Nothing is as it seems when catching a train to Cardiff.
I'm standing at Holyhead train station in northern Wales, having a Monty Python-esque conversation with the train guard. He is telling me the train, for which my partner and I booked first-class tickets, has stopped running for the season - and he can't give us a refund because we bought our tickets online.
We are supposed to be catching "the Gerald", the only train in the country with a hot meal service. But the Gerald will go down in history as Wales' biggest myth because - much like the Hogwarts Express - it is clearly not visible to mere "muggles" like us.
The train guard suggests I call the transport company's customer service line - and I do, only to be assured the Gerald is, in fact, running. It's the train guard's word against the hotline guy's - and they work for the same company. What the?
We have planned our UK trip around taking this quaint train which snakes through Snowdonia National Park. Michael Portillo has Great British Railway Journeys - we have just experienced Great British Railway Furphies.
We have come through Yorkshire and Cumbria in England and been besotted by its oldness. We have toured a Viking museum in York, found old family history in an Anglo Saxon church in Addingham, and walked the gardens of Beatrix Potter's house in the Lakes District where she imagined Peter Rabbit.
Now, we are in the port transit town of Holyhead - which is not really the kind of place you would normally book for an overnight stay. We find a pub but, inexplicably, the woman who owns it won't let us in. This could be our last chance of a hot meal for the night and we are getting desperate. Can she smell it on us? Are we missing something cultural? The place looks open - and empty - to us.
We press on, and discover an old sandstone inn that sells the most meat on one plate I have ever seen. There are about six different types and each one looks a bit like ham. For my meat-eater partner, this may even be too much protein, but we eat with gusto after two massive, frothy beers - no-one pours pints like the British!
Slouching down in worn leather armchairs, we decide to use our Gerald tickets to travel on the first-class carriage of a suburban train to Cardiff in the morning. We sleep under nautical-themed bedspreads in twin singles at The Hut Sea Front Inn that night. The next morning, puffer jackets are required - even though it's summer - and we find a young Welsh cafe owner who is proud of his coffee art.
With a spring in our step, we alight the Holyhead train platform to embark on our much-anticipated journey to Cardiff.
We know the Gerald isn't coming, but when a two-carriage, rickety suburban train chugs into the platform we are a bit surprised. There have been rolling train strikes (unrelated to Gerald's no-show) and it's a half-day journey to the Welsh capital, so we're not confident about this train's capacity to hold everyone who needs to get on at the multiple stops along the way.
Our concerns are founded. The locomotive quickly becomes populated almost entirely by 20-somethings and most people have to stand in the aisles. There is a buzz in the air and after a bit of eavesdropping it becomes apparent they are all on their way to see English pop-rockers, Coldplay!
Did you know you can drink alcohol on British trains? These passengers sure do, and over the next five hours, we snake through Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (another name for a national park), along rocky beaches and past quaint farmhouses as the passengers sing Coldplay songs. Spirits raised, we even sing along.
Our train stops at the station with the longest name in Wales, Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch (I kid you not), along with Wrexham, the town with the Welsh soccer club Hollywood actor Ryan Reynolds purchased - all the while feeling like we are in a travelling beer garden.
By the time I get around to using the train toilet it has begun to resemble a urinal at a seedy nightclub, and I have to squat over it while keeping my jeans from touching the floor and trying to lean my body against the wall to brace myself as the old train rollicks along.
Cardiff is abuzz. Coldplay echoes from every bar and after some difficulty finding a seat, suddenly we are in a ghost town as 90,000 people stand up almost in unison and walk to the Principality Stadium to watch the band. In the lull of their wake - and already drunk on the atmosphere of other people's fun - we sip cocktails in a 1940s-inspired whisky den and later, we stand on the quiet street outside the stadium, listening to the band play Yellow while we (and a handful of others who missed out on tickets) sing along.
My English sister-in-law calls the British train service "a national shame" and though I wouldn't go that far, I would recommend hiring a car - which we do to drive to Cornwall. It's absolute bliss down here - think clotted cream with jam on scones, red and juicy strawberries, cottage gardens in full bloom and the smell of fried fish.
The seagulls are massive - and a tad scary - so everyone eats their pasties (a Cornish delicacy of meat and vegetables encased in pastry) up against the brick walls of the shops to stop the ravenous birds swooping in. Once, we hear a woman scream, only to see a giant bird has descended from the sky and eaten the entire scoop of ice-cream from her cone.
The highlight is lunch at Mr Cornwall himself, Rick Stein's famous restaurant at Padstow, where we unexpectedly meet his son, Jack Stein (also a chef), who signs a cookbook for us. The English really are some of the friendliest people.
We do finally get the great train experience we are hoping for - on the very last leg of our journey. We book first-class tickets, but we are so suspicious of the service by now, that we pre-purchase lunch and snacks from the local Tesco before boarding - only to find a full lunch cart with sandwiches, little bottles of wine, Bakewell tarts, chips and doughnuts, all included!
We sit back in our clean, adjustable chairs, and happily eat our supermarket snacks instead, while the English countryside passes us by.
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Getting there: We flew Melbourne to Manchester on Emirates/Qantas, $4207 return for two people, booked nine months in advance.
We caught suburban trains from Manchester to Liverpool, then Liverpool to Holyhead, the latter route costing about $80 per person for a standard ticket (prices vary depending on when you book) booked through Northern Railway.
The Gerald is the nickname for Transport for Wales' Premier Service between Holyhead and Cardiff. When booking online, choose 'first class' tickets with the food and drink service logo. Prices vary depending on how far in advance you buy, but expect to pay at least $142 for a single first class ticket or $280 for a flexible ticket.
Staying there: The Hut Sea Front Inn at Holyhead cost us $187 a night for two people in twin singles. We stayed at the Hilton in Cardiff, which set us back $945 for a deluxe room with a view of Cardiff Castle. See thehutwales.com; hilton.com
We booked the hotels and flights through Flight Centre.
The writer travelled at their own expense.