves with doing something on the station benches. This turned out to be drug-related, because soon they were smoking and the lovely smell of weed filled the night air. They then left the station, leaving me to wait for my train towards home.
The Journey Home
I flagged the train down and boarded. I showed my tickets to the conductor and explained where I was getting off (I had a couple of tickets which got me through to Llandudno Junction). Changing trains, I spotted a loco-hauled train and took a quick snap.
I then boarded my own train back to Warrington Bank Quay. It was the same unit which had taken me from Warrington to Llandudno Junction earlier in the day. On board was a friend who lived in the area (not a coincidence, I had made him aware that I was going to exist in North Wales previously). We had a pleasant conversation from there to Chester, where he got off. I continued to Warrington where I changed onto another train, before a final change at Preston got me onto my last train of the day back to Edinburgh. I slept for most of the way, finally getting home shortly before midnight.
The Conwy Valley line is similar to a lot of rural branch lines in that it links a few reasonably-sized settlements but also serves some very small ones that would not usually justify a railway service. I was surprised at the number of people who used the request stops, especially on my first service where all but one were used. This is a good sign, especially as it is winter, a time where the usual tourist boost does not exist.
I would like to thank heartily the man at Tal-y-Cafn for his kindness. I'm sorry I didn't engage properly the first time, but I am grateful and would love (at some point) to return properly.
Author - Felix