Friday, 25 July 2008

Blaenau Ffestiniog via the Ffestiniog Railway

Princess in the pubWhile in Wales I've spent quite a lot of time at the Ffestiniog Railway station in the south of Portmadog. It's got an excellent pub which serves a nice pint. You can drink outside in the evening sun, even on the platform if the fancy takes you, or sit inside in the best decorated bar in the country. While others have farm implements nailed to the wall, this one has a steam engine in the corner. The lines original locomotive, Princess, takes pride of place where you'd normally find an old guy nursing half a pint for the evening. Elsewhere other railway memorabilia is fixed to the walls. There's quite a bit of money up there but luckily the line doesn't need to raise any at present.

I picked the coach next the the engine for the first leg of my trip. It was the one without windows and very little in the way of walls. This isn't a great place to take photos of the engine, as proper enthusiasts would want to do, but if you just like listening the to the sound and enjoying the smell like me, it's a great spot. Worryingly the FR guard locks the trains doors before setting off. Presumably they consider the chances of passengers falling out greater than that of an accident. Mind you with no walls if there was a problem, getting out wouldn't tax anyone.

The Ffestiniog railway is big business, at least in preserved railway terms. For example Portmadog station is huge. The works at Boston Lodge are huge. At Minifford you pass a large goods yard originally used for transshipment of slate to the "proper" railways. Part of the way along the line there is even a big permanent way yard. Most lines make do with a couple of sidings but the FR have a yard and at least one special train.

Llyn Ystradau ReservoirThe train rattles along at a fair pace too. None of this meandering here we fairly belt through the countryside. While the guard locked the doors he warned us that the coach had no lights. I assumed this was a joke but no, the line has tunnels and once you're in them it's dark, very dark. Being next to the engine, it filled up with sweet smelling steam too. Nice for a short time but if the tunnels were longer it would be a different story.

Another unusual feature, for the UK at least, is a spiral. Thanks to a reservoir the route of the line had to be altered a few years ago. To gain height the railway crosses over itself at Ddualt. The new alignment runs higher up the mountain and skirts the hydro-electric scheme providing attractive views over the water.

Blaenau station canopy

Arrival at Blaenau took a while as the guard unlocking doors kept being waylaid by passengers for the next trip. The occupants of our coach were getting restless as we wathed his slow progress up the train. The sides were low enough to climb over with care but being British we politely waited our turn. Compared to the facilities at the other end of the track the converted shipping container looks a bit basic but it houses a jolly team selling tickets and souvenirs.

Blaenau Ffestiniog is a town that has suffered from transport being too available unfortunately. Most of the shops in the high street are closed and available for rent. Sadly people can travel out of the town to buy stuff and they do. What is left are a few cafes, a couple of tourist shops including the slate shop, some newsagents and and excellent second hand bookshop that only opens on Fridays. This is sad, but I wonder if a renaissance is in order.

Think about it, the town has a reasonable population and the transport links aren't bad. Every .;">Looking out of the carriage windowyear tourists will end up there simply between trains on the steam railway and looking for something to do. With the joys of teh interweb I wonder if the empty (and presumably cheap as there are so many of them) shops would make good homes for businesses looking for homes. Most of the trade will need to be mail order but passing business exists and if you are a specialist people will seek you out, especially if you are in a holiday area

Of course the town didn't appear just for the sake of it. The economy used to be slate based. You can see this everywhere, spoil tips dominate the landscape and the overall colour of the scenery is grey. It's unusual scenery though and looks well worth exploring. Locally walking, cycling and heritage are big business. The tourist information office is under a bike hire centre. The staff have masses of information to help the visitor who is staying in the area.

WaterfallFor the return trip the skies are as grey as the spoil heaps. In the open coach I had to dodge from side to side to avoid the rain. Luckily much of the trip is in woodland which provides shelter as well as glimpses of bucolic streams and footpaths. However there are several small towns en-route to add variety and provide passenger. In one we pass a lady in her back garden wearing a bright pink t-shirt. She is staring into space and doesn't look up at the train. How long do you have to live somewhere that has steam trains puffing past the back of your garden to be so used to them that they don't even warrant a glance ?

More pictures on Flickr

1 comment:

Colin Lea said...

the doors are locked on the heritage carriages because, when the line was first allowed passengers (the first narrow gauge railway in the UK to do so), the inspector insisted on locked doors (and in some cases bars on teh windows) due to the tight clearances. If you travel in one of the newer corridor carriages you will find that the doors at the ends are not locked and they open inwards.