Luxury travel is subjective. At 9.57 on a cold Tuesday morning, a two-carriage train rolls into Porthmadog. Its seats are mostly empty, and its doors are softly spattered in January mud. I step onboard and choose a window seat, then watch as the sheds and houses of the coastal town, once a booming slate port, begin to slide past. An unrushed conductor in hi-vis sells me a ticket for the four-hour return journey ahead. “Your cheapest option’s the Day Ranger ticket,” she says, as the train trundles south. “£13.50. On and off where you please.”
And so starts one of Britain’s greatest rail experiences. The Cambrian Coast Line begins on the underside of the Llŷn Peninsula and traces the sumptuous coastline of northwest Wales until the mouth of the River Dovey, where it tucks inland among the hills. The line dates back to the mid-19th century, but this is no tourist train. You’ll find no wine lists, or polished marquetry, or vintage locomotives. It’s a scheduled passenger service that eventually winds up in Birmingham: it has a loo, and comfortable seating, and so-so wifi. That’s about it. The riches are all outside.
Particularly, it transpires, on a chilly but fair winter’s day. The beauty of this rural line is that for much of its length, it has the Snowdonia massif hogging the view on one side of the train and Cardigan Bay outspread on the other, a scenic double-whammy that keeps on giving. I’ve followed advice and bagged a seat on the sea-facing side, where wooded estuaries soon fill the windows. Rooks strut across the saltmarsh. The water shimmers like crystal in the low, patchy sun. Portmeirion appears in the distance, an Italianate fantasy overlooking the River Dywryd. We’ve been going five minutes.
The two-hour stretch of track that I’m travelling, between Porthmadog and the inland town of Machynlleth, is where the line’s panoramas are at their most absorbing. It’s a section that encompasses some 22 stations, many of which are tiny, single-shelter request stops (two pieces of advice if you want to hop off at any of them: don’t muddle up Tywyn and Tygwyn, and learn to pronounce Llwyngwril ahead of time). On a weekday, services run at least seven times in each direction, giving good opportunity to plan an out-and-back daytrip with an extra stop or two. That’s the logistics dealt with. Now glue yourself to the windows.
For a line that sticks so closely to the coast, the journey packs in plenty of variety. Just north of Llandanwg, I watch bobble-hatted hikers weaving through the marram dunes. A few minutes later come the masts and halyards of little Pensarn Harbour, then just as abruptly the views are all drystone walls, and Cheviot sheep, and wind-blasted oaks, with the waves beyond and the peaks of Snowdonia behind, glowering in dark green. There are farms with bonfires, and lonely mobile home parks, and vast crescents of soft sand. On one dreamy mile-long beach, big enough for thousands, I spot just a man and his dog. OK, I confess – I’m exaggerating. He has two dogs.
At Barmouth, where the sea views bellow out spectacularly above the stone-built houses, there’s a real highlight, in the form of an 820-metre-long wooden viaduct that spans the estuary. We rumble across it without haste, sending gulls wheeling off into the sky and watching the wide River Mawddach flowing out from the hills. A short while later, where the outlying slopes of the national park meet the sea, we’re edging along the side of a cliff, on a ledge some 30 metres above the bay. They were bold, those Victorian engineers.
When we reach pretty Aberdovey, the track veers east to follow the Dovey Estuary inland. Oystercatchers probe around in the shallows. The Cambrian Mountains mass on the opposite shore. At Machynlleth, I disembark for a bite to eat – try Caffi Alys – then resist the urge to browse the bookshops and do the only sensible thing remaining: stepping back onto the northbound train. The same sweeping scenery in reverse, spun across another two hours, is no less filmic. The sparseness of winter, and the quietness of the carriage, adds to the feeling that I’m being shown something hidden, like a secret that’s yet to burst.
There’s another reason why I don’t linger in Machynlleth. One of the stops before I arrive back in Porthmadog is Harlech, where the remains of a 750-year-old castle still hunker moodily on a high, rocky crag. I break the journey here and walk up to its walls. The ruins are ticketed, not to mention UNESCO-listed, and it’s well worth the £7.40 to ramble around the fortress’s soaring ramparts. Built by Edward I, then later taken by Owain Glyndŵr, the castle is a spectacle in its own right – but so too is the view from its battlements.
I haul myself up the spiral stone stairs of the still-standing southeast tower, reach the top, and suddenly there it all is, laid out below me: the sea, the headlands, the mountains, the railway threading across the land. To the north I can make out Snowdon itself, snagged in cloud. The sky is greyer now, and a bitter wind is blowing in. A clattering of jackdaws is at roost on one of the other towers. But on a day like this, I realise, there’s nothing I’d rather be doing than rolling slowly through this wintry corner of Wales. It’s a form of luxury, alright.