. . . . . . . . The scenery is so grand, and the change of surrounding from harbourside at one end to bleak mountainside on the other, so melodramatic, that the Festiniog line can afford to turn its nose up at added colourings and flavourings. In fact, it throws away one of its grandest effects at the start. The train emerges from the Harbour station right onto the embankment built by Madocks in 1871 – always known as the Cob – and the minute or two it takes to run across it is simply not enough to take in the landward view, which is a panorama of Snowdonia above a wide estuary, and the seaward view, a glittering expanse of water bounded by promontories, full of herons, cormorants, oyster-catchers and the occasional yacht. Sometimes, in a West End play, the scenery is so well designed that the audience gives it an ovation, much to the fury of the actors. Well, in the first few yards of the Festiniog line, you feel like leaping to your feet and whistling.
Perhaps, in a way, it’s like an opera overture in which the composer lets you glimpse all the themes and the best bits which you’re going to get more of later – in those few seconds the Ffestiniog scenery throws at you a glorious jumble of mountains, water , sky, rocks and steaming engines, all of which get repeated in a more dignified fashion the hour’s journey to the top. After the excitement of the Cob, and a glimpse on the right of the Boston Lodge engine works, the line becomes almost suburban for a while, working through little villages, behind fields and up the back of Penrhyndeudreath, but beyond that the ascent of the line is a geography lesson…
Q. What happens when you go up from the coast in North Wales? Yes, you, boy.
A. Sir, you leave the valley behind and go up the hill, you get into the trees, then you go above the tree line and get into the bracken, and then after a while you get above that. And it’s only grass, sheep and slate.
Q. Very good. And what’s that great lump over to the south?
A. That’s Trawsfynydd Power Station, sir.
Q. But we don’t tell the American Tourist that, do we. What do we tell them it is?
A. Harlech Castle, sir.
Q. And do they believe us?
A. Quite often, sir.
The rise is gradual, consistent and never-ending. It had to be, so that it didn’t defeat horses on the way up or gravity on the way down, and the twists in the line are explained by the fact that it was more important to keep a gentle gradient than go n a straight line. But the most famous twist of all was caused by something quite different: water. More precisely by the wicked action of the Central Electricity Generating Board in covering the top of the line with a lake at a time when the Festiniog line never looked like getting back to Blaenau Ffestiniog. The Festiniog rail people were furious and sued the CEGB for all they could get, but it didn’t bring the line back, so in the 1960s they buckled down to build a new line, which involved a complete spiral, a new tunnel and a fresh line along the lake. It was known by the unappealing name of the Deviation but the volunteers who worked on it were proud to be known as Deviationists, and although, by the standards of motorway construction, it was no great shakes, as a purely voluntary effort it is quite staggering.
‘Funny thing was,’ said Phil, ’that they were only interested in building the Deviation. They kept quite separate from the rest of us. I don’t believe they were actually interested in the rest of the railway, or trains, at all. When it was all finished, they all vanished.’
Phil Dowse is a driver, a volunteer. In private life he is also a train driver, out of Paddington, for which he gets paid. He gave me the only footplate ride I got in 1989 (apart from one on the North Yorkshire Moors), so thanks, Phil. When he comes to the Ffestiniog to do some driving, he finds it hard not to go at 60mph the first day (there’s a 20mph limit on the line) and finds the rolling stock pretty small. When he gets back to Paddington, it all seems pretty huge and fast, though it would upset the system if he kept to 20mph on the main line, so he doesn’t…
He wasn’t always a driver here, and when you go past Dduallt station he sighs with nostalgia at the sight of the now derelict signal box, where he had spent many happy hours in solitary suspension. Actually, being a driver here is hardly less solitary; the one thing I have learnt from rare forays to the footplate is that being a driver may bring you closer to the engine, but what it chiefly does is take you further from people. A driver can quite happily forget that the coaches behind him contain passengers, all of whom have paid good money to be on the train and half of whom are coming round to goggle at his engine at the end of the trip. This is the point he has to go public, like a hermit in a grotto who has suddenly been visited by a coachload of pilgrims.
‘Do we have any requests for any of the request stops?’ Phil asks Nick Corley, the fireman.
‘All of them.’
‘Not going to get a good run at the line this time, then.’
All that stopping and starting may be good for the passengers but it’s a bind for the crew. I like it because it gives me a chance to catch up with my notes at stations; you can write when the engine’s going along all right, but you can’t read it afterwards. I have a note here that reads MAD DOG. What can that mean? Oh yes, I remember…
‘There’s a mad dog on the line,’ says Phil. ’He lives somewhere in the woods. There’s all kinds of wildlife round here, but he’s the wildest.’
And sure enough a black dog appeared on the line in the woods, ranting and raving at the engine and only just getting out of the way in time. That’s harder than it sounds. The Festiniog is built with less clearance than any line I’ve ever seen, on either side, and if you poke your head out in the cuttings you’ll knock your false eyelashes off. Up in the woods there are cuttings so tight there are signs in Welsh and English saying to the rambler the equivalent of ‘For God’s sake don’t walk down here because there won’t be room for both you and a train. If a train comes, the train will win.’
After my footplate ride on the North Yorkshire Moors I had grit in my hair like black dandruff for three days afterwards. Riding on LINDA
on the Festiniog it struck me as very peculiar that I had no smuts at all, until I remembered the other very Madeiran thing about the line; all the engines have been converted from coal to oil. There was a time in the 1970s when fire danger seemed so great and timber was getting so dear, that they simply they had to switch to oil, which creates virtually no sparks at all. Except among the coal-loving community.
‘They can’t get over it,’ says Phil. ‘They come and look at the engine for a long time and finally say, ‘What’s that?’ I tell them it’s the oil tank. Another long pause and they say, ’Where does the coal go, then?’
Which obviously gives Phil a lot of pleasure. Actually, I was a bit disturbed at first to realise that coal had been phased out altogether, but then you realise that it’s merely by custom we associate coal with steam. You could heat it with gas, wood, or electricity; what’s important is the steam, and in fact oil-firing seems to be easier, more powerful and certainly cleaner. All right, so you miss the steady shovelling of the fireman and all the little rituals of placing one shovelful here
and one in this
corner, but on the other hand you don’t set fire to the countryside.1989 was plagued with fires. On the Ffestiniog they didn’t phone the fire brigade once.
Other unique things about the line:
1. All preserved lines have religious posters, but only the Festiniog has permanently painted ones, endowed by a local chapel.
2. It is the only one with funny ads in the carriages, done by Browsers Bookshop of Portmadoc.
3. It was never owned by British Rail.
4. It’s the only line I came across with a class structure- First, Third and Observation. Observation coaches are so-called because they have plush red armchairs with big wings which prevent you from seeing out of the windows.
5. Nobody knows how to spell the name correctly.
This last is a more serious point than you might think. You may have noticed that if Ffestiniog is a place-name, it has two ‘F’s. If it’s the railway, it has one. The Act of Parliament says so, and that should be an end to it. But the railway cannot quite bring itself to believe the Act, and spells it both ways as if uneasily aware that the Parliamentary spelling is an English bastardisation of the correct Welsh spelling – indeed, if you wanted to be pedantic about this, Festiniog with one ‘F’ should correctly be pronounced Vestiniog…