Riding the rails in Wales: a steam train into the Welsh hills

Wales, steam train
If you like old trains, you’re going to love Wales. The region has several narrow-gauge steam locomotives. The website Great Little Trains of Wales tells you about ten of them traveling various routes around the country. Most are clustered in the north and west, which most travelers say has the best scenery.

Having never been on a steam train and knowing it would be a guaranteed hit with our five-year-old son, we took the Vale of Rheidol Railway from Aberystwyth up into the Welsh hills to Devil’s Bridge. Our train, the Prince of Wales, dates to the 1920s and has been lovingly restored. It makes the 12-mile run in about an hour.

We set off to much chugging and hooting, which was taken up by all the children on board. As we cleared the station we saw that strangest of British animals, a trainspotter, filming our departure. Leaving Aberystwyth and the trainspotter behind, we picked up speed and soon started to ascend into the hills. Parts of the route are very steep and winding, which is why a narrow-gauge is used, and goes along the southern side of the Vale (Valley) of Rheidol. To our north the valley opened up to view, a gleaming strip of river winding far below, and here and there a farm. Only a few farms and houses stood near the rails and most of the time we were in countryside. A Red Kite flew by looking for prey. The engineer said that buzzards are a common sight too.

%Gallery-129371%One thing that was very noticeable was just how loud steam trains are. Our forefathers did not get a quiet, relaxing ride!

We continued to climb up the side of the valley past a few farms, thick woodland, and fields covered in wildflowers until we made it to Devil’s Bridge, where the trainspotter from Aberystwyth was waiting to film our arrival. There’s a beautiful waterfall tumbling through thick greenery here, and three bridges passing over it. The lowest bridge is said to have been built by the Devil in an attempt to get an old woman’s soul. The woman was too clever for him, though. You can read the story here. Two trails offer views of the falls.

There’s also a Robber’s Cave that local folklore says was used by three thieves–two brothers and their sister. The cave was a great hideout and they managed to live a life of crime for many years until they accidentally killed one of their victims. The locals came out with dogs and traced them to this cave. The men were hung and the woman burnt at the stake.

If you’ve never been on a steam train before, it’s a fun novelty and a great way to see the countryside. Our son loved it, of course, and all the other kids seemed to be entertained too!

Visiting the Brontë sisters in Yorkshire

People say literary genius is a rare thing, something seen only once in a thousand or a million people. Maybe so, but the Brontës had three (and maybe five) literary geniuses in the same family.

From their father’s parsonage in Haworth, Yorkshire, in northern England, the three Brontë sisters Charlotte, Emily, and Anne produced some of the most popular books in the English language. Works like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are still read more than 150 years after they were published. They’ve survived the test of time. The ebook edition of Wuthering Heights is currently ranked number 457 at Amazon’s Kindle store, and number 5 in the fiction classics category. Their work has been made into numerous movies and another version of Jane Eyre is coming out next year.

The sisters also prompted literary tourism to Haworth. It started not long after they died and has steadily grown ever since. While everyone comes to Haworth to see the Brontë home and related sights, they also enjoy a beautiful and well-preserved nineteenth century village full of shops and fine restaurants.

Now I have to be honest here and admit that until I went on this trip I had never read a Brontë novel. They were the classics I never got assigned in school and I figured I’d get around to whenever. Before I left for Yorkshire I read Jane Eyre and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. The rich prose and sedate pacing definitely belong to the nineteenth century, but the smartass, independent female protagonist belongs to the modern world.

Much of Haworth remains as the Brontës knew it. The Brontë Parsonage Museum preserves their home and tells their story. House museums are tricky to do well. Despite being a museum junkie, some historic homes bore me to death. This one, however, gripped my attention. Besides the usual stuff like the desks they wrote at and the sofas they sat on (and Emily may have died on), there are the little details that make it stick in your memory. In the nursery where they spent their childhood faint pencil drawings can be seen on the wall. While it’s impossible to say if these literary giants doodled these when they were small, it makes you wonder.

There’s also the story of Branwell Brontë. Who? Yeah, that was always his problem. He was their brother, a failed artist and struggling writer living in the shadow of his superstar sisters. He fell into a downward spiral of alcoholism and opium addiction before dying at 31. The above painting of his sisters is Branwell’s work. He originally included himself in the portrait, then unsuccessfully erased himself. He doodled constantly, illustrating letters he sent to friends. One at the museum shows himself in two images. The first is labeled “Paradise” shows him drunk off his ass and shouting, “I am the lord of the manor!” The other is labeled “Purgatory” and shows him hunched over an opium pipe.

%Gallery-104264%The museum also tells the story of their father Patrick, the local pastor who was also a published author. Many a young woman’s ambitions were crushed in those days by domineering fathers who wanted them to get married and get pregnant. Patrick Brontë was progressive enough not to feel threatened by his daughters’ talent and encouraged them in their careers.

Beyond the Brontë parsonage you can see traces of their life everywhere. Patrick Brontë’s church stands nearby and houses the family’s memorial chapel. The pub where Branwell got drunk is just a short stagger away from the apothecary where he bought his opium. The Black Bull Inn still serves up fine Yorkshire ales, but the apothecary shop stopped carrying opiates when they started requiring a prescription. Otherwise it’s a good replica of an early apothecary and still sells traditional cures.

Haworth’s main street is down a steep hill lined with little shops. You can find delicious local cheeses and preserves, a couple of fine tearooms, some excellent secondhand bookshops, and more gift shops than you can shake a copy of Wuthering Heights at. Several historic inns offer beers and beds. At the train station a traditional steam railway offers rides.

But Haworth isn’t all tea and scones and twee little shops. There’s a dark side to the town’s history, full of ghosts, death, and despair. On my second day I discovered I was all too close to the supernatural. . .

This is the first of my new series Exploring Yorkshire: ghosts, castles, and literature in England’s north.

Coming up next: Three nights in a haunted hotel room!


This trip was sponsored by
VisitEngland and Welcome to Yorkshire.

[Photo courtesy user Mr. Absurd via Wikimedia Commons]