2. All Aboard
3. A History of the Line
4. How the Line is Worked
5. Armchair Guide to the Line


Ammanford is a fortunate little town in many ways: fortunate in its location in the shadow of the unspoiled moorlands of the lonely Black Mountain just a short drive – or walk – away; and fortunate in its proximity to nearby historic castles and beauty spots. But there's another reason to celebrate Ammanford, too, and that's because it still has a railway line serving the town, something not many rural areas can claim any more in our car-obsessed society. And not just any railway either, but the wonderful Heart of Wales line, snaking 120 miles from Swansea to Shrewsbury through some of the prettiest countryside you'll ever find in Britain. The following guide was written in 1996 for a tourist brochure and outlines both the history of the line and the major sights and scenery you can see just a window's thickness away from your seat.

2. All Aboard
3. A History of the Line
4. How the Line is Worked
5. Armchair Guide to the Line


For many people, a journey by train is simply a means of getting from A to B. Something to be endured rather than enjoyed, a chaotic commuter crush or elbowing one's way onto an Intercity.

There is an alternative. It is called the Heart of Wales Line which will get you from A to B, of course, as any sensible railway should, but it also offers you the chance to take a cruise by train with ports of call where a few hours or days can be spent. It is peaceful arid unhurried. Above all it runs through some of the most spectacular and beautiful scenery in Britain.

As the name suggests, the railway cuts through the Heart of Wales, commencing in the south at Swansea, and covers some one hundred and twenty miles to the northern terminus of Shrewsbury. Whatever your idea of Wales - beaches, mountains, rivers, streams, sheep, castles, coal-mining, weaving, music - you are likely to find it by using this line. It is full of contrasts.

At Swansea there is access to the beautiful Gower Peninsula and as the train heads north through South Wales there are echoes of the great industrial heritage of the valleys with glimpses of mining areas and towns whose general architecture and aspect reflect their past.

In Mid-Wales the train runs through peaceful undulating meadows, passing the attractive market towns of Llandeilo, perched above the station, and Llandovery. It then climbs into the mountains to an altitude of 820 ft above sea level affording breathtaking views. Throughout its journey the train crosses viaducts and plunges into tunnels. There are hills and valleys; rivers and streams. The spa towns of Mid-Wales invite further contrast. Llandrindod Wells is the largest and, with its grand red brick Victorian buildings, is set somewhat incongruously against the rolling hills and farmsteads which surround it.

There are sheep almost everywhere, on and off the line and in the case of the former, if a few sharp blasts on the hooter don't do the trick, the guard and driver have to get down and persuade them to move. Not always an easy job.

The wild border country around Knighton and Offa's Dyke, where Wales meets England, gives way to lush meadows and the Shropshire hills. The railway's northern terminus is the ancient town of Shrewsbury, which, with its wealth of black and white timbered buildings and narrow passageways, is a world apart from the modern city of Swansea at the other end of the line.

This guide has been compiled to enable visitors to take full advantage of this beautiful and scenic route. There are plenty of places to explore along the line, as well as off it. Many places can be reached by service or post buses, of which some of the routes have been selected for mention. Using the information supplied in this guide, you can spend days or weeks in peaceful pottering without the stress of sitting behind the wheel. Leave it to the train driver and relax. He knows the way and the day has yet to dawn when a sheep on the track causes a tailback.

2. All Aboard
3. A History of the Line
4. How the Line is Worked
5. Armchair Guide to the Line


Construction of the Heart of Wales line was a piecemeal affair. Like many of its kind, it was built by several separate railway companies. Five in fact.

The first section began in the south, not in Swansea but in Llanelli (or 'Llanelly' as it was then spelt) when the Llanelly Railway Company opened a line northwards as far as Pontarddulais in June 1839 and eventually extended it to Llandeilo in 1857. The interest was in transporting anthracite from the Amman Valley. However, quite a few passengers did travel by 1841, in open carriages attached to the rear of the freight trains and with no proper stations, shelters or timetables. A local newspaper of the period reported that some two and a half thousand hardy souls availed themselves of this facility during four weeks in the spring of that year.

Things had improved a little by 1853, provided you didn't travel third class in which category, another issue of the same journal suggested, some improvement was required due to the fact that the windows were made of wood and not of glass, giving the passenger an idea that 'he is in some black hole instead of a railway carriage.'

Horse made repeated appearances to draw the wagons as steam engines broke down with predictable regularity. One, named 'Victoria' exploded outside Pantyffynnon in 1858. Later, when the company tried to sell her partner 'Albert', there were, not surprisingly, no takers.

After Llandeilo came the next section as far as Llandovery which was opened in 1858,

Leaving the south for a while, let us look at the Shrewsbury end. Here, the Shrewsbury and Hereford Railway had completed its line as far as Craven Arms by 1851 and had gone on its way towards Hereford.

At this point, those in mid-Wales who were inspired by railway mania, noted the arrival of the Llanelly and Vale of Towy's lines at Llandovery with interest. They decided that it would make commercial sense for transporting goods to construct a line between Craven Arms and Llandovery to give unbroken access to the coast. There was some jostling between rival concerns for the first leg with the Knighton Railway emerging triumphant but although the company was founded in 1858, it did not succeed in finishing its line from Craven Arms to Knighton until 1861.

The gap between north and south continued to close. The next company on the scene was the Central Wales Railway which had the formidable task of building the line from Knighton to Llandrindod. This involved a summit of 980 ft above sea level, construction of the Knucklas Viaduct and a 645 yard tunnel. They finally reached Llandrindod in 1865.

There now remained only the stretch between Llandrindod and Llandovery, the responsibility for which lay with the Central Wales Extension Railway. All the times for completion were under-estimated by the various companies concerned but the CWER seems to have suffered from an extra severe bout of over-optimism. This was a particularly difficult part of the route, involving the Sugar Loaf tunnel, 1 in 70 and 1 in 80 gradients, a summit at 820 ft and a 283 yard long viaduct, and yet they anticipated completing it within two years. In fact, it took eight.

In 1868 this last link in the chain was completed and the Central Wales Line (later to become known as the Heart of Wales Line) was finished.

Celebrations had taken place at almost every stage of the construction. The cutting of the first sod or the completion of a stretch of line rarely passed without banquets, bands and bonfires. Local newspapers were capable of devoting a whole page to these occasions, quoting every word of every speech and praising the elegant way in which a local dignitary tipped the wheelbarrow. Poems were devoted to the expertise of the contractors. Banners extolled the wonders of the railway and no respectable town could make do with less than three bands in the celebration procession.

By 1889, the London North Western Railway and the Great Western Railway had, between them, finished gobbling up the small companies which had initiated the construction of the line.

In 1948, nationalisation meant that the whole route was controlled by British Rail.

In the 1960s the Heart of Wales line was threatened with closure and it was only saved on the grounds of social necessity.

Today, the fate of this beautiful line still hangs in the balance.

2. All Aboard
3. A History of the Line
4. How the Line is Worked
5. Armchair Guide to the Line


The major part of the Heart of Wales Line is now single track, the exceptions being between Craven Arms and Shrewsbury and a few short sections in the south between Llanelli and Swansea. Trains can pass at Llandeilo, Llandovery, Llanwrtyd, Llandrindod and Knighton and when you see the driver get out at these points, he is not telephoning his wife, but the signal box at Pantyffynnon from where the supervising signalman authorises him to remove a token from the little hut on the platform, thus enabling the train to proceed safely through the next section.

In times past, it was much more interesting, with signal boxes and 'proper' old fashioned semaphore signals all along the line and train crews collecting a wooden or metal staff or a ticket from the signalman (often while the train was in motion) before being allowed into the next section.

With the cut-backs in 1964, alas, all that changed. Most of the signal boxes were taken out of use, some sold, some demolished and one at Llandrindod retained as a museum. Nowadays, the good old semaphore signals can be seen at Pantyffynnon (where the GWR box built in 1892 is still working) and Craven Arms.

2. All Aboard
3. A History of the Line
4. How the Line is Worked
5. Armchair Guide to the Line


Swansea to Ammanford

Leaving Swansea, passing the Landore Locomotive Depot on the right, the train soon begins to climb and to enter the 789 yard Cockett tunnel. Nearly a hundred years ago, on the 19th June 1899, its roof caved in because of mining operations underneath. After the little halt at Gowerton which, though once important, now belongs to the 'don't blink or you'll miss it' category, the train crosses the viaduct over the broad estuary of the River Loughor, giving the opportunity of a left backward glance at Penclawdd, the village famous for its cockles which nestles on the north coast of the Gower Peninsula. The next town to come into view is Llanelli, industrial in aspect with strong links with the tinplate industry. It was at Llanelli docks that the Llanelly Railway Company began to build the southern section of the line which, over a hundred years ago, when joined with four other railways, became the Heart of Wales Line.

Don't jump out as you leave Llanelli; you are still on the right train. It is simply reversing to get back to the junction and to leave the main line. A large tinplate works appears on the right and soon there is marshland. Between Llanelli and Llandeilo there are seven halts. They were all once stations, complete with sidings, station master and signal boxes. The tiny halts of Bynea and Llangennech are followed by more splendid views across the estuary, another tunnel, then over the Loughor again into Pontarddulais. Try to picture a busy station which opened in 1839 and subsequently had four platforms. Alas by 1965, it had declined and, as if to add insult to injury, when a visitor asked one of the locals the way to the station in the 1980s, he was told that it had closed 'years ago'. How the mighty have fallen!

The River Amman soon appears to join the Loughor and on the right is the 1892 Pantyffynnon signal box which still controls the single track all the way up to Craven Arms nearly eighty miles north. As the train approaches the station, you will see another line running off to the right; a remnant of the last of the heady days of coal traffic. It runs to an anthracite coal washery at Gwaun-cae-Gurwen (mercifully known as GCG) and is now only 6.5 miles long; a mere ghost of the busy Brynamman branch of which it was once a part. This area had a lot of coal branches.

Ammanford to Llandovery

After Ammanford, the anthracite belt is replaced by pastureland. Llandybie halt was adopted by the local primary school in 1989. Once past Llandybie, look left approaching Cilyrychen crossing over the A483, and you will see the gloomy Cilyrychen Lime Kilns. The site is now owned by the Alfred McAlpine Company who keep a diesel storage tank on top of one of them. The Lime Quarries were once served by the line and a story is told of a tramp who, seeking a warm place for the night, slept on top of one of the kilns and was found dead the next morning, killed by the fumes. The train climbs and then descends to Ffairfach, which once had a creamery with milk sidings, and proceeds to Llandeilo.

You have to crane your neck to look at Llandeilo perched high above the station. In the good old days there was a refreshment room and bar at the station and staff brought a tea urn onto the train and supplied footmuffs!

Next comes a straight section of track through Talley Road and Glanrhyd (these stations are now closed) and over Glanrhyd Bridge. This was the scene of a tragic accident in October 1987 when the bridge collapsed in flood-water killing three passengers and the driver of the train crossing it. The present bridge was built in 1988.

An old milk siding at Llangadog is an echo of former days when there was a large creamery here. Next the train crosses the River Tywi viaduct and on to Llanwrda. Try to imagine 10,000 tons of goods being handled here, for this is what the records of 1923 show. Over Llwynjack bridge lies the busy little market town of Llandovery.

Llandovery to Sugar Loaf

From this point begins the journey into the mountains. Make sure you are sitting on the right-hand side and get your camera ready. First the route curves through woodlands and then climbs to the little halt of Cynghordy. The not very attractive looking shelter is, amazing though it may seem, a vintage object of 1892. It does appear to have been rather unimaginatively patched up and someone seems to have had a lot of blue paint to spare! There is a nice tale from Cynghordy concerning a goat due to be dispatched to Scotland to mate. Unfortunately, the station-master couldn't sort out the paper work to deal with the consignment, so he tethered the animal underneath the signal box. She was duly collected by her owner, a couple of weeks later, who must have wondered why the trip had been so unfruitful. Watch out for Cynghordy viaduct which you will be crossing next, high over the River Bran. Ahead is Sugar Loaf Mountain, below is the Bran Valley and behind is a spectacular view over the western side of the Brecon Beacons and Black Mountain.

A thousand yards of darkness follows as the train plunges into the Sugar Loaf tunnel. The climb to the Sugar Loaf summit is 1 in 60 and in the days of steam engines pulling heavy freight, was quite a challenge. Banking engines were housed at Llandovery to give the much-needed push from the rear. Look out for Sugar Loaf halt as you emerge from the tunnel. It was originally built for the railway workers who lived in cottages alongside the line. There is - and was - no village and the 'railway children' boarded the train to go to school at Llanwrtyd and the wives travelled to the Friday market at Llandovery.

Sugar Loaf to Llandrindod Wells

From Sugar Loaf, there is a descent to Llanwrtyd Wells, which is the smallest town in Britain, and was a fashionable spa in Victorian times. Llangammarch, another spa town, situated on the River Irfon is the next station. In 1912, the Kaiser and his family stayed here incognito, having registered as Prince and Princess Munster from Germany.

There follows Garth and then Cilmeri. On the left at Cilmeri, stands a monument marking the spot where, it is claimed, 'Prince Llewelyn the Last' was killed by English troops in 1282. More tunnels and bridges and Builth Road is reached. Below on the right, just before the station, can be glimpsed the Cambrian Arms which was once the station refreshment room for both the Heart of Wales Line and the Mid Wales Railway which crossed beneath it and was closed in 1962. There was quite a substantial railway community here and one of the terraces of railway workers cottages can be seen on the left as the trains pull out.

Leaving the Wye Valley, the route follows that of the River Irthon with fine views, to the left, of the pass through which the Wye flows from its source high up in Plynlimmon.

Passing a substantial residential caravan site situated near the village of Howey on the right, the train continues alongside the A483 to Llandrindod Wells which was once a popular spa. In the late 19th century 80,000 visitors a year came to take the waters. The Pump Room is still intact, as are the waters but European regulations are currently preventing their consumption. Look out at the large Victorian buildings on the right as the line crosses the top of the wooded Rock Park and the Pump Room is down a steep incline on the left but well hidden by trees.

On the right-hand platform of Llandrindod station there is a commemorative slab marking the spot where the Queen first stepped onto Welsh soil in 1952. A plaque on the wall marks the station's 'Re-Victorianisation' which took place during the annual Llandrindod Victorian Festival in 1990. This included affixing a red Victorian Post Box to the station wall, which is clearly visible on the left. It was brought from Machynlleth, a town about fifty miles away. What inducements were offered to persuade them to part with it are not clear.

As the train leaves, ignore the first small and not very inspiring industrial estate (are they ever?) on your left and see if you can spot the Middleton Inn situated on the A483 on the other side. There is a 'pinch of salt' tale told about how this became an inn. During construction of the line, Irish navvies working at the northern end of the town thought it too far to walk to the Llanerch Inn and decided to convert the Middleton, then a private house, into a public one. As the place wasn't very large, two downstairs rooms had to be knocked into one. The gang cut off ten feet of rail and used it as a lintel. The bosses couldn't understand what had happened to the length of rail and, plastered up, it was safely hidden. The truth was never discovered and the navvies had their watering hole.

Llandrindod Wells to Knighton

A short while after leaving Llandrindod, there is a glimpse of the Radnor Forest high on the right. Be ready to look out on the left as the train goes through the next halt of Pen-y-bont. On the platform there are four large concrete flower containers each bearing a word. 'Safety', 'Speed', 'Comfort', 'Efficiency'. Between them is a slab bearing the well known verse:

'The kiss of the sun for a pardon
The song of the birds for mirth
One is nearer God's heart in a garden
Than anywhere else on earth'

The gardens at this station were once very fine. Alas, no longer, but one doubts if the good folk of Pen-y-bont are any farther from heaven for all that.

After the Pen-y-bont tunnel, the route follows a wild common but prepare to admire all the charms of Dolau Halt on the right. It wins so many prizes that most people have lost count. A local action group looks after it. Within sight of the River Aran for a while, the train climbs up to 'Llanbister Road'. There is no village here, just a remote halt 848 ft above sea level.

There is a descent into Llangunllo before climbing to the summit of the line (980 ft), through the tunnel and down again. Look right at the strange conical hill and little Heyope church below. Knucklas, next, was once quite important. It was a Radnor Borough which entitled it to a Member of Parliament. Curving left, comes the Knucklas Viaduct with its ornate turreting at each end. In 1925, a fox, pursued by hounds, made for the viaduct and, on encountering a gang of workmen coming in the opposite direction, jumped the 69 ft to its death. The word 'fox' was scored into a lintel at the point where it jumped.

The line now follows the River Teme and with Offa's Dyke on the left, arrives at Knighton. The station is actually situated in England but as you will see from the signs, the town it serves is in Wales. 'Trefyclawdd' is Welsh for 'the town on the dyke'.

Knighton to Shrewsbury

With the River Teme on the right, you leave Wales behind and go on to Bucknell and Hopton Heath. Lush meadows and the River Clun accompany you to Broome. Look to the right as the train approaches the next station of Craven Arms and you will see the 13th century Stokesay castle, a superb example of a fortified manor house. In its heyday, Craven Arms station was a busy agricultural centre.

It is double track from now on and if you look behind to the right, you will see the main Manchester to Cardiff line, which the train is about to join. More hills come into view. The Long Mynd sits high (nearly 1700 ft) above Church Stretton on the left and on the right, as the train pulls out, towers Caer Caradoc. The landscape flattens out but far away on the right can be seen The Wrekin, a distinctively shaped hill 1,335 ft in height and a well known landmark in Shropshire.

As the train enters Shrewsbury, look out for the Abbey on the right and for the old London North Western Railway signal box sitting solidly in a triangle of track just outside the station. It is the Severn Bridge Junction Box, still in use and is a listed building. Look left and upwards as the train pulls in and you will see the castle walls of the ancient town of Shrewsbury waiting to welcome you.

[Note: This guide is taken from a pamphlet written in 1996 by Audrey Doughty, who is a seasoned traveller on the Heart of Wales Line. She has also worked in tourism in mid Wales. Please note that the opinions expressed in the text are those of the author and any recommendations made are not meant to imply that other establishments or organisations are less worthy. It was written n 1996 and some of the details may have changed since that date.]

Latest details of the Heart of Wales line, including up-to-date timetable, can be found on the Heart of Wales website on: www.heart-of-wales.co.uk. The website contains the following sections, including an animated guided tour:

How to Get Here . The Heart of Wales Line . Train Timetables . Accommodation Search . Attractions . Guided Tour . Gallery . News . Special Events . Your Trips . Hear & Speak Welsh . Great Walks . Links . Contact

Note: The train has no refreshment service so if you're making the full four hour journey from Swansea to Shrewsbury (or Shrewsbury to Swansea) remember to bring your own refreshments.

2. All Aboard
3. A History of the Line
4. How the Line is Worked
5. Armchair Guide to the Line

Date this page last updated: October 1, 2010