Ffestiniog Railway: Queen of the Narrow Gauge

 

1. Porthmadog Quay 5. Blaenau
2. Quarry Engine 6. Fairlie's Patent
3. The Longest Grade 7. Downhill Run
4. On Dwyryd's Flank 8. Evening Chores
5. Deviation

 

Five: Deviation

 



Following a short station stop to accommodate the trail-lovers, it was back to the hard work of climbing the never-ending grade.  After a slow start Linda found her feet on the largely tangent track beyond Tan-y-Bwlch.  The carriages bobbed obediently behind as we rambled along wooded hillsides and high ledges, with fine views of the Dwyryd Valley constantly at hand to the right.

 

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The deviation--
the first leg of
Dduallt Spiral.
Then, at an isolated and wind-swept spot known on the railway's timetables as Dduallt, the forests abruptly gave way to high moorlands and bare rock.  At 540 feet, we were rising above the more temperate zone where the tall trees flourished.  Ahead lay the line's most daunting feature yet-- an outlying ridge of the high Moelwyn mountains flung squarely across the direct path to Blaenau Ffestiniog.  In the 1830s, Moelwyn ridge had been the undoing of the railway's early hopes for a continuous downhill grade.  Unable to find a route around the obstacle, Spooner had settled for hoisting the cars up and over the summit by means of an ingenious water-powered inclined plane. From the crest of the ridge, the wagons were then winched down another plane to Dduallt.  Though the system served after a fashion, the inclined planes decisively broke Spooner's continuous grade to Porthmadog.  Only after the completion of a 730-yard tunnel under the summit ridge in 1842 could the slate wagons drift all the way from Blaenau to the sea under gravity alone.

 

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The culprit--
Tanygrisiau
Reservoir stern
under slate-gray
mountain skies.
120 years later, history repeated itself.  As 1955 turned to 1956, eager FR volunteers were busily engaged in reopening the once abandoned railway line from Porthmadog northwards toward Blaenau  Yet while the FR had lain dormant and seemingly abandoned earlier in the 1950s, the British Electric Authority had determined that the Moelwyn ridge and the basin beyond it would form a near-perfect site for a proposed hydraulic power storage station.  The work would entail creating a large cache reservoir in the basin behind the ridge, flooding the Moelwyn tunnel and nearly a mile of Ffestiniog right-of-way in the process.  Protests by the revitalized railway went unheeded; the land was seized in 1956, and the reservoir filled and the line submerged by 1963.  Once again, FR's line was severed at Moelwyn Ridge. 

 

There followed one of the epic stories of railway preservation.  Determined to return to Blaenau, the railway's directors began seeking a new "deviation" survey which would carry the line over the ridge and around the reservoir above its high water mark.  An alignment was found and FR volunteers broke ground on the new route in 1965.  For the next thirteen years, doughty crews of weekend navvies labored away at constructing an entirely new railway.  Short on funds and equipment, the "deviationists" relied on essentially same hand tools and rough methods with which their forefathers had crested the ridge in 1830s and 1840s.  When the dust settled, the volunteers had hewn from the unforgiving mountains over two full miles of new railway grade, including a complete spiral at Dduallt to gain the altitude necessary to vault the ridge, and an entirely new 861-foot tunnel under the summit.  In 1978, the new grade rejoined the old route beyond the reservoir at Tanygrisiau.  The Deviation was complete.  Finally, in 1982, rails were relaid all the way to Blaenau.  For the first time since closure in 1946, the FR was again complete.

 

The reward for all this toil came now in the short work Linda and her sisters make of the once-forbidding Moelwyn ridge.   Digging into the Dduallt Spiral, the 2-4-0 gamely hauled our long rake of carriages up and around the curve.  After crossing over our own path at Rhoslyn Bridge, the train made one more sharp curve before picking up the old alignment of the south plane of 1836-42.  On the slope below, I could still clearly see the 1842-1947 alignment, now clotted with a thick growth of gorse and other mountain shrubs.  Then the main line of Moelwyn Ridge stood square before us, and the tracks plunged into a deep cut.  At its end lay the new Moelwyn Tunnel.  Day turned to clamoring midnight inside the bore, as the light failed and Linda's stack noise slammed off the tunnel roof and back into the carriage.  Then it was back out into the light, and gentle running again above the placid waters of the reservoir.

.

An abrupt downgrade and a sharp curve brought us around the head of the lake and into the village of Tanygrisiau itself.  Then it was on past slate cottages, and backyards hung with the days' wash drying on the line, all the way into Blaenau itself.  On the left-hand side of the tracks, FR's Glan-y-Pwll engine terminal offered a riveting glimpse of a huge and gleaming South African Garratt locomotive under steam outside the shed-- power for the new Welsh Highland line at Caernarfon undergoing tests before her debut in service.  From behind the engine terminal a set of standard-gauge rails swung in to join our route, and then the two lines marched proudly side-by-side to a common platform in the center of town.  Thirteen and 1/2 miles and 710 vertical feet after leaving Porthmadog, we had arrived in Blaenau Ffestiniog.

   


 

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