Saturday, 7 June 2014

Snowdonia rip-off

I have been on Anglesey, alias Môn, the big island moored off the coast of North Wales. Four nights here: three full days. I've already inspected various places, mainly ones I last saw in 1976. They were just the same, in a nice way.

On the first evening (a gorgeously fine one) I watched peregrines feed their single chick on a vertical cliff ledge close to South Stack Lighthouse on Holyhead Island, while waiting for a glorious sunset. I had joined what I thought were keen sunset photographers, but got drawn into their real interest, and ended up chatting to the thirty-something wife of one man for almost an hour. Her husband let me look at the nest through his tripod-mounted telescope - it was extraordinary: just like being there, right in the nest. I hoped the chick wouldn't fall off the ledge: it clearly had only one thing on its mind, and the irresistible pull of gravity towards the cold sea below wasn't that thing.

The sunset was worth the wait. Photos will follow when I get home again. It's a bumper harvest of great pictures on this trip, and not just amazing sunsets.

Yesterday, the first full day here, was earmarked for the ascent of Snowdon. By the Mountain Railway. But I cancelled that plan. Why? Because the cost was outrageous, although you couldn't tell that from the enticing brochure, which was suspiciously silent about what the ticket prices actually were. It did however mention that:

# They charged for car parking at a 'commercial' rate (uh-oh) and had a 'partner' (Parking Eye Ltd) to enforce special charges for not buying the right parking ticket or for overstaying. I didn't like the sound of that.

# They offered 'a wonderful Victorian shopping experience stocking a range of Welsh souvenir products' (tat on tat, methinks).

# For 'only £4.50' one could buy 'a fabulous new souvenir guide including never before seen photography' - new for 2014. Huh.

I felt warned: one's purse might be emptied before even buying a ticket and stepping aboard!

The small print mentioned other things. Most trips up to the summit were handled by a diesel locomotive pushing a modern 74-seater (cattle class) coach. Only three trains a day featured the traditional hoped-for huff-puff steam engine and a 34-seater coach with lots of legroom. Clearly you'd need to book ahead online for that: no good turning up on spec. But the brochure urged you to book online in any case, and unless you went personally to Llanberis to enquire, it seemed their website was the only place where you could discover what a return ride would really cost. I looked at it late in the evening at Holyhead (getting online is iffy at the Cae Mawr Caravan Club site near Benllech - and this post is coming to you live from Bangor, the nearest really big town). The cramped diesel journey was (if my memory serves me well) £27.50 return, plus a £3.50 online booking fee.

So let's take stock. £31 for the ride up and back. Plus at least a few quid for parking. Say £35 then, if capable of ignoring the Victorian shopping experience. I can, but not everyone will resist, and so they might spend - who knows - £15 on a Love Spoon or tea towel or Ifor the Engine model, bumping their total up to £50. Then, at the summit, there is a newish Visitor Centre built in 2009, offering 'a range of snacks, drinks and souvenirs' - including a 'sealed certificate' to prove that you got to the top of Snowdon. Did I say £50 for the average tourist? Let's make it £60.

You are urged to rejoin the same train you came up on, and just thirty minutes are allowed to have a wee, take in the view, and purchase refreshments. It isn't long. Flout that thirty-minute rule, perhaps because it's a wonderfully clear day and the views are so orgasmically good that they deserve at least an hour, and they warn that you may get 'stranded' at the summit. There is no guarantee of a seat on later, already fully-booked, return trains. I don't suppose they really mind what you do - if 'stranded' you will have to spend money on further food and drink while waiting for a train able to take you, and of course you may incur additional car parking charges if very long delayed. In any case, the last train of the afternoon must have space for you: they can't possibly let you doss down overnight or lock you out, to perish from exposure. Surely not.

Obviously I've quite argued myself out of going anywhere near the Snowdon Mountain Railway! Even a bare-bones knee-knocking herd experience in a packed diesel-hauled coach seems outrageously expensive at £35. I refuse to pay. To cap it all, one can't be guaranteed clear sunny weather, nor even getting to the very top if conditions become too severe. One may have to be satisfied with Clogwyn station, three-quarters of the way up (which they point out 'has no facilities of any kind' - awkward if needing the loo). Yesterday was supposed to be fine and warm, a good bet for a memorable mountain ascent surely, but it actually turned out to be cool, windy and rather cloudy. I would have been highly miffed if I had booked online in advance, and then on the day I'd found it difficult or impossible to see the fantastic views because of cloud. Today has been thunderstormy, and (so far) pretty wet.

The way I've told it, the Snowdon Mountain Railway sounds like a classic overpriced tourist product with no guarantee of satisfaction. But it's probably unfair to compare the SMR's extortionate fare with the very reasonable £4.90 I paid for a day's unlimited travel on the Merseyside trains and buses, with even the famous Ferry thrown in. The SMR's passenger-to-journey ratio is much less favourable, so inevitably they have to charge more per head. Besides, they are simply on par with the other local 'attractions'. The Caernarfon to Porthmadog Welsh Highland Railway want £35 for a return ticket. And the Ffestiniog Railway (much, much shorter than the Highland) want £21. These are of course just the fares... To compound the hurt done to my purse, I don't qualify for their old-age concession fares: they insist that you are at least 65. What an annoying little rule - it's usually 60 elsewhere.

Were I rolling in spare cash, I suppose I would pay up and think no more about what these delights cost. But after car fuel, site fees, routine food shopping, one exquisite little bit of pottery, and a couple of meals out, there is not much left in the Melford kitty. So, as much as I like trains, and stunning mountain scenery you can see only from them, these 'unmissable' tourist attractions must be crossed off my list of things to consider.

Thank goodness for Anglesey's wild and photogenic cliffs. And mysterious standing stones. And secret sandy bays. And I've discovered that there's a Waitrose at Menai Bridge! Bliss.


  1. And they say holidaying in the UK is just as cheap as going abroad! I think not. Typical of rip-off Britain. The problem is there is little or no competition so they can charge what they like, if you're daft enough to pay it! As my dad used to say, 'They must think we are made of money'. Good for you for sticking to your guns but it must be frustrating and disappointing sometimes. I hope you took the ride on the ferry (one of them at least as there are two destinations on the Wirral side of the river)
    Shirley Anne x

  2. Yes, they must think we are rich, or fools.

    I did sail across the Mersey on the Ferry. It was magic. And what a city. Boris Johnson is mistaken if he thinks Liverpool is full of people with bad attitudes. I found nothing but a warm welcome, just as I did on my last visit in 1984.


  3. To my mind, the best way to see Snowdon is to walk. A gentle ascent on The Pyg Track will take about 2¼ hours and when you get there you can take photos of the steam train and smile at the folk with more sense than money.

    But don't get too pleased with yourself. The rip-off merchants will still charge you £10 to park at the bottom of the track.


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