Sunday, 4 May 2008


Wales is a foreign country whose people there speak a strange, scrabble-defying language.

My experience of the natives has, along with many other English people's, not been all that positive. Several years ago I stayed a few nights in Builth Wells for a training course. Walking down the main street on the Sunday evening I had abuse (I think) shouted at me in Welsh just because I looked English. Unfortunately there are some very pretty bits of country and a lot of interest in this dark land and as I want to take my VeeDub there in a couple of months I thought it would be a good idea to have a day trip to Wales to acclimatise myself.

Playing around with the ever unfriendly Network Rail Journey planner, I worked out that in a day it is possible to travel to Aberystwyth and back in a day. That's about as far west as you go in Britain without getting wet feet. Better still, if I bought my ticket in Birmingham the price dropped from a whopping 48 quid to around half that – even allowing for the trip to Brum. More research in a handy edition of the Lonely Planet guide to Great Britain showed that the town had a cliff tramway and pier. That's enough for me, I was sold.

The train out of Birmingham New Street was interesting. Announcements before we started were telling us that it would split during the journey with the rear half going where I wanted and the front travelling up the Cambrian Coast line to Tywyn. As a bit of an anorak I realised that the end that had been the front to New Street would be the back when it left, unlike half the other passengers to general confusion and panicy scampering along the aisles and back again.

The journey starts unremarkable enough heading out through Wolverhampton and Shrewsbury. I enjoy the Black Country scenery of canals and derelict factory buildings in a macabre sort of way. It's interesting to speculate what they once produced and imagine the proud owners standing in front of gleaming new premises. For some reason my mental picture has the owner dressed in tweeds and everyone wearing bowler hats with workers in flat caps. I knew I was on the way to Wales though - the guard called me “bach” when returning my ticket after checking it. We were heading for holiday territory too, the carriage carpet was from the traditional B&B section of the catalogue judging by it’s lurid design.

I settled down to enjoy the journey. Birmingham New Street to Abber takes around 3 hours, plenty of time to struggle with the crossword and read a book. To make the experience complete I picked up a muffin from the baker next to New Street’s ticket barrier. Like a good boy I eschewed the double chocolate option, plumping for the much healthier Banana and Toffee version. This surely counts as one of my “five a day” doesn’t it ?

Along the way there are sights to be seen. I was amused to see that when we pulled up in Wellington station, over the top of the building there was a Boots sign visible !

Welshpool station is a mystery too. The old station is on the other side of a main road from the railway. I’m assuming that years ago the line was rationalised and the station site reduced allowing space for the road. I’m sure the local council approved wholeheartedly. As it is the building is still in fine shape and now operates as a shop. Apparently it sells Hornby model railways amongst other things.

Normally I like to spend a long train trip stuffing my face, listening to music and reading a good book. The reading had to stop after Newtown though - the scenery was simply too good to ignore. We travelled through valleys between brooding mountains and across fast flowing rivers. The weather was kind - soft sunlight with just a hint of cloud to cast ever moving shadows in the hillsides.

After an hour of hillsides the scenery opened out at Dovey Junction. Here the line splits with track heading off up the Cambrian Coast line. At this point the view out of the window becomes completely compelling. You simply can’t take your eyes off it and my book was completely forgotten.

All good things have to come to an end. In this case that means Borth. Borth is a seaside town whose popularity is obvious due to the huge number of mobile homes that seem to cover the entire town. Those covering the hills looked like a giant wave with the white roofs glittering in the sun. What is it about the British holidaymaker that wants to visit a place where every building has wheels yet never moves ? One thing a rail user doesn’t get to see though is the real sea. You are far too inland for that even if there caravan infestation didn’t get in the way.

Aberystwyth station is nice. It’s actually home to two railways. The Network Rail’s and The Vale of Rheidol. The later had the distinction of being home to British Rail’s last steam engines which ran into the late 1980s when the line was privatised. I’d managed to pick a day to visit between two operating days so there wasn’t anything much to see, but with only 4 hours to kill a ride would have been out of the question anyway. Exiting the station I notice that the prominent sign on the build proclaims it is a Wetherspoons Free House rather than where you get trains. Railway enthusiasts will also be amused by the presence of an hotel called Beechings opposite. Don’t ask, it’s not that funny.

The sea is a five minute stroll from the station. I’ll be honest and say lounging on the beach wasn’t what I’d come for - good thing too as it’s a combination of shingle and stones. No soft sand for the Welsh obviously.

I started with the cliff railway on Constitution Hill at the north end of the town. The ticket was issued at the office from an over complicated computerised system that smacked of someone in the councils IT department getting involved. Why does the guy in the office have to type in the number of passengers ? Surely a couple of rolls of tickets would be more authentic and reliable ?

Anyway, I clambered aboard the car which differs from other funiculars in that it is open and had tiered seating. After a short wait the ride to the top of the hill started and I began to regret my choice of seat. Sadly I’m not great with heights. Ladders defeat me but buildings are OK as long as I have something solid nearby. The view from the car was, disconcerting. There wasn’t anything between me and the view. For the first few minutes I sat very still in the seat. It didn’t help that once track became visible this didn’t look like it had been maintained since the line opened (H&S Note - I’m sure it is regularly checked and is fully in accordance with all appropriate rules and regs. That’s what I kept telling myself anyway.) which was, according to the other car as it rattled past, 1896. The ropes hauling us up didn’t look very thick ether. Still, the views were spectacular with a panorama of the town available to those with open eyes.

At the top of the hill there is a café, playroom, Frisbee golf (?) and camera obscura - the largest in the world and of course, shut. Looking along the coast makes you think the builders of the town weren’t very clever, there is proper tourist friendly sand on the beaches in the next bay. Thanks to the joys of mobile phones I also found out all about one persons brand new car in English and Welsh and the appointments of a woman who needed to understand she was on holiday. I suppose as offices go, this one at least had decent views.

Back in town, the pier is to be honest, rubbish. It’s not very long and contains a pub and amusement arcade. I tried a few machines and all I won nothing except some tickets which the office wouldn‘t redeem as I didn‘t have enough. Each was as valuable as cash in Zimbabwe at present. There didn’t seem to be a way out of the back of the building to see the sea either. I’m assuming a chunk fell off the back of the structure once, either that or the builders ran out of cash before getting very far. Where the obligatory theatre ?

While the pier disappoints, the harbour is much more appropriate to a seaside town. If you are around in the morning there will fresh fish aplenty. Judging by the number of pots, fresh lobster is on the menu too. Aberystwyth boat club does good business too judging by the number of sailing boats moored up. Not many relics either - I doubt there were more than half a dozen vessels that wouldn’t be seaworthy. Maybe they are hidden away somewhere. The lifeboat station houses an inshore boat so presumably the sailors manage to stay out trouble most of the time too.

To complete my joy I found an little indoor market when walking back past the attractive ruined castle. Not exactly busy, one of the stallholders was dozing behind her stand, I suspect this might be because the goodies on offer were best described as “stuff” - the sort of thing you might buy but wouldn’t miss if you left it behind in the hotel. Mind you, it is possible to have your laptop valeted, a service I’ve never seen offered before.

Presumably because of the extra trade provided by the local university, the shopping centre is pretty good. All the usual chains are there along with a few odd-balls. One street even has two model shops - more than there are in the whole of London. What it lacks is the traditional seaside tat shop with rubbish souvenirs. If anyone fancies a business opportunity then there it is. Judging from the number of guest houses there must be customers.

Fish and chips on the beach (OK, shelter on the prom) came courtesy of the dolphin café. A proper slightly run down establishment a million miles away from any homogenous chain outlet. The fish was good and crisp with nice batter, chips a bit soggy. Not enough vinegar either. Nice smell of seaweed from the shore though. That’s proper seaside.

Back at the station for the last train back to the midlands, the platform was pretty busy. My fellow passengers were mostly students heading away for the weekend. Our two coach train was 10 minutes late and once on board the crew announced it was playing up and so we’d have a new train waiting at Machynlleth and shouldn’t get too comfortable.

The scenery was just as amazing on the return trip. Just outside Dovey Junction we passed a man fishing from a rowing boat in the river. Rather than a rod he used a net in the same manner as a trawler. I assume a huge catch wasn’t planned or those oars were going to need some serious pulling. It didn’t seem fair to the fish either.

Machynlleth arrived and we disembarked for the new train. Despite the advice of the crew, the students were too stupid or lazy to walk far and crammed themselves on the first two coaches. The grown-ups walked further and spent the rest of the trip luxuriating in mostly empty coaches, most of us having a table to ourselves. If the beauty outside had been switched off I might have typed rather more of this on the train than I did. As it was, reading and watching the hills roll by seemed more appropriate.

The journey’s entertainment didn’t stop with a change however. Outside Telford we were held up by engineering works and it was announced the train would terminate at Wolverhampton and we’d need to change again for Birmingham. The lady behind me, who had been talking to the guard about her options for getting to Chipenham on the already delayed service sighed loudly. I commented that she would need to take up Ariva trains offer of a taxi ride mentioning that I was unlucky enough and all I was aiming for was Leamington Spa.

At this point the guy on the table opposite piped up. Next to him sat a large gentlemen obviously from eastern Europe. Apparently he was heading to Leamington too and needed some assistance. The visitor called Christian was in the country for a week laying concrete. His wife Erika lived in Leamington Spa and he was heading back from Shrewsbury to meet her.

I’ll be honest, being stuck with a Romanian with a poor grasp of English (better than my Romanian though) for the remainder of the journey on a rail network set to “messy” didn’t appeal that much but there wasn’t a lot I could do. Wolverhampton arrived we sprinted over the footbridge to a train into the city which was a good start. Once on board I checked the timetable and discovered that our train from Brum to Leamington left Snow Hill station at 10:15pm, 40 minutes after we arrived. The walk takes 5 minutes, so I was going to have to look after Christian for that time. It hardly seemed fair to just sit him in the waiting room if his visit wasn’t that long.

In Birmingham we wandered across to check the trains were running and there wasn’t the chance of an earlier one. The entire return journey was going to take 5.5 hours - 2 longer then the run out at this rate. Sadly my timetable work is excellent and we had time to kill. Christian needed a drink - “juice” he said - so I though we’d try the pub 2 minutes walk from the station. After all our visitor might as well see a traditional British Inn, even if it was a Wetherspoons. I walking in past the bouncers but they stopped my new friend for wearing a tracksuit. Sad really, it was in better condition than my grubby jeans, still, dress codes are dress codes and we wouldn’t want downmarket inner city pubs would we ?

There was a handy newsagent still open. It’s next to the bus stops and not the nicest area of town but Brum at night isn’t bad and Christian was built like a brick outhouse. He came out with Iron Bru - I didn’t like to say the only way that counts as juice is if RSJ’s are classed as fruit. Still you do get plenty or iron and I assured him it was a popular Scottish drink.

Back on the station the train had arrived early so I dived on and sat down. Looking back I’d lost Christian but I assumed he’d made a trip to the toilet so didn’t go hunting for him. A few minutes later he turns up with a women in tow - his sister-in-law who he’d bumped into heading for the same train ! She thanked me for looking after him and related his problems with the rail network, London to Shrewsbury accidentally via Sheffield had apparently been his introduction to our trains on his arrival in the country. They chatted away in Romainain and at some point also spoke to his wife to explain just why it was taking so long for them to be reunited.

We bade each other farewell at Leamington after what turned out to be a longer day than I had expected. Aberystwyth is a journey worth 28 pounds of anyone’s money if the weather is kind even if you don‘t get off the train. I know this country is home to some of the best scenery in the world and today I felt I had seen a chunk of it. The main thing I seemed to miss was Welsh people. I doubt if more than a third of the people I spoke to were native and those that were were friendly. Good news for my return trip later this year.

More pictures can be found on Flickr

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