The Llangollen Santa Special

If you've never tasted a Welsh Oggie, imagine a better version of a Cornish Pasty, only filled with a variety of delicious fillings, this one lamb, mint and root vegetables. The perfect lunchtime snack. We're standing in the little square, next to the war memorial and munching on thick pastry. We kill a little time looking into the shops, then head down towards the bridge.

The river is in full swell. Brave canoeists bobbing about ahead of the weir. To the right, Llangollen station is decorated with red and white and gold. Smoke drifting up from waiting room coal fires. Coloured fairy lights beginning to twinkle as dusk approaches and the light begins to fade.

We'd wondered whether this trip would be allowed. Covid restrictions were heading rapidly towards Wales again. Last year had been cancelled. Then the Llangollen railway itself had been under threat of permanent closure and bankruptcy. As soon as tickets were available I'd booked, I wanted to support this magical, volunteer supported, special place. In addition, I was also aware that at nine years old this trip could be the last one for my son, as soon Santa would not hold the wonder that he did in bygone years when the Santa Special and a glimpse of red and ermine would make a small boy's eyes open as wide as his mouth.

We headed down the ramp to the main station ticket office, showed our booking details and then we were through, onto the platform joining other excited children and happy parents. Hot tea was bought to warm hands and bodies.

Llangollen Steam Railway

We walked along the platform to watch for the arrival of the engine. You hear it first. Deep, thudding, breathing. Steam and smoke, heat and lubricating oil. It rounds the bend and claims the track.

We find our carriage. Climb aboard and settle into the old tartan seats. Mahogany and warm lights. Green swags, with baubles and lights stretch along the parcel racks. More people join us, the carriage fills. The noise and chatter builds. The only difference from previous trips being a small bottle of hand sanitiser given to each table, instead of the mince pie and similar small bottle of Baileys on previous trips. But it's ok. We're here, we've made it, we're going to steam to Lapland.

Doors bang shut. The guard walks by checking all is ready. We don't see him wave the flag, or hear his whistle blow but we do feel the small jolt, then see the station slowly drag behind us as we begin to move.

Out of Llangollen. We pass quaint old houses, filled with Christmas lights and cheer. Everywhere we go, people wave to the train and we wave back. Moods lighten, adults begin to smile more.

A Jester passes through the carriage. Card tricks to delight families and keep children entertained. A wallet with flames coming out of it makes my son gasp. But this is just the warm up. Soon we hear a bell ringing and catch sight of elves. Various ages, heights and gender. A ragtag crew, but a happy one.

Then he's here. Santa. (The real Santa of course). He speaks to all of the children. He passes a gift to my son, who opens it with joy.

The train enters a tunnel. Parents stand to close the windows as warm moist air enters the carriage, causing a misty scene that steams up the glass.

Soon we arrive at Lapland (The real Lapland - of course) Time to get out, stretch our legs, have a photograph taken with Santa before buying hot chocolate to enjoy. Night has fallen and the lights twinkle softly. All is calm, all is quiet.

We rejoin the train, sinking back into our seats. The chatter is quieter now, indicating satisfaction and pleasure and life slowing down to a more natural pace. We watch as the engine passes us by to be re-coupled to the other end of the train for our return journey. Soon the doors slam shut, another small jolt, the sound of steam hissing and we are on the move again.

Back down to the town, past dark rivers, empty woodland, high hills and a deep night, punctuated by warm light spilling from cottage windows and the twinkle of Christmas illuminations.

As we arrive back where we started there is a feeling that yes, Christmas has really started. The festive season has begun. Time now to enjoy our family, friends and loved ones. Time for rest and renewal. Passing along the platform we give one last wave to Santa, as he wishes us a Merry Christmas.

"And a Merry Christmas to you too" we joyfully reply.

It's been a good day.