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


Eight: Downhill Run


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Storming the
grade above Tanygrisiau.

After watching Michelle and Colin guide the big Fairlie to a coupling, I set out toward the rear of the train to see how I might fare in the way of historic carriages to ride.   My luck brimmed over: at the very end of the rake stood a varnished green wooden car, low, dark and inviting. Unlike all the other coaches I had seen that day, #23's sideboard proclaimed her to be stock not of the FR but of the Welsh Highland Railway, a storied and long-vanished 2' gauge line which once ran from a connection with the Ffestiniog at Porthmadog up into the heart of Snowdonia and on towards Caernarfon.  (In fact, the car predates even the Welsh Highland: she began life as an 1894 "summer car" on the North Wales Narrow Gauge Railway.  Click here to read Richard Beton's fine account of her fascinating career with three railways). Tired but happy with my luck, I tumbled contentedly into a compartment of the aged but still gracious car.


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forest on the
Moelwyn ridge.

With a gentle clank of brake shoes releasing below the floorboards, we lurched into motion and began drifting down out of Blaenau.  For the first mile or so of the return trip, we enjoyed the kind of easy downhill coast that Charles Spooner had envisaged for his gravity-driven railway.  Beyond Tanygrisiau, however, Iarll Meirionnydd began working hard as we swerved onto the Deviation line around the reservoir.  The new high line above the waters puts a wicked little reverse kink into Charles Spooner's once-continuous southbound grade, and now even "downhill" trains face a stiff rise of some thirty vertical feet in the half a mile beyond Tanygrisiau station.  Though no doubt a great sorrow to the ghost of Charles Spooner, the redundant grade was a joy to me: I had one good chance to watch the Iarll tackle a real grade.  The hulking Fairlie did not disappoint: with tall clouds of almost pure-white steam jetting from each stack, she charged the hill with malice aforethought.  Obedient to the tug of the big engine's drawbar, the carriages clattered over the hill in fine fashion at what must have been near track speed.  A brief test of the Fairlie's mettle, but enough to underscore just why the big, four-drivered articulateds had been such favorites with Ffestiniog mangers and crews for over a century.


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Iarll picks the way
through stonework
walls on the
Garnedd ledge.

We crested the grade at the Tanygrisiau power station, and then settled in for the long downhill run.  The Iarll's driver throttled back his charge until the engine's dual stacks were emitting only the most demure wisps of steam from either stack, making a delicate and swiftly-dissipating cloud    above the cars.  Then it was mile after mile of smooth and even running, with the old wood carriage swaying gently from side to side as the bogies clattered along the jointed rail.  Low sun over the Dwyryd Valley bathed the bright green corridor carriages at the head of the train in a warm afternoon light, and sent highlights glancing off the Iarll's gleaming brass steam domes.  Crisp mountain air and the smell of pine needles wafted in through the open sash windows of my old car, and all was right with the world.


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Linda and a late
up train at the
Minffordd passing


At Minffordd we repeated the ritual meet between trains, this time with our train holding the down main as Linda and her train out of Porthmadog passed on the up main to our left.  Even though it was late in the day and early in the season, FR operations were still in full swing, and Linda's train would not be the last uphill run of the afternoon.  Once the trim Hunslet had pulled clear into the up main, we started out for the final glide down to the Cob.   After coasting through meadows dotted with sheep and rounding the old cemetery at Rhiw Plas, we were soon clattering across the great earthen dam itself.  Slowing now with each passing yard, Iarll pulled us onward toward the quay, and then, with a gentle clanking and hiss, we glided to a stop back at the Porthmadog Harbor platform.  The Ffestiniog Railway had completed another run from Blaenau's high mountains back down to the sea.



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