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Riding Wales' Ffestiniog Steam Railway

‘If you steal a sheep, they’ll hang you, but if you steal a mountain, they’ll make you a Lord’

                                                                                                                          - old Welsh saying.

There’s evidence of this stealing of mountains all over Snowdonia National Park in northwest Wales. Where they haven’t carved the mountain out, and exported it all over the world, the slopes are littered with the stuff they didn’t want.

But,how did they carry away such large quantities, especially when a horse, or even a team of horses could only deal with a small amount?

If you lay down some sort of trackway, though, it reduces the friction considerably, so horses can manage a heavier load. That principle has been known about since mediaeval times; possibly even earlier than that. At Blaenau Ffestiniog,  in 1830 James Spooner surveyed such a trackway, right down to the port of Porthmadog - a route that was such that horses could be dispensed with on the downhill run. All that was necessary was a good push.

Brakemen ensured that the train didn’t gather too much momentum, and the horses rode down in specially built wagons called "dandies", and used to haul the empty wagons back up to Blaenau Ffestiniog. Spooner became manager of the line up to his death in 1844.

Steam locomotives were introduced to the line in 1863. They hauled the empty wagons back to Blaenau Ffestiniog, but either returned to Porthmadog ‘running light’ or in charge of passenger or general goods trains. The slate trains continued to be driven by gravity alone until the closure of the line in 1939.

After World War II, consideration began to be given to re-opening the line as a pleasure railway, and the first train ran, only a short distance from Porthmadog, in 1955. Gradually, using largely volunteer labour, the usable line was extended further, until it reached Dduallt -  and an impasse.

The upper part of the line had been flooded by the construction of the artificial lake of Llyn Tan y Grisiau. Thus began the "deviation" - constructed, again, by a largely volunteer work-force. It involved blasting out a tunnel, and construction of the only climbing loop in Britain. And, eventually, trains were able to run once more right to Blaenau Ffestiniog.

If James Spooner had been told to survey a route for a scenic railway, instead of one for the more everyday purpose of conveying slate down to Porthmadog, I think he’d have come up with almost exactly the same thing.

The Ffestiniog Railway does indeed give a superb view of some of the best of the Welsh countryside … although the same could be said of most of the former slate railways that now serve as popular tourist attractions.

When we arrived at Blaenau Ffestiniog, the train was waiting for us, drawn, I was delighted to see, by Merddin Emrys, one of the railway’s famous steam "double enders".

In 1864, Robert Douglas Fairlie patented an idea. He believed that conventional steam locomotives lost a lot of efficiency and so wanted to build an engine that operated as well in reverse as it did in forward. However, such an engine wouldn’t be able to negotiate tight turns, especially those on a narrow-gauge railway such as the Ffestiniog. So, instead of fixing the wheels to the chassis, they were carried on articulated power bogies. There were two of these, thus "Double Fairlie".

Despite the appearance, though, it’s not ‘two engines back to back’. There’s just a single boiler, running right through the cab, which means a rather restricted space for the crew. They want to get as far as possible from the firebox, but still keep any protruding body parts from hitting any trackside obstructions.

Although there have been a few Double Fairlies in use, both on the Ffestiniog and elsewhere, only three remain in service, all on the Ffestiniog. Merddin Emrys and David Lloyd George still provide sterling service; Earl of Merioneth is shortly to be taken out of service, to be replaced by James Spooner, which is under construction at Boston Lodge as I write. Another one, Livingston Thompson, is on static display at the National Rail Museum in York.

The Ffestiniog Railway not only operated trains; it built them … indeed, still builds them … as well. Their first engines came from the factory of George England & Co, but soon, the Ffestiniog was rolling out its own engines from its sheds at Boston Lodge, across the estuary from Porthmadog. A handful of their locomotives also came from the Hunslet factory, in Leeds, via the defunct Penrhyn Railway; one, Mountaineer, was built in the United States, and came to Ffestiniog via the trenches of World War I.

I was disappointed that we didn’t stop at Tan-y-Grisiau station, for this, in my view, was one of the best stops, with the artificial Llyn Tan-y-Grisiau on one side, and a pretty waterfall on the other. I did a painting here back in the 1970s … but it wasn’t very good, and I think I threw it out ages ago, anyway.

Tan-y-Grisiau is on the ‘Deviation’ which was necessitated when the upper part of the line was submerged by the lake, and presently, you’ll be able to see the line of the original track, which is rejoined at Dduallt, by means of the only railway spiral in Britain.

So … comfortable carriages, big windows, and, if you want to take photos without reflections, there’s a window you can open by the carriage door. So, just sit back and enjoy the ride.

Porthmadog lies on the other side of the estuary if the Afon Glaslyn, which is crossed by the artificial embankment known as the Cob, which also carries a footpath and the A497 road.

Eventually, the train steams into Porthmadog … but that’s not necessarily the end of the trip, for the station is shared with the Welsh Highland Railway, owned by the same company, which runs to Caernarfon.

But, that’s for another day!



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