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


Seven: Tea at Devil's Bridge


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Pulling forward
into the passing



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Passengers cluster round as Engine #8 simmers quietly in the pocket.

Pressed into its tiny hillside ledge, Devil's Bridge Yard looked like some modeler's solution to a tough problem in track design for narrow benchwork.  Five tracks fanned from the initial points, two forming a long passing loop and three heading off behind the unassuming frame commissary building to the right.   Our train pulled into the inside track of the loop, and then sighed to a halt by the passenger platform.  The guard made his way along the train from back to front, turning his brass key in each compartment door to release the waiting patrons.  For a moment the platform was a scene of pell-mell confusion as families with children corralled their overeager little ones, and tour groups sorted themselves out to locate their waiting buses.  The train crew waited patiently for the crowds to thin a bit, and then they set about uncoupling the engine to pull forward beyond the points of the passing loop.  A brief clanking signaled that the brakeman had lifted up the coupling hooks at the engine's rear buffer, and then with a gentle whoosh of steam #8 pulled daintily forward into through the points and into the pocket. 


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Swindon's finest narrow-gauge engine in roster

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Front elevation:
tall side tanks
conceal the modest
size of the engine's

The crew tied down the handbrake and dispersed to tea, thermoses and lunch pails in hand.  Like the Talyllyn, the Rheidol observes the ritual of the tea-halt: the crew's perquisites were not to be denied!  The long halt gave the crowds time to thin further, and for the first time in my hectic visit I had a moment to commune with #8 in peace.  Pulled up by herself, the trim prairie simmered quietly in the pocket.  Late afternoon sun showed off her Swindon lines to good advantage: the tall side tanks and broad steam dome gave the engine a no-nonsense, muscular look.  Even so, the boiler sheltering between those tanks was really quite modest, and I was all the more impressed with the driver and fireman's skills: making the uphill run without exhausting the available steam pressure must require particular judgement.  Perhaps the most striking feature of the engine's design was the compactness of the driving gear: the distance between the first and last drive axles couldn't have been much more than six feet, an astonishingly short rigid wheelbase for so long a frame.  Clearly when #8's designers were drafting her plans, they had had the Rheidol's astonishing curves very much on their minds.


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Where the
enginemen work:
#8's footplate from
the driver's side
No steam engine tour could be complete without a glance at the footplate.  #8's enginemen kept their domain spotlessly clean: hardly a speck of dust or dirt marred the cab floor (oil firing surely helps: it's easier to keep up appearances when coal dust isn't working its way into every nook, cranny and seam).  #8's backhead fittings differed little from those of the Talyllyn's Tom Rolt, yet again each valve, handle and gauge had a certain heft and no-nonsense toughness.  All in all, the cab had quite a different feel from that of the TR locomotive.  #8 may have been a little engine, but her soul and fittings had more in common with Swindon's famous Castles and Kings than with the Victorian-styled engines of the TR-- even though the Talyllyn has the wider gauge!


Even the most exhausting engine inspection can use up only so much time, and my leisurely visit with #8 ended with a good three-quarters of an hour yet to kill before departure.  Suddenly hungry, I set out for the railway's commissary.  There I secured a cola, two restorative Welsh cakes-- and a special treat.  When I stepped through the door of the little frame building, I found myself the sole customer.  Behind the counter were two railway employees, and older and a younger woman.  These two were having an animated conversation in what at first sounded to my startled ears like a particularly guttural dialect of German. Then the light went on-- they were speaking Welsh!   So far Samantha's and my travels had been confined mostly to anglicized South Wales, where Welsh is almost never used in daily speech.  Though all road signs and public notices are bilingual in the South as well as the North, I had not once heard the sound of Welsh as a spoken tongue.  When I heard the two Rheidol ladies speaking, I knew at last that I was somewhere entirely other: not Britain, not England, but true Wales.



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