CLOUDS THROW THEIR shadows onto the bracken-covered slopes as a small train makes its way along the ridge of a valley; white steam billowing into the blue, September sky. The train began its journey among the slate-scarred mountains of Blaenau Ffestiniog, but now the open sea beckons as it winds its way through the Vale of Ffestiniog to the pretty harbour town of Porthmadog. Its passengers take in sweeping views across Snowdonia, through windows that take up most of the carriage sides; the clink of cutlery mixing with the hum of conversation.
Their journey is an old one; the route laid down in the 19th century to transport slate blasted and hewn from inland quarries to the sea, to be loaded onto ships and exported around the world. But as the fortunes of the slate industry dwindled, so did the railway. It fell into disrepair, to be saved years later by a band of dedicated volunteers. Today, tourists can once again travel the line as it skirts ancient woods and the shores of tranquil lakes; the joyful first glimpse of the ocean still to come. Those wanting to explore further can disembark at one of the tiny stations that dot its route; perhaps tempted by the solitude of the mountains or a winding path to the river that glints below.
Blaenau Ffestiniog owes its existence to slate. It sits high in the mountains: Blaenau meaning ‘upper’ to distinguish it from the older village of Llan Ffestiniog lower down the valley. It grew during the 19th century to house workers drawn to the mines and quarries that litter its flanks, transforming an area which a couple of generations before had held just a few scattered farms. The town has embraced its industrial heritage, reflected in the bands of slate paving that snake their way along its streets, carved with local sayings and lines of poetry, and the four angular pillars by local artist Howard Bowcott that flank the entrance to the station.
Made of layers of slate at 30 degrees, the same angle as the beds deep inside the mountains, they are 25ft (8m) high and represent the splitting chisels used by the quarrymen. Inside, the traveller finds signs for the Ffestiniog Railway in the company colours of burgundy and cream, alighting under a canopy of elegant iron arches. As the train pulls away from the station, it passes vast heaps of slate waste from a hundred years of quarrying; old tramways and abandoned machinery still visible on the mountainsides that loom above. The carriages are pulled by a gleaming engine, like those that originally ran the line: small, but powerful enough to haul loaded wagons the 13½ miles between Blaenau and Porthmadog.
The track itself is cut deep into the side of the vale and is just under 2ft (0.6m) wide; buildings alongside sometimes so close they feel within reach. “It had to be that narrow because, with the topography of the mountains, the standard gauge would have been far too expensive and probably couldn’t manage the sharp curves,” says Paul Davies, who has volunteered on the railway as fireman and then driver for more than 20 years. He became interested in the railway as a child, living in Sussex, but holidaying regularly in Porthmadog, where his grandfather owned a shop and, as organist of the Tabernacle Chapel, was also known for composing hymns. “The narrow gauge meant the railway could link up with the nearby quarries, which had their own wagon tracks. The line had four steam engines originally: Prince, Princess, Mountaineer and Palmerston. Prince and Palmerston are still running today, and Princess is displayed at special events.”
From gravity to steam
The age of steam was the heyday of the Ffestiniog Railway, when slate production was at its peak. Construction of the line started in 1833, but the first steam trains only appeared in 1863, and two years later, the world’s first narrow-gauge passenger service was launched. “Before steam trains, when the line was first built, it relied on pure gravity and the steep gradient to operate, with sometimes more than a hundred wagons coupled together running down the line,” says Paul.
“Two or three men would travel on top of the wagons, jumping from wagon to wagon and pinning down and releasing the primitive brakes, depending on the gradient. Horses would travel in a wagon at the back, called a Dandy Car, and when the train reached the coast, they would be put in harness to pull the empty wagons back to Blaenau.” By the end of the 1870s, the North Wales quarries were producing more than 450,000 tons of slate a year. But by the turn of the century, with increased competition from abroad, they had started to decline. By the end of the Second World War, most were no longer financially viable.
Today, some of the mines have reopened as tourist attractions; most notably, Llechwedd Slate Caverns, to the north of Blaenau, where visitors can venture into tunnels and caverns 500ft (152m) below the surface to get a feel for the life of a Victorian quarryman. With slate the beating heart of the railway, its future also looked bleak, but in the 1950s, a group of enthusiasts launched a fundraising appeal to keep it open. Starting from Porthmadog, the Ffestiniog line was gradually reopened in stages. “They had to dig out the entire track, replace sleepers and build embankments, as well as overcome some major engineering challenges,” says Paul. “It was done by volunteers from all over the country. It’s been calculated that every wagon of rock and soil moved the track along by half an inch. The last section was completed in 1982. What a red letter day.”
Beneath the steps
On the southern fringes of Blaenau is the village of Tanygrisiau. The name means ‘below the steps’; a reference to the series of terraces created by old quarry workings above the village. Like its larger neighbour, Tanygrisiau was excluded from the Snowdonia National Park to protect the slate industry. It is no less picturesque for that, with waterfalls tumbling among the gorse and rock; the train passing so close to one that, on windy days, passengers can feel its spray.
Tanygrisiau is a request stop only, but those wanting to leave the train can explore the beautiful Moelwyn mountains above, including the abandoned village of Cwmorthin. Once a busy mining village, all that remains are the ruins of workers’ cottages, abandoned quarry buildings and a desolate chapel, which belonged to an earlier farming community on the site. Now fallen silent, it is a place to think about the people who once worked there, the sounds of blasting and digging that would have reverberated down the valley and the passing of a way of life.
The line now follows the banks of Tanygrisiau reservoir, passing Ffestiniog power station, built in 1963 as part of a hydroelectricity scheme that was the first of its type in Britain. Water flows into the reservoir from Llyn Stwlan, high on the mountainside above, to drive generators; the water pumped back to the upper lake in off-peak periods. At its end, the traveller is plunged into gloom as the train enters the Moelwyn tunnel; at 860ft (262m), the longest on the line. “The tunnel was opened in 1977 to replace the original, which was flooded when they built the reservoir,” says Paul. “The mouth of the old tunnel can still be seen at the southern end of the reservoir, and sometimes, if the water level is low, you can spot the old track bed running across the end of the lake.”
To the south of Blaenau, in the beautiful and dramatic Cynfal valley, the river surges through a wooded gorge, where waterfalls plunge into bleak pools. Here, a 5ft (1.5m) high pillar of rock rising out of the water is known as Huw Lloyd’s pulpit. Thought to have been born in the early 1600s, Huw was a poet, harpist and physician, who also appears to have served as a soldier. But his renown came from his appearances at the river, where he would stand atop the pillar to preach, his eager congregation gathered around him on the banks. Aside from prayers and sermons though, Huw was said to practise more sinister arts. Dressed in robes covered in strange symbols, he cast spells to cure the sick; driving out the evil spirits that afflicted them. The demons were carried away by the churning river, to be dashed on the rocks below Rhaeadr Ddu, the Black Falls.
BAND OF BROTHERS
The slatemen of North Wales were a close-knit and resilient community. Their lives were tough; working long hours at the rock face or splitting and dressing the slate above ground, for very little pay. Many lived a long way from the quarries, and these men would walk miles to work at the start of each week, carrying food and clothes to what were often cold and damp barracks, for which a charge was deducted from their wages. They would return to their families on Saturday afternoon, typically attend chapel three times on Sunday and go back to the quarry on Monday.
Accidents were common and respiratory disease rife, especially in the dusty dressing sheds. Relations with the mine owners were often poor, and the quarrymen fought hard for better conditions and pay, forming early trade unions. But their contribution to Welsh culture went far beyond this. In their breaks, they would gather to discuss politics, to read, recite poetry and sing. Most quarries had their own choir or band. Talented craftsmen, many spent their spare time making and engraving slate decorations for the home: miniature chests of drawers, fans and shoes, with surrounds for the fireplace also being popular.
But, it was said, they could never escape the quarry, for even at night, their sleep would be broken by the sounds of the great piles of slate in the mountains creaking and shifting in the wind.A rock cannon, where deep holes are drilled into a rock and filled with gunpowder to create a cacophony of sound, was fired to celebrate the opening of the new tunnel. This is a long tradition in slate quarrying areas of North Wales, used to mark special events. There are more than 200 known cannons; the oldest dating back to the 18th century. A rock cannon was fired at the laying of the first stone of the railway and the opening of the original Moelwyn tunnel in 1842.
Although small, the complex topography of the terrain means the Ffestiniog Railway boasts some engineering marvels. One such is the Deviation: a spiral of track built at Dduallt to lift the trains above the height of Tanygrisiau reservoir. The only one of its kind in Britain, it took six years to complete and is a magnet for rail enthusiasts from around the world. “They had to gain enough height to lift the train above the new reservoir, but without increasing the gradient, which is approximately 1 in 80 as it is, so the trains could still get up the line,” explains Paul.
“The track now ascends 35ft on a loop of track that crosses over itself. It’s the only place where you can see both ends of the train at once without sticking your head out of the window.” Dduallt means ‘black hill’, and this is a wild spot; the station having no road access. Beside the platform stands Rhoslyn Cottage, one of a number of trackside restoration projects being carried out by the railway company. It was once the home of William Edwards, a former quarry worker, who became stationmaster at Dduallt. There, he wrote englynion, a traditional form of Welsh-language poetry. He gained acclaim under the name Gwilym Deudraeth; his verse reflecting the isolation and melancholy he felt living in such a remote place.
To the north, the heavily wooded slopes are all that remain here of the ‘Atlantic rainforest’ that once cloaked the western fringes of Europe. Some trees are believed to be direct descendants of those which colonised Wales after the last ice age. Here, there are redstarts, nuthatches and otters, as well as rare lichens, mosses and liverworts, which thrive in the deep, humid gorges of the valleyside. Known locally as Coed y Bleiddiau, the ‘wood of the wolves’, this was traditionally the haunt of the last wolf to be shot in Wales. The small cottage which stands against the line was once home to John Philby, father of the infamous spy, Kim. William Joyce, better known as Lord Haw Haw, stayed here before leaving for Germany to broadcast his anti-Allied propaganda. On the other side of the line lies the village of Maentwrog; the tower of St Twrog’s Church visible among the trees.
St Twrog lived in the 6th century, coming to what was then marshland to build his cell. According to tradition, he was so enraged by a nearby pagan altar that he threw a huge boulder from the top of a nearby mountain to crush it. A new church was built on the spot. The present building dates from the 19th century, but ‘Twrog’s stone’ stands in the churchyard. His handprints are still visible to those who care to see them. Below Maentwrog Bridge, half concealed in the undergrowth of the riverbank, are stone quays constructed before the railway was built. Small flat-bottomed boats were moored here, to be loaded with slate brought down to the river by packhorses. Men known as Philistines, probably because of the long robes they wore, sailed the boats downstream to the estuary, where the slate was transferred onto ocean-going vessels.
Crossing the dry stone Creuau embankment, the train pulls into Tan-y-Bwlch; its pleasing wooden station building, with fish-scale roof and framed clock, dating back to the Victorian era. The eye-catching paling fence that runs 900ft (274m) along the platform is a faithful restoration and perfectly captures the charm of the original. Phil Hawkins, a volunteer for 60 years, is leader of the Friends of Tan-y-Bwlch Station. “This is the main intermediate stop on the line, where ‘up’ and ‘down’ trains can cross,” he says. “It’s an ideal place to stretch your legs, and we have some of the best walking in North Wales.
There are paths round two nearby lakes, named Hafod-y-llyn and Llyn Mair, as well as through the woods, where the conifer plantations from the 1960s are now being replaced with broad-leaved trees. There are also large areas of native Welsh oak trees, which were once used to build ships at Porthmadog.” After enjoying the scenery, a cup of tea is always welcome, and volunteers have transformed the old goods shed into an inviting tea room. The tradition of offering tea at Tan-y-Bwlch was started in the 1930s by Bessie Jones, whose husband, Will, was both stationmaster and trackman, keeping the line in good repair. “By that time, the slate trade was falling off, and they wanted to develop the tourist trade instead,” explains Phil.
“So Bessie started dressing up in traditional Welsh costume and greeting the trains. She opened a café in the station house and sold ice cream in her front room. Many a postcard picturing Bessie was produced, and she became quite famous. She was even played in a popular 1930s film, The Phantom Light, which opens with a scene at the station.” The first stone of the Ffestiniog Railway was laid at Tan-y-Bwlch station in February 1833, by William Oakeley, a wealthy local landowner and great supporter of the railway. He owned what, at its peak, was the largest underground slate mine in the world, in the mountains west of Blaenau. Almost 1,500ft (457m) deep, it had 26 levels and more than 50 miles of underground track.
“Llyn Mair, Mary’s Lake, is named after William’s daughter,” says Phil. “It’s said that, for her 21st birthday, she wanted a lake to sail a boat on, so they dammed the stream in the valley for her and created Llyn Mair. That may have been only half the story though, because William also used water from the lake to generate power. His house, Plas Tan-y-Bwlch, was the first in North Wales to be lit using hydroelectricity.” Today, Plas Tan-y-Bwlch houses the Snowdonia National Park Study Centre, which offers courses and field trips on crafts, wildlife and history. Parts of the house and the elaborate gardens, planted by William with rare trees and shrubs, are open to the public. Its chimneys can be glimpsed behind thick stone walls as the train passes pretty Llyn Mair and ‘Whistling Curve’, where ‘up’ trains sound their horns, to reach Plas Halt.
The Oakeleys once had a private platform near here, and trains may stop on request for those wishing to visit the study centre. Gunpowder manufacture Traversing the top of Cei Mawr, a 328ft (100m) long drystone wall that carries the line 62ft (19m) above the valley floor, the train heads to Penrhyn station, opened in 1865 to cater for the new passenger services. The main building is now used as a hostel for railway volunteers, and the station was extensively restored in the 1980s, the platform completely reconstructed using engineering bricks from Leighton Buzzard station. Its name is a shortened version of ‘Penrhyndeudraeth’, the village it serves, and means ‘promontory between two beaches’ or estuaries.
Penrhyndeudraeth stands on a small finger of land between the mouths of the Dwyryd and Glaslyn rivers and was nicknamed ‘cockletown’ by the locals; a reference to the cockles gathered and sold by the village women. On the far side of the village is Gwaith Powdwr nature reserve, once the site of Cooke’s gunpowder factory. Ralph Cooke moved his business here in 1921, to supply explosives for the local quarries as well as the coal mines of the south. The company made tons of munitions to equip the armed forces in the First and Second World Wars, and production of explosives continued until the 1990s. Now, industry has been reclaimed by nature, with a mixture of heath and woodland home to flycatchers, nightjars and elusive grass snakes and adders. Lesser Horseshoe and Brown-eared bats roost in the deserted tunnels and buildings.
Platform of flowers Passing Bron y Garth, the old workhouse where 150 inmates once laboured, the train now arrives at Minffordd station. The Ffestiniog Railway has its own Parks and Gardens department, and nowhere is this more apparent than here; a carefully tended bed running the length of the platform packed with flowers and shrubs, including an unusual Chilean lantern tree. On the opposite platform, the branches of a knotty oak arch over the track. “There has been a bit of a dispute about the age of the tree, but it’s quite large on early photographs and could be a couple of hundred years old,” says Phil. “It must have been there when they built the platform, and they went round it.
Now, it’s a much-loved feature, and its acorns have been planted up and sold to raise funds for renovation projects on the railway.” At Minffordd, passengers can transfer to the adjacent mainline station; the earliest of only a few examples in the UK of a narrow-standard gauge rail interchange. Many notable figures have made use of the arrangement, including Prince and Princess Henry of Battenberg; the latter Queen Victoria’s daughter, Beatrice, who arrived at Minffordd in 1889 as part of a tour. They were taken on the Ffestiniog line to Plas Tan-y-Bwlch, where they took tea with the Oakeley family while the Oakeley silver band played on the terrace. A small footpath from the station provides views of the glittering coast as it winds its way to the famous village of Portmeirion with its Italianate buildings and sub-tropical gardens; it is located just a 20-minute walk away.
Repair hub Boston Lodge stands at the mouth of the River Glaslyn as it joins the open sea: a request stop used mostly by workers on the line. Buzzing with noise, it houses the Ffestiniog Railway Company’s workshops, where engines are repaired, carriages built and apprentices trained.
SAIL BY RAIL
Visitors at one of the railway’s popular open days may be treated to the strange sight of a sail boat hurtling down the track. This is a replica of a vehicle once owned by the Spooner family. Born in Worcestershire, James Spooner was thought to have worked on the original Ordnance Survey, staying in Wales when the North Wales leg was completed. In 1830, he was living in Porthmadog and commissioned to find a route for the proposed Ffestiniog Railway.
The Spooner family, particularly James and his son Charles, played a vital part in the successful completion and operation of the line. Officially, James Spooner used the boat to inspect the track, but it was also used for fun. It is not known when it was built, but in 1876, it was recorded as being able to travel at 27mph with a stopping distance of 30yds (27m). Its end came in February 1886, when Charles Spooner, taking friends for a trip down the line, crashed the boat into an oncoming train. The wreck was irreparable, and although nothing of the original survived, a modern replica was completed in 2005, using Victorian illustrations. Today, on special occasions, the boat is towed up to Tan-y-Bwlch station and run down the line; the sail raised as it triumphantly glides along the Cob.
“The Ffestiniog Railway is a completely self-sufficient company,” says Paul. “We have some 20 locomotives and 80 carriages, and do all our own maintenance, as well as renovating old engines and building new ones. “At the moment, we’re working on the James Spooner; a replica of a Victorian engine, which we hope will be up and running next year.” The Ffestiniog Railway is home to the ‘Double Fairlies’: powerful locomotives that can operate just as well going forward or in reverse, designed by the Scottish engineer Robert Fairlie in 1869. “As the railway got busier and busier with the boom in slate, there were delays while the trains waited to pass each other on the single track,” explains Paul.
“Bigger trains wouldn’t fit through the tunnels, and a double track was impractical, so the Ffestiniog line commissioned George England & Co to build Little Wonder to Fairlie’s design. A few years later, Merddin Emrys was built. The Double Fairlie was a huge success; people came from as far away as Russia and America just to see it. The concept went worldwide as a way of having a very powerful engine on a small gauge, but ours are the only ones still running.” At the water’s edge Journey’s end in sight, the train now crosses the Glaslyn estuary atop a stunning mile-long embankment, called the Cob. At high tide, the sea rolls and breaks against the sides of the wall; in bad weather, spray whipping over the track.
But at low tide, passengers can watch oystercatchers and other waders picking worms from the sandbanks that appear among pools of saltwater. In the curve of the river mouth opposite, the Traeth Glaslyn nature reserve is home to rare marsh orchids and mudwort, and is a nesting site for herons, curlews and dunlins. Welcome visitors here are the ospreys, which come to hunt for fish. They will soon leave to overwinter in West Africa before returning in spring to breed a couple of miles inland. The island near the old slate wharves is Cei Ballast, or Ballast Island. It is completely artificial, made up of the ballast that ships would take on board to replace the weight of offloaded slate. On reaching their home port, they dumped the ballast next to a sandbank, and eventually Cei Ballast formed; a conglomeration of rock, pebbles and soil from around the globe.
WILLIAM MADOCKS AND THE COB
Born in London in 1773, the son of a successful barrister with Denbighshire roots, William Madocks became a practising solicitor and MP for Boston in Lincolnshire. But he was most interested in the drive to improve agriculture that emerged during the late 18th century. In 1798, he bought land at Traeth Mawr at the mouth of the Glaslyn river and, with the help of James Creassy, who had worked on land drainage schemes in the Lincolnshire Fens, set about turning marshland into productive arable land. He was growing wheat on the reclaimed land by 1802, and buoyed by his success, he drew up plans for a stone embankment across the Glaslyn estuary, with an eye on a potential crossing point to Ireland.
Work started on the Cob, as his embankment was called, in 1805. Work was slow and even more challenging than expected, with stones being swept away and relentless pounding by the sea. It was finally completed in 1811, celebrated by horse races and the roasting of an ox. The following year, disaster struck, when the embankment was breached during a fierce storm. By now, Madocks was almost bankrupt; the scheme having cost almost three times as much as the initial estimate, but funds were raised, and the Cob was saved. The construction of the Cob changed the course of the river, which now scoured a deep new channel as it passed through sluice gates along one side of the estuary. Although Holyhead had by now been earmarked as the new crossing point to Ireland, Madocks quickly realised the potential for a new harbour linked with the quarries of Blaenau Ffestiniog. He named his new harbour Port Madoc: a play on his own name and that of the Welsh prince Madog.