A visit to the Rheilffordd Ffestiniog/Ffestiniog Railway, back in April.
A visit to the Rheilffordd Ffestiniog/Ffestiniog Railway, back in April.
At the start of the month I mentioned that I’d taken The Children away for a week in the Easter holidays, up to North Wales. As I said then, we saw quite a few beached jellyfish. Naturally, though, I refused to spend all day every day on the beach. So where else did we go?
To somewhere I’ve been to a few times in the past, but for some reason, whenever I’ve been there myself I’ve never had a good digital camera with me. Time to rectify that, I thought.
I can remember taking practically that selfsame identical shot when I was a teenager, on Kodachrome slide film. This is a place that—on a sunny day—was ideal for slow Kodachrome and its richly saturated colours. I’m teasing you with little detail shots here because it’s such a famous place, and its main landmarks and vistas are so well-known and well-photographed, that you’d recognise it immediately if I’d started out with any of the obvious viewpoints.
Some of you will have recognised it: the holiday village of Portmeirion, on the headland between the Afon Glasyln and Afon Dwyryd, just on the other side of the headland from the Boston Lodge railway works. It’s full of picturesque clusters of cottages and intriguing viewpoints, because it was deliberately designed in precisely that way, by the architect Clough Williams-Ellis. The grandest architectural folly of them all, a folly expanded to the size of an entire village and turned into a holiday resort.
One of the regular readers has already told me that they “struggle to be whelmed” by Portmeirion, and I can see what they mean. Because it’s designed with an artistic eye, because it is designed to be almost like a stage- or film-set in some ways, it has that strange faery property that a set has of seeming, when in pictures or on film, of being much, much bigger than it actually is. You can—and people have—publish entire books of pictures of Portmeirion, with almost as much variety as if it were an entire city, but when you visit you realise that all those views and all those sightlines are crammed into a tiny pocket of space, like the hollow between the cusps of one of your back teeth. If most of the visitors stick to the village and its shops, I do have to wonder what they do all the day.
Still, if you wander off into the woods, or down along the shoreline path, there are places to explore that relatively few of the village’s visitors get to. A painted-steel lighthouse at the tip of the headland, or various oriental ponds and pagodas. Most curious of all, the Dog Cemetery, a small clearing in the woods packed full with graves.
Now I’ve been to Portmeirion with the Proper Camera, now I’ve shown the kids around it, I don’t feel I’ll see the need to go again for a pretty long time; I feel I’ve seen it all. Was it worth going again for the first time in over a decade though? Was it worth it, so that I can take the same photos as everybody else does? Yes, I think so. It’s a charming place, but maybe that bit too carefully-orchestrated, that little bit too whimsical and twee, to be quite as charming as I’d like.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I took The Children away for a week over the Easter holidays. Naturally, they wanted to go somewhere that had a beach, and naturally, they badgered to be taken to the beach nearly every day we were there. What did we find there, when we went? Jellyfish. Big ones.
I poked the bell of one with the toe of my boot, almost expecting it to burst, or my foot to sink into it. It felt surprisingly tough, though, tough and rubbery, not fragile in any sort of way. They were all sizes, from tiny things, to beasts a couple of feet across. I took a photo with The Children in it for scale.
THe big one seemed to have tiny tiny shrimp living in a little hole. I’m not sure if they’d been trapped and eaten by it, if they were in some sort of symbiosis with it, or if they just happened across it as the tide went out and were using it as a kind of emergency rock pool.
One of the regular readers, who I won’t embarrass, has already written to say they’re terrifying. I find them eerie, but also comforting, in that they have been bobbing around the sea happily for millennia, eating away at stuff and just generally doing their own thing. I think these are the barrel jellyfish, Rizostoma pulmo, which can potentially grow to much, much larger than this, and are also known as the “dustbin lid jellyfish” as a result. Maybe one day I’ll come across a dustbin-sized or child-sized one washed up on the shore.
It’s been quiet around here lately, hasn’t it. Over a month since the last post, and that was just a quick note itself. As the title suggests, though, that’s because things have been busy. I’ve been pushing hard to get one of my personal coding projects to version 1.0. At work we started a new product from scratch four months ago, and it’s just had its first beta release. And in my personal life: well, it’s a long story, and if I were to write all that down it would probably turn into an entire memoir, but it’s taking up a lot of my headspace too at the moment.
Nevertheless, I still look at my list of topics to write about, my list of drafts I’ve started, and think on all the ideas I’ve had that I didn’t have the chance to write down at the time, and I keep promising myself I will come back at some point and write them, whether to publish them on here or do something else with them.
Sometimes, I do manage to make a quick note, and this post really is one of those. The other day, a conversation on Twitter with the artist Dru Marland led me to some amazing photographs of Britain in the mid-80s, taken by a Swedish photographer named Bjorn Rantil. They’re of miners and mining communities, taken in 1985 just after the end of the strike. I started with this set, taken in Treharris, Abercarn and Tilmanstone among other places, but there are a few other albums on his Flickr account. If you don’t remember the 1980s, go and look.
Just a quick note this morning. A few months ago I went to my first gig in a few years, and saw the small, just-starting-out Casnewydd/Newport band Murder Club supporting the excellent Echobelly. Well, I’ve just realised that Murder Club released their first single last weekend, and you can buy it from Bandcamp. It’s really rather good, especially if you like shoegazy girl bands like early Lush. Go on, treat yourself.
Back in May, the latest post in the Books I Haven’t Read series was about The Hills Of Wales by Jim Perrin, a book which I felt had a somewhat exclusive and elitist approach to said hills. At the time I read it, or at least part of it, I was staying in a cottage under Moel y Gest, within sight of the Moelwynion, so the hills of Wales were very real and very much on the doorstep. For that matter, the hills of Wales are on the doorstep of my home, too, and the issue of why hills such as Yr Wyddfa, the Moelwynion and all the others of the Eryri massif are seen as valid and special in a way that the worn-out, lived-on hills of the south such as Mynydd Machen, Twmbarlwm and the Blorenge are not, is a whole ‘nother topic in itself. The hills of the North, after all, are almost as industrialised as the hills of the South, particularly in the case of places like Parys Mountain or Penmaenmawr which have been industrial sites for thousands of years. Putting that aside, my plan was always to come home and write about my own responses to the hills of North Wales and what they mean to me; but since May it has stayed on the to-do pile.
Last week, however, I was away again, this time to the area around Aberteifi/Cardigan in West Wales. Driving along the main road north from Aberteifi towards Aberaeron and Aberystwyth, I glanced to my left and saw the sparkling, shining seas of Cardigan Bay. The air was so clear I could see the mountains on the far side of the bay in the distance. I could only glance briefly—I was driving, after all—but there unmistakably in the distance was the lonely outline of Moel y Gest, and alongside it the double-peaked ridge of the Moelwynion. It filled me with a sudden thrill, spotting a skyline I recognised from the far side of the bay. As soon as I got out of the car, I was messaging one of the regular correspondants to tell them about it, to their undoubted bemusement. Later, when I was back home and back at a proper computer, I checked the distance: about sixty miles, pretty good seeing really. Even the sparkling sea was deceptive: although it looked close enough to touch, the shore must have been some five or six miles away. I was over 200 metres above it, not far off the altitude of Moel y Gest itself.
Why does spotting the Moelwynion give me a thrill like that? I don’t know, other than that I have been going back to that corner of the country on and off since I was a teenager. But spotting them like that did remind me to write this post, and it took me back to a day back in May when I was driving around almost in their shadow, hunting down some bottles of limited-edition beer (it’s a long story). The drive took me across the Traeth Mawr, then over the hill road from Garreg to Maentwrog, but it is the first part, from Prenteg to Garreg, that sticks in my mind. I really don’t expect you to know where these places are, by the way, but please do stop to look them up on a map. The Traeth Mawr is an ancient drowned valley, once a broad sandy silvery estuary, for the past two hundred years usually farmland.
The Romantics, Shelley in particular, thought it one of the finest sights in the world before it was reclaimed. Nowadays you can hike, drive, or catch the train across it. And even though the sea is no longer there to reflect them, the surrounding mountains are a mighty encounter. Driving across the Traeth in search of beer, I felt safe, warm and secure, cupped in a bowl, the grand bones of Eryri wrapping themselves around me and protecting me with their power. If you were to reach for your copy of the Mabinogion you might realise that Pryderi was buried just over the other side of the mountain ridge, with Lleu Llaw Gyffes living with his wife made of flowers just a short walk away too.
That, maybe, gives you some sense of the reaction that I have to the hills of Wales, or at least a small fraction of them. There are many more, of course, and I have much more to say. I have had half a post drafted about Mynydd Machen for a while, although I might need to go up there again in a better mood. I have complex feelings about the Rhinogydd even though I’ve never explored their dark, quiet and lurking shapes. I’ve promised to take one regular correspondant to Bryn Cader Faner to see its curious crown of thorns, and I will always remember a teenage walk up to Llandecwyn chapel at dusk, looking down on Harlech Bay as if it was in the palm of my hand. No doubt I will write more about Welsh hills over the coming months and years. The important thing, the thing to always remember, is that they belong to everyone. The people who live on them, the people who live around them, the people who walk up them and the people who work on them. They are too old and too powerful to ever be the property of just one.
What do you do on a random Saturday with zero plans? Walk up a mountain? What an excellent suggestion, thank you! So yesterday morning I headed off for a gentle amble up to the summit of the Blorenge, the mountain that stands over the valley of the River Usk opposite the Sugar Loaf, and separates the urban environs of Blaenafon from the rural tranquility of Abergavenny and Crickhowell.
I say “a gentle amble” because it’s not a particularly strenous walk. It’s not like the sort of mountain where you park your car at the bottom and hike up a path so steep you’re almost too scared to come down again. The road over the mountains north from Blaenafon isn’t that much lower than the summit, only about eighty metres or so. The walk, therefore, is essentially a cross-moorland ramble more than anything else. Still, it’s definitely a good way to spend a morning.
When I thought of posting this, I was intending to turn it into something hugely informative: a long story full of history, geology, packed with information about the mountain. Unfortunately, I couldn’t quite work out how to get into it. It turned into something dry and meaningless, without flavour, when I wanted to write something evocative, something that would make you really feel you were on the mountain alongside me. What I do have, though, are pictures.
I started here at Keepers Pond; at least, that’s what it’s called on the signs. The Ordnance Survey map calls it Pen-ffordd-goch Pond—the head of the red path. Older, Victorian-era maps call it Forge Pond. The whole area around the Blorenge is filled with ancient industry: pits, hollows, old quarries and old mining tips, joined up by tracks that were once horse-drawn railways. Nowadays Keepers Pond is busy with wild swimmers, canoers and paddleboarders. The only ancient industry I found was one length of Victorian railway rail.
Despite all its ancient industry, the Blorenge now is a quiet place, a place where the loudest sounds are of songbirds. There are many hikers, but they walk silently, conversations blown away by the wind. In the distance you can see all the way to the Severn Sea, in the far distance the coast of Somerset, but on Saturday the skies were grey, the clouds low, and sea, sky and distant land all merged into one continuous blue-grey palette.
At the summit, naturally, there’s a trig point. On the ground, though, unmarked, a second benchmark was carved. An old one, by the look of its shape. Possibly, it is the benchmark labelled on an 1880s map as 1,832 feet.
To the north, at first, the view was lost in cloud, leaving just impressions of a valley. Then, slowly, as I returned back to the car, it started to open up again. The valley of the Usk, the Black Mountains and the Sugar Loaf. The grand vista stretched before me, before the cloud came back down again once more.
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.
It’s always nice, when you go away and rent a cottage for a few days, to see if it’s been furnished with any interesting books. Sometimes you’re unlucky, and there’s nothing at all, or something worse than useless that charity shops would turn away. Sometimes, though, there’s something good: a book that makes you think “oh, I’d have read that if I knew it existed,” or something relevant to the local area. When visiting Calderdale a couple of years ago I found a fascinating book about the in-depth history of the parish we were staying in, right down to the surviving evidence for its medieval boundaries. Well, I thought it was fascinating, at any rate. Naturally, as you can’t take the books home with you, there’s a pressure to at least finish enough of a potentially-interesting one to see if you might want a copy yourself, or read the whole thing before you go.
For the past few days we’ve been staying in North West Wales, riding on trains, rambling about a bit, sending photos off to various people among the cast of characters that occasionally pop up in this blog. In the cottage we’re staying in there’s only a handful of books: some vintage ones clearly bought purely as ornament for an awkward corner, and a basket of a few local interest books, mostly fairly dull: technical climbing route guides for example. There was one, though, that looked like it might be an interesting read. If you’ve read the title, you probably guessed that I didn’t finish it. The Hills Of Wales by Jim Perrin.
Perrin has been an outdoor writer for many many years. He pops up fairly regularly in the Guardian‘s “Country Diary” column. I’ve never been able to read any newspaper’s “Country Diary” without thinking of Evelyn Waugh’s famous Scoop!, in which the hapless diarist is accidentally packed off to become a war correspondent, but Perrin is as far from the pale, inexperienced and incompetent journalist in that novel that you could imagine. He’s an elderly man, and has been walking the hills and landscapes of Wales for many, many years. Myself, I’m very interested in the hills and landscapes of Wales, so I thought it would be a natural fit.
The biggest structural problem I have with the book is that it’s collated from various short pieces of work written at scattered times over the last thirty years, rearranged and grouped together geographically, so that a certain block of landscape (Meirionydd, for example) is kept together in one place. This leads, though, to a lot of repetition. The same descriptive lines about each hill reoccur, the same anecdotes. Picking it up to read half a chapter at a time, without a bookmark, I found myself flicking back and forth unsure if a particular line was one I had read previously or not.
More than that though, I started to find the content of the book, on some level, distasteful. It’s something that I find in quite a lot of nature writing, unfairly or not. It is focused very much on a particular way of enjoying the countryside, one that is focused very much on personal remoteness and on a particular rural aesthetic. On the countryside being used in the right kind of way. Traditional farming: good. Authors and artists moving out to the country to get in touch with their underlying roots: good. Archaeology: good. Wind turbines: bad. Industry: bad. I don’t want to call this classist, I think that would be wrong, especially given the history of class involvement in the countryside right-to-access movement over the 20th century. It’s certainly, though, a very elitist view of the countryside, of the right reasons to be there. There’s no space in it for a lot of the people who use it, or a lot of the people who actually live there day-to-day.
So, I’ve given up on The Hills Of Wales before reaching the end. It’s a personal book, sure, but it feels such a one-sided book that I feel I could never be friends with it. I closed it, after another anecdote about a great countryside-loving man the author once knew, with the feeling in the end that all the hills of Wales were one and the same, with the same cast of artists and poets and romantic lone shepherds populating them. That, surely, must be the opposite of the author’s intention.