The second programme in what is becoming, for me, an unmissable series on BBC Four, saw Julia Bradbury walking the former Cambrian Railway route from Dolgellau to Morfa Mawddach and on across Barmouth Bridge.
This line has a resonance for me that goes back a long way before my involvement with railway preservation and restoration. I vividly recall travelling on this line on the way to childhood holidays on the Mid-Wales coast at Friog, tucked under the cliffs on the end of the beach at Fairbourne.
The original line that ran from Ruabon to Barmouth Junction (which was the original name of the station later re-named Morfa Mawddach) was built by a variety of railway companies, but by the time I was aware of it, had become part of the Western Region of British Railways. I remember changing trains at Ruabon, almost certainly having broken our long railway journey from Swindon where we then lived. We would have alighted at Gobowen to travel along another lost railway line to Oswestry to visit grandparents.
I can remember the stations at Llangollen, Corwen, Bala, Dolgellau, Morfa Mawddach where we would have changed for the short trip round to Fairbourne. Some of the minor stations and halts on this route also stick in my mind with Penmaenpool and the tiny wooden platform at Arthog being the cues for mounting excitement because we had almost arrived.
My own first views of Barmouth Bridge invoked a similar reaction to that of Julia Bradbury in the TV programme, except that we had no time to stop and sit to admire that view from the slowing train.
Julia’s walk started on the site of Dolgellau station, now completely vanished under the town’s by-pass which has used the old track bed. Her walk started across the river from the station site and was only able to join the old railway line after crossing the river by a footbridge after the by-pass veeered away. The walk soon lost the traffic roar and became much more tranquil.
The aerial views of the spectacular scenery added to the shots from ground level of a route that continually revealed more and more of the mountains of Snowdonia and the river valley as it became an estuary.
The remaining railway structure, the signalbox, station buildings and even a well-preserved signal at Penmaenpool were a poignant reminder of the heritage that was swept away in 1968 when the line was closed. Julia met a former engine driver there who declined to express his opinion on TV of Dr Beeching, the man responsible for the closure of the line.
The programme, like my mounting childhood excitement, then moved on to towards Arthog, where Julia and a local historian stood together on the site of Arthog’s station, where again, no trace remains. We also saw the massive concrete tank traps that had been erected during World War II and which are a still major feature of much of the estuary and coastline in that area. I remember that as children, we called them “Dragon’s Teeth”, a name that could well have been coined by my grandfather!
Although the programme mostly invoked memories for me, I also learned that Arthog almost became a resort town, possibly to rival Barmouth itself, but that one man’s grand plans came to nothing, except for his embyonic resort to be used as a wartime training camp for marines, who would have welcomed the ruggedness of the surrounding hills and mountains.
I knew about the areas industrial past in Slate quarrying and have visited some of the disused quarries, with memories of a walk to one quarry high above Fairbourne to visit the “Blue Lake”, probably another of my grandfather’s descriptions to enthrall us small children.
Julia’s walk eventually reached Morfa Mawddach, at one time a major junction station, which I believe had no road access at one time, but was simply an interchange between the coast route and the line that Julia had just walked. As Julia walked along one of the disused platforms at Morfa Mawddach, she had arrived at the still active line between Machynlleth and Pwllheli. Sue and I have walked the same path that Julia took for the final stretch across barmouth Bridge, the longest bridge in Wales.
In the 1980s, a worm almost achieved what Dr Beeching faied to do, to sever the Cambrian Coast line, but as this description says
The majority of the bridge is quite low to the water, and it caused British Rail massive problems in the nineteen eighties when a marine worm bored into the piles beneath the bridge, substantially weakening it. For a period only light Diesel Multiple Units could use the line and heavy locomotive-hauled trains were banned, but fortunately BR bit the bullet and repaired the bridge at massive cost.
Julia”s walk ended with the short stroll into Barmouth and an observation that this is one of the few big towns in this part of Wales that despite a very strong Welsh identity and widespread use of the Welsh language, retains its railway imposed English name, rather than being known by it’s perfectly serviceable Welsh name, Abermaw.
I have always had a deep-seated wish to see the whole of this line restored and re-opened from Ruabon to the coast. I am delighted that the Llangollen Railway and the narrow-gauge Bala Lake Railway have both made good use of part of the line, but it’s not the same. I guess that my dream will probably never be realised, particularly after the loss of Dolgellau Station to the road scheme there. However, after the oil runs out, who knows? Another of my grandad’s pieces of wisdom well before 1968 was that they shouldn’t be closing all these railways because they’ll need them again one day.
It’s a rare TV programme that can move me as much as this one did.