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.)

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