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Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

Blog : Post Category : Trains : Page 1

A walk in the park

Some South Wales railway history that is still around, but not for long

Back on to my complex and fragmentary sequence of posts about the history of the complex and fragmentary South Wales railway network. It was prompted by news that Network Rail are working on upgrading the Ebbw Vale line to allow a better train frequency than once per hour, by widening the line from one track to two for a few miles around Aberbeeg. Changing the track, though, involves changing the signalling, and changing the signalling will involve getting rid of a little island of 19th-century mechanical signalling that still exists in Casnewydd/Newport. It’s the signalbox at Park Junction, in the Gaer area of the city.

Park Junction signalbox

And there it is, with the signals pulled off for an Ebbw Vale train. This picture is from April 2021. It might not look like much from this angle, but if I swing round a bit, you can see that the box is really quite a grand affair for something that only handles a few trains per hour.

Park Junction signalbox

You’d be right to assume that, given the size of the building, it was built to control a much bigger junction than the handful of tracks in front of it today.

I’ve written before about the Monmouthshire Canal Company building a railway all the way back in 1805, to carry coal and iron down the Sirhowy Valley. This is, indeed, on that 1805 route. When, a few decades later, the South Wales Railway was built from Abertawe/Swansea to Casgwent/Chepstow, it burrowed under the Monmouthshire Canal Company’s railway at right-angles, and a complex mesh of interconnecting routes slowly developed. This is a map from around the time of the First World War, after the MCC and SWR had both been bought out by the Great Western, so confusingly both railways are in the same colour.

Railway Clearing House map of the area

The Monmouthshire Canal’s railway runs from left to right, the South Wales Railway from bottom to top, and Park Junction is there on the left. Nowadays, most of the tangle of lines heading towards the docks has gone, and Park Junction is at one corner of a triangle, trains to Cardiff joining the main line at Ebbw Junction and those into Newport joining it at Gaer Junction.

I’ve written previously about that purple line running parallel to the yellow one. That belonged to the company which had extended Newport Docks, the Alexandra (Newport) Dock & Railway Company; and they had built a line from Bassaleg, right alongside the Great Western, so that coal trains coming down the Brecon & Merthyr Railway from Bargoed, Rhymney or Bedwas could reach Newport Docks without paying tolls to the GWR. When they were built, the lines ran around the back of the signalbox, which had nothing at all to do with them. You can see this on a more detailed map from around the same time.

Ordnance Survey 25in map of 1916

Reproduced with permission of the National Library of Scotland, as was the one below.

I’ve made that one a clickthrough because it’s quite detailed; apologies for the horizontal line, but the original is split across two sheets which I’ve roughly stitched together. Three pairs of tracks in front of the box, belonging to the Great Western; and the pair behind it, separate, spreading out into a bank of sidings. About five years after this was surveyed, the Railways Act 1921 merged Newport Docks into the GWR, and within a few years they had put in additional connections at Park Junction, between the lines in front of the box and those that ran behind it.

Ordnance Survey 25in map from the 1930s

Look how much suburbia has grown up in those twenty years, too.

The route through Park Junction lost its passenger services in the early 1960s. Ostensibly this was because British Railways wanted to rearrange the platforms at Newport Station in such a way that there was no space for the Ebbw and Sirhowy Valleys services to turn around; of course, if they had really cared about keeping them, they would have been able to find a way to do it. Back then, there was still heavy freight traffic up and down the valley, from the steel works and the mines; and a large marshalling yard at Rogerstone. Over the following years that traffic dwindled away and shrank, but Park Junction signalbox nevertheless survived, opening a bit less maybe, but still there to signal freight trains up the valley when needed. In the 2000s when the line to Ebbw Vale reopened to passengers, a modern signalling panel was put into one corner of the box to control most of the Ebbw Vale line; but the box still kept its mechanical levers and the tracks past it kept their mechanical semaphore signals, as you can see on the photos above.

Now, in 2022, Park Junction is something of an isolated island given that the main line through Newport is all controlled from the Wales Rail Operating Centre, in Cardiff. When passenger services returned to Ebbw Vale, only one track was kept north of Crosskeys, meaning that the maximum service frequency on the branch is the hour that it takes a train to get from Crosskeys to Ebbw Vale and back down to Crosskeys again. To increase the service means more track; more track means more points and signals; and if you’re putting in more points and signals, it makes sense to move on with the plan to put all of Wales’s signalling into the ROC. So, Park Junction will close, some time over the course of the next few months. It’s a shame, but that’s modernisation for you. I must try to get there again to take more photographs before it goes.

Crossing the line

Or, just how long can a project take

In England, if you’re a transport nerd, it’s becoming clearer and clearer that London’s “Crossrail” project is almost ready to open. If you’re actually in London, signage is now visible on maps and in stations. On the internet, fairly frequently, you see people posting photos of their behind-the-scenes tours, or of ghost services, or of test exercises. There’s also plenty of speculation as to when it will actually open, because although the opening date is clearly close, it hasn’t actually been fixed yet.

Update, 4th May 2022: See below for an update on the above paragraph.

Because this blog isn’t really London-focused, I last mentioned Crossrail in an aside about fifteen years ago, when the government of the day agreed it could actually go ahead. I said at the time that the plan was about fifteen years old then, which makes it a thirty-year-old project now. However, I was recently reading a book I’d picked up on a second-hand stall and found this:

A description of Crossrail

Hold on while I transliterate that…

Most exciting of the BR schemes considered for London is Crossrail. This would be a counterpart to the RER in Paris or schemes in German cities, with deep-level cross-London links joining Paddington and Liverpool Street on the north and emerging on the Eastern Region east of Bethnal Green; the southern tunnel would mainly be for Central Division services of the Southern Region and join the Victoria routes with the London Bridge route. There would be interchange between the two at Leicester Square. The northern tunnel would have intermediate stations at Paddington, Marble Arch, Oxford Street, Leicester Square, Ludgate Circus and Liverpool Street; the southern at Victoria, Piccadilly, Leicester Square, Blackfriars, Cannon Street and London Bridge. Such a scheme (with closer-spaced stations than the Paris RER) would reduce the demand on buses and the Underground and improve the terminal facilities for suburban trains by giving them a through run. It would be cheap at £300 million, but might be vital to public acceptance of the proposed high-cost daily licensing of private cars in London, along with other projects such as better interchange (Euston—Euston Square is cited) and covered bus stations at key points. Property development schemes, as at Hammersmith and Liverpool Street/Broad Street, might finance modernisation.

In other words, the Crossrail we’re getting now is only part of what was originally on the plans, but is still recognisably the “Crossrail North” described here even if some of the route and station locations are rather different nowadays. It’s also rather telling that the Broad St property development went ahead years before any part of Crossrail was even attempted—within the next few years it’ll turn forty. Even the congestion charge, mooted here, was brought in well before Crossrail was. So when, in that case, was this actually written?

The publication date

This is a description of Crossrail as it stood in 1976!

So when Crossrail does open in a few weeks or months time, and there are innumerable speeches on how this gives London a world-beating transport system, just remember that: it was first planned nearly fifty years ago, in emulation of other schemes. I assume the references to German projects include the Munich Stammstrecke, which is just turning fifty (they opened it for the Olympics) and the Frankfurt City-Tunnel* which opened in 1978. London isn’t leading the world in any way with Crossrail; it’s trailing it by a number of decades.

The book, incidentally, was London’s Lost Railways by Charles Klapper. It’s one of those railway books written in the 1970s by an elderly man who could still when he wrote remember the railways as they were before the Great War. It’s also one of those railway books that must have been printed in vast quantities, because you find it on sale in practically every place that sells second-hand railway books, for about 50p. I’ll likely be donating my copy back to charity once I’ve read it a second time.

Update, 4th May 2022: Crossrail’s opening date was finally announced this morning as May 24th 2022. Only some fourteen-and-a-half years since the Brown government committed to building it.

* That’s actually its name in German.

On the map, again

Back to an Ordnance Survey anomaly

Back in 2020, I briefly mentioned a map anomaly that I was going to blog about at some point, but was going to wait until I’d done a bit more research on it. Some of that research I did do, but I still haven’t made it as far as the National Archives, which the OS themselves had pointed me towards. Nevertheless, recently some more useful information on it has been released online, so I thought it might be time to come back to it. The map in question is this one, of New Waltham in North East Lincolnshire, which when this map was published in 1947 didn’t even merit its own name on the map.

New Waltham, 1947

Reproduced with permission of the National Library of Scotland, as were the extracts below.

What is the anomaly? It’s at the railway station. There’s a little curving siding shown, branching off from the Down side of the line (where the station goods yard was) into a field, with a few buildings either side of it. What’s so curious about this? Well, it doesn’t appear on any other maps. At all. Including maps done shortly before or shortly afterwards. So my question was: was it something real on the ground, or was it just a copyright trap?

There were a couple of potential suggestions of an explanation. One—which I think was originally sent in by one of my old Geography teachers—was that it was a temporary siding connected with RAF Waltham (or RAF Grimsby), a nearby Bomber Command base which, interestingly, also isn’t shown on the 1947 map—it should be just on the bottom edge of that map extract, between Waltham and Holton le Clay. RAF Waltham had opened as a civilian airfield with grass strips in 1933, was briefly called Grimsby Airport at one point, and was requisitioned and given concrete runways in 1940. It closed operationally in 1945 as the hurriedly-installed concrete runways weren’t really up to long-term use, although they’re still very visible on the ground today. So was a railway siding briefly put in to help deliver materials or fuel? Well, maybe, but it’s quite a long way between the railway station and the RAF station, and there’s nothing about it in the one book I’ve seen on the history of the RAF station.

The other suggestion was that it was some sort of agricultural railway, of which there were a lot in Lincolnshire. However, there were a couple of issues with this theory. First, it’s not listed in the standard work on the subject, Lincolnshire Potato Railways by Squires. Squires’ book might not be fully comprehensive, because many Lincolnshire agricultural railways were ephemeral, short-lived things that left little trace on the ground, but it is reasonably thorough. Secondly, on the map, it just doesn’t look like an agricultural railway. This is one, a couple of miles away between Humberston and Tetney Lock.

A Lincolnshire agricultural railway

Note the differences. It’s much longer than the tiny siding at Waltham, and it doesn’t follow nice, smooth curves either. It’s laid out for a horse to pull a small wagon or two, so it’s a series of straight lines and sharp bends, likely following field boundaries.

That was the point I got to back in 2020. However, as I said at the top, something new has come up: Historic England have put their Aerial Photo Explorer online. Its collections include a cartographic-quality aerial survey of England made by the RAF in 1955; and that includes this shot of New Waltham.

On this photo, South-West is at the top, with the railway station on the right-hand side midway up the picture. If I rotate the OS map to roughly match the photo’s orientation, it might be easier to line up.

Rotated map of New Waltham

That map covers a slightly wider area than the photo, but you get the idea. The station goods yard stands out very clearly on the photo with a bright white ground surface. It the siding had existed, it would curved through the goods yard and upwards, roughly following the line you can see between two different types of vegetation. Now, although this photo is from about ten years after the siding would have existed, you can see there’s absolutely no evidence of there having been anything following the line of the railway siding on the map. Nothing at all, really, that matches up with what the map says.

So, well, there you go. Without going to look at the detailed survey records in the National Archives, I have to say I’m pretty much convinced: this railway siding was never really there. It was only ever there as a copyright trap, for the Ordnance Survey to spot as a red flag if they saw it appearing on any other maps of the area, and has likely sat there on the map almost completely unnoticed for seventy years. If any evidence comes in that it was a real feature on the ground, I’ll be very very surprised.

Middle earth

Or, a trip on a steam train

A while ago—I can’t find the exact post—I set myself a target of having more posts on here filed under Trains than I do under Political. I think I even said the target I was giving myself was by the end of last year. Well, I’m still clearly a long way off that at the time of writing (58 versus 113) but this is an attempt to make amends. Right at the start of the year, you see, I went out for a trip on the Middleton Railway.

Happy New Year on the Middleton Railway

The Middleton Railway is quite an interesting little line, for its history if nothing else. There are various claimants to the title of “oldest working railway” in various parts of the UK, partly dependent on what counts as a railway and what doesn’t. If you insist steam trains have to be involved, then various branch lines around Darlington usually get the prize, as they opened in 1825 with a mixture of steam trains and horses. If you’re happy with horse-drawn trains, the stretch of the Ebbw Vale line between Rhisga and Pye Corner opened in about 1805. Both of these are lines that carry passengers in main line trains today. If you’re happy with railways that are just for freight, there’s a branch line near Dunfermline that might have had trains on it in the 1760s, although its early history is a little unclear. The Middleton Railway, by contrast, has a definite starting date, as the first railway to be authorised by Parliament, in 1758, during the reign of George II. Moreover, and something that is unusual for a volunteer-run heritage railway, it has operated continuously ever since, switching from commercial to volunteer operations in 1960.*

Of course,** none of the railways I’ve listed above really resemble their original form and the Middleton is no exception to this. In the 19th century it ran from Great Wilson St—roughly where the Crown Point branch of Pets At Home is now—and ran down to, naturally, Middleton. The furthest-south point I’ve found on a map was “Bleachground Engines”, on the 1854 six-inch map, nowadays at the very south end of Middleton where Middleton Park Avenue meets the A654. As the crow flies, it’s a distance of about 3.5 miles. The current Middleton Railway runs for about a mile, from Moor Road to the northern edge of Middleton Park. Moreover, the landscape it runs through has changed entirely, the coal mines it was built for all turned into post-industrial green spaces.

Park Halt

Being built purely as an industrial railway, the Middleton didn’t carry passengers at all until its heritage days. The first passenger trains were run using a hired diesel pulling a second-hand Swansea and Mumbles tramcar.*** Later, they needed proper carriages. Those in the picture are the underframes of old 4-wheeled parcels vans, which the Middleton has rebuilt with completely new bodies to give themselves a passenger rake.

The sheds

Behind the scenes, the Middleton has an awful lot crammed onto a very small site, with their workshops packed full of stuff under restoration. I can imagine shunting things to the right place in the workshop is a bit of a pain. If they didn’t specialise in small ex-industrial locos, they’d hardly have room for any. As it is, everything is jammed in rather tightly, with just enough room inside for people to move around them and actually do the work. I have an old friend who works at the Middleton; he managed to arrange for the both of us to have a little tour behind the scenes, and see the locos under repair, those undergoing major restoration, and the next carriage the railway has started to build.

Inside the workshop

Spare loco in the shed

Running round

We had a few round trips, too, shuttling back and forth along the mile of track. The Middleton Railway might be very different to its original intention, and might run now for a slightly different purpose. It’s still a fascinating place to come and visit, and was an excellent way to start the new year.

Inside the museum building

No public access

Wreathed in steam

* The only other heritage railway that can really claim this is the Talyllyn, which opened in the 1860s. The Ffestiniog has never quite closed, having leased out a short stretch of its track for former customers to use, but their claim is a wee bit of a stretch.

** And unlike the railways in the first footnote.

*** Another early railway: the Swansea and Mumbles, also known as the Oystermouth Railway, was carrying horse-drawn passengers from the first decade of the 19th century. It later essentially became a tram line, and closed just before the Middleton became volunteer-run. If you’ve ever visited the Gower, you have likely travelled by car along part of its route. The tramcar which moved to Leeds was sadly destroyed by arson.

On emotional lines

Or, a special locomotive

In the last post I mentioned I’d been up to North West Wales recently, for the first time since January 2020. The first place we headed to, naturally, was the Ffestiniog Railway, and it was bustling with activity: five engines in steam, I think (plus one diesel), several trains shuttling up and down the line. I couldn’t stop taking photos, either on the phone or on the Proper Camera, of every train I saw. And one in particular was special.

Welsh Pony

This is Welsh Pony, or Merlen Cymraeg, the one engine I was really hoping to see. “It’s Welsh Pony!” I said excitedly, snapping away, sending out photos and so on.

“What’s … so exciting about another train?” came back the replies.

“It’s Welsh Pony!”

Which obviously didn’t exactly cut it as an explanation. “I’ll try to explain more,” I said, “when I’m back at my computer and have time to put it into words. This is a very special engine for my generation of nerds.”

Welsh Pony was built back in the mid-1860s, one of a pair of very similar locomotives built for the Ffestiniog Railway by George England & Co of New Cross, following on from four slightly smaller side tank engines. Three of the earlier engines—Princess, Prince and Palmerston—were rebuilt to be rather more like Welsh Pony and its sister Little Giant, and those five together shared many decades of service.

Welsh Pony

The Ffestiniog’s fortunes started to decline from the First World War onwards. Little Giant was dismantled for spares in 1929, but as the 1930s progressed the railway struggled to fund necessary repairs on the ancient locos. Prince was out of use from 1936, and Palmerston from 1937. Welsh Pony was probably last used in 1940. When the railway closed to traffic in 1946, Princess was the only George England loco still running on the railway.

Welsh Pony

When the railway closed to traffic, the company didn’t shut down. It became the empire of one depressed, gloomy old man, who had worked for the line since he was a boy and had slowly seen it decay and rot away. He didn’t make any effort to save the locos, or the rolling stock, to cover them over or wrap them up or shut them away securely. They stayed where they had been left, many of them outdoors, some like Welsh Pony indoors, all close by the salt-spray of Harlech Bay. They rusted quickly, as the grass grew up around them. When a group of enthusiasts gained control of the railway after about eight years of closure, nothing was close to serviceable, and the enthusiasts had to carefully piece things back together on the tiny amount of cash they had to spare, repairing the most repairable locos and carriages one-by-one until they had the minimum they needed to offer a service. Welsh Pony, abandoned for about fifteen years when the railway reopened, was not one of them.

Welsh Pony

Welsh Pony hung around the railway, parked on various sidings, stored in various sheds. In the mid-1980s it was painted up and put up on a plinth, as Porthmadog Harbour Station’s “gate guardian” loco. It stayed on the plinth, rusting away in the sea air, until the early 21st century when it went back into storage once more. In 2014, restoration work on Welsh Pony finally started. A careful survey discovered that a huge proportion of the surviving fabric was just too rusted, and would have to be replaced. A new boiler was needed, new frames, new cylinders, new rods, but the wheels and valve gear are still original.

Welsh Pony in December 2019, with Prince and Palmerston on the left

The new Welsh Pony’s fire was lit for the first time in June 2020, with the ceremonial event livestreamed to an audience of thousands. Before restoration the boiler had been lagged with wood, and some of the rotting lagging had survived all those years the engine was out of use. When the loco was dismantled some of it was set aside, and was used to light the first fire, another little piece of continuity.

But why is Welsh Pony so special? Why, when I saw it in steam for the first time was I quite so overwhelmed? Well, I guess, for those of us who grew up in the 80s and 90s, Welsh Pony was a fixture, the engine standing mute and silent at the entrance to the car park, a symbol of the railway and yet at the same time something cold, dead and filled with the past. There are many people of my generation who can remember climbing up the plinth and onto the engine, even though you probably weren’t supposed to. It seemed impossible to imagine the rusting machine would ever run again. Even when it was taken down from the plinth and cosmetically restored, tucked back away in a storage shed, it seemed impossible to imagine it would ever run again. To watch it being warmed up, from afar, on a cold morning about a year ago, was a sight we thought might never happen. To see it running, hauling a train again, to be able to see it warm, moving and alive, for personally the first time, felt like an impossible moment.

Welsh Pony

I’m not sure setting out the bald facts like this will help you understand what made me so emotional about it, to be honest. Maybe, along with everything else, it’s a bit of an insight into how my mind works. Hopefully, though, it makes some sort of sense even if you’re never going to have that feeling about the engine—about any railway engine—yourself. All I can try to do, after all, is explain.

Pye in the sky (part two)

Some more local railway history

Last week, I posted a little bit about the history of the railway junction at Pye Corner, just outside Casnewydd/Newport. There, the original route of the horse-drawn tramway opened around 1805 is now a quiet, grassy back alleyway, with the railway that replaced it a few yards away. That railway line, now just a single-track branch, strides over the road into Bassaleg with a complex series of three parallel railway bridges, imposing and monolithic.

Pye Corner bridges

Looking through the tunnel of bridges, you can just about in this picture make out three different ones. In the middle, a stone arch. Beyond it a steel girder bridge and this side of it an arch in blue engineering brick. Three separate phases.

The stone arch is, I presume, the mid-19th-century bridge built by the Monmouthshire Canal Company when the railway line was rerouted from the back alleyway route it formerly took. On the far side: where the bridge was widened by the Great Western Railway, circa 1910 or so, to broaden the line up to Rhisga from two to four tracks. The blue engineering bricks on the nearside? Ostensibly that’s straightforward too—but not as straightforward as I first thought.

I mentioned in the previous post that Pye Corner was a railway junction as early as 1825, when the Rumney Railway was built from Pye Corner up to Rhymney. Now, I’ve said before that the railways of South Wales are complex and confusing, and the Rumney Railway is a case in point. Back in, say, 1860, there were two railways with very similar names, both linking Rhymney to the coast.

The Rumney Railway was the first, built around 1825, and like the Monmouthshire Canal Company’s railway it was horse-drawn, for its first few years. As you might expect from the name, it served Cwm Rhymni, running down from New Tredegar* along the east bank of Afon Rhymni. Unlike most of the valleys of South Wales, Cwm Rhymni doesn’t take a particularly straight line from mountains to sea, and the Rumney Railway followed the river where it takes a sharp eastwards turn at Bedwas and flows through Machen. From there, the river takes a rambling, meandering route through rolling countryside, past Ruperra Castle and down to the sea just east of Caerdydd/Cardiff. The railway, on the other hand, cut across the narrow neck of land separating Afon Rhymni from Afon Ebwy, to reach the latter at Rhiwderin, and ending by joining the Monmouthshire Canal Company’s railway about a mile further on. How it crossed the Afon Ebwy to get there will be the subject of a later installment.

The confusion arises from the Rhymney Railway, which came along in the 1850s partly because the Rumney Railway (also sometimes known as the “Old Rumney”) was by the time it turned 30 already something of a wheezing, antiquated and outdated little line, upgraded to steam but still using horse-era track. The Rhymney Railway was built to give Cwm Rhymni a proper, modern railway, and it doesn’t really concern us here save to say that it didn’t stick with the river as the Rumney Railway did: it headed into Caerffili town centre, then burrowed southwards through the hills into Caerdydd with a tunnel over a mile long. The Rumney Railway’s owners were worried they were getting left behind but didn’t have the money to upgrade their line; within five years of the Rhymney Railway opening, they had sold the older line to the Brecon & Merthyr Railway, so that the latter railway could use it as a stepping-stone to reach the sea. They did have the money in the bank to rebuild the Rumney Railway in a modern fashion, and did so, building further connections from Machen to Caerffili.

This doesn’t explain where that brick-built bridge comes from, though. Here’s a map of the railway connections around Pye Corner circa 1914. This is from the Railway Clearing House junction diagrams, which were made to give definitive plans of where railways interconnected and what the distances between junctions were, in order to be able to work out per-mile traffic rates.

Junction diagram

Yellow is the Great Western Railway (the former canal company line), blue is the Brecon & Merthyr, and you can see both companies have their Bassaleg stations. What’s the purple line though? That belonged to the company which owned the local docks, the grandly-named Alexandra (Newport & South Wales) Docks & Railway, or AND&R to its friends. They had wanted the collieries of Cwm Rhymni to be able to get their coal to the docks of Casnewydd, without having to pay any additional charges to the Great Western Railway; so they built a line parallel to the Great Western’s tracks between Pye Corner and Mendalgief, enabling coal trains to come straight off the Brecon & Merthyr and onto the dock company’s own line of route without touching the Great Western.

So that’s who built that imposing blue-brick bridge? Well, maybe. There’s certainly a boundary post still in the ground nearby, marking this off as AND&R land.

Boundary post

That answers the question, surely? Well, maybe not. We haven’t really looked at all of the evidence yet. However, as this post is already getting rather long, the conclusion (insofar as there is one) is sadly going to have to wait for another day.

* I’m not entirely sure where its original top terminus is. The Rumney Railway is particularly poorly-documented, so I’m not sure anyone is entirely sure quite where its original top terminus was.

Pye in the sky (part one)

Or, some pieces of railway history

For a few months now, I’ve been threatening to start writing a long series of blog posts about the railway history of South Wales, starting in Newport and slowly radiating outwards. The question, of course, is how to actually do that in a format that will be interesting and engaging to read in small chunks; and, indeed, for me to write. The “standard” type of railway history comes in a number of forms, but none of them are particularly attractive to the casual reader. Few go to the point of setting out, to a random passing non-specialist reader, just why a specific place or line is fascinating; just what about its history makes it worth knowing about. Moreover, not only do they tend on the heavy side, they are normally based either on large amounts of archival research, large amounts of vintage photographs, or both. Putting that sort of thing together isn’t really an option for me at present, especially not for a blog post.

So why would I want to write about the railways of the South Wales valleys in any case? In general, if you’re a British railway enthusiast, you probably think of the South Wales valleys as a place where GWR tank engines shuffled back and forth with short trains of passengers or long trains of coal. If you’re a specialist, and like industrial railways, you might remember it as one of the last areas where the National Coal Board still operated steam trains, at places such as Aberpennar/Mountain Ash. There are two things, though, that you probably only realise if you’re a specialist. Firstly, if you include horse-drawn railways and tramways, the South Wales railway system was the earliest and densest complex railway network in the world. Horse-drawn railways are often completely overlooked by enthusiasts, for whom railways started with the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester line in 1830. Partly, I suspect, because unlike later periods there aren’t many good maps or any photographs of most of the horse-drawn railways of this country. Although horse-drawn railways do appear on tithe maps, in most cases they are not very clearly marked and resemble a road more than anything else.

Secondly, the 19th century history of the growth of the South Wales railway network was intensely complex and entangled, and the later domination of the area by the GWR was by no means a foregone conclusion. Through the 1850s and 1860s there were a number of factions at work: on the local level, horse-drawn lines trying to modernise and make their railways part of the national network; newer steam-operated lines each serving a single valley and without any scope for a broader outlook; and nationally, the large London-based companies trying to gain “territory” and a share of the South Wales industrial traffic. In 1852 two directors of the London & North Western Railway, Richard Moon and Edward Tootal, said:

[A]ll the Narrow Gauge Lines [standard gauge] of South Wales are at present detached: & divided into separate & small Interests:- Again they are at present at War with the Broad Gauge.

(memo to LNWR board quoted in The Origins of the LMS in South Wales by Jones & Dunstone)

I’ll come to the reason why Moon and Tootal were investigating the railways of South Wales in a later post; but that, hopefully, sets the scene a little. South Wales didn’t become a GWR monoculture until, paradoxically, after the GWR itself ceased to exist. Through all of the 19th century, South Wales was a maze of twisty little railways, all different, many of them with very long histories.

All of which, if you’ve read this far, brings us on to a fairly ordinary-looking back lane behind some houses, in a fairly ordinary suburb of Casnewydd/Newport.

An ordinary back lane

You’ve probably guessed this is actually some sort of disused railway. It is; but it’s a disused railway that, paradoxically, is actually still in use. This is the trackbed of the Monmouthshire Canal Company’s tramway; its exact date of building is a little unclear but it was started around 1801 and open for traffic in 1805.

I’ve written about the Monmouthshire Canal Company before, as a good chunk of the Crumlin Arm of its canal has been semi-restored, albeit not in a navigable state. The canal was built in the 1790s, following the valley of the Afon Ebwy/River Ebbw down as far as Tŷ Du/Rogerstone where it cut across north of Newport to reach the Wsyg/Usk.

The canal’s enabling Act of Parliament permitted anyone who wanted to use the canal (within a few miles radius) to build their own horse-drawn feeder railway linking them to the canal. This included the Tredegar Ironworks, in the Sirhowy Valley; the only sensible way they could reach the canal, however, was to build their railway all the way down along the Sirhywi until reaching the confluence of the Ebwy and Sirhiwy in Risca. The canal company built a matching line, roughly parallel to their canal for much of its length but running around the south side of Newport. The picture above is part of this line, near the modern day Pye Corner station.

Above I said that paradoxically, this is a disused railway that is still in use. The reason for that is: a line built for horses to draw trains at walking pace is not exactly suitable for use by powered trains at much higher speeds. A secondary reason is that in many cases the new “rail roads” were the best road in the area, became heavily used by pedestrians, and started to have ribbons of houses built along them in the same way that public roads do.

Tithe map

This is the tithe map for the photo shown above, from around 1840. As you can see it’s hard to see the difference, in this map, between the railways and the roads; but a “public road” has already been built around the other side of the buildings that have grown up along the railway, so that people don’t have to walk on the railway to get to them.

When this map was made, the railway had already been using steam engines for around fifteen years or so. Not long after, the company decided its trains needed a better line of route here, so a new line was built, parallel, only a few tens of metres to the west. That line is still in use today as Trafnidiaeth Cymru’s Ebbw Vale Line, although it’s seen many changes over the years.

I was going to segue into the later railway history of the Pye Corner area at this point, because there’s plenty to discuss. Indeed, as far back as the mid-1820s there was already a railway junction there, and on the tithe map above you can see the second line striding off to the left of the map. It’s technically no longer a railway junction. There are still two routes here, but they come together and run parallel rather than actually joining. As this is already turning into something of an essay, though, that will wait for a later day.

Unexpected

I deliberately didn't post this yesterday in case you thought it was an April Fool

Talking about trains: regular readers will be aware that occasionally over the past few months I’ve been banging on about the Brecon & Merthyr Railway, a curious little Welsh concern that until 1922 operated two stretches of railway line. One from Brecon to Merthyr—actually, to Deri, a small village between Dowlais and Bargoed—and the other from Rhymney to Newport. The latter was originally built as a horse-drawn tramroad in the mid-1820s and its southernmost few miles are the last part of the Brecon & Merthyr Railway still in use, now just as a freight branch to serve Machen Quarry. In included probably the oldest viaduct on the railway network, which I’ll write more about another day. Occasionally someone proposes reopening it to passengers, together with the disused line from Machen to Caerphilly, but nothing ever happens about this.

I say “still in use” but the Machen Quarry line is very much only still in use in the hypothetical sense; trains along it are few and far between. Because of this, I was slightly surprised to drive past Rhiwderin station the other day and see a train, stopped, in the disused railway station.

Why was there a train standing still in Rhiwderin station, when it closed getting on for seventy years ago? Well, first, a bit of explanation. The level crossing at Rhiwderin is of the “locally monitored” type. That’s to say, it works automatically. There are signals for the trains, which normally (when the crossing is open to road traffic) flash red. As a train approaches, it hits a switch to operate the crossing. The lights flash, the barriers come down, and the flashing red train signal changes to flashing white. What do I suspect happened? Well, when I drove past, the barriers were most definitely up. Presumably, the first train in many months had hit the switch to operate the crossing, nothing happened, so the train had stopped at the flashing red signal until someone could come along to make sure everything was properly safe.

The Plain People Of The Internet: But surely now, if you have a train on a crossing, nobody is going to drive themselves into the side of the thing are they? It’s bloody huge, is what I’m saying.

Really, you would be surprised. It is certainly not unheard of, for a car to drive into the side of a train that was already blocking the road. Not wanting to risk that happening, is entirely understandable. The interesting thing here is that this train was on its return trip, heading away from the quarry towards Stoke Gifford marshalling yard (or, for non-train people, the sidings next to Bristol Parkway station). Heading up to the quarry, the level crossing must have worked as designed; then on the way back, nothing happened. If I was a rarely-used level crossing myself, I could definitely understand.

I was half-tempted to pull the car over, get the camera out and start taking photos of this train stopped in a station that closed over sixty years ago. There was already a guy leaning over the fence by the level crossing, though, watching the world go by and watching the train very much not going by. Another random (me) turning up with a camera was, no doubt, the last thing the people trying to get stuff moving again actually wanted. Still, I’ll have to keep an eye on the timetables now in case trains start to appear regularly on the stub of the Brecon & Merthyr again, just in case I will have chance next time to pop out with the camera as they pass.

Original footage

In which we consider moving to the mountains

The other day I was rather pleased to discover, on YouTube, a documentary from the 1970s that I’ve known about for a while but had never before seen. The Campbells Came By Rail is a documentary about the everyday life of Col. Andrew Campbell.

Colonel Campbell had a long and successful career in the Black Watch, largely overseas, policing the crumbling corners of the British Empire. Coming out of the Army in the early 1960s, he became county solicitor for Merionethshire (as was). At auction, he bought an equally-crumbling manor house in the northern fringes of the county, which he had fallen in love with at first sight. Its name was Dduallt.

Map of Dduallt

If you’re a regular reader—or paid attention to the title of the documentary—you may well be ahead of me here. Dduallt,* when Campbell bought it, had no vehicular access, but it was alongside the Ffestiniog Railway. At the time, the Ffestiniog were not operating services over that stretch of track; so the Colonel bought a small Simplex locomotive and had a small siding built alongside his new house. The railway let him park his car at the nearest station, Tan y Bwlch, and run himself up and down by train.

The Colonel at Tan y Bwlch

The documentary shows him picking up his loco and a brakevan from Tan y Bwlch and heading off up the line to show the filmcrew round his home, describing it as part of his normal daily commute from the county council offices. Off he heads, past the cottage at Coed y Bleiddiau, up to his own Campbell’s Platform, where he puts the train away.

Shunting at Campbell's

Unlike a modern documentary, you get to see all the detail of the Colonel putting the train staff into a drawer lock, working his groundframe, and then a demonstration of how to use an intermediate staff instrument,** including a spin of the Remote Operator dynamo handle to make sure the section is clear and the instruments free.***

Intermediate METS instrument

As I said above, when Campbell moved into Dduallt, the railway wasn’t operating over the stretch of line past his house. By the time the film was made, that part of the railway had reopened to traffic, and it must have been difficult on a busy summer day to find a space in the timetable for the Colonel to run down to Tan y Bwlch in the daytime. Further north, the railway was rebuilding a couple of miles or so of line that had been drowned by a reservoir, and Colonel Campbell had provided invaluable help. For one thing, he allowed the railway’s civil engineering volunteers to use one of his buildings as a hostel provided they helped restore it, which they did complete with a large London Underground roundel sign on one wall. For another, he was a licenced user of explosives, so was called out each weekend to blow up rocks along the path of the new line. If you look in the background of the documentary you can see a couple of wagons carrying concrete drainpipes are sat in Campbell’s siding, no doubt waiting to be used on the new line.

Eventually, Campbell did get a roadway built to the house, zigzagging steeply up the side of the vale, but only in the last few months of his life. He died in 1982, the same year that the Ffestiniog Railway completed its 27-year reopening process. The Ffestiniog went through a number of significant changes in the early 1980s, and the loss of Colonel Campbell was one of them. He is still an iconic figure to the railway, though, so watching the documentary was a fascinating opportunity to have some insight into who he was, what he looked like, what his mannerisms were. In particular, the upper-class Englishness of his accent startled me somewhat, given he was on paper a Scot. That, I suppose, is what being an interwar colonial Army officer turned you into. There is a whole thesis that could be written on colonialism and the Ffestiniog, given that it was funded in the 1830s by Irish investors and re-funded in the 1950s by English enthusiasts—and considering the long, bitter and quixotic arguments the railway had with Cymdeithas Yr Iaith Gymraeg in the 1960s and 1970s, arguments characterised by a tone of disingenuous legalistic pedantry on the railway’s side. It’s certainly far too complex a topic to be summarised within this single blog post. In the documentary, Campbell was very clear that after ten years of living at Dduallt he still felt himself to be an outsider; indeed, he gives you the feeling that he didn’t think he would ever truly belong to the land and to the house in the way that his farming neighbours did.

The Ffestiniog Railway is a very different place now, with a very different attitude to the local community. Dduallt has changed hands a few times since Campbell’s death, most recently just in 2020 after sitting on the market for some years. Its final price was a bit over £700,000, less than the sellers wanted but somewhat more, I think, than when Colonel Campbell picked it up at auction. It’s in rather better condition now, of course, not to mention rather more photogenic when shot on a modern camera. Apparently, if you go there (and the Ffestiniog will start running trains past it again next month) you can still see parts of the aerial ropeway that linked the house and its station back in the 1970s.

The documentary is certainly a moment in time, and that time has now moved on. Nevertheless, if you know what the railway is like now, it’s a fascinating watch. If you don’t, maybe it will entice you to visit. It’s certainly worth it.

* The famous-but-controversial railway manager Gerry Fiennes once said that the best way to pronounce Dduallt was by sneezing, which is cruel but more accurate than pronouncing it as if the letters were English.

** Technically speaking it’s a “miniature electric train staff”.

*** The Remote Operator handle and indicator is a Ffestiniog peculiarity, developed to enable the railway to operate with unstaffed token stations and traincrew-operated signalling equipment. There is more information about it in this video about one of the Ffestiniog’s signalboxes.