"You mustn't miss the fabulous views from Barmouth Bridge... It carries the train right across the mouth of an estuary!"
After spending 64 days locked inside the Big Brother house in 2001, I jumped at the chance to get out into the countryside. My task on this occasion was to take the train through Wales to the fantastic little village of Portmeirion, sampling some of the other sights along the way.
The train to Portmeirion from Shrewsbury takes the scenic Cambrian railway. It was obvious when we got into Wales at Welshpool - because suddenly there were mountains around us! The Welshpool and Llanfair Railway is the first of several Great Little Trains of Wales which you can reach from the Cambrian line.
The train heads on west, skirting the seashore but before reaching the sea it stops at Machynlleth, where it's worth spending a bit of time. In the main street is the building where Owain Glyndwr, the Welsh Braveheart, set up his Welsh Parliament about 600 years ago. Now the town has Celtica, where the history of all Celtic people is brought alive in a multimedia experience. Just a short bus ride away is the award-winning Centre for Alternative Technology, with hands on renewable energy displays set in lovely countryside.
The train then follows the shoreline to Aberdyfi - a smart little harbour town where you can enjoy all sorts of water sports - then pulls away from Aberdyfi past a golf course by the sand dunes, one of several golf courses you can easily reach from the train.
At Tywyn there's another little steam railway - the Talyllyn Railway - to ride. The author of the Thomas the Tank Engine books was one of the first train buffs who volunteered to keep the steam trains running. As the train leaves Tywyn we get our first great view of the Snowdonia mountain range, with the popular Cader Idris peak fairly close by.
Alight at Fairbourne and, in summer, you can make the next stage of the journey in an unusual way because the tiny steam trains of the Fairbourne Railway and a little ferryboat will take you to Barmouth. But if you do that in one direction, make sure you take the Cambrian Coaster in the other direction. You mustn't miss the fabulous views from Barmouth Bridge, a mile-long wooden viaduct. It carries the train right across the mouth of an estuary!
The hill above Barmouth was the National Trust's very first property and it gives fantastic views out to sea, especially at sunset. You can also get great views from Harlech Castle, a few miles up the line. Standing on a big rock, it's one of the most dramatic castles in Britain. The train runs just below the rock, giving a good view if you don't want to stop to go into the castle.
You can change at Minffordd for the popular Ffestiniog Railway, a steam ride up into the mountains and slate quarries at Blaenau Ffestiniog. After Minffordd you should get a great view from the Cambrian Coaster train of the highest mountains in Wales, including Snowdon.
Porthmadog is a busy little town where they used to load slates onto ships for export across the world. Nowadays the harbour is a sheltered mooring place for yachts. On then to Criccieth with its castle standing on a hill right beside the sea, very exposed to the wind! It's ruined now, but there's plenty of it left to give you a good idea how hard it would have been for an enemy to invade it, by sea or by land.
The train reaches the end of the line at Pwllheli, a good base for exploring the sandy beaches and pretty villages of Lleyn Peninsula. The busy marina at Pwllheli has some best sailing conditions in Britain.
I've saved one of the best bits till last. From Pwllheli you need to retrace your steps on the Cambrian Coaster to Minffordd, the nearest station for Portmeirion. When you enter the village you can't help being stunned by the beauty of the place. It's full of little houses and arches painted in bright yellows, reds and blues, and they look like they're growing out of the rocks on all sides. It's like a posh version of Disneyland, designed by Architect, Sir Clough Williams Ellis to complement the natural landscape. He gave it an Italian theme, complete with palms and a bell tower. I could have spent a lot more time browsing - but, time to eat. The hotel at Portmeirion does a set three-course meal for £11, which I thought was terrific value for such good food and all served up on the famous Portmeirion pottery - what else?
I only wish I had more time to spend on the Cambrian Coaster to visit the university town of Aberystwyth to enjoy the Vale of Rheidol and Cliff Railways and other spectacular sites at the popular seaside resort. The fares are really good value, rail travellers can get discounts on a number of the attractions in the area and trains run every two hours direct from Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Telford and Shrewsbury.