Thursday, 6 October 2016

Used Postage Stamps for Charity

Not many charities still collect old postage stamps as a way of raising funds but one that does is the Retired Greyhound Trust.

So, if you can bundle up all your old stamps (any used postage stamp will do, UK or other) and put them in a suitably stamped envelope or jiffy bag addressed to:-

 RGT Stamp Appeal, Park House, Park Terrace, Worcester Park, KT4 7JZ. UK

You can be sure they will be put to a good cause, helping retired former racing greyhounds.

Of course there are other ways to help the RGT, as you will find if you follow the link to their site. In particular, their shop sells some great stuff - including food for your retired greyhound!

Friday, 19 August 2016

Tia Rescue Cafe

Tia Rescue, near Doncaster, now has a cafe.

Gets good reviews on Trip Advisor, so please visit when in the area and help the greyhounds, lurchers and shire horses that it supports.

Don't forget the Open Day and Bandana Challenge on Sunday 28th August!

Saturday, 6 August 2016

Wigan Parish Church.

Today I made a pilgrimage to Wigan Parish Church. Well, not really. I happened to be in Wigan and noticed that the church was open, as it apparently it is every Saturday.

Some of you will recall that this is the church from which Alianore Audley rescued the Duke of Gloucester's stolen banner, so I couldn't resist a look inside. It is a surprisingly large building, heavily 'restored' by our Victorian friends, who introduced an awful lot of their dark, heavy, gothic fittings. If you like that sort of thing, you will be delighted. Indeed, although the church was founded as far back as the days of Edward the Confessor, the present building is largely Victorian, as it was pretty much completely rebuilt.

However in the Walmesley Chapel are some rather attractive medieval altar panels. They don't 'belong' having been bought from Germany, but they are rather nice, and well worth a look.

In the Lady chapel there are effigies of a 14th Century knight and lady. These lie rather forlornly on the floor, having evidently lost their tomb chests at some point. Again they are rather lovely, although not of the first quality.

It is obvious that the parishioners are rather proud of their church and are doing their best to keep it well maintained. If you happen to be in the area, it's certainly worth a look. Admission is completely free, but obviously a suitable donation is appreciated.

I returned to Manchester by train. This was once part of the main line of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway, the 'Business Line', along which expresses hurtled from Liverpool to Manchester (and vice-versa) in 40 minutes. Unfortunately the railway is not nearly so well cared-for as Wigan Church. The laughingly named 'Sprinter' train dawdles along, calling at various shamefully neglected stations en route. The lineside is an utter disgrace, with dense trees and bushes blocking the view almost all the way and, at one point, Japanese Knotweed, a pernicious weed which the law says should be rooted out and destroyed, reigns supreme over the cutting side. Small wonder there are problems with 'leaves on the line' when hulking great trees are allowed to flourish just a few feet from the metals! What visitors to this scepter'd isle must make of such untidiness I shudder to think.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Tia Rescue

Once more I find myself mentioning my favourite charity Tia Rescue.

Tia do a brilliant job rescuing unwanted greyhounds and lurchers and also shire horses. They are unfortunately struggling for cash at the moment.

How you can help:

Send a donation.
Sponsor a greyhound (or other rescued animal)
Give a home to a greyhound or lurcher. (These dog make wonderful pets).
Visit the new cafe and visitors' centre.

Read their website for details.

Tia are located down a country road, but they are actually quite handy for the A1 or M18 if you are in that neck of the woods. Quite near to Doncaster or Bawtry.

The address?

Tia Rescue
Mill Race Farm,
Wroot Road

I know that all donations, however small, will be much appreciated right now.

(Almost forgot. They have a 20 acre field which is available for hire for events, etc. They also allow camping.)

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

The Five Valleys (Part 5, Blaenau Ffestiniog to Llandudno)

Blaenau Ffestiniog is a place that has never really recovered from the loss of most of its slate quarries, though it is trying very hard to regenerate. Its efforts are not helped by the dreadfully inadequate public transport links. There used to be quite a frequent bus service to Llandudno, but this has dwindled to a mere three or four journeys a day. The train service is rather similar.

Such short-sighted provision on the part of the powers-that-be would be shocking if it wasn't so commonplace. Ironically, the same powers-that-be want us to ditch our cars and make more use of public transport.

Fortunately, my Ffestiniog train had a main line connection, although the timings were quite tight and I wouldn't have wanted to be pushing a wheelchair or herding several small children. There was certainly no spare time to visit the fleshpots of Blaenau or even snatch a cup of tea.

The Conwy Valley line is greatly underestimated by tourists and I would certainly recommend that you take a ride over it if you get the chance. Of course it's part of the national network - currently worked by Arriva Trains, a subsidiary of the German nationalised railway. (You couldn't make his stuff up!). It's standard gauge, and the trains are rather boring diesel railcars. But don't let any of that put you off.

A short way out of Blaenau, the train plunges into a long tunnel - about two miles long I believe. This railway was originally built at considerable cost by the old London and North Western company, and, no surprises here, mainly to tap the slate traffic. Once out of the tunnel, you are back in the most majestic scenery imaginable, so typical of this part of Wales.

The stations along this bit of track are request stops and we didn't stop at any of them, not even Dolwyddelan, which serves the nearby castle. The castle is visible from the train, but high up on the other side of the valley from the station - it must be a fair walk, although undoubtedly one that is 'worth it'.

The train next halted at Betws-y-Coed, where quite a lot of passengers got on. Betws is an attractive village and pretty much the centre of the tourist trade around here. Unlike the less fortunate Blaenau, it retains a decent bus service too, at least to Llandudno.

The next stop was Llanwrst, a market town that actually has two stations, one more convenient for the town than the other, which seems mainly to exist as a passing place. Llanwrst is an ancient place, for many years the lowest bridging point over the Conwy. The medieval bridge still exists, and very impressive it is. The fictional Brother Cadfael was born just across the river in Trefrew.

The River Conwy was an increasingly impressive presence on the left as the train hurried along. You get a really good view of the estuary and its wading birds, and eventually of the impressive Conwy Castle.

We ran into Llandudno Junction without a signal check to delay us. This station is where the Conwy Valley line joins the main line from London to Holyhead, and various connections can be made here. The station isn't quite as impressive as it was back in the day, but retains several platforms.

Now on the last leg, we turned right on to the Llandudno branch, still running alongside the beautiful Conwy estuary, which in this section has various marinas and associated developments, some of which are rather less pleasing to the eye that the still-visible Conwy Castle. It is however a quite glorious location, especially as the sun was now out and shining.

After a brief halt at Deganwy station, we were on the last leg, and pulled into Llandudno Station (recently reconstructed) dead on time.

As someone once said, a grand day out.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

The Five Valleys (Part 4, Porthmadog to Blaenau Ffestiniog)

Porthmadog is a large town, indeed by the standards of North Wales it's pretty close to being a city. You could spend at least half a day here, looking round, and there are plenty of places where you can eat and drink.

However, I was doing the Five Valleys, had had only a limited time between trains. So I went into Spooners Bar, which is on the station, and ordered scampi and chips to keep me going. It doesn't provide the ultimate culinary experience, but for a day-to-day lunch it's just fine, and a window seat gives a good view of the railway and the Glaslyn estuary.

It was a little scary to realise that I first visited the Ffestiniog Railway in 1962, when I was still in short pants. It's changed quite a bit since then, of course. It's now a much more professional outfit, and focuses on giving the general tourist exactly what he or she wants. It gives the impression of a flourishing business, one that is well managed and on top of its game.

The Ffestiniog Railway Company is (surprisingly) the oldest extant railway company in the entire world. It still operates on its original Act of Parliament, which gives it a number of powers and freedoms that other railways (even major ones) can only dream about.

The Ffestiniog opened in 1836. The object was to bring slates from Blaenau down to the harbour at Porthmadog. From there they were carried by sailing ships all over the world, but especially to the UK and Europe. Sailing ships set off from here on long, complicated voyages, swapping one cargo for another as they traversed the seas, eventually heading back to Porthmadog for more slates.

Originally the slates came down the railway by gravity, the empty wagons being hauled back by horses. (If you are wondering how they horses got back, they rode in a special wagon called a 'dandy'.)

Expert opinion didn't believe steam engines could run on so small a gauge - just under two feet. In 1863, the Ffestiniog proved them wrong, and just a few years later introduced passenger trains as well. Except for the period 1939-1955, passenger trains have run ever since. The slate trade started to diminish even in Victorian times. In 1946 all traffic ceased, but enthusiasts achieved a revival in 1955. However the line reopened in stages and did not get to Blaenau until 1982 - a deviation had to be built to avoid a new reservoir.

When the lengthy train rolled in it was hauled by 'Double Fairlie' loco, Earl of Merioneth. A 'Double Fairlie' is an articulated engine that looks a bit like two ordinary engines stuck back to back. They are pretty much unique to the Ffestiniog.

At the head of the train was one of the oldest bogie coaches in the world, so I made for it. It's a long time since I rode in one of these coaches, and I'd forgotten how unforgiving the wooden seats are. Unless you're really keen on discovering how Victorians travelled, you're really better off in one of the modern carriages, which are much more comfortable, if rather less distinctive. Or alternatively, invest in first class travel. (If you go in the modern coaches, you have the benefit of a food and drink service, by trolley, and there's even access to a toilet. Victorians scorned such luxuries.)

The first half mile or so out of the station is a straight run along the 'Cob', an embankment put across the Glaslyn estuary in the early nineteenth century in order to reclaim farmland from the sea. Normally you get a beautiful view of the whole Snowdonian mountain range to your left, but on this day cloud hid all but the nearest slopes - a disappointment.

At Boston Lodge, at the far end of the 'Cob' is the narrow gauge equivalent of what Crewe, Derby and Gorton used to be. The Ffestiniog doesn't just maintain its locos and rolling stock here - it builds new stuff as well. A fine new observation carriage was standing in the sidings, by way of proof.

At Minffordd the railway crosses the main line again, this time by a bridge. There is an exchange platform, and in theory you can change here for such locations as Pwllhelli, Harlech, Barmouth and Machynlleth. I do advise careful study of the timetables though! This is not Southern Electric, and services are quite sparse. You can also walk from here to the unusual and photogenic village of Portmerion.

After Penryn and its level crossing the railway enters more wooded country. The train passed over the Cei Mawr, a large drystone embankment built on a curve, and looking back a little beyond this point Harlech Castle could be seen, albeit in the far distance. The line climbs continuously, running high along the mountainside, and (except where the trees are dense) there are scenic views right across the valley. After many twists and turns we reached Tan-y-Bwlch, which for many years was the terminus of the line. It's actually a very pleasant place to get off and go for a walk. Indeed, if you're really keen you can alight here and walk across the ridge to Nantmor Halt on the Welsh Highland, which is not all that far away. Check your train times though!

Above Tan-y-Bwlch the scenery becomes wilder. There are far fewer trees and much more in the way of moorland, with extensive views. Arguably the section up to Dduallt is the most scenic on the Ffestiniog, although most of the line has its merits. At Dduallt is something quite unique in the UK. A spiral where the railway crosses over itself to gain height. This was necessary to build the deviation, though if you look to your right you can see where the old line ran.

Through a tunnel, and the line emerges above the reservoir. After Tanygrisiau the line follows a narrow right of way between cottages and eventually arrives at Blaenau Ffestiniog, where a new station provides a junction with the standard gauge railway.

The Ffestiniog is a different experience to the Welsh Highland. If the WHR is Wagner, the FfR is perhaps Mozart. But a journey over it is well worth the effort involved. I've lost count of the number of times I've been over it, but there's always something new to see.

If you are really interested, of course, you could do worse than to join the Ffestiniog Railway Society.

Saturday, 16 July 2016

The Five Valleys (Part 3, Rhyd Ddu to Porthmadog)

It would be tedious to relate the history of the various attempts to build a railway to Beddgelert. There were so many, over the years, that you might be led to think there was a gold mine there, or at least a coal mine. In truth it was never more than a small village, albeit one very attractive to tourists and set in quite stunning scenery.

It was not until 1923 that the newly formed Welsh Highland Railway managed to reach this Welsh version of El Dorado. By then it was really too late. Motor transport had taken off and, for local passengers at least buses were much more convenient. They were also more reliable, on the whole. The original WHR was noted for its late running and frequent cancellations. They only had three engines of their own, all rather feeble, especially if you take into account the nature of the line, with its steep gradients.

Though a certain amount of residual slate and general goods traffic remained, the railway had to rely mainly on tourists. Sadly, in those days the tourist season was very short. Passenger traffic (high summer only) struggled on until 1936, with complete closure in 1937. Only a prodigious effort, aided by EU and Lottery funding, enabled the eventual reconstruction. It's good to note that the new WHR (Rheilffordd Eyri) is much more successful and provides some valuable local employment. Not all staff are volunteers!

From  Rhyd Ddu the train runs in a rare straight line alongside the road, until at Pitts Head it diverges to the right and reaches the summit. From here there are many twists and turns through Beddgelert Forest, and quite often it's hard to work out what direction one is facing. Indeed at one place the line crosses the same road twice, first from one direction and then the other. At last an impressive cutting through rock heralds the entry to Beddgelert station.

Beddgelert is a pleasant little village if you like that sort of thing - there are several businesses that cater for the tourist, and if you don't want to do the full journey it's as good a place as any to get off and walk around. You will certainly find somewhere to eat and drink and there are some very agreeable walks that can be done in everyday clothes, as well as some more challenging ones for those with boots, map and compass.

The train passed through a tunnel beneath the Royal Goat Hotel and descends to the river, which is crossed by an impressive bridge. You are now in the Aberglaslyn Pass, one of the scenic highlights of the trip. I cannot praise the Aberglaslyn Pass too highly - I urge you to go and see it for yourself. The only fault is the passage through it is all too short. You pass through tunnels and then the halt at Nantmor, from whence a very attractive walk back to Beddgelert is possible and recommended. The halt here was not introduced until 2007, following a vote in its favour by local residents.

After Nantmor the valley gradually opens out, with some fine views of the mountains and, later, of the Glaslyn estuary. After crossing another impressive bridge, Pont Croesor station is reached. Rare ospreys nest nearby, and you can get off and observe them from a hide at the appropriate time of year. It is good to note that the ospreys are not at all put off by the presence of steam trains.

It is now a relatively short distance to Porthmadog. On the right are seen some of the sidings of the Welsh Highland Heritage Railway, a separate organisation that owns many of the original coaches and even one of the original engines. Worth a look if you are interested and have time.

After this the train crosses the main line (former Cambrian) railway on the level. The signalling arrangements that permit this are too complex to describe here, but they are entirely safe. Then the train came to a halt. The road crossing to allow us into Porthmadog had to be cleared.

Road crossing is a simplification. The train actually runs in the road for a short distance, and indeed crosses the river by the same bridge. The situation is, I think, unique in the UK. We have quite a few tramways, but I can't think of another passenger-carrying steam railway that runs in the road.

The Welsh Highland section of the journey was safely over, and I alighted at the heavily rebuilt Porthmadog Harbour station, the junction with the Ffestiniog.

(Anyone interested in the detail of how the WHR was rebuilt should try to get hold of a copy of Welsh Highland Renaissance by Gordon Rushton. An expensive tome, but full of information and anecdotes.)