At Llangollen station in the morning, as we waited to board the train for the stunningly beautiful journey up the Dee valley to Carrog, the station master had told me about his experience as a Great Rail Journeys (Rail Discoveries' sister brand) passenger on the Glacier Express. He had loved every minute and was telling all his friends to go, a useful plug for passing passengers to hear! Loco 6430 then hauled us up the valley past countless sheep (26 to every human in Wales, I'm told) and fly fishermen in waders up to their knees in the river hoping to lure salmon on to their hooks. 6430 is a push-pull fitted 0-6-0 pannier tank of GWR origin, built at Swindon in 1937 as part of lot no. 305. The class spent their lives working many of the minor branch lines on the former GWR system, particularly the South Wales valleys, and were fitted for auto train working. Withdrawal in 1964 was followed by sale to John Cashmore Ltd as scrap, but immediately 6430 was re-sold to the Dart Valley Railway as a source of spares. It was towed to there by 6412 in 1966. The work undertaken since then over eight years in Llangollen represents a major rebuild of an engine which once had no hope of being returned to steam, and has presented the owner and the loco department with many challenges. However, thanks to the skills of the workforce and the engineering facilities available, the project has been successfully completed.
'Railways of Wales' also includes the narrow gauge former slate line at Ffestiniog, as well as only cable-hauled tramway still operating on British public roads, the Great Orme Tramway in Llandudno where the tour is based. Many of my passengers chose to ride the tramway on their day at leisure, only to discover that a wind of 50 m.p.h. was buffeting them nearly to their knees when they reached the top. At least the wind ensured that the spectacular views of Snowdonia and Anglesey were not obscured by cloud.
Customers with Rail Discoveries are accustomed to using many forms of transport - rail, obviously, as well as cruise ships, coaches, funiculars, cable cars and trams. This tour is probably unique in offering a short trip in a horse-drawn barge. At the opposite end of the speed spectrum from ICE and TGV, meet Tog, a friendly 13-year-old piebald Welsh cob, led by Liam and willingly pulling a barge laden with tourists along the leafy Llangollen canal.
The first and enduring impression of the barge journey, especially after the noise and bustle of the nearby steam railway, is of absolute quiet. To the delight of passengers and a crowd of admirers on the towpath, Tog easily takes the weight of the barge which is soon sliding noiselessly up the Dee valley through a shoal of ducks, expectant for tourist crumbs. There are rabbits grazing on the bank, almost close enough to touch and totally undisturbed by the passing barge. The silence affects the otherwise chatty group of passengers: voices drop to a murmur, conversation is brief. The passengers haven't discovered yet that the provider of the motive power is a twenty-first century celebrity, for Tog has his own Facebook page, gathering friends in his own leisurely style, and his stables are partly decorated with press cuttings about his work.
Soon it becomes evident that Liam is largely redundant: Tog knows the way and is sure to stop at the spot where the rope is detached from one end of the barge and re-attached at the other for the return journey. The barge also has a detachable rudder, and Liam's accomplice carries it down the length of the barge to steer us home. Tog and his three mates Taffy, Geordie and Stanley live in stables by the Llangollen wharf, and business has been boosted this year by Stanley's guest appearance on Julia Bradbury's 'Canal Walks' television series. On a blissful autumn day with the leaves just beginning to turn, our one-horse-power journey past the site of the annual Eisteddfod on one bank and cottages with gardens close enough for passengers to reach out and pick the flowers on the other (they didn't!).
With its variety of transport this tour appeals to rail expert and general passenger alike. Add in the wonderful mountain backdrops and healthy seaside breezes and all tastes are catered for. Knowing that 6430 was rescued from the scrap yard to steam by the Dee, and that Tog was saved from the knacker's yard to spend his days being petted and spoilt as he pulls his barge, adds a warm glow to the whole experience.