What it’s like to do the Snowdon Mountain Railway, Wales’ most famous train

Snowdonia’s iconic mountain railway (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Snowdonia’s iconic mountain railway (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

You could fill a dictionary with categories of Welsh rain. But as I queue, waiting to summit Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon), the rain is ‘cloaking’ (verb). Shortening of: “It’s coming down like a witch’s cloak.”

Experienced at high altitudes, this grey, mysterious squall of damp wet mist magically appears across mountaintops disguising everything it doesn’t want you to see. It’s like being inside a television stuck on static. Visibility reduces from “wow is that Ireland I can see?” to “when did I get cataracts?” See also: “It’s raining rats and frogs.”

Alighting from the Snowdon Mountain Railway at Clogwyn Station around an hour ago, not even Michael Fish could’ve predicted this. The sun was hanging low in the cold, cloudless sky like a low-watt light bulb. Metres from the platform to the east, the views tumbled off into eternity. The piercing blue waters of Lakes Glaslyn and Llydaw glistened against the craggy haunches holding up the mountain. Beauty and the beast.

Snowdon Mountain Railway was completed in 1896 (Getty Images)
Snowdon Mountain Railway was completed in 1896 (Getty Images)

We have half an hour to explore, take photos, gawp in awe, or do whatever at this isolated outpost. Some make their way back down via the Llanberis Path but most wait for the return journey. The penultimate stop on the line is a mile from the summit but the pandemic has prevented staff from carrying out their maintenance on the 126-year-old line, so trains currently terminate here.

From May 2023, both the Summit station and Hafod Eryri – the peak’s charcoal-grey visitor centre – reopen. Until then, passengers have to complete the final push to the Crown of Cymru on foot. The walk takes around an hour.

I’m the only one from the train to head to the summit. It’s steep from here; like clambering up a skateboarding halfpipe. The walk seems Sisyphean: my body lurches forward, knees near my shoulders, as the metronomic crunch of the gravel underfoot counts my steps like a pedometer. On either side of the path, there are long-reaching vistas across “cwms” (steep-sided valley bowls) and spiky Stegosaurus-spine ridges with soft, crepuscular rays providing a spotlight.

Towards the summit – as my calves start to burn, possibly cauterise – the witch’s cloak appears and darkens everything

Towards the summit – as my calves start to burn, possibly cauterise – the witch’s cloak appears and darkens everything. The heavens open. All that falls out is rain. I stumble and feel my way up, following a line of weary, wet, Gore Tex-wearing walkers. At the trig point, many wait patiently to climb the final uneven steps to make 1,085m (3,560ft).

Early this morning, before the doors of the cream-painted Snowdon Mountain Railway ticket office in Llanberis opened, there was a lot of well-mannered milling about too. Among the hanging baskets of flowers and the smell of strong coffee and fried breakfast emanating from the station cafe, groups of people poked their heads into the small onsite cinema, which was showing dramatic footage of the trains chugging up the mountain.

Inspired by Switzerland’s mountain-climbing trains, the railway was completed in 1896. It took 150 men some 14 months to pickaxe, shovel and blow up the mountainside so they could lay four miles of track to the top. Engineers installed a toothed rack in the middle of the running rails which allowed pinions (cogs) beneath the locomotives to grip on securely. Engines could then push the carriages to the summit without fear of them rolling off. In places, the gradient is as steep as 1 in 5.5.

Picture-perfect views from Snowdon Mountain Railway (Daniel Fahey)
Picture-perfect views from Snowdon Mountain Railway (Daniel Fahey)

“Anyone for the nine o’clock train?” a conductor bellows on the platform. A queue forms and we’re divided into groups by carriage compartment. As it’s the first train of the day, a traditional diesel engine will do 45 minutes of heavy pushing to Clogwyn. Steam locomotives run from 9.30am.

We’re led onto a black cream and burgundy carriage whose blue plastic seats soon fill up. Passengers sit shoulder to shoulder, their coats swishing as they twist for a better view. A whistle shrills and our dark, Knight Rider-coloured engine, Hunslet, eases the carriage forward with the pressure of a paternal palm on the back.

The train rumbles across a brick viaduct, past a mini mountain of black coal used by the railway’s steam locomotives. We cut through some trees, past the gushing Ceunant Mawr waterfall, and out into the wild grassy contours of the Yr Wyddfa foothills. It’s here we get our first glimpse of the summit – it peeps out above a ridge on the right.

Outside, the journey is like an opening movie scene

Outside, the journey is like an opening movie scene. Dry stone walls, grazing sheep and pockets of hikers appear. They then vanish as we trace the track up the spine of the mountain.

As we climb higher, through Rocky Valley, the greenery starts to ebb away; dark rocks replace rosemary rumps. The precipices become more pronounced. Tumbledown farmhouses give way to giant grey cliffs and funnels of fossil-coloured landslides pile up like the ashes of yesterday’s fire.

As the train slows to a halt at Clogwyn Station, it’s like we’ve slid onto the surface of the moon. It’s treeless and washed out. The lunar-like surface is quiet and sparse. The conductor comes along and opens each door individually and we step out onto the platform. I take in the surroundings. You seem to be able to see forever. No wonder some people believe King Arthur is buried up here – the vistas make me feel like God.

Daniel was rewarded with murky views at the summit (Daniel Fahey)
Daniel was rewarded with murky views at the summit (Daniel Fahey)

Fast-forward to the trig point and it’s clear I’m a mortal. Those queueing in front of me have conquered Wales’ tallest peak under their own steam. A Scottish cad – his wet blonde hair stuck to his forehead like he’s walked out of a hurricane – is joking about “the great views” against a background that resembles an endless boiling cauldron. A damp, yellow labrador sniffs among the shards of rock, his paws brown with mud. Two Geordies drink celebratory cans of Kronenbourg lager having cycled – cycled! – to the top by e-bike.

Then there’s me. A cheater. I’ve Phil-ed and Holly-ed it. No wonder it’s absolute cloaking.

Travel essentials

The Snowdon Mountain Railway runs from 1 April until 31 October (weather permitting). Trains only go as far as Clogwyn Station until 12 May, after which they go to the Summit.

How to book

Either buy in person at the Snowdon Mountain Railway train station in Llanberis or online via snowdon.vticket.co.uk (includes a £3.50 service fee). Note: many trains sell out weeks in advance.

Cost

Return journeys to the summit start from £26 for the early-bird diesel service at 9am (£38 thereafter). It costs £50 to ride a heritage steam train. Cheaper one-way tickets (plus walking back down) are available too.

When to go

Late-May or late-September; outside of school holidays.