It is every boy's dream to be an engine driver, riding the rails in the cab of a mighty steam locomotive. That Hornby-fuelled footplate fantasy can come true, though it is less Orient Express and more Ivor The Engine at the charming little North Wales line run by The Welsh Highland Heritage Railway in Porthmadog.
Narrow Gauge Railway Line
This family-friendly attraction is a narrow gauge line with engines that chuff-chuff along a three quarter mile stretch of two feet wide track on the northern edge of this Snowdonia railway town.
The volunteer-run railway offers an evening steam engine driver experience, joining the driver and fireman in the cab of Gelert the tank engine for the last trip of the day (usually the 4pm train).
After letting off the passengers, the guest driver gets a short introduction to the engine controls and the rail regulations. Then, under supervision, they take the vintage loco up and down the line by itself before returning to collect the carriage to do it again.
The Mountains of Snowdonia
The setting is scenic, on a plain between the River Glaslyn, the landlocked former sea cliffs of Tremadog and the mountains of Snowdonia.
With the line from Porthmadog to Pen-Y-Mount less than a mile long, it means that the guest driver gets to try main line running and turning the train round in a short space of time. They can even help with the dirty jobs of ashing out afterwards and shovelling on the coal for the next day's work.
Side Tank Locomotive 3050, also known as Gelert, should not be underestimated despite its small size compared with a standard loco engine. This pugnacious 16-ton veteran of the South African mining industry, built by WG Bagnall Ltd of Stafford in 1953, snorts and grunts like a boxer and whistles up a storm.
Bacon Cooked on the Fireman's Shovel
The guest driver will learn how to ease open the regulator, gently apply the air brakes and vigorously turn the wheel for the mechanical brake, and while in motion to maintain the correct speed and watch out for the SW signs, the chance to pull the chain which releases Gelert's shrill wail.
The evening experience currently costs £65. There is also full day driving experience with Gelert available for £250, which begins with a breakfast of bacon cooked on the fireman's shovel. Both experiences are only available to over 18s.
Great Little Trains of Wales
The Welsh Highland Heritage Railway is one of the Great Little Trains of Wales and Attractions of Snowdonia. It is especially fun for families with small children as a ticket entitles you to ride all day. Also, the engine sheds have interesting displays and a miniature railway ride.
Porthmadog (its name officially changed from Portmadoc in 1974) is also home to the narrow gauge Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland railways at the harbour side of the town, and has a main line station linking up with the national rail network.