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Wales: Better to travel north to south or south to north via train?

I'm strongly considering adding a week or so to my Best of Ireland in 14 Days tour 7/24/22-8/6/22. I'd self-plan a train trip through Wales before the tour starts or after it ends.

I'd take the ferry between Holyhead and Dublin.

For those who have traveled in Wales, do you think there is any significant advantage to going south to north or north to south, especially in terms of scenery?

I'm more inclined to go to Wales after the tour rather than before, but any advice about roughly the 2nd week of July vs. the 2nd week of August in Wales would also be greatly appreciated. Any comments about experiences that were way better than you expected would be a big bonus.

(Before anyone worries about the potential flights, I fly standby so I have lots of options.)

Posted by
30293 posts

well, depending on where in Wales you are, the water will be on your left as you go south to north but on your right if you go north to south.

Except if you are on Anglesey.

Seriously, I don't think it matters.

Posted by
1298 posts

We went to Wales from Chester England which is on the train line from Holyhead. We stayed there after our flight into Manchester which is less than 40 mins from there. We spent a great week in Northern Wales visiting all of King Edwards Castles (there is a Castle Pass). I would plan on driving so you can drive up to Castle gates and drive through Snowdonia National Park. I had been to Cornwall before so I was close to Southern Wales, so I can imagine it to be just as beautiful. There are Coastal Walking Paths, too! Wales seemed very mystical to me and I have vivid memories of our castle visits which are in very scenic locations.

Posted by
3749 posts

St. Fagan's outdoor museum(bus from Cardiff) definitely beat my expectations. It is a must-see.

Posted by
30293 posts

Lo, I know you check details. You'll know that train travel in Wales is not too fast, mostly very rural and restricted because of the mountains. There is one line along the coast, and the mid-Wales line, and a line along the bottom including the Valleys, and the line from Chester to Holyhead. There is also a line which skirts the border.

Going diagonally is difficult. Where did you have in mind?

Posted by
3866 posts

I've spent quite a bit of time this morning exploring my options for what to experience and how to do it. I can see myself messing around North Wales and visiting some, but not all, of the places Rick Steves has in his video about that area. All planning is iterative for me, so a lot could change in the next year.

I'm intrigued by the Heart of Wales Line from Shrewsbury to Swansea. I can see that it's currently "being improved" and that most of those improvements won't be totally completed until 2023. However, "There will also be much improved seating capacity with newly refurbished trains from 2022."

I didn't quite know where or how to ask questions about the route, so I filled in a form at their website. We'll see if that results in any answers to my questions or a referral to a better way to ask. At present there is no lodging information on the "Where to Stay" page, should I need or want to spend the night somewhere along the way.

From Swansea I'd go on to Cardiff.

So I'd be making kind of a Z across the country. Holyhead/Conwy/Snowdonia --> Shrewsbury (or maybe Knighton) --> Swansea --> Cardiff. I'm definitely not opposed to getting on a bus if needed. A big part of this trip would be the views from the bus or train. I'm not in any hurry and I can add time if I want.

Thanks for the advice, Nigel. Any help you can provide, logistical or otherwise, is greatly appreciated.

Posted by
5190 posts

I agree with Nigel that it doesn’t matter which way you go. In 2019 we went clockwise starting in Tintern then going west to Tenby, St. David’s, then up to Caernarfon and back east to Stratford Upon Avon with many stops in between. Another trip we went counterclockwise. Most of the places and experiences I enjoyed were nowhere near a train station. We had a rental car. Can’t help with July or August since we avoid overseas travel during those months.

Posted by
1130 posts

If you go before Ireland, you will be there before schools break up for teh summer. The first couple of weeks of the school summer holidays always seem to be the busiest...

Posted by
3866 posts

Thanks for all the help. Being pressed to get my travel insurance in time to be covered for pre-existing conditions, I decided to do Wales after the Best of Ireland tour ends in Belfast.

I'll take the ferry from Dublin to Holyhead and start in the North and work my way South to Cardiff. I'll fly home from London Heathrow.

I added about 2 weeks. I feel very fortunate that I can do that. And as recommended in another posting, I've been checking transport schedules and open times for the things I want to see and do. Of course, those details require some adjustments and will likely be different, hopefully better, next summer.

Posted by
2186 posts

So, assuming that you are going to do Wales without a car - I suggest > Holyhead to Bangor by train - (nothing much in Bangor). Then local bus to Caernarfon for 1 night. See King Ed’s Castle. Next day - one way trip on Welsh Highland Railway through Snowdonia National Park to Porthmadog - stay 2 nights. Next day visit Portmeirion (Italian style village) which is about 4 miles from Porthmadog.

On leaving Porthmadog to head south, I suggest that you could use the Cambrian Coast Railway - which is very scenic. (This is a normal railway unlike the Welsh Highland which is privately run). If the weather is good, Barmouth &/or Aberdovey is quite a nice place(s) to stop for a break - but check when the next train is due. If you like narrow gauge stream railways - check out the Tal-Y-Llyn which starts at Tywyn which is between Barmouth & Aberdovey. Of course, if you do all that, then you would probably need to spend a night say at Aberdovey. (Towyn is not particularly attractive).

Anyway, the railway heads east through the mountains from Aberdovey to Shrewsbury (well worth a look) in England. From here, you could take the slow Heart of Wales Line down to Swansea. Latest word is that this line is not going to get better trains so be prepared for a basic train with no air con on a journey of about 4 hours. Alternatively, take the fast ‘Marches Line’ which more or less follows the England - Wales border and has more frequent trains and they are air conditioned. (On this route, Ludlow is worth a look to see Ye Olde England’. Note that some of the Holyhead to Cardiff express trains won't stop at Ludlow but most of the ones from Manchester to south west Wales do).

When staying in Cardiff you have 4 very different castles within 7 miles of the centre = Cardiff, Castell Coch, Caerphilly and St. Fagans - which includes gardens and buildings of historical significance from all over Wales. St.Fagans alone would take up most of a day. Also consider taking a train east from Cardiff to Chepstow to see the Castle and then a local bus up the Wye Valley to see Tintern Abbey (ruin).

For travel check out &/or travelinecymru. (Cymru is Wales in Welsh - just to confuse the foreigners).
For trains -

It would be best to pre-book in advance a specific train from Cardiff to Paddington or maybe Reading for Heathrow by bus link. (I am not sure if this can be done all on 1 ticket). The cheapest advance fares get loaded in normal times about 11 weeks out. Pay on the day can be expensive.

Google the things I have mentioned. Even doing this, you are still missing out a lot of Wales.

Stena Line have just announced a new direct ferry from Belfast to Holyhead.

Also consider the Traws Cymru long distance bus services across Wales. For trains - check out the Transport for Wales website.
Please note that you can’t take photos from the ‘normal’ trains as they do not have windows that open and the glass is tinted.

Posted by
3866 posts

Thanks for the great itinerary info, James. I've been exploring the suggestions, bookmarking the links and realizing that I'll have some serious prioritizing to do. So much to see and never enough time.

One great thing about the links you provided, as well as others I could get to from them, is that there are many more details than I've seen elsewhere. Those are often in the text provided.

I checked out the sailing from Belfast to Holyhead, but as of now it only happens on Saturday and Sunday. That doesn't fit with the extra nights I want to spend in Belfast, but if that changes (the sailing days or my plan to stay 2-3 extra nights in Belfast) by next summer, that route is a definite contender.

Posted by
2186 posts

Pleased that you found the info I supplied helpful and that it led to you discovering further places to consider.

If you are travelling south from NW Wales and wish to keep to the western side; if using the Cambrian Line you would need to change at Machynlleth or Dovey Junction for Aberystwyth - which has plenty of small hotels as this is the main town on the central west coast of Wales. If going that way, consider taking a trip on:>

From here, you would definitely need to use buses to proceed to SW Wales as no rail line exists. Aberaeron has a harbour surrounded by colourful houses and would be the next place worth a look for an hour or 2 when heading south from Aberystwyth.
This is the County of Ceredigion.

Pembrokeshire is the south western most County of Wales and has a superb coastline - except Milford Haven which has oil related industry. Getting around to remote sections of coast is rather difficult without a car. If going into Pembrokeshire, I would suggest that you head for Tenby on the south coast. From Aberystwyth, it would probably be best to take a bus to Carmarthen & then a train to Tenby. (Tenby also has trains going back east to say Cardiff). Alternatively, if you do not wish to go west, take the train east from Carmarthen.