Heart of Wales Line
The Heart of Wales line is a 121 mile scenic route from Craven Arms, Shropshire to Llanelli in south Wales. Apart from a small portion near Swansea, the rural branch line is predominantly single track with five passing loops at Llandeilo, Llandovery, Llanwrtyd, Llandrindod and Knighton.
There are four daily services in each direction and two on a Sunday. All services run between Swansea and Shrewsbury with one service (the 0809 Monday-Saturday) starting from Cardiff.
A Heart of Wales ranger ticket is available for a very reasonable £30 which allows travel in a circular route between Newport in the south east of Wales, Llanelli in the south west of Wales and Shrewsbury in Shropshire. A standard off peak return between Newport and Shrewsbury is £33 so the ranger provides good value for money.
The journey time from Cardiff to Swansea is 4h59m. If you catch the service from Swansea it takes 3h52m and the actual Heart of Wales line proper will take slightly less.
The line passes through some 31 stations and halts many of which are request stops only. One stop is Sugar Loaf which is the least used station in Wales with only around 100 passengers using it each year.
The route also travels across a viaduct at Cynghordy and Knucklas and through a 1,000 yard tunnel at Sugar Loaf.
My Journey (Saturday 23rd April, 2011)
Rather than starting at Swansea, I caught the service from Cardiff to ensure that I had the best choice of seats. The train for the journey was a rather stale smelling but nonetheless clean single carriage Class 153 diesel unit operated by Arriva Trains Wales.
It takes around 1h30m to reach Llanelli and along the way stops at every station between Bridgend and Llanelli. This portion of the journey is used by people traveling to the main stations such as Bridgend, Neath and Swansea. A trolley service (with table service!) was available on the train from Swansea onwards.
Soon after leaving the estuary in Llanelli, and the start of the Hert of Wales line, the train enters some stunning countryside such as the meandering stream that follows the line between Llandybie and Ffairfach.
About a third of the way into the journey the train reaches Llandovery. Beyond this station is a a long climb up to Cynghordy station and then onto the 18-arch Cynghordy viaduct. Unfortunately you can’t get a good view of the viaduct itself but you do get excellent views of the valley on either side.
Two stations after Llandrindod is a beautifully kept little station called Dolau. The villagers spend a lot of time maintaining the plants and flowers on the platform and keeping the tiny waiting room in immaculate condition. There is a plaque on the station commemorating a visit by the Queen in 2002 during her Golden Jubilee tour.
Llanbister Road, like Builth Road that was passed earlier in the journey, maintains a the word Road in its title despite many other stations adopting the term Parkway instead.
The short ride between Llanbister Road and Llangynllo offers a great view on the right side of the train of a large open valley. Llangynllo is around five miles west of Knighton and the English border.
Before reaching Knighton you need to pass across the viaduct at Knucklas. A steep descent leads down to the viaduct and similarly to the Cynghordy viaduct you can’t get a good view from the train. Knucklas station is just after the viaduct. The spectacular 13-arch span viaduct was completed in 1865.
After Knucklas is Knighton station which is positioned just 100 yards over the English border in Shropshire. The market town itself is actually located in Powys, Wales. The jounrney onto Bucknell is particularly picturesque.
Once a two platform station, only one platform is now operational at Bucknell station. The large station building is now a private house and it’s residents are probably grateful that there are only four services a day as the train must sound its horn before departing.
Beyond Bucknell you pass through large open countryside and onto Hopton Heath and Broome, both small single platform stations.
The final station on the Heart of Wales line, but not the entire journey to Shrewsbury is Craven Arms. This much larger station is located on the junction of the Welsh Marches and Heart of Wales lines. Platform 1 serves Shrewsbury and beyond and Platform 2 serves the southbound trains to Hereford and Cardiff.
Despite the journey time, boredom is unlikely to set in as there is so much to look at from gorgeous countryside, wildlife and quant little stations many of which are nestled amongst small clusters of houses and farms buildings.
I travelled on a sunny April day which is probably best conditions for the trip although I imagine it would be equally stunning on a snowy winter day or when the valleys are covered in fog.
You can quite comfortably complete the entire journey in a day and that could include a few hours exploring Shrewsbury.