Wales is a country of many experiences ranging from magnificent mountain scenery to rolling meadowland. And one of the best ways to see such a diverse and fascinating countryside is from the window of an observation coach on one of the country's famous narrow gauge railways.
The great little trains of Wales are well known and attract visitors by the thousands. The Ffestiniog, the Talyllyn, the Vale of Rheidol, even the Snowdon Mountain Railway – the choice is huge and varied.
Many of these narrow gauge railways were once industrial tramways, carrying raw materials such as slate and stone from quarries to ports and other centres of population. They were an essential part of the country's industrial infrastructure.
These days they have a more popular appeal, in the form of the tourist trade, and one of the most interesting is the relatively new Brecon Mountain Railway.
Image from Brecon Mountain Railway
Opened only in 1980, the railway runs for three miles from Pant outside Merthyr Tydfil along the full length of the Taf Fechan Reservoir to Pontsticill and then on to Dolygaer at the northern end of the lake. At Dolygaer the engine is disconnected and runs around the carriages to rejoin the other end to pull the train back to the terminus at Pant.
While there are other preserved steam railways in south Wales, the Brecon Mountain Railway is the only narrow gauge example. However, its origins, unlike so many of the other lines, is not industrial and it was established purely as a tourist attraction. Not that it doesn't have a history all of its own and the makers of the new railway used several old lines when mapping out and laying down their railway.
The track runs, in part, along the route of the old Brecon and Merthyr Railway, a railway that once connected the two most significant centres of population in the area but which was closed long ago. However, whereas the original line was standard gauge, the Brecon Mountain Railway is a true narrow gauge. The track has a width of just under two foot wide.
This was once a highly industrialised part of Wales and railway lines ran everywhere, reaching like spiders webs across the landscape. Part of the car park at the Pant terminus lies on the site of the old branch line that once cut away from the original Brecon and Merthyr Railway and led into the great iron works at nearby Dowlais.
Clearly visible from the car park, but sitting 80 foot down the valley, are three ventilation shafts for an old tunnel. This was the huge LNWR region tunnel that was only finally closed in 1958, even though the company itself had long been incorporated into British Rail.
Image provided by Brecon Mountain Railway
The Mountain Railway sits in the Brecon Beacons National Park and, as you would expect, the views out over the Beacons and up to Pen-y-Fan, the highest point, are nothing short of spectacular.
There are currently two steam engines operating on the line, the Jung (1908) and the Baldwin, a pacific class engine that was originally designed and built for the Eastern Provinces Cement Company in South Africa. The railway owns another seven steam engines and these are being restored or repaired in the workshops – which are open to the public and give a graphic and informative idea of how steam engines worked.
The Brecon Mountain Railway may be relatively new – at least when compared to other narrow gauge lines in Wales – but it offers visitors all they could ever want – a touch of history, magnificent views and a great experience.