Monday 2 May 2022

Llandudno Victorian Adventure

Pullman Service Excursion Train

It had been a while since we had had the chance to travel on the Statesman train. One trip had been cancelled and then came the pandemic, but finally we booked this year the Llandudno Victorian Statesman, to visit the lovely North Wales seaside resort of Llandudno on the Saturday of their Victorian Extravaganza weekend. As usual we booked Pullman Dining Class on the Statesman, with guaranteed window table for two. On these excursions for us the enjoyment of the ride is an important part of the day out: with only four hours at the resort the time taken to get there and back really matters and on this train the Pullman Dining option provides drinks, a cooked breakfast, morning snack and a good dinner which certainly pass the time while travelling. A picnic or a snack from the buffet car would not have quite the same effect. People were amazed that we would visit North Wales on a day trip, but by rail, and especially on an excursion train, it s really easy and relaxing. If you're used to driving everywhere, yes, it must seem like a bit of a trial, but here we sat in our reclining seats, read our newspapers, enjoyed the refreshments and the sunlit countryside, followed the interesting route and arrived ready to explore Llandudno. 

The train started at Ely and was scheduled to depart from Stamford at 07:35 on a Saturday morning. Arriving at the station we fell into conversation with two other couples who both lived in nearby villages and had driven to Stamford for the train. Neither had been on a Statesman excursion before and we were able to enthuse about how good the service is, and warn them that breakfast would not be served the moment we sat down! The train arrived in Stamford on time, hauled by a pair of vintage Class 47 diesel locomotives, one in blue and one in the original two-tone green livery. Our coach, B, was near the front, and when we found our reserved seats we found ourselves right opposite one of the couples we had met on the platform - the other people were elsewhere in the same coach. Our window seats for two were at a table for four which had been set for just the two of us, so we had a large table and two spare seats - handy for our tendency to spread out our things! There is a dress code for Pullman Dining Class and I wore my Golden Arrow cufflinks and tie clip which I thought were a touch of rail travel glamour. It was good to see all the passengers making some effort to fit in, which is not always the case. No-one seemed to be dressed in Victorian costume to fit the destination, although some verged on Edwardian ...

Statesman Rail had cleverly arranged the reservations so that we were never disturbed at intermediate stops by boarding passengers looking for their seats, and the catering was provided in time to suit people's boarding (and, eventually, leaving) times. Breakfast was preceded by a refreshing Peach Bellini, standard on Statesman's Pullman Dining Class, and there was a choice of melon or porridge and then fish or English breakfast. There was a scheduled 20-minute wait in a lay-by loop at Melton Mowbray while we were overtaken by the service train to Birmingham and then we were off again through Leicester to Nuneaton where the last passengers were picked up and we joined the West Coast Main Line as far as Crewe. After a short wait at Crewe we were on the line along the Dee estuary and the North Wales coast, and travelling quite fast for a vintage train, overtaking everything on the A55 expressway until stopped at Llandudno Junction ready to take the short branch line to Llandudno. Meanwhile our stewards took the wine order for the evening meal: there was an included allowance of £21 per couple for a bottle of wine, and a number of perfectly decent wines at this price, but anyone who wanted something else from the extensive wine list could buy it by paying the additional cost. We were quite happy with French Merlot for the lamb dinner that we had noticed was on the evening menu.

As we approached Llandudno the Train Manager came and spoke to everyone in turn to ensure that we should all board the correct train home, for there were three charter trains in Llandudno that day: ours would be at Platform 3. When we arrived one other charter was already there, with carriages in the same brown and cream colours as ours (although a little older), with a pair of Class 20 vintage diesel locomotives. Before exploring the town, therefore, I had to go and photograph these engines while I had the chance (just as well, because when we returned later to take our train home this one was just pulling out). One of the locomotives was in the stunning red London Transport livery and was named John Betjeman after the poet. Then off into the town!

Llandudno station is well-located for the town centre and the beach, although we would not be using the beach today! I was keen to ride on the Great Orme Tramway and as this could not be booked in advance and was likely to be popular (not least with other people from the Statesman train) I thought we should do this first so as not to risk too tight a schedule later on when catching the train home was becoming critical. Alison had downloaded and printed a map showing the location of all the Victorian Festival attractions, and this was also a helpful guide to the layout of the town centre, but our iPhone maps were most helpful for general navigation, and we soon found the tramway terminus, Victoria Station. There was a queue, but the trams are quite commodious and it was clear that the one just arriving would take almost everyone in front of us and that we should therefore be among the first on the next departure. Although the timetable specified a tram every twenty minutes they seemed to run as soon as they filled, which must have been about twice that often. These trams seem to be cable-hauled and pass one another at a passing loop and so can only leave when both trams are ready to go. Each also has a trolley boom on the roof (well, two, actually) and there are poles alongside the track but no overhead wire: I must look up the story of this tramway and see how they are powered and why there is disused electrical kit ...

At a halfway station (called in English "Halfway Station") we had to leave our tram and board another for the rest of the trip up to Great Orme Summit, passing the winding gear for both sections of the tramline between the trams. All of the equipment at the halfway station seemed to be new: a lot had clearly been spent on renewing this Victorian transport system. We were soon on our way again, and again passed another tram at a passing loop half-way to the summit station from Halfway Station (are you still with me?). The weather, which since Crewe had been becoming murkier and windier, was now very windy, quite cold and threatening to rain. by the time we emerged at Summit Station we knew we should not be staying long! There are some walks to be taken and, we were told, some great views, but we could see none. There is a cable car up here as well as the tramway, but the cable cars were not operating because of the wind.

After a short walk round the Summit Complex (little more than a cafeteria with a long queue) and the Visitor Centre at the tram terminus, we queued briefly for a tram bound back down the hill. Once more through the Halfway Station's change of tram and again down into the town. Some amazing views of both the hilly (mountainous?) countryside and the grand sweep of the bay with its terraces of hotels are available from this steep route down from the hills and through the narrow streets. Well worth a visit. It might be even better in summer when perhaps a ride up and a walk down might be in order. 

Back in the town we walked along the seafront (did not fancy a walk on the pier: we had done our "windswept and damp" for the day) and then made our way into the shopping streets which for this weekend also doubled up as funfair: one end vintage and one end modern. We started at the vintage end, lured by the wonderful smell of hot oil from the numerous steam engines of various types, mostly showman's engines, of course. A fleet of vintage (not Victorian!) buses was providing a free bus service to another site in the town, but we did not explore this. More important after our excursion to the Great Orme was a mug of hot chocolate at Fortés! Then a final walk around the fairground, the steam engines - we even saw a steam bus - and the shops and it was time to head back to the station to get the train home. 

At the station, at Platform 3 as expected, was the Statesman with its two vintage diesel locomotives now at the opposite end ready to haul it back to Ely.  Gradually we all found our seats on board the train ready for the return journey, eagerly anticipating the delights in store. The eager anticipation was enhanced by the freshly set tables, each provided with a bottle of water and the bottle of wine that we had ordered as the train approached Llandudno on the outward journey, together the appropriate glasses for the water and the wine, and for the Champagne to be served as an appetiser before the meal. As usual for the Statesman train, the dinner napkins had been folded artistically ..

Some effort was made to match the food to the destination, and there was Welsh lamb and there were Welsh cheeses. This was a very good meal, with canapés to accompany the Champagne, a starter, the lamb main course, cheeses and a dessert.  For us, half a bottle of Merlot with a shared bottle of water lasted through the meal and was a good accompaniment to every course. Coffee and petit fours rounded it all off very nicely and we were approaching Leicester by the time we finished. I assume that passengers for Nuneaton and Hinckley were served earlier or faster than we were! Once the tables had been cleared every passengers was given a small box of chocolates to take home as a souvenir and before long, as darkness began to fall, we found ourselves on the final stretch towards Stamford station and were home before 10pm.

It had been a great day out. The weather at home had been much better than in North Wales (but it so often is!), but it was still April and at least we were spared heavy rain and extreme cold. I would recommend Statesman Rail excursions to anyone, especially if you can afford Pullman Dining Class: it is a relaxing way to see somewhere new and, as so often with any train travel, the travel is part of the fun. They run to a variety of places all through the year, with a wider selection of calling points to pick up passengers - it's an easy, although not especially cheap, way to take an adventure by train. Some of the people we met were travelling by rail for the first time and were taking this trip to see if they might enjoy a longer trip in the future. I hope they did enjoy it, and I would encourage anyone to look around and see what other touring companies have to offer, too, in the UK and in Europe. (And no, I am not paid to say any of these things: I just like to spread the word that, in my experience and opinion, leaving the car at home can actually enhance a day out or holiday.)

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