Running north from Abergavenny, the vale is hemmed in by hills: the wooded slopes of Ysgyryd Fawr to the east and the rounded dome of Sugar Loaf to the west. The railway drops gently down to cross Offa’s Dyke and a minute or two later the train bridges the River Monnow to enter England.
But this is not the last of Wales. “Pea and mint broth with Welsh ham,” says the steward as he balances steaming plates of soup on a tray. It is time for dinner on the early evening train from Cardiff to Holyhead, a service which crosses the Anglo-Welsh border eight times on its four-and-ahalf- hour journey.
There’s a 90-minute stretch between Abergavenny and Wrexham when the train is almost entirely in England. That’s an accident of geography resulting from the paucity of good north-south rail links in Wales. Passengers who wish to travel by train from the capital of the principality to north-west Wales must perforce detour via England on trains that stop along the way at three historic English county towns: Hereford, Shrewsbury and Chester.
So, as England slips by beyond the carriage window, Wales is served up on a plate in what is arguably the best freefood option anywhere on the railways of Europe. Holders of first-class tickets on the 17.16 from Cardiff to North Wales don’t pay a cent for dinner.
There is usually a choice of three starters, three main courses and three desserts on the menu. And it’s no surprise that every seat is occupied as the crew start serving dinner. The food has plenty of Welsh touches: a warm soda scone is served with the pea soup. Welsh lamb is a staple, served in season with Pembrokeshire new potatoes. Cardigan Bay crab and Gower mussels are often on offer. If you don’t fancy dessert, there is a cheese board featuring hand-made cheeses from Blaenafon.
The complimentary meal offer on this train is available to first-class ticket holders, although the operator of the service, Arriva Trains Wales, brands the premium seating business class rather than first class. Holders of standard-class tickets can upgrade to the more spacious business class and secure a free dinner subject to space still being available. The upgrade supplement is typically about £25 (€34).