240: Shrawardine (well, half of it)

OS Explorer map 240, Oswestry: Chirk, Ellesmere & Pant – I do not own this map, and had not visited it before starting this blog. Visited for this post 29th March 2019. This is going to be the first of three posts about the “Gerald of Wales” trip to North Wales I did in late March 2019 with my friends Millicent, Erithacus and Vesper.

Gerald of Wales is a medieval figure much beloved by my friend Millicent. He was an ecclesiastic, known now for his writings, notably the Itinerarium Cambriae, usually translated “A Journey Through Wales”, which is just that: an account of his journey through 13th-century Wales, which is interesting for a whole host of reasons. When I’d travelled to Wales in Millicent’s company previously, [1] he’d occasionally tell us what Gerald had said of a particular place, or bemoaned that he didn’t have his copy of Gerald with him.

I was therefore delighted when I found out about the Gerald of Wales train. Gerald has given his name to a fancy train service; the Gerald runs daily from Holyhead to Cardiff in the morning, and back again in the evening. It’s the only train journey with a first-class section in Wales, and notably, its first class section has a full dining service with an on-board chef – which only exists in one other place on the mainstream British rail network, on the Great Western Main Line. [2] On the morning train they do full cooked breakfasts, and on the evening one three-course dinners. Plus, the meal is included in the ticket price which depends on distance, so if you just do a short hop on the train it’s not even that expensive. The Gerald seems to mainly serve as a publicity thing (or maybe an attempt to bring a sense of national identity to the, alas, hopelessly splintered Welsh railway network [3]), but it had caught me and I started planning how to get to go on it!

Vesper finds a bench suitable for her size at a service station on the M6, as we drive Westwards for this trip

There was another railway thing in Wales that I’d been wanting to do for a while, which was to travel the loop along the north coast line (which is part of the Gerald of Wales’s) to Llandudno Junction, down to Blaenau Ffestiniog in Snowdonia, and then take the narrow-gauge heritage Ffestiniog Railway to Porthmadog, before getting the Mid Wales Line back to our starting point in England. I just always found the fact that you can get a heritage railway as a shortcut between two parts of the conventional rail network that are otherwise very far apart really pleasing. Plus Snowdonia is great!

You can clearly see the railway loop I’m talking about on this screenshot from Rail Map Online (which is a glorious website – if you click the button that lets you see historical rail routes, it’s very easy to get lost in yearning for pre-Beeching lines.)

I therefore planned a weekend trip along this route – I’d take the Gerald in the evening to Llandudno, before spending a day or two in Snowdonia and returning via that Ffestiniog Railway and Mid Wales line as planned. I asked Millicent whether he’d like to join me, and he did; and Vesper and Erithacus ended up being free too, so we made it a four-person trip.

Erithacus, Vesper and I took the Friday afternoon off work so that the four of us could set off at lunchtime. I’d thought about doing the whole thing as a railway trip, but with so many of us adding a driving leg would make it a lot cheaper, so we planned to drive to Chester and get on the Gerald there. The drive passed pleasantly enough, with a stop at Corley services on the M6. However, we’d decided on another stop before we left, as I always like stopping in small interesting places on driving trips.

Shrawardine’s church

That stop was Shrawardine, a village just to the west of Shrewsbury (so about an hour before the end of hour three-and-a-half hour drive). We’d picked it, I think, entirely on the basis of it being near our route, at around the time where we’d probably be wanting another stop, and having the remains of a castle marked as present on the OS map.

It was a pleasant little place, with a pretty church of dark red stone that was unfortunately locked, but we admired from the outside. We then wandered over to the castle site, where there was a significant mound with some bits of wall and masonry here and there, the remains of one of the many Norman castles that sit up and down the Welsh Marches. We pottered about the site for a little while, chatting and watching the sheep, before wandering back over to the car to continue our journey. An interesting stop!

Shrawardine on an OS Explorer map (right), and on the diagram from the OS website showing where the boundary between map areas 240 and 241 is. You can clearly see that the boundary follows the blue grid line on the OS map, neatly cutting the village – and our trip there – in two, between the church and the castle mound.

It was Shrawardine that resulted in my visit to this map area and hence is the reason for this post. However, we actually managed two map areas on this visit, since while the very centre of Shrawardine, including the church, is in map 240, the castle site, just a couple of hundred yards away, is in map 241; the boundary (there’s no overlap) runs right through the village. We visited Shrewsbury, in map 241, on our way home from this trip just two days later, so I decided I’d just mention Shrawardine Castle here, and instead do a post about map 241 about the Shrewsbury visit, rather than try to dream up a whole post about the 15 minutes we spent at Shrawardine Castle!

From Shrawardine, we got back in the car and drove to Chester, where we shouldered our bags, entered the railway station, and got on the Gerald of Wales. The attendant seemed a little surprised at our entering the first class carriage (I guess they don’t often get backpackers), but we were soon settled into our seats.

Erithacus on the Gerald of Wales

The train was indeed what it promised to be, a proper dining car, if a little tired looking, but a dining car nonetheless, with tablecloths and cutlery and the like. Unfortunately we’d apparently joined the train a little late and the kitchen had closed. They had a couple of asparagus tarts left (a starter I believe), so we had to make do with those, plus some crisps, wine and sandwiches, as Erithacus read to us from the journeys of the other Gerald. A fun experience!

We arrived at Llandudno Junction at about 9pm, and got off, did a quick shop in Tesco before travelling onwards to Blaenau Ffestiniog, where the holiday cottage we’d booked awaited us. Unfortunately, my hopes of completing a full North Wales circuit by train had been a little scuppered, as the Conwy Valley Line to Blaenau Ffestiniog had closed for repairs earlier that month due to weather damage, so it was, alas, in a taxi in the dark that we made our journey through Snowdonia. I would really like to come back and do the railway line when it’s operating again, and in the daytime to appreciate the views! Silver linings though – I enjoyed learning about differences between North and South Welsh from the taxi driver. We arrived at our cottage a little after 10pm – it was very cute; for details of that and what we did in Snowdonia, see my next post!

[1] On a trip to the Brecon Beacons/Hay-on-Wye area, walking a part of the Offa’s Dyke Way, which hasn’t yet featured on this blog.

[2] There are dining services on some heritage railways and special trains, but these are the only two on conventional timetabled National Rail services.

[3] By splintered I mean that, unfortunately, it’s not possible to travel between North Wales and South Wales by train without going on an extensive detour through England, which is rather silly. I have to agree with the Welsh nationalists on this one (as well as on many other things, it must be said). It may become closer to possible again if the Camarthen-Aberystwyth line does get rebuilt, as has been variously proposed, though it would be all accounts be rather a slow local railway rather than a practical long-distance option. (And to get right up to the north coast you’d still need to take the heritage Ffestiniog Railway between Porthmadog and Blaenau Ffestiniog, as we did on this trip.)

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