|Ffestiniog Railway: Queen of the Narrow Gauge|
|1. Porthmadog Quay||6. Blaenau|
|2. Quarry Engine||7. Fairlie's Patent|
|3. The Longest Grade||8. Downhill Run|
|4. On Dwyryd's Flank||9. Evening Chores|
|Four: On Dwyryd's Flank|
train at Minffordd.
or so of rolling hills and fine pastures
brought us to Minffordd, the first major stop along the way. Here the railway's
single-track line splits briefly into two main tracks, and we swerved rightward onto the
rails designated the "up main" in the employee timetable. As we clattered
to a halt next to the station platform, a hooting steam whistle and distant headlight
signaled the return of the first train of the morning, heading back from Blaenau on the
down main. The down train was led a strange blunt locomotive, her smokebox end
flanked by a pair of tall bunkers, and her drivers and cylinders unconcealed by any true
pilot-beam: a double Fairlie, one of the FR's unique dual-bogie articulated steam engines.
After the briefest of glimpses she and her long rake of gleaming green carriages
were passed and gone-- further inspection would have to wait on the afternoon.
Gray hills, gray
home at Penrhyn.
as the down train had cleared the way and
the handful of patrons boarding from the Central Trains transfer at Minffordd had been
squared away in their seats, we set out again up the long grade. Open meadow gave
way to woodlands and higher hills as the line pressed upwards through a series of shallow
cuttings. At Penrhyn ("headland between two beaches") the line passed
close by a tiny settlement of broad stone cottages, and then threaded its way across a
roadway grade and around the shoulder of a tall hill on the left-hand side of the
rails. Somewhere in the midst of it all, we vaulted the ridgeline separating the
Glaslyn and Dwyryd basins. From here on out the high ground would be on the left, as
the broad valley of the Afon Dwyryd opened up to the right. The Dwyryd would be our
constant companion as the line clung tenaciously to the north flank of its valley,
twisting and turning to maintain the all-important even rate of ascent.
Crossing Cei Mawr,
the Great Quay.
Penrhyn the breezes blowing through my open
window took on a cooler edge, while the world outside grew grayer, darker, and more
forbidding. Tall stands of trees pressed closely to the rails on either side, for we
had entered the vast woodlands of Snowdonia National Park, one of Britain's greatest
wilderness preserves. After one particularly sharp curve, the ground dropped away
with stunning speed, and Linda pulled us unhesitatingly out across an
incredibly tall, narrow stone embankment. This was Cei Mawr-- the Great Quay-- a
towering 62' causeway thrown out across a deep slash carved by one of the Dwyryd's many
tributaries. The huge masonry embankment offered stunning testimony to the James
Spooner's fanatical devotion to a level grade for his railway. I shuddered to think of the
sheer sweat and toil the navvies and masons must have expended realizing his vision here.
Mawr marked a further change in the line's
character, as the gentler running of the foothills and lower valleys gave way to genuine
mountain railroading. Now the Afon Dwyryd curved back to the north side of its
valley, pressing closer and closer until our train was left clinging to a steep ridge
dropping straight down to the river. Then, at a place called Plas Halt, the line
swung suddenly around a flange-squealing curve to the left. Here a tributary of the
Dwyryd had carved a deep channel into the valley's north wall, creating an obstacle no
fill or causeway could surmount. With no choice but to follow the terrain, the train
clung tenaciously to the wall of the side-valley, negotiating curve after curve to follow
its winding profile. The civil engineer's grief was the passenger's pleasure,
however. In the center of the valley floor there gleamed a gem-like little lake,
Llyn Mair. By the small stream flowing from the foot of the lake into the valley
beyond there stood a tall inn, the Oakeley Arms Hotel-- the very hostelry which had hosted
the Imperial Russian Commission which came to view the Ffestiniog and its Fairlie engines
a century ago. As we wound around the Llyn Mair the carriage windows offered ever
changing vistas of the lake and the hotel, with the broad vale of the Dwyryd opening
beyond-- some of the most picturesque scenery I had yet seen from a train window in Wales.
around Llyn Mair, we glided into a tiny
Victorian waystation, complete with platforms, iron footbridge, and a well-tended garden.
As we hissed to a halt, the guards strode up and down the platform shouting out
"Tawney Bulk," "Tawney Bulk." This was Tan-y-Bwlch station--
Welsh for "under the pass." From here, nature trails and rambles radiated
away in all directions. Among them is a particularly fine walk down to the shore of the
Llyn Mair. Should you be in the mood for a walking as well as a train-riding
holiday, FR will gladly sell you a return ticket from Porthmadog to Tan-y-Bwlch, and the
railway commissary in the Tan-y-Bwlch depot will even provide a picnic lunch to take away
on your hike.