Taking the Mountain Air by Dr D A C McNeil

There comes a time in a man’s life when the challenge of a 3,000 foot peak in the mountains becomes an ordeal, often an unobtainable goal; when small inconvenient streams and rocks become giant obstacles; when a slope which to the young was almost level becomes almost vertical. Yet the mountains do not go away, and the spectacular views of the peaks do not lose their fascination. 

So, what does one do? Well, there is always the car. Alas, most of us would not be inspired by an off-road assault on the peaks, and some would argue that the ecological damage done by vehicles outweighs by far the rewards on reaching the top, if that were to be achieved. Yet to go on the road often leads to disappointment. For a start, the windows of the average family car are so arranged that they give good views on the level. To look upwards one either has to hang out of the window – not a good idea – or invest in an ancient model with a sun roof. Also, roads are built to hug valleys, not hills, in order to maximise available energy. And, lastly, the driver cannot admire the view and concentrate on narrow twisting lanes at the same time. 

It is fortunate therefore that in the mountains of north Wales several narrow-gauged railways have survived. Four could be described as tourist lines. To start with there is the Snowdon Mountain Railway. This was always in the hands of a private company. The line is very steep, so a ‘rack’ system is used, whereby the steam drives not the wheels (adhesion traction) but cogs which engage with a rack and propel the train. The Fairfield Railway is one of those rather like the Ravenglass and 

Eskdale Railway or the Rhomney, Hythe and Dymchurch line, a narrow gauge railway built as an attraction to a certain area. The Bala Lake line could also come under this category. Lastly there is Vale of Rheidol Line, which was run by British Railways for many years until it was sold off to enthusiasts. Whist the Snowdon line is the most spectacular, the Vale line discloses its vistas a little at a time. The latter terminates by the Devil’s Falls, only a short walk from the station. 

Then there are the old ‘industrials’, built to convey Welsh roofing slates from the mountains to the coast. Each in turn was bought up by enthusiasts when the old ownership folded. The tales of the Ffestiniog line which was cut in two by a reservoir which was finally bypassed by a ‘mountain loop’ built by the volunteers, or the Tal-y-Llyn on which volunteers relayed the track from Abergonolwyn to the foot of the incline down which the slates were transported from the quarries will go down in history and legend. Now the Corris line awaits its extension. At present this is a short spur running from the village of Corris a short distance to an engine shed, on which one has to buy a return ticket (plus VAT) as there is no way out at that shed. 

But by far the most stunning is the Welsh Highland Railway. This line joined Porthmadoc with Caenarvon via the foothills of Snowdon itself. Built for what purpose it is hard to discover, though there were slate quarries in its length, it winds and twists through incredible angles as it climbs over the ridge. In fact the line was closed in 1946 (apparently to the relief of various cows whose farmer had objected to it in the first place) and entirely dismantled. In 2011 with a large grant from charitable donors it was restored, and is now home to a giant steam engine from South Africa. Once it was part of the Ffestiniog; one of its engines survived in the engine shed of that company, though I did not find out if it was in use. The new line comes under the banner of that company. 

So what? The windows of the carriages, uninhibited by driving conditions and cities, are tall. You can see the view without having to twist against the window or put your head out. And, of course, at journey’s end you can get out, stretch your legs, and partake of the mountain air.  

On the way back home you may even want to travel on the Welshpool and Llanfair Railway; no mountains, but a nice river. 

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