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.

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