Porthmadog

Sunday 9th July 2017. We had set out from Birmingham New Street at mid-day in fine weather, and it was even better when we arrived at Porthmadog around 6 p.m. The main Cambrian coast line has a level crossing over the High Street.

The harbour is on the River Glaslyn, and flows into a wide estuary.

This takes the name of the other river, the Dwyryd, which flows into the north eastern side and accounts for nearly all the tidal area, as you see above.

The High Street crosses the Glaslyn. The view is from the bridge upstream at low tide. The mountain in the distance I took to be Snowdon, but my old friend Phil Bennett, who has been a Life Member of the Ffestiniog Railway for decades, kindly told me it is Cnicht, in the Moelwyn range.

We pressed on to the narrow gauge (1ft 11.5″; 597mm) station which is common to the Ffestiniog Railway and the Welsh Highland Railway. We were to travel on the Ffestiniog first, the next day. We would leave in this direction, across ‘The Cob’, a causeway for road and rail at the edge of the estuary – Britannia Terrace is its formal name.


We were lucky to have arrived just before the last train of Sunday came in from Blaenau Ffestiniog.

Monday 10th July. Bright and early to the station, though the weather forecast was rather gloomy. The tide is now in, so the River Glaslyn is a lot wider – also, Cnicht is no longer visible. 

The harbour also looks quite different…

…but here is out trusty loco., all ready to go.

These marvellous ‘Fairley Patent’ double-ended locomotives are well documented on line; suffice it to say that each set of wheels is pivoted, thus they can negotiate tight-radius turns – these of course abound on narrow gauge mountain railways. The plate proudly proclaims that this loco was rebuilt at Boston Lodge, the home Workshops of the Ffestiniog Railway, located just across the Dwyryd estuary. It is delightful to note that the countersunk heads of the three bolts securing the plate to the smoke-box all have their slots perfectly aligned, horizontally. This is no superficial fastidiousness; it bespeaks of very great care, thoroughness, pride in workmanship, and other similar virtues which, alas, are no longer very fashionable these days.

The first station out of Porthmadog.

One of the things you must remember is which side of the train you took photos. As a consequence of not doing this, I cannot properly identify this lake!

However, this one is definitely the Tanygrisiau Reservoir, a hydro-electric station. It was vastly expanded many years ago, threatening the reinstatement of the Ffestiniog Railway, which was being rebuilt at the time by dedicated volunteers. Fortunately, a compromise was reached. Note the classic glacial valley profile in the left distance.

This image tells why the Railway was first built: Blaenau Ffestiniog was one of the largest slate quarries, but could only be really exploited if the slate could be carried off efficiently – it was, in fact, exported all over the world, carried down by the narrow-gauge railway to Porthmadog and from there by sea.

The two standard gauge tracks on the left are the main line railway from Llandudno; the nearer track is of course the Ffestiniog line.

It was raining a good deal of the time – some have averred that it is always raining at Baenau Ffestiniog, but that is ridiculous: in the image above, you can clearly see sunshine falling on the hillside only about a mile away. 8^)

There is a rather long and rambling video below which gives a jumbled impression of our first day out – but it does contain  a shot of the loco. above coupling up to our return train.

The fire glows fiercely – incidentally, did you know that the Welsh for coal is ‘glo’? Place-names are a good way to learn a few words of Welsh, for the ancient Celts don’t seem to have owned land in the modern sense. It seems to me that they were quite satisfied in simply having the use of the land. Therefore their place-names mostly describe the topographical features of a place, and seldom contain the name of a landowner. ‘Nant’ for example, means a stream; so the place ‘Nant-y-glo’ presumably means ‘the place where a stream flows through an exposed seam of coal’. Likewise, ‘traeth’ means beach; so Malltraeth – a village in Anglesey I knew quite well as a kid – is some sort of beach. Wikipedia tells us that the ‘Mall’ element means ‘desolate, blasted, corrupt’. We’ll plump for ‘desolate beach’. This in turn brings to mind a number of Welsh words which also exist in French, notably yglys = église = church. The French ‘mal’ essentially translates as ‘wrong’, and so equates pretty well to the Welsh meaning. There are many such examples, but I wouldn’t pay too much attention to anything I write; along with Smiffy *, we have the notorious habit of Getting Things Wrong!

    
The locomotive bears its name in English as well as its proper Welsh. And in the rather ill-arranged video that appears at the bottom of this page, you will see it being coupled up to the train for our return.
As if by magic, we are suddenly on the Welsh Highland Heritage Railway, back in Porthmadog. This image shows my firmd Robert inspecting the splendid interior of opne of their coaches. The vido explains all.
Here we are travelling away from Porthmadog on this short but very interesting line.
Robert pointed out the strange Red Star and hammer & sickle on this workshop shed, but we forgot to ask the affable & efficient staff what their significance was; probably a location shot for a film.
There is another large building on the line which houses an extensive locomotive & railwayana collection. Visitors can go aboard many of these exhibits.

This engine, Russell, is the model for one of the ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ characters!

After an hour crashing out and watching the tide rise in Porthmadog harbour, we repaired to our hotel, seen above, for an excellent dinner. A fine end to a long but interesting an informative day!


This rather long & rambling video contains a lot more of what we saw today.

Tuesday 11th July. Porthmadog’s narrow gauge railways specialise, it seems, in double locomotives! Yesterday the Fairlies, and today the large and impressive Garratts, made in this country for use in South Africa, and now imported back here.

It’s quite difficult to get all of it in one shot!


We were soon climbing into the hills to our destination, Caernarfon – 25 miles of most scenic route.

Here’s a map of the Welsh Highland Railway, borrowed from Wikipedia. However, I note with considerable concern, that at the extreme bottom left, there is an arrow pointing west to Aberystwyth, and another at the bottom right pointing south to Pwlhelli. This is extremely curious, since each town actually lies in the opposite direction. All I can think of, is that there must have been either (a) a serious inversion of the spatio-temporal continuum; or (b) possibly the intention of the map-maker was to induce us (for whatever reason) to travel to each place by first going to the other one, and then paddling a coracle across Cardigan Bay to our ultimate destination. But who knows?Rhyd Ddu is halfway to Caernarfon, and so there is a place where trains can pass each other. Like all these narrow gauge railways, they are single track.

The weather was rainy again, and stepping down the film speed shows a ‘lowering sky’ in this image back down the line. I mean, the preceding images were brightened; the above was actually what it really looked like… 8^)

The current station at Caernarfon is, temporarily, little more than a long narrow platform. A new modern (= out of keeping, IMHO) building is under construction. 8^) 

The ancient town is dominated by the Castle – as indeed it has been since it was built by the English King Edward I from the 1280s onwards. I read somewhere that the horizontal courses of different coloured masonry were modelled on the walls of Byzantium. The whole town was walled too – and still is.

Through this gate in the town wall, is seen part of the famous Black Boy Inn, where Robert and I spent a relaxing hour, sitting out of the intermittent rain under the umbrellas, just watching the world go by. It was most striking how many visitors from distant countries there were, underlining the importance of tourism to Wales, and indeed the U.K. as a whole.  


Robert, who is a keen photographer, remarked that there is seldom any need to move far, if at all, in order to take a worthwhile photo. He made a number of shots and later sent them to me. They were good (he has won many prizes over the years) and I must ask him to let me put one or two up here. As for me, the only thing I could come up with was this flower, which had somehow become detached from the many attractive planters outside the pub, and ended up on a doorstep opposite. Still, I had to get up, walk across the alley & kneel down to get it.

Looking across the harbour. Beyond are the Menai Straits and Anglesey.

A ‘nest’ of four buoys in the Menai Straits, all color coded, and all meaning something quite specific. How you get on at night in a rough sea, I have no idea… 

Feeding the seagulls.

Part of a jetty or some similar structure.

More boats, looking up the River Seiont.

Grim steps, leading to a sinister gate in the Castle wall.

The open firebox of the locomotive that is to take us home.

Quite early on our way back, we went through the station at Waunfawr. I thought that ‘Worn-four’ was an amazingly doleful sort of name, and chanced to mention it, later, to another friend, who has been a member of the Festiniog Railway Society for 50-odd years. “Wown-vaw’r!” he corrected me at once – Wow as in Wow!, vaw’r with the V slightly softened and the r kept short but rolled. I’ve been saying Waunfawr ever since, trying to get it right. If I didn’t live alone, people would definitely be getting worried about me. To add to my shame, it was discovered that the Marconi Company had a powerful long-wave wireless transmitter at Waunfawr from 1912 until 1938. It was the most powerful station in the U.K. in the earlier days, and was used for communication with the British Empire (Ta-raah!), across the Atlantic to the U.S.A., and elsewhere. During the Great War 1914-1918 it was taken over by the G.P.O. and was of crucial importance to the war effort. This was a dreadful discovery. I’ve given talks on radio to societies including the R.S.G.B. and the QRP-A.R.C.I. in the U.S.A. but had never heard of Waunfawr. Please don’t tell anybody, will you? Thanks!

Wednesday 12th July. Our last day, but one more railway to visit on the way home. Lots of sea views as we travel south on the Cambrian line towards Aberystwyth – NOT Pwlhelli… 8^)

Alighting at Tywyn we proceed inland on the Talyllyn Railway. Incidentally, Tywyn was where the receiving station for the Waunfawr transmitter was sited. With very high-power stations, you couldn’t have the receiver anywhere near the transmitter – the vast power on transmission would at least severely desensitise the receiver, or even burn out the delicate circuits of the receiver’s ‘front end’. It’s 37 miles from Waunfawr to Tywyn!

Always interesting to see the ancillary equipment of a railway line for servicing, track maintenance &c.

The jovial train guard. All the staff (almost always dedicated volunteers) on these narrow gauge lines are polite, affable & co-operative, while nevertheless very punctilious in observing proper procedures, safety &c. Most impressive. 

A spectacular view of the glacial valley – created during the last Ice Age (ending about 12,000 years ago), as huge ‘rivers’ of ice imperceptibly gouged out the landscapes we see today. 

Right at the end of the line. It finishes in  a small branch valley, where the main stone quarry was located.

The locomotive ‘Tom Rolt’, an 0-4-2 tank engine,  was manufactured in 1991 at the Talyllyn’s own workshops.

Here, we took a break, intending to catch a later train back to Tywyn. ‘Tom Rolt’ departs back down the line. L T C Rolt was, besides being the prime inspiration for reviving the Talyllyn – the world’s first preserved railway – a traveller and prolific author of books on the pioneers of transport and its technology, including Brunel, Trevithick, Telford, the Stephensons and many others. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L._T._C._Rolt

    We are enjoying balmy weather, so we tend to forget this is really quite an isolated area. Imagine it in snowy freezing weather! If one slipped and sprained one’s ankle, it would be quite a serious thing, and the trains do not run in winter time… 

Here is the Dolgoch waterfall. It is very small, but nevertheless powers a modest hydro-electric generator which gives 100 kilowatts, and thus saves 300 tons of Carbon Dioxide emission per year!

Robert was able to take images of the fall which gave the streamy effect of old long-exposure photographs. We were able to make one of those, above. However, he could also take shots which showed each droplet of water with crystal clarity. At the present time, this eludes us.  8^)

In the accompanying video below, you will see an incoming train passing over the Dolgoch viaduct. Though short, it is still 70 feet tall. 

Here we are back at Tywyn. There is a truly superb museum of narrow gauge railways here, with enough fascinating exhibits to keep an enthusiast absorbed for hours. There is even an example of a ‘plate-way’ wagon dating back to the late 1700s, plus samples of the track of these horse-drawn precursors of later railways. People who lay railway track are still called ‘plate-layers’ to this day! 

Reluctantly, we soon had to leave to catch our main line train back to Birmingham. In the centre is a fuel heap for the Talyllyn, and a narrow gauge siding runs out along the standard gauge line. Even the justly famous Cambrian main line is single track; the nearer metals end at buffers in the distance. Our narrow-gauge Railway Holiday was now over; there remained only the journey back to Birmingham. This proved a severe contrast to the last three days: only a two-car train was provided at Machynllech, and having come fromn Aberystwyth it was already full – standing room only. The marvellous narrow gauge railways of north Wales were much more commodious!   

* ‘Smiffy’ was a character in ‘The Bash Street Kids’ in the comic Beano, ca. early 1950s. Actually, he tended simply to invert things; still, they were not correct. As for us, we just get them wrong, plain & simple.