Shrewsbury – Welshpool – Welshpool and Llanfair Light Railway (optional steam railway) – Aberystwyth – Vale of Rheidol Railway (optional steam railway) – Porthmadog – West Highland Railway to Caernarfon (optional steam railway) – Snowdon Mountain Railway (optional sidetrip from Caernarfon – steam train) – Llanberis Lake Railway (optional sidetrip from Caernarfon – steam train) – Ffestiniog Railway – Conwy Valley Railway – Llandudno – North Wales Coast Railway – Colwyn Bay – Rhyl – Borderlands Railway – Wrexham – Shrewsbury
There are three airports near (but not actually on) this route:
Manchester Airport (MAN), Liverpool Airport (LPL) and Birmingham Airport (BHX).
Of the three airports that serve this route, Manchester Airport is actually the easiest (even although it looks slightly further than Liverpool). Why? There is a direct train from Manchester Airport to Shotton (the destination of this train will be either Llandudno or Holyhead), and Shotton is where you should start this circular route from (point 3 below). And then on the way back, there is a direct train from Llandudno (or Llandudno Junction) to Manchester Airport (MAN).
The next easiest option is Liverpool John Lennon Airport. From Liverpool Airport you simply travel into central Liverpool (Liverpool Lime Street Railway Station), and from there take a short train ride to Bidston. This is where the Borderlands Railway Line actually starts, so you would then take the train from Bidston to Shrewsbury (via Wrexham!).
The final option is to arrive at Birmingham Airport. After travelling to central Birmingham (Birmingham New Street Railway Station), you should then take a train directly to Shrewsbury Railway Station, and start this circuit from Shrewbury.
However, if you are based in the UK, then I would simply take a train to Shrewsbury (if travelling from the South) or Shotton via Manchester/Liverpool – or points between (if travelling from the North), and follow this circular route from there.
Regardless of where you start your rail journey from, it may be cheaper if you buy a ticket from there to your first stop on this route (for example, from Glasgow to Wrexham), and then on your final leg of this route also buy a ticket to your ultimate destination (for example, from Llandudno back to Glasgow).
This circular route can be made in either direction, and there is no difference in which direction you travel (it will all depend on your own itinerary). However, as Liverpool is the closest entry-point by air, and is slightly harder to understand, then I have started from there, and have travelled in a clockwise direction.
1. Liverpool John Lennon Airport (LPL) to Liverpool city centre.
Liverpool Airport and Liverpool John Lennon Airport are one and the same. It just depends on who you are talking to.
You have two options to reach the centre. Bus or taxi.
Two bus services operate between Liverpool Airport and central Liverpool. Bus routes 62A and 500. The quicker of these two buses is the 500, which takes around 34 minutes. The slower 62A service takes around 50 minutes.
Your destination in Liverpool city centre is Liverpool James Street Railway Station. Both bus services that run between Liverpool Airport and central Liverpool terminate at Liverpool ONE shopping complex.
Liverpool James Street Railway Station is a few minutes walk away from Liverpool ONE.
Liverpool Airport website: www.liverpoolairport.com
2. Liverpool James Street Station to Bidston (train).
This is a local service, and a very short journey indeed (just 13 minutes).
3. Bidston to Shrewsbury, via Wrexham (Borderlands Railway Line).
It is VERY, VERY, VERY important that you travel via Wrexham. There is another route to Shrewsbury, via Crewe, which bypasses this wonderful railway line completely.
Duration? Just under two hours (which includes a necessary train change at Wrexham General railway station).
4. Shrewsbury to Welshpool (train).
Duration: 21 minutes.
This is the first section of the Cambrian Railway Line. You don’t actually need to stop at Welshpool (unless you want to take a sidetrip on the wonderful Welshpool and Llanfair Light Railway (steam train).
In fact, you could take one train all the way from Shrewsbury to Porthmadog if you wanted to do this section of the route very quickly (combining both the Cambrian Line and the Cambrian Coast Line). The natural majesty of central Wales is seen from your train window on this stage of the journey anyway.
5. Welshpool to Llanfair (optional steam train).
The Welshpool and Llanfair Light Railway (steam train).
It takes 45 minutes, in each direction, to travel along this 8.5 mile narrow-gauge railway. So, depending on when you left Shrewsbury, you could arrive in Llanfair Caereinion (or Welshpool after your return journey) just in time for lunch.
6. Welshpool to Dovey Junction/Aberystwyth (train).
Duration: 65 minutes (to Dovey Junction); 90 minutes (to Aberystwyth).
This is the second section of the spectacular Cambrian Line and now passes thorugh the spectacular Cambrian Mountains.
The line splits at Dovey Junction. North, along the Cambrian Coast Line to Porthmadog (and then onto Pwlhelli); and south, to Aberstwyth. So depending on which train you have taken, you may have to change at Dovey Junction (but this can be avoided with a little bit of planning).
7. Aberystwyth to the Devil’s Bridge Falls (optional steam train).
The Vale of Rheidol Railway is a heritago steam railway running for almost 12 miles between Aberystwyth and Devil’s Bridge (for the Devil’s Bridge Falls) through the stunning Vale of Rheidol.
Duration: 1 hour in each direction.
8. Aberystwyth/Dovey Junction to Porthmadog (train).
Duration: 130 minutes (from Aberystwyth); 105 minutes (from Dovey Junction).
The Cambrian Coast Railway Line.
Barmouth Bridge on the Cambrian Coast Line (photo: bigtrainlittletrain.com)
If travelling north from Aberystwyth, then you will most certainly have to change at Dovey Junction.
9. Porthmadog to Caernarfon (optional steam train).
The Welsh Highland Railway, a heritage steam railway, runs for 25 miles through the stunning Snowdonia National Park to Caernarfon.
From Caernarfon, it is a 35-minute bus journey to Llanberis – on the #88 bus.
Caernarfon to Llanberis number 88 bus timteable: Timetable
Welsh Highland Railway duration: around 2 hours 15 minutes.
10. Llanberis to Mt. Snowdon – Summit RTN (optional steam train).
The Snowdon Mountain Railway whisks you 4.7 miles from sleepy Llanberis to the lofty summit of Mount Snowdon in around 1 hour.
This is really only an option though if you have already opted for the West Highland Railway to Caernarfon, as Llanberis is easier to reach from Caernarfon.
11. Llanberis to Penllyn RTN (optional steam train).
Llanberis Lake Railway.
Similarly to the previous instructions for the Snowdon Mountain Railway, the Llanberis Lake Railway is really only an option if you have already opted for the West Highland Railway to Caernarfon, as Llanberis is easier to reach from Caernarfon.
Duration: the route varies depending on the time of year, but around 1 hour 20 minutes for a return journey from Llanberis during the Summer months.
12. Porthmadog to Blaenau Ffestiniog (steam train).
Back on the main route again, but not on the main rail network, and this time you are in for a real treat. The Ffestiniog Railway. Trundle through the magnificent Snowdonia National Park behind a working steam engine.
Duration: 1 hour 10 minutes.
13. Blaenau Ffestiniog to Llandudno Junction/Llandudno.
Travel from the heart of Snowdonia to the North Wales Coast, through the magnificent River Conwy Valley, on the Conwy Valley Railway Line.
Duration: 1 hour 20 minutes.
14. Llandudno Junction/Llandudno to Chester!
After savouring the stunning scenery of the Welsh countryside, it’s time to enjoy another spectacular view of Wales, as The North Wales Coast Railway Line takes you from Llandudno to Shotton (or on to Chester if you are following this route back to Liverpool or Manchester).
Duration (Llandudno to Chester): 1 hour 5 minutes.
15. Chester to Liverpool (Liverpool James Street Railway Station).
Duration: 40 minutes (direct train).
16. Liverpool (Liverpool James Street Railway Station) to Liverpool Airport.
Once you arrive at Liverpool James Street Railway Station, it is just a few minutes’ walk to Liverpool ONE shopping centre, where you can catch either of the airport bus services (buses 62A and 500).
The Liverpool Waterfront at night (photo: Visit Liverpool)
Liverpool John Lennon Airport website: www.liverpoolairport.com
So. How long does all of this take?
Well, how long have you got?
The entire circuit of Northern Wales by Train could be done in just two days, with just one overnight stop.
Breakfast in Shrewsbury, then take the train all the way to Porthmadog (in just 3 and a half hours). So in time for lunch. Then take the early afternoon Ffestiniog steam train to Blaenau Ffestiniog. And then a late afternoon journey (1 hour 20 mins) to Llandudno, where you can spend the evening/night.
Then on Day 2, travel along the North Wales Coast Railway to Shotton (around 1 hour), where you change to the Borderlands Railway for your final journey back to Shrewsbury (1 hour 40 minutes, including a necessary change at Wrexham). In plenty of time for a late lunch, and a wander around Shrewsbury before you head home.
But that would be really pushing it.
True, you would still travel through central Wales and the Cambrian Mountains on the Cambrian Line and up the western coast of Wales on the Cambrian Coast Line (and in my opinion, you would see the best of Wales). You would also travel through the Snowdonia National Park behind a steam engine. Before descending to the sea again, on the magnificent Conwy Valley Railway, to the jewel that is Llandudno.
But if it was me:
I would aim to arrive in Shrewsbury in the afternoon of Day 1. I would spend the afternoon/evening/night in a Shrewsbury hotel. And then on the morning of Day 2, after a very leisurely breakfast, I would take the train as far as Welshpool (all 21 minutes of it). I would then take the Welshpool & Llanfair steam train to Llanfair Caernion (45 minutes), where I would have a good wander around, and maybe even enjoy a morning coffee. I would then return to Welshpool (another 45 minutes), where I would take the first train all the way to Aberystwyth (90 minutes). So it would be mid-afternoon by the time I arrived in Aberystwyth. Now I’ve visited Aberystwyth loads of times in the past (a friend went to university there), so the sole attraction for me would be the Vale of Rheidol Railway. Heading straight there I would take the first available train to Devil’s Bridge, and then return (hopefully into an amazing sunset – if the British weather is behaving itself). One hour each way. I would spend the night of Day 2 in an Aberystwyth hotel.
Day 3 would start with yet another leisurely breakfast, but this time in Aberystwyth, before taking the Cambrian Coast Railway all the way to Porthmadog (2 hours 10 minutes). Arriving in Porthmadog in plenty of time for a wander around town before a rather unhurried lunch. In the afternoon, I would take the Welsh Highland Railway steam train to Caernarfon (2 hours 15 minutes), where I would spend the remainder of the afternoon/evening/night. Before spending the first of two nights in a Caernarfon Hotel.
At the start of Day 4, I would take the number 88 bus from Caernarfon to Llanberis (35 minutes), where I would first enjoy a return ride on the Llanberis Lake Railway. Then after a leisurely lunch in Llanberis, I would head for the Snowdon Mountain Railway. Returning to Llanberis in plenty of time to catch the evening bus back to Caernarfon, and my Caernarfon hotel (for the second of my two nights there).
On the morning of Day 5 I would return to Porthmadog on the West Highland Railway, before taking the first avilable Ffestiniog Railway steam train to Blaenau Ffestiniog. Arriving in Blaenau Ffestiniog in time for a very leisurely lunch. After a wander around this charming little town, I would take the Conwy Valley Railway train – ending at Llandudno. Where I would spend the evening/night.
Day 6 would start slowly, as usual, with a run along the North Wales Coast Railway to Shotton (53 minutes), where I would change for the Borderlands Line train to Wrexham/or some other town (40 minutes to Wrexham General). Where I would enjoy lunch, before returning to Shrewsbury (a final 40 minute train journey).
So a very leisurely 6-day journey. Which would allow me to see everything on this route, in a very unhurried way.
You could easily extend this time by spending some time at any of the stops along the route (it would be very easy to fill a whole fortnight).
These “virtual” journeys are just my way of continuing to see the world, now that the progression of my ataxia means that lengthy travel is no longer a possibility for me. Hence the detail. By planning the journey in such detail, I end up knowing the route so well that I feel like I have been on it myself. Although in this case, I have.
So if this article has inspired you, saved you some valuable time (or even just saved you a few pounds/euros/dollars), please show your appreciation by making a donation to Ataxia UK (registered charity), by following this link:
100% of your donation goes directly, and immediately, to Ataxia UK (plus an additional 25% if you are a UK-taxpayer and have ticked the “Gift Aid” box).
And a personal request?
Share a photograph, that you take at some point on your journey, with me on Twitter. Not necessarily your “best” photograph, but the one photograph that will forever remind you of your journey.
That way I can live a little piece of the journey through your eyes.