A visit to the Rheilffordd Ffestiniog/Ffestiniog Railway, back in April.
A visit to the Rheilffordd Ffestiniog/Ffestiniog Railway, back in April.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Occasionally, when I visit The Mother, I look through old photos. Either family ones, or ones from my own albums. My first camera was a Christmas present I’d asked for when I was age 7 or 8: a Halina-branded Haking Grip-C compact camera that took 110 cartridge film. With a fixed focus, a fixed shutter-speed and a choice of two apertures, it was an almost-entirely mechanical beast. The shutter was cocked by a lever which engaged with the film’s sprocket holes (a single hole per frame on 110 film) and the only electrical component was a piezoelectric switch attached to the shutter, for firing a Flipflash bulb if you’d inserted any. I might still have an unused Flipflash somewhere.
A photography geek might look at the above spec and be amazed that I managed to photograph anything recognisable on that type of camera. Frankly, even aged 7 so was I: to go with the camera I’d been given a book called something like A Children’s Guide To Photography which made no bones about this type of camera being a very basic one that it was hard to get good results from. It lasted me a few years though, despite at least one drop that popped the back off; I was still using it in my teens, I think.
Sometimes on this blog I’ve mentioned visiting the Ffestiniog Railway; last December for example. The last time I visited The Mother, though, I dug out the photos I’d taken on my very first visit, on which we did a single round trip from Blaenau to Porthmadog and back again behind the Alco. All the photos were taken right at the start of the day, it seems.
The weather in Blaenau is famously murky and damp; I’m not sure quite how much of the murk and grain in those photos is down to the camera and how much is down to the weather. Still, what the photos lack in sharpness, they certainly have in atmosphere.
Back to the railway and the quiet post-viral timetable it is running at the moment. One nice thing about this timetable is that it gives me the opportunity to take my camera along and photograph the trains when they’re stood still, and the station when there’s no trains about. Normally you’re too busy to have chance for that sort of thing.
Up to North Wales for the weekend, to help out with the trenau Sion Corn. My Welsh isn’t good enough yet to actually speak it, but good enough to understand when I hear one of the drivers trying to persuade a small boy that the loco is actually powered by a dragon inside the firebox, a la Ivor The Engine. The boy wasn’t having any of it.
The weather was grey, steely and windy. At times you could see across the Traeth; at times visibility was down to a hundred yards or so. Naturally, the time it decided to rain sideways was about five minutes after we’d decided we’d have time to walk over to Harbour Station before the rain started.
Overnight the storm grew worse, and in my bunk I could hear the wind outside and the rain hammering on the window. The next morning I was up early, so we could do a short-notice early-morning shunt to get a loco out of the Old Shed; as we shunted, it was pitch-black and cold but at least the wind had died down a little. As the locos started to warm up and come to life the dawn broke to show that there seemed to be just as much water, or more, on the landward side of the embankment as on the open-sea side. The salt marshes between the Cob and the Cambrian line’s embankment were a choppy, whitecapped sea, and inland the flooding went up the Traeth almost as far as if the Cob had never been built.
I keep meaning to tell the tale of one of the most optimistic heritage railway passengers I’ve ever seen.
I took the kids to Totnes Rare Breeds Farm last week. If you don’t know Totnes: the town is on the west bank of the River Dart. The railway running past the town, coming from Plymouth, crosses the river, and on the east bank of the river forks in two. The right-hand fork is the main line, running eastwards to the head of the Teign estuary and thence along the coast to Exeter. The left-hand fork is a steam railway which runs up the valley of the Dart as far as Buckfastleigh, famous for its abbey and its tonic wine very popular in Scotland. Just to confuse you, both railway lines were originally built by the South Devon Railway, but nowadays the steam railway is reusing that name and the main line is just, well, the main line into Cornwall. Anyway, in the V where the railway forks, just on the east bank of the river, is Totnes Rare Breeds Farm, and it has no road access, indeed, no public access at all other than via the railway. If you want to arrive on foot, you must walk to the steam railway station (they have a footbridge over the river), through the station, across a little level crossing and into the farm. The level crossing has gates, just like a full-sized one, which the railway’s signalling staff lock shut when trains are arriving and departing.
We were sat feeding boiled eggs to a 93-year-old tortoise,* even older than
The Mother Grandma, with another family, when I heard a sound from the station: the sound of the vacuum ejector on the train waiting to depart. In other words, the driver had just started to release the brakes ready to go. I checked the time: just coming up to Right Time for the next train. Looks like it will be a perfect-time departure.
“We’d better get going,” said the dad of the other family, “we need to catch that train.” And they got up and left. I thought it might be a bit cruel to tell them they’d almost certainly already missed it. The gates would already be locked, and even by the time they reached them, the train would probably be moving.
* one volunteer told us it was 94 and another 92 so I’m splitting the difference
Never mind “Spring Bank Holiday”: it’s June, and it feels like it’s summer already: last weekend, we had a day at the beach, and both ended up horribly sunburned. As shorts aren’t an option for work, I winced every time I moved my legs. Yesterday: a bank holiday weekend, and beautiful sunshine again, so we went off for a cream tea and a steam train ride.
The footplate of a steam locomotive on a summer’s day is a horribly hot and airless place to be. Nevertheless, riding behind a steam engine seems like such a naturally summery thing to do. So we travelled down to the South Devon Railway,* for a day’s relaxation sitting in railway carriages and watching trains go past.
The South Devon Railway is, as steam railways go, an unusually scenic one. Being in Devon it’s surrounded by lush, verdant countryside; it follows the River Dart down from Buckfastleigh, past rough, rocky rapids; weirs and once-busy mill-races; finally alongside the more placid deeper, lower stretches of the river, down to its tidal weir just by Totnes station. It doesn’t take much effort for a train to trundle downriver; as we sat in the front carriage with the windows open, we could hear the locomotive clanking its way down the valley with barely any steam on, the vacuum pump making a light chiff noise for each revolution of the wheels. Every so often, a gentle touch of speed was needed, and we heard the deeper huffhuffhuffhuff of the cylinders, four huffs to each vacuum pump chiff. We passed sleepy red cattle, wading fishermen, and groups of wading photographers standing on mid-river rocks to take photos of the passing train.
Country trains often ramble a little, and pause unexpectedly. Midway along the line, we halted in a loop, and waited quietly for another train to pass. Other passengers, not used to this sort of thing, looked around and wondered what the problem was. We were too far away from the signalbox to hear the block bells chiming; but we could hear the rattle of the signal wires as the signals for the down train were pulled off, then we watched it slowly chuff past us before we started on our way again.
This is not Photo Post Of The Week, incidentally. That’s because the photos below aren’t ones I took yesterday; as usual, my photo uploads are far too backlogged for that. These, though, are from the last time I visited the South Devon Railway, about three years ago. The fixed stop signal has been repainted since, but not much else has changed.
* Things it is important not to confuse pt. 373: the South Devon Railway, the line from Exeter to Plymouth designed by Brunel, opened in the 1840s, and bought out by the Great Western Railway in the 1870s; with the South Devon Railway, the heritage railway formed in the early 1990s to take over the Dart Valley Railway’s tourist line from Totnes to Buckfastleigh and turn it from a business-oriented tourist attraction into a more charitably-run steam railway. You may spot a problem of similarity with the names there.
August is, as you can see, another quiet month.
A strange dream awoke me last night, so strange I was tempted to turn it into some kind of ghost story. It involved a pair of fu dogs, possessed by a pair of non-human, vampiric, shapeshifting creatures. The dogs themselves would move, when nobody was watching them; and bringing them into your house brought untold dread along with them, because the vampire-type creatures needed them and would do anything to get them back.
In other news: I rather liked the news story, the other day, about the team who broke the world steam car speed record. I like slightly quixotic challenges like that one. 139mph, with all the team’s modern technology, is only 12mph above the previous, hundred-year-old record. For that matter, it’s only 13mph above the 1938 steam train record, set by Joe Duddington of the London & North Eastern Railway on a special test run with the A4 class Mallard. The train had a slight advantage: nobody, when computing train speed records, has ever bothered about the effect of hills or slopes, so Mallard was going hell-for-leather downhill. It did have rather more work to do than the Inspiration, though, weighing 167 tons itself and pulling a six-coach train behind.
Another thing I mentioned that I hadn’t posted really: some pictures of old trains. Which, I know, isn’t something unusual for this site. But I did rather like this one:
Which, I like to think, could almost be a Western Region publicity poster – or rail safety poster, maybe – from around 1964. The impressive new Hymek diesel-hydraulic, made in Britain with the latest German mechanical technology, sweeping past Washford with a non-stop express to Minehead. Here’s some more, and a rather newer steam engine.
Sometimes, when we’re idly sitting on the sofa after work, we put the telly on and can’t even summon the energy to change the channel. Instead, we leave it showing things we’d never normally bother watching; but sometimes that throws up an interesting gem. Like tonight’s One Show for example. We wouldn’t normally watch The One Show, but occasionally it does have some interesting inserts. Tonight: an item on the Wensleydale Railway.
Coming from Oop North, I’ve been on the Wensleydale Railway a couple of times. It’s pretty long, for a private railway, pushing the length of busy, popular private railways such as the Ffestiniog or the North Yorks Moors.* Unlike those railways, though, it’s something of a quiet backwater, slightly ramshackle, with a sparse service operated mostly by 1950s diesel trains which main-line companies retired in the 90s. Being a bit of a backwater, appearing on the telly will hopefully be a big boost for it: not many people tend to know it’s there. It may be in the Yorkshire Dales but it stops just short of the National Park; it may be on the A1, but it’s damn hard to notice from the road.
One of the Wensleydale’s directors appeared on The One Show, and told the world what a unique railway it is; and how it performs a vital link in the community, and in Wensleydale’s regeneration, providing services to commuters and enabling them to get to major regional centres. Neither of those claims, really, are true. The director carefully skirted around the issue of whether the Wensleydale provides those services right now. Certainly, they’re hoping that it will do: that the company will be able to connect to the main line at Northallerton, and thence provide a connection to Newcastle, York, Teesside and Manchester. Right now, though, it stops short, and completing the connection seems to be on a distant horizon. When it does, the company will need a fuller timetable to be a reliable link: at present it operates three trains a day, on about 185 days of the year. The first one starts moving just after 9 o’clock; the last has stopped by 5.
Running a community rail service is hardly a unique aspiration to have, too. In fact, almost every private, preserved, or steam railway in the country has aspired to run a commuter and/or community service at some point. Very few have even got as far as trying it; the Worth Valley Railway did, in the late 1960s, and rapidly found it to be unviable. One private railway has done it successfully: the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch, operating services for schoolchildren. They do not, unlike most private railways, rely on volunteer workers to operate. The Ffestiniog also provides a genuine service for local residents; but it is strongly subsidised by their tourist revenues, which the Wensleydale doesn’t have.
There are two big problems with trying to operate a community service; well, make that three big problems. Firstly, there are two connected problems: price, and workforce. Railways are workforce-intensive, and private railways have to either pay staff, or get volunteers to turn out every day. Moreover, if they want to run a commuter service, they have to persuade those volunteers to start very early in the morning. Paying the staff, and the running costs, is very expensive; when you’re operating a railway which was considered too expensive to run at a profit, you end up charging fares which are too expensive for commuters. A return ticket on the Wensleydale already costs over £10, for the full line.** Moreover, there’s a third problem: speed. Nearly all private railways have to operate with a blanket speed limit of 20 or 25mph. Over the sort of distance the Wensleydale operates, that means a long journey. Fine for a summer jaunt; not good for serious travel. It’s the speed, more than anything else, that makes the Wensleydale’s long-term aims rather impractical.
There’s nothing wrong with the Wensleydale aspiring to their aims, of being a community railway operating a non-tourist service. I would be very surprised, though, if they do manage to complete them, purely because so many have gone before and so many have failed. If the Wensleydale think they are unique, and if they don’t realise that they are treading down a well-trodden path once more, they are very unlikely to reach that path’s end.
* The Ffestiniog will shortly have the largest steam railway network in the country. At the time of writing it operates two routes, the original Ffestiniog Railway (Rheilffordd Ffestiniog) out of Porthmadog and the new Welsh Highland Railway (Rheilffordd Eryri) out of Caernarfon; the project to complete the link to join the two lines together via Beddgelert is already under way.
** The Ffestiniog gets around the price issue by having local residents’ discount cards.