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
5. Deviation


Four: On Dwyryd's Flank


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Passing the
morning down
train at Minffordd.
A mile 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.


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Gray hills, gray
cottages: lineside
home at Penrhyn. 

As soon 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.     


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Crossing Cei Mawr,
the Great Quay.
Past 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.


Cei 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.


Halfway 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.



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All materials, images, text and presentation copyright 1998 Erik Gray Ledbetter.  See Terms of Use.