I can smell Gerald long before I can see him. It’s a misty summer morning and there’s an aroma of frying bacon wafting from the onboard kitchen of the train that’s standing, almost bashfully, on the furthermost platform of Holyhead station, Anglesey. This must mean one of two things: I’m either watching a private luxury train preparing to take pensioners on a day trip, or I’ve travelled back in time and will shortly be enveloped in loco steam and handed a copy of the Picture Post and pouch of pipe tobacco by the man opening up the station kiosk.
“You’ll be wanting the full Welsh then, love?”
The question brings me to the reality of what is one of the most arcane train services in the UK. Named Gerald of Wales (Y Gerallt Gymro in Welsh) after a medieval archdeacon who travelled all round the country, the Arriva Trains Wales service has also been dubbed the “political train” by those who have raised an eyebrow at the £1.7m subsidy it receives.
Running from Holyhead, on to Bangor and then down to Cardiff every weekday morning, and back again in the evening, it is one of only two trains in the UK that still has an onboard chef cooking full breakfasts and three-course dinners. (The other train is the evening First Great Western service from Paddington to Penzance.)
Funded – somewhat controversially – by the Welsh government, the service links rural north Wales with the urban hubs of the south – and is also used by some Welsh assembly members to travel between their constituencies and the capital. The journey time, from end to end, is half an hour quicker than Arriva’s “local” train on the same route. The service has been in operation since 2008 and enables the oft-surprised first-time passenger to take a top-to-toe trip through Wales without leaving their seat.
The evening departure from Cardiff tempted me with a menu including Welsh braised black beef and ale pie and a patriotic drinks list that features Penderyn whisky, Brecon Welsh dry gin and even Gwynt Y ddraig cider. But, as an unabashed artery-abusing lover of cooked breakfasts, I elected to start from the Anglesey end, and stayed the night in the charming whitewashed Trearddur Bay hotel, a 10-minute taxi ride from the station, before rising to take the 5.33am from Holyhead.
It would be difficult to think of a cosier place to be on a misty morning than in these immense grey seats, sipping freshly brewed coffee as the train passes slate-roofed villages and crumbling dry stone walls before trundling alongside the vanilla sands of the seaside towns of Colwyn Bay, Llandudno and Rhyl. I spot a Lilliputian red-painted cottage on the seafront at Conwy – officially Britain’s smallest house and last occupied a century ago by, almost inevitably, a six-foot-three fisherman.
The train staff tell me they try to give everyone who comes aboard a full breakfast or dinner service, even if they’re only taking the train for a couple of stops. I’m going to the end of the line, so am able to take my time over a robust fry-up complete with black pudding, toast and limitless tea.
The train travels the spine of Wales, dipping coquettishly over the English border and back as we pass the dark green expanse of Chester Racecourse, the towering floodlights of the Racecourse Ground in Wrexham (the oldest international stadium in the world) and, as we enter the Welsh Marches around Shrewsbury, buttercup-smothered sidings, undulating hills and fallow fields in hues of sable, ochre and bronze. The frenetic kitchen activity at the end of my carriage slowly abates on the final hour of the journey, the first-class dining car only half full with dozing businessmen sleeping off the fry-up.
We skirt the eastern fringes of the Brecon Beacons national park and sprint through the valley floors and jutting peaks of Monmouthshire before the light industry and concertina’d ribbons of Victorian terraced streets signify that Cardiff is upon us. It’s not even 10am and I’ve crossed an entire nation by train. The sense of achievement is hardly Trans Siberian in its scope; the sensation is more of delight that such a convivial sanctuary against the blandishments of modern UK rail travel still exists and has a contract to continue that currently runs until the end of next year.
“Are you not coming back this evening for dinner?” one of the train staff asks me as I alight. “You really should – chef’s grilling salmon tonight.”
I didn’t think it possible but somehow I have a feeling that pre-packed onboard sandwiches are going to taste even worse from now on.
• More information at arrivatrainswales.co.uk. Fares from £10-£80 depending on the route. All meals free with a first-class ticket; standard-ticket holders can upgrade to the first-class ticket (which would be £35 for the whole journey ) and use the dining carriage. Accommodation was provided by Visit Wales at Treaddur Bay Hotel, Anglesey (doubles from £95 B&B) and the Park Plaza Cardiff (doubles from £112 B&B)