The Heart of Wales Line | A Guest Post By Robert Gale

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.

Loos With Views, Toilets And Trains | Guest Post | Luke Barclay

I’ve actually been sitting on this one for some time (sorry, couldn’t resist). I saw a post about Luke’s books, ‘A Loo With A View’ and the more recent ‘Good Loo Hunting,’ a few weeks ago. I emailed asking if there were any particularly good views either from train station toilets, or of trains from toilets in other places.

I got quite an excited reply – which I’ll post here as a guest post. I also think it ties in nicely with this week’s #FriFotos as not only has Luke provided two excellent photographs – but you still have today and tomorrow to order the books as stocking fillers. Aces.

You can visit www.looswithviews.com and find the books on Amazon too.

I‘m very keen on loos with train related views! The best I found is in Ribblehead, North Yorkshire Dales, UK. At the ‘Station Inn’ pub… Gents get a great view of the magnificent Ribblehead Viaduct on the Settle-Carlisle line. To fully enjoy the view you must be standing at the left hand urinal, of course. Particularly exciting when a train is crossing the viaduct…

I also heard a rumour that at Fishhoek station, near Cape Town, South Africa, it’s possible to see Southern Right Whales in the bay from the toilet on the platform (through a window while seated) especially during mating season, when whales gather in the bay.

Again, I haven’t seen this for myself, but I’ve heard that loos on Trans-Siberian Express have views. And there must be other trains around the world that have loo views – maybe your readers will know of some…

Attached is a photo of the view from the Ribblehead urinal – featured in ‘A Loo with a View’ (accompanied by a photo of the urinal with viaduct visible through window – bonafide proof that it’s a view from a loo).”

The Urinal at the Station Inn in Ribblehead

The Viaduct as Viewed from the Gents at the Station Inn, Ribblehead

Around India in 80 Trains with Monisha Rajesh

Indian Train RajasthanThis week I have a guest post/interview with London-based journalist Monisha Rajesh. She embarked on a journey across India in 80 trains, travelling widely in the country, covering luxury trains, toy trains and a newly launched non-stop Duronto Express in the blog www.80trains.com 

What did you do before embarking on your epic journey?

 I’m a freelance journalist in London and was working at TIME magazine while writing for a number of other consumer magazines.

What made you want to do the trip?

I was reading an article at work about how India’s domestic airlines had boomed to the point of being able to connect over 80 cities, which was quite a feat, but at the same time didn’t strike me as being too eco-friendly. After a quick google I found a map of the Indian Railways and saw that the network was far more impressive than any airline’s route. I’d lived in India for a couple of years in 1991 but had barely stretched a toe beyond Madras and had always wanted to go back and cover areas like Assam, Punjab and Sikkim. It looked like there was a train for the most extreme tips of the country and I wondered if I could travel around India in 80 trains, and there was the title of my book!

How was the trip funded and how long did you go for?

India is a relatively inexpensive country so the trip hardly broke the bank. It was nothing a few months’ savings couldn’t handle. We also bought an IndRail pass in London, which is like a little golden key given to foreign tourists. The pre-paid pass cost us £350 each for 90 days and included unlimited travel in air-conditioned two-tier compartments, although it meant I could travel in any of the lower classes too. If I’d paid for individual tickets the cost would have more than doubled. I set a goal of 80 trains in four months.

Have you noticed similarities between the British railway system and the Indian system?

To be honest, Indian Railways is by far and away superior to the British system. In terms of price, punctuality, friendliness, atmosphere and variety, no other railway network has a patch on Indian trains. Yes, they can be achingly slow at times and rather grubby, but it’s no worse than hopping on a late-night train from Beaconsfield into London and stepping over empty cans of Fosters, half-eaten bags of Quavers and general muck. Like everywhere in India, there’s always a residual Britishness, whether it’s the archaic language on train signs or the Shatabdi speed trains that offer cornflakes, hot milk and a crisp newspaper at breakfast.

What is the best thing about train travel in India?

The freedom. There’s something so comfy and relaxed about Indian trains that pervades every compartment. Everyone sits cross-legged chatting to anyone who will listen, and there’s always something to fire your curiosity, whether it’s a group of bauls – wandering minstrels – who play beautiful music in the corridors, or hawkers selling everything from Paulo Coelho paperbacks to wedding outfits.

And the worst?

Buying tickets at short notice isn’t really an option unless you’re a foreign tourist. Whimsical travel is reined in, as bookings open 90 days in advance of a journey and the tickets go like hotcakes. That’s why the IndRail pass is so useful, you can often jump on trains, flag down the train manager and be assigned any spare seats he may have.

Did you watch Bollywood films featuring trains along the way?

Not one. I did watch the Darjeeling Limited which was quite the parody of train travel, but I was devouring books which might be why my rucksack weighed a ton. Paul Theroux, Amitav Ghosh, Kiran Desai, Chetan Bhagat, Amartya Sen and Rohinton Mistry have been good company.

Who’s been the most interesting person you’ve met on the trains?

This was more of an interesting situation than anything else. I was incredibly sad and homesick one day, desperate to talk to either my best friend Jane, or my parents, and boarded a Shatabdi train from Chandigarh to Delhi that I hadn’t booked. The inspector found me the only spare seat on the entire train in executive class and when I glanced down the carriage I saw Jane’s parents, Chris and Lynn, from Cambridge. I don’t think I’ve been so happy to see anyone and literally launched myself onto them. They gave me a hug and it was like having a little piece of home in my hands again. That’s the fun of Indian trains, you never know what you’re going to get.

Did your schedule work out?

 Perfectly. Mainly because I didn’t have one. I had a handful of dates when we had to be in certain areas, for example Kanyakumari for a solar eclipse, Mumbai to board the Indian Maharaja Deccan Odyssey, Madhya Pradesh to watch orthopaedic surgery on the Lifeline Express and Khajuraho for the classical dance festival. But I didn’t want to plan more than a couple of weeks in advance. Life never goes to plan and it’s much more fun to live in the moment and see where it takes you. My best experiences came from serendipitous meetings, trains I hadn’t booked, cities I hadn’t heard of and people I didn’t know.

What message have you taken away from the experience?

 Live a life without expectation and you can never be disappointed. Keep an open mind, listen more than you speak, and remember that everyone has a story to tell.

@irenep At St. Pancras | A Toast to the Eurostar Man | A Guest (Re)post

The lovely @irenep

I met @irenep at a travel tweetup in London a couple of weeks ago. She works in PR but has an invested interest in travel and had persuaded work to let her go to the World Travel Market. She spoke of a trip to Brussels and I asked her to write about it. I like the sentence at the end of her bio on her blog irene-in-london.blogspot.com, ‘right now I’m the happiest I’ve been in a long time.’

My fourth grade math teacher once wrote on my report card – “Irene is a very caring and bright child, but she needs to work on her attention to detail.”

Those three words – attention to detail – would continue to follow me from simple algebra onto university, personal life and work. Send emails without attachments? Yup. Show up on Wilson Road instead of Wilson Street, making me almost half an hour late for my date? Happened last week.

It seems like I rush through life without taking note of the little things, the small details. Typically this doesn’t really matter, except for this past weekend…

I was due to travel via Eurostar to Belgium with a few friends. Taking after my father, I showed up at St. Pancras station much earlier than I needed to. But I like the feeling of having loads of time to get a coffee and relax before checking in for travel.

Upon meeting up with my travel companions, myself and one other noticed that our train was delayed. There it was in big capital letters – BELGIUM: DELAYED ONE HOUR.

After a little grumbling, we settled down to breakfast. Still relaxed. Still chilled out. 45 minutes later we walked up to the Eurostar gate.

Strangely enough, our ticket wouldn’t scan. Upon closer examination, the Eurostar man said “I’m sorry, but your train left”

There were shouts of protests –

“But it said delayed on the board”

“We’ve been here for over an hour now!”

Which was followed by the Eurostar man asking us which board said this…to which I triumphantly replied “That one!” pointing my index finger at the big capital letters that said “BELGIUM DELAYED ONE HOUR”.

And there it was, just half an inch above where my finger was pointing at, in even bigger capital letters, the word “ARRIVALS”.

Perhaps it was the prospect of dealing with four tearful (in my case, sobbing) girls that stirred some strings of sympathy in the Eurostar man, but he directed us to the ticket office whereupon we were booked onto the next train out to Brussels at no extra charge.

With that, I strolled up to the Champagne Bar in St Pancras, and amidst the trains rolling in and travellers spilling onto the platform, I toasted the wonderful Eurostar man.

Despite the mishap, the trip to Belgium was a wonderful albeit hazy 30 something hours of delicious beers, even better frites and countless chocolate shops.

As for train travel? I learned my lesson. Reading the wrong board? A rookie mistake surely. And even with that, we all agreed that going via Eurostar was a much more civilised way of touring the continent. For one thing, train carriages that rock from side to side make most people pass out. That means no annoying person sitting beside you who wants to talk for the entire journey.

Also, people just seem nicer on trains. Perhaps it’s because they haven’t been up at the crack of dawn to catch a bus to the airport, only to stand in a huge line for security and get stuck behind that person who has a bottle of water in their bag, keeps their belt and shoes on and has a piggy bank of change in their pocket.

All in all, it was a pretty amazing first foray into Belgium.

Britain’s Railwaywomen Before 1914 | @TurnipRail | A Guest Post

David Turner is a Railway Historian. He’s currently studying for a PHD, which finds him surrounded by all kinds of ancient railway documents. You can read his blog at turniprail.blogspot.com and follow him on twitter as @TurnipRail Here he talks about female workers on the Railway before 1914.

Before 1914 women worked on Britain’s railways in small numbers and a limited number of capacities, and in July 1914 only 13,046 were employed out of a total workforce of 630,000.

Further, it was only women who didn’t have the support of a husband that were employed, and the vast majority were either the daughters or widows of railway workers. Indeed, as with most industries in the era, marriage was the end of work for most railwaywomen, and only in certain cases did married women gain employment. Lastly, a woman who did not have a relative working on the railways could not apply for a job within the industry.

It was after 1880 that the daughters of railwaymen began to be employed in large numbers by railway companies. Firstly, the increase of women in railway employment was made possible by the introduction of universal education in 1870. This meant the majority of women were sufficiently literate to undertake many forms of railway work. However, more importantly for railway managers, women were seen as a cheap source of labour that was easily accessible through existing railway employees. Women were also considered more compliant than male employees.

Thus, in an era when the cost of running railways was increasing, from a purely financial standpoint, the employment of women was logical for railway managers.

While, as a universal rule, railwaywomen’s positions had no responsibility, were menial and low paid. A daughter’s employment, particularly, was defined by their father’s position and employing department. For example, between 1873 and 1914 the London and South Western Railway employed nine women in the relatively good job of telegraph clerk. All had fathers that were either clerks or stationmasters in the Traffic Department; two jobs that were of high status, had job security, good wages and many promotional prospects. Indeed, this would have been the case for the majority of the 1,120 female clerks employed nationally in 1914.

However, many daughters employed on the railway had fathers who were in positions that were low- status, had low job security and almost no promotional prospects. Because of this, these women usually received jobs that were more menial and lower paid than a telegraph clerk. Thus, if a father was employed by the Traffic Department, for example as a porter, carriage cleaner, inspector or signalman, their daughter would most likely obtain employment as a ticket sorter, office cleaner or laundress. Additionally, if a woman’s father was employed in the Locomotive Department, where the majority of male employees were of a low status, such as labourers or firemen, she could expect to receive work in the railway workshops as a carriage lining sewer, French polisher or carriage blind dyer. Indeed, at the Great Eastern Railway’s Wolverton Works in 1906, 40 women were engaged in French polishing, 24 worked in the laundry, and 60 worked in the cutting out room as sewers and trimmers.

While the daughters of railwaymen joined the railway in large numbers after 1880, the widows of railwaymen who had been killed while on duty had been employed by railway companies since the 1840s. However, they were without doubt the lowest paid and most poorly treated railway employees. This was because their employment was regarded as an act of charity by the companies’ managements, especially as many railwaymen who were killed while on duty were considered to have been so because of their ‘own misconduct or want of caution.’ As such, railway company management felt no obligation to provide better pay or better employment to their widows as it was their husband’s fault that they were in their situations. Indeed, this is evidenced by the fact that the death of a railwayman did not automatically secure his widow employment, and she had to wait on a list for a vacancy to become available. Thus, there was no urgency to find widows employment to support her and any family she may have.

Therefore, many widows were given employment as office cleaners, waiting room attendants, laundresses, carriage lining sewers and gatekeepers, on lower rates than their colleagues who were the daughters of railway employees. As such, their income would have provided them with barely enough money to support themselves, let alone a family. Subsequently, many railwaymen’s widows and children continued to live in poverty. In extreme cases, many suffered from ill-health, alcoholism and mental health problems, with children being taken into the workhouse.

So for all railwaywomen on Britain’s railways before 1914, their employment was dependent on their marital status and, especially in the case of railwaymen’s daughters, by where their relatives worked within the company. Women were treated poorly on the 19th and early 20th century railway and were the worst paid employees, simply viewed as cheap labour or a burden. For railway managers, women’s employment, was always simply about money.

1 Wojtczak, Helena, Railwaywomen, (London, 2005) p.4

2 Wojtczak, Railwaywomen, p.29

3 Walkden, A.G. A Word to Women, Railway Clerks Association Booklet, (1915)

4 Wojtczak, Railwaywomen, p.19