American visitors to Britain who choose to spend time in Wales are usually drawn by the more than 600 castles, the male choirs, the emerald-green walking country or even the prospect of wandering the Italianate village of Portmeirion, where the cult 1960s TV drama "The Prisoner" was filmed.
But many come to ride the rails.
Steam locomotives might seem like they belong in fiction -- Harry Potter heading to Hogwarts, Hercule Poirot solving a murder mystery on the Orient Express -- but old-fashioned, narrow-gauge railways are still booming in Wales. Visitors to the country who prefer trains that trail clouds of smoke and hiss and chuff their way through the countryside have as many as 10 steam railways to choose from.
Enthusiasm is contagious
I'm no train buff -- or, at least, I wasn't when I arrived in Wales this spring -- but after riding the Welsh Highland Railway through the spectacular scenery of Snowdonia National Park, I discovered that even I'm not immune to the romance of steam. In part, that's because enthusiasm is contagious.
This part of the world is train crazy. In some local towns almost every shop sells scale-model locomotives and other model railway supplies. And it surely boasts one of the highest concentrations of trainspotters: At every station, young men with enormous cameras surround the rolling stock like paparazzi crowding a Hollywood star. Even the railway workers are steam nuts. Indeed, many of the staff, from ticket-takers to maintenance engineers, are volunteers. On my journey, the guard was David Smith, a 19-year-old Oxford undergraduate who still couldn't quite believe he'd been issued a whistle and a flag and put in charge of the train.
The Welsh Highland Railway is one of the longest local steam railways, with the 25-mile journey from Porthmadog or Caernarfon taking two hours and 20 minutes. When I made the trip this spring, it was still too brisk to contemplate hopping off at one of the stations along the route, but in the summer months, the WHR is an excellent way to access the distant reaches of the park. Snowdon Ranger Halt -- a halt is a sort of request stop -- is just a few yards from the youth hostel that is the starting point of one of the most popular paths to the summit of Snowdon, the highest peak in England and Wales. In March, though, the weather was better suited to lounging in the train's comfortable seats sipping a hot cup of tea, bought from the buffet trolley that was rolled through the carriages, and looking out at the newborn lambs gamboling in the fields.
These days, the trains are a tourist attraction, but their origins were intensely practical. In the late 19th century, quarries and mines in northwest Wales produced much of the slate used in construction and roofing across Britain and Europe and as far afield as the United States. The first vehicles that transported the slate from the quarries to the port of Porthmadog ran downhill, thanks to the wonders of gravity, with the empty containers being towed back up by horses. When the trains were converted to steam power, starting in the 1840s, the increased efficiency allowed the slate industry to expand, drawing thousands to the area. Since there wasn't enough housing for these new workers in the villages where the slate quarries were located, many were forced to live many miles away from their jobs. When someone had the bright idea of using the trains to transport both the slate and the men who produced it to and from the quarry, the workers became some of the first train commuters of the industrial era.
A charming curiosity
Nowadays, though, riding a steam railway isn't about getting to work on time or rushing home for dinner. It's about stepping back in time, relaxing and enjoying the ride. When the WHR pauses in Dimas to take on coal, it's a charming curiosity rather than an annoying delay.
Narrow-gauge steam trains are a perfect match for the Welsh landscape, and not only because the hills of Snowdonia are too steep for standard train tracks. As the Welsh Highland Railway pulls into the walled town of Caernarfon, the view is dominated by the massive castle, first established in the 13th century, where Prince Charles was invested as Prince of Wales in 1969. Modern cars and buses seem out of place next to these ancient walls. A steam train, on the other hand, fits right in.
If you go
The Welsh Highland Railway is one of the 10 narrow-gauge steam railways that form "The Great Little Trains of Wales." The Porthmadog-Caernarfon route is about $40 one way for a third-class ticket, $60 round-trip (with discounts for students and seniors). First-class tickets are $17 more, and can be reserved a day ahead by calling 01766 516024. For more info, go to festrail.co.uk.
Five of the railways allow visitors to drive the steam trains. Fees range from about $160 to $3,500. Go to greatlittletrainsofwales.co.uk for more information.
Ffestiniog Travel, which organizes as many as 30 escorted international rail holidays a year, offers a behind-the-scenes tour of the Ffestiniog Railway ($1,072, including four nights accommodation) and an escorted trip on the Snowdonian ($677, including two nights accommodation). For more information, visit ffestiniogtravel.com.