Vale of Rheidol: Narrow Gauge in the GWR Style


1. Aberystwyth 5. The Long Flat
2. The GWR Style 6. Hard Climbing
3. At the Engine Shed 7. Tea at Devil's Bridge
4. On Our Way 8. Sunset on Rheidol Vale


Six: Hard Climbing


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Taking on water
at Nantyronen
The meadows of Rheidol Vale now gave way to woodlands, and our harder-working engine led us through dark stands of pine and occasional groves of tall hardwoods.  Each such grove seemed to have its own name, which the guidebook spelled out with care: Rhiwarthen, Tanyrallt, and loveliest of all, Coed-troed-rhiw-Seiri.  The trackbed rose and fell, as stiff cuts through the shoulders of protruding hillsides alternated with gentler grades along level plateaus.  At one of these levels, a sudden drop in the pitch of #8s exhaust signaled an imminent halt.  The whistle shrilled for a level crossing, and then we eased to a stop by a rust-streaked iron watertank.  This was Nantyronen Halt; once there was a thriving country depot here, with a station and a goods-siding of its own.  All that remains is the watertank, and a quiet highland meadow sheltering under the steep hillsides of Tyllwyd-isaf.


Tanks refilled, we set out on the last leg of the journey, the bitter climb to Devil's Bridge.  Here the Rheidol shows a very different spirit from the gentle Talyllyn.  Though built for steam working, the 1860s-era Talyllyn is laid out in the style of an old horse-worked mineral tramway.  Except for the final stretch to Nant Gwernol, the adhesion portion of the line has only moderate grades, suitable to working either by horses or by small Victorian steam locomotives.   The really heavy climbing is concentrated by design in the now-abandoned inclined planes, which could be served by larger, more capacious stationary steam boilers.   When Edwardian engineers laid out the Rheidol in 1902, they showed vastly greater confidence in the brute hauling power of steam adhesion locomotives.  From Nantyronen up to Devil's Bridge, the line is one continuous series of near 2% grades and torturous reverse-curves.   


The first of those grades confronted us just yards beyond the Nantyronen halt: a stiff 2.08% grade with a sharp S-curve which takes the line up and out of the Nantyronen meadow, and back onto the mountain shoulders.  Now #8 really showed her mettle, and I began to understand why John Gwynne, the wise Railtrack dispatcher with whom I had spoken at Machynlleth at the start of the day, had urged me to ride the very first carriage of the up train.  From right behind the locomotive, every beat of the 2-6-2's staccato exhaust shuddered clear through the entire carriage.  The floorboards shook, and the door windows rattled in their frames.  At each curve I could see a pillar of exhaust steam jetting from #8's copper-capped smokestack, shooting straight up and out to create a veritable thunderhead above the engine. With her cylinder cocks still cracked to blow out condensation after the halt, the engine was wreathed in steam from the sides as well--an effect too spectacular to capture easily in words.  


We rattled through a long passing siding at Aberffrwd, and then the track swung rightwards into a narrower valley-- we were entering the Cwm Rheidol, the Rheidol Valley proper.  Across the deep valley floor, the mountainside opposite showed harsh scars from the lead mining which had been the foundation of the Rheidol's first prosperity.  Old tramway grades snaked across the face of the hillsides, and long dumps of tailings cascaded down below them onto the valley floor.  Nothing grew in the tailings, and their long, lobate patterns made great gashes in the green of the Welsh mountains.  On our own side of the valley we passed from time to time an open adit or mine pithead-- dark fenced-off holes leading deep into the mountainside on the right-hand side of the track, with mounds of tailings spilling down and away into the valley on the left.


Grade succeeded grade and curve followed curve. My ears began to dull from the constant pounding of the engine's exhaust, the squeal of the flanges on the curves, and the groan of the metal carriage frame as it transmitted the engine's fierce tug to the coaches behind us.  Now, as we neared Cwm Rheidol's headlands, we reached the line's most torturous stretch.  The trackbed commenced a series of incredibly sharp reverse turns: sweeping in toward the hillside and up steep tributary valleys, screaming through hairpin bends across the tributary streams, and then swooping left again to claw out back to the main valley.  Any one of these curves would have put standard-gauge equipment straight onto the ground: only the 1' 11.5" gauge allowed our engine's wheels to keep track around the bends.  Even so, the difference in circumference between the inside and outside rails of the curves ensured that our engine's outside drivers necessarily slipped along the outside rail, setting up a piercing protest at each and every bend.


At length the brutal series of grades, curves, and horseshoe bends gave way to a stretch of gentler running along a high rock ledge-- a pretty spot of woods and wildlands which form part of the Coed Rheidol (Rheidol Forest) Nature Reserve.  One last swing to the right and suddenly the ground rushed up and in from either hand, and we were blasting through a deep rock cutting.  Beyond the cut we rattled across the open floor of a kind of rock amphitheater-- the floor of the old Rheidol quarry, once a center also for lead smelting and textile mills.  At the far side of the quarry floor the rocks rose up and again and it was back out through another cut.  Then, with surprising suddenness, the train slowed, the carriage wheels clattered through two sets of switch points, and we were gliding to a stop at a small coachyard nestled into a level patch of hillside.  We had reached Devil's Bridge, and the end of the line.



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