Ffestiniog Railways

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It is over fifty years since I made my first trip on the Ffestiniog Railway, a narrow gauge steam railway in the top left hand corner of Wales. It had only just been reopened by a band of enthusiastic volunteers and we wheezed our way from Porthmadog to Tan-y-Bwlch and back. I fell in love with the line which seemed to come out of a fairy story book.

The love affair has lasted and over the years I have made many trips and watched the line gradually reopen back to Blaenau Ffestiniog. Things are very different now. Locomotives and carriages have either been carefully restored or new ones built. Carriages are comfortable, with a buffet service and the track is no longer bumpy. Station buildings and gardens have been de-tattified. The Railway takes great pride in its appearance. Buildings are kept painted and gardens planted out with bulbs, shrubs and flowers.

The railway was built in the 1830s to carry slate from the quarries in the hills above Blaenau Ffestiniog to the wharves at Porthmadog. It was carefully graded so that the loaded slate wagons would run down by gravity and would then be pulled back up by horses. Eventually horses were no longer able to cope with the numbers of wagons and in 1863 the first steam engines arrived on the railway. It wasn’t long before the railway was running passenger services. Increasing traffic meant that more powerful engines were needed. The solution was the unique double Fairlie engine with a single firebox but two boilers mounted on their own set of bogies. This enabled to locos to negotiate the tight curves on the railway.

Passenger services stopped in 1939 although slate was still carried until 1946 when the line closed. The Act of Parliament needed to establish the railway had no provision for its closure, so everything was left where it stood. The legend of the Ffestiniog runs deep and a group of supporters decided the line should be preserved and reopened. The first trains ran in 1955 from Porthmadog to Boston Lodge. By 1958 the line had been cleared as far as Tan y Bwlch. Plans to extend the line back to Blaenau hit a problem as a pumped storage reservoir and power station had been built at Tanygrisiau which drowned a section of the line. The solution was a spiral from Ddualt which would take the railway above the level of the dam. Known as the Deviation, this was built with volunteer labour using the same techniques as the railway navvies of 100 years ago. The line eventually reached Blaenau in 1982.

History is very important and the Ffestiniog Railway has been a pioneer in railway development. Not only is it the oldest surviving railway company in the world, it was the first to use steam locomotives on a narrow gauge railway. Before then this was thought to be impracticable. It was the first to use bogies on passenger carriages. They are the only railway still using double Fairlie engines. The design was exported round the world and there is a double Fairlie loco outside the museum at Dunedin, New Zealand. They also introduced computerised ticketing before British Rail.

They have an interesting fleet of engines. Two of the original locos, Prince and Palmerston are still in regular service. They have three double Fairlie locos. Merddin Emrys , one of the original locos and Earl of Merioneth and David Lloyd George which have been built by the company sine it reopened. They have also built a single Fairlie, Taliesin and Lydd, a replica of a loco on the Lynton and Barnstaple Railway. Other locos in the fleet are the two Penrhyn Quarry locos, Linda and Blanche and the American ALCO engine Mountaineer built for use in World War One. In the 1970s the engines were converted to use oil rather than coal. However increasing oil prices means they are again coal fired. There is an interesting fleet of diesel locos used mainly for shunting around the works and Harbour Station and on work’s trains.

Some of the original ‘bug boxes’ and quarrymens’ coaches are still in service as are some of the early coaches with wooden seats. These are featured on the ever popular Vintage weekends when railway staff dress up in Victorian costume and there is a gala atmosphere round the railway.

As well as its history, it is a superb run and must rank among the best railway journeys in the world. It is best done from Porthmadog to Blaenau Ffestiniog. The line climbs steadily along the Vale of Ffestiniog and the experience of being behind a double Fairlie working flat out pulling a fully loaded train of ten coaches is exhilarating.

From Harbour Station, the train runs across the Cob, the embankment built by William Maddocks in the early 19thC (whereby hangs another story) with its stunning views across the River Glaslyn to Snowdon. It then runs past the workshops at Boston Lodge with glimpses of the locos. Past the cemetery at Minfordd where many railway men are buried to Penrhyn with views down Traeth Bach to Harlech before entering into the woods around Tan y Bwlch, the mid way point on the line. The line contours round the hillside past the tiny halt of Campbell’s Platform to Ddualt. If you want to see what the railway looked like 50 years ago stop off here. Round the spiral and through the new Moelwyn Tunnel the train suddenly emerges into the mountains of Snowdonia with Moelwyn Bach and Moelwyn Mawr looming above the line. The remains of slate inclines can be seen on the bare hillsides. Below is Tanygrisiau reservoir. If the water level is low the old tunnel mouth and line of the railway can still be seen. Leaving Tanygrisiau station, the train soon arrives at Blaenau Ffestiniog, dominated by the huge waste tips of slate. 

We were on a tight time schedule this holiday and were only able to do a half ride, choosing the Tan y Bwlch to Blaenau Ffestiniog leg as scenically we think this is the better. Although the views across the cob are some of the best in Wales, for long stretches the line runs through coniferous or deciduous woodland and in summer when the leaves are on the trees, views are restricted.

Tan y Bwlch station is set high on the hillside among the trees. It is popular with families who break journey here as there is a small play area for the children with slide and signal box. There are also several nice short walks. The cafe serves light refreshments and what looked like extremely good cakes. We regretted just having finished a picnic lunch before we arrived. When the Railway is running a two or three train service, trains often pass here. The up train is usually the first to arrive and spends some time here as it needs to take water and exchange tokens with the down train. There is always activity when the trains are passing.

It had been a long drive that morning from Scunthorpe and traffic had been bad with slow moving lorries, ditherers and a campervan towing a car. We thought we would never make it to Tan Y Bwlch in time for the train.

We arrived, parked the car and just had time to buy a cup of tea from the cafe. The up train does a big loop round the side of the valley round Whistling Curve. We could hear the whistles of the train echoing round the hillside long before she was due to arrive. Then there was the unmistakable sound of a double Fairlie exhaust beat before Merddin Emrys steamed into view. At the same time Earl of Merioneth silently glided downhill into the station.

Merddyn Emrys is still my favourite loco, resplendent in her deep maroon paint. We had a seat in the newly refurbished first class coach at the end of the train, looking very smart with its blue upholstery. This has large picture windows and the views on the upward journey are well worth the £6 surcharge. On the return from Blaenau, views are somewhat restricted by the loco but on the small engines you get a grandstand view of the locomen.

We watched the down train leave and then there was a whistle and we were away, enjoying a glimpse down to Llyn Mair in the valley below. Over the years many of the conifers have been felled and are being replanted with deciduous trees. This has opened up the views. The National Park has had a campaign to eradicate Rhododendron ponticum from the woodlands. This has been very successful and the woodlands are much more open with the ground vegetation recovering. The natural oak woodland between Tan y Bwlch and Coed y Bleddiau is part of the Merionydd Oakwoods Nature Reserve. The old house at Coed y Bleddiau is no longer lived in and beginning to look forlorn as the tiles are beginning to fall off the roof. The previously lovingly tended gardens are now a wilderness.

A footpath from the road by Llyn Mair climbs up through the woodlands to Coed y Bleddiau and then follows the line of the railway to Ddualt. It makes an excellent walk with the added thrill of seeing the trains.

Beyond Campbell’s Platform, the small private halt for the Elizabethan Manor house of Plas Ddualt, the line runs through open pasture land with sheep before arriving at Ddualt. With no road access, this is the most isolated station on the line. The station house, Roslyn, hasn’t been lived in since before the line closed. Built between the station and a wet marshy area with a pond it must have been a desolate place especially in winter. We could understand stories of the station master going mad from isolation. Ddualt is a request stop and unless you are wanting to walk, the only reasons to stop are to find the deviation stone marking the point where work started on the spiral or to climb to the top of the small hill above the station to the orientation table with its views of the Welsh mountains. For an impression of what the railway looked like in the early stages of reconstruction, visit Ddualt.

From Ddualt, the line of the old trackbed can be followed to the mouth of the old Moelwyn tunnel. The new line climbs up through the trees above it. Once through Moelwyn Tunnel, it is a top coat cooler. This is real mountainous country with bare rocks and steep hillsides with waterfalls tumbling down them after rain. The remains of old quarry inclines can be seen which brought slate down from quarries high in the hills to the Ffestiniog Railway. The most impressive is the Wrysgan incline with a tunnel at the top. Brave souls do walk down this. We stood at the top once and looked down. The incline falls away steeply below your feet, much too steep for us.

The Reservoir was very full, completely flooding the old trackbed and the other entrance to the old Moelwyn tunnel. The line passes behind the back of the Power Station before crossing two automatic level crossings into Tanygrisiau station, another request halt although engines may stop for the fireman to exchange single line tokens. The line passes the remains of the old goods shed showing how much higher than the original line you still are.

Back on the original trackbed, coming into Blaenau Ffestiniog, the massive slate tips dominate the town. Little grows on these apart from a few bushes of Rhododendron ponticum. This also spreads up the hillsides and in June is covered with pink flowers. The line follows the River Barlwyd which is a milky grey colour from the slate.

The train has about 20-30 minutes at Blaenau Ffestiniog while the loco runs round and takes water. We didn’t have chance to visit Blaenau Ffestiniog but did admire the new slate ‘Gateway’ to the town. A lot of money has been spent over the last few years to improve the town. The Ffestiniog Railway shares a station with the main line and there was a Conwy Valley line train waiting to leave.

We relaxed back into our seats for the return journey, always a leisurely trip once the train is over the summit near the power station. The exhaust beat changes as the loco is no longer working hard. We got off at Tan y Bwlch and watched the train disappear from view and listened to her whistles round Whistling curve. Everyone had gone and Tan y Bwlch returned to its sleepy state between trains.

I have lost count of the number of times I have done the trip on the Ffestiniog Railway and it never loses its appeal. I love standing by the steam engine at a station and smelling the unmistakable smell of hot steam and oil. There is always something new to look at on the journey. Next time I hope we will have time to do the complete trip.

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