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.)

The Five Valleys (Part 2, Caernarfon to Rhyd Ddu)

Caernarfon Welsh Highland Railway station is rather basic. There are plans for something grander, but it may be some way off. However, it is staffed - more than can be said for many mainline stations these days - and you can walk up and buy a ticket. I was in plenty of time for the train, but then I needed to be. On my day of travel it was the only one running with a through connection.

It is not the cheapest ride. The full return trip to Porthmadog is roughly comparable to a cheapish ticket for a Premier League Match. However, several shorter but still interesting trips are possible and if you have children, they go free on a one-per-adult basis. On the other hand, if you are making your first or only trip it's well worth investing in the extra and going first class, as those coaches are rather special. I booked a third class through ticket to Blaenau Ffestininog.

Even third class (no second class) is reasonably comfortable, and someone comes round with a food and drink trolley. The engines are Beyer-Garratts, very large for a narrow gauge railway and very powerful. They were, like me, created in Gorton, Manchester. Unlike me they spent their youth in South Africa before being brought to Wales. To add to the international dimension, the coach I chose to ride in came from Romania. (Most are made in Wales, in the company's own works in Porthmadog.)

The first part of the journey is over what was once part of the standard gauge line from Caernarfon to Afon Wen, and it is a little odd to think that as a boy I travelled over it several times in its original form. These first few miles are pleasant enough but nothing special scenically. Eventually you arrive at Dinas. This used to be the junction for the North Wales Narrow Gauge (as the Welsh Highland was up until 1922) and the break of gauge and necessary change of trains was one reason why local traffic declined pretty quickly once buses became available. Dinas is where the engine shed and carriage shed are located and is a great, sprawling sort of station.

The train now turns sharply left and starts to climb, a climb that continues all the way to the summit at Pitt's Head.This is Welsh farming country, with plenty of cattle and sheep to be seen, though the fields look, well - rather unpromising for agriculture. Some of the railway fences hereabouts are still made from local slate, and if you look to the rear there are some fine views of Anglesey.

After Tryfan Junction the train enters more wooded country and runs along the side of a valley to Waenfawr. If you only want a short trip, this is a good place to get off as there is an excellent pub next to the station that serves good food. There's also a camp site if you've brought your own tent.

Beyond Waenfawr the train really starts to head into the mountains, and the track twists and turns as it seeks to follow the contours. (This was a railway built on the cheap.) There are some very impressive views, especially around Llyn Cwellyn. However, on this particular day the clouds were relatively low and it wasn't possible to see the tops of the biggest mountains.

At last we wriggled into Rhyd Ddu. This was as far as the original North Wales Narrow Gauge Railways ever got. Victorian and Edwardian tourists (intrepid souls!) had the choice between catching a horse bus to Beddgelert or walking up to Snowdon summit. For many years this was the nearest station to that summit which is only (only!) three or four miles away as the crow flies. Human crows should note that there are many painful feet of ascent in those three or four miles, and if they are using the railway they need to go on a day when the full summer service is in place to allow adequate time. Needless to say, they should also wear good boots and go fully equipped for the mountains. (I add this just in case someone thinks it's an easy stroll.)

For many years Rhyd Ddu station was actually known as 'Snowdon' or 'South Snowdon', at least partly because English passengers found Rhyd Ddu difficult to pronounce. However, that is rather like calling Base Camp 'Everest'. There is a small village here, and indeed a pub, about a quarter of a mile back down the road, but the station itself is gloriously isolated. On a bright summer day it's a beautiful place to spend an hour or so. On a wet or cold day, less so. You have to admire the optimism of the people who thought that building a railway to this place would be profitable. But I am very glad they did.

Thursday, 14 July 2016

The Five Valleys (Part 1, Llandudno to Caernarfon.)

This trip is one I have wanted to do for years, even before it became possible again with the re-opening of the Welsh Highland Railway. Sometimes dreams come true!

In theory you can travel from Llandudno to Bangor by train, with a change of train at Llandudno Junction and a further change to a bus at Bangor. However, the train timetable was not obliging, so the tour began with an early start in Llandudno to catch the X5 bus. (You can also get the 5, it just goes a slightly different way.)

Modern buses are not usually my cup of tea, but this one had a friendly driver, the seats were comfortable, and the single fare was a trifling £3-70. You couldn't ask for more. A screen which constantly updated showed the name of the next stop, and an electronic voice told you, in both Welsh and English. No excuse for getting lost!

This has to be one of the best travel bargains in the UK. Even though the bus carries 'Bangor' o the front it actually works straight through to Caernarfon and you can have a through ticket. It was as good as a coach tour, and less crowded.

The journey takes you through Conwy, with an excellent view of the castle and estuary, and then along the coast, with occasional diversions to take in small villages. One of these is Abergwyngregyn, famous in Welsh history as the residence of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd (and his forebears) and familiar from the works of Sharon K. Penman. The bus only pays a brief call to the edge of the village, and then it's back onto the A5, a spectacular road with views of Anglesey (Ynys Mon) and Puffin Island (Ynys Seriol). This little island has at least four names as it used also be called Priestholm or Ynys Lannog. There used to be a monastery on it, a long time ago. The monks certainly had solitude, but now it's a bird sanctuary.

The timetable indicated that the service was in effect a school bus from Bangor on. Being used to the rather unfortunate behaviour of some students in Greater Manchester, I wondered quite what to expect. In the event quite a few young people did board at Bangor, but I am pleased to say they were an absolute credit to themselves and their schools. They seemed to be a lot more mature than I was at their age!

Eventually we arrived in Caernarfon, by which time I was the only passenger. These days the buses don't enter Castle Square - which used to be their venue back in the day - but drop you off just around the corner from it. A fairly heavy drizzle had started by this time so I retired for breakfast to a rather lovely cafe in the shadow of the castle walls. The breakfast was excellent, and there was even a newspaper to read. I heard my first Welsh language conversation of the day, and departed with a Diolch yn fawr.

Caernarfon is now a very Welsh town. It didn't use to be of course, as the huge castle was built by Edward I to overawe the Welsh, and the town built in its shade was stocked with English settlers. Of course the Welsh were not overawed for long. During the Glyndwr rising, for example, no man dared venture to Chester to ask for assistance - the garrison had to send a woman.

The castle is still an impressive building, and must have been even more so in the 13th Century, when the largest building most people saw was their parish church. I prefer it from a distance though. Close up, it feels oppressive. That was the idea, of course.

So, with the rain eased somewhat, I was off down the slope to the lower part of the town and the WHR railway station. (I refuse to say train station.) More next time.

Monday, 11 July 2016

Tryfan Junction

Clunton and Clunbury
Clungunford and Clun 
Are the quietest places
Under the sun.

A.E.Housman, who wrote those words, had obviously never heard of Tryfan Junction.

I wish I could say it was the only place in the UK with 'Junction' in its name that is no longer a real junction, but sadly that would not be true. For example, at St Helens Junction, it has not been possible to change for St Helens since 1965. Even the bus service is nothing like it was - thanks to the disaster that is bus privatisation - and in the evening, particularly, the service is damnable. So much for progress!

Back to Tryfan Junction. This remote station in Wales never served more than a couple of farmhouses, but it used to be the junction station for the Bryngwyn branch of the North Wales Narrow Gauge Railways. The passenger service on the branch was removed as far back as 1914 - prior even to the outbreak of war - although some goods traffic - notably slate - continued to around 1936. The branch was sharply curved and steep, and must have been an interesting ride in its day. Track was lifted in 1941, along with the rest of the Welsh Highland Railway - as the NWNGR had become. That looked like the end of it.

However, in recent years the Welsh Highland has been entirely rebuilt (apart from the Bryngwn branch) and some very keen enthusiasts decided to rebuild the station building at Tryfan Junction, and bring the station back as a halt. This was accomplished in 2011. And a very nice job they did of it! So once again, if you wish, you can alight at Tryfan Junction - though you will need to ask the guard to stop the train, as it's now a request stop. Of course, there's not much to do once you get there, except walk the length of the Bryngwyn branch, most of which has been turned into a permissive footpath. Time your walk well, as there are not that many WHR trains - only three a day at best.

When your return train comes you will need to stick out a hand to stop it. While you are waiting, recall that this place once had a passing loop, full signalling, a signal box and a stationmaster. Hard to believe as it is now.