It was summer 1967. I was nearly 17, and I did not relish the thought of going on holiday with my family. One of my school friends, Dave, had visited the FR some years before with his dad, and suggested we should visit, and possibly volunteer. I knew of the FR from articles in various railway magazines: it sounded like a good trip, so I joined him.

We travelled to Porthmadog by coach from High Wycombe. The journey was epic: it took eleven hours from Cheltenham to Porthmadog, arriving at about 1.00am, three hours late. We shouldered our rucksacks, walked across the Cob to Boston Lodge, and pitched our tent in the sandpit. The following morning we walked back to Porthmadog and caught the first train to Tan-y-Bwlch. After the train had left we walked up the track towards Ddaullt, ignoring the warning sign ‘Limited clearance. Survivors will be prosecuted’. We had heard about the Deviation, and wanted to see how it was progressing. We reached Dduallt station, and continued along the old line, finally reaching Tunnel Mess, which had recently been erected. A group of Deviationists was working on the interior of the building: we asked if we could stay and were told we could stay until the next weekend, as long as we shifted some rock on the spiral. We stayed for a week – we saw nobody else during that time - and advanced the formation a little. At the end of the week Dave injured his hand, requiring a trip to the doctor, and several stitches. After this he couldn’t work, so we spent the second week of our holiday travelling down the coast, visiting the Fairbourne, Talyllyn, Vale of Rheidol and finally the Welshpool, after which we returned home.

Working with the Permanent Way gang above Cae Mawr in 1972

For the next few years I continued to work on the Deviation, making the long trek from Buckinghamshire as schoolwork and my weekend job allowed, often with two other school friends, Colin and Dave (another one!). Our starting point was Hendon Central: our drive to Wales took about five hours, arriving around midnight at Tan-y-bwlch. We transferred our kit to a trolley, which we pushed up the line to Dduallt. The following morning, after a few hours sleep and a hearty cooked breakfast (always with porridge!) we would assault the landscape with picks, crowbars, pneumatic drills and (occasionally) gelignite. In the evenings, after dinner, beer was on tap in the mess. Sometimes we would walk the 4 or 5km down to The Grapes in Maentwrog: the more inebriated souls fell asleep in the bracken on the way back up the hill!

In 1969 I went to university. While there I became friends with Andy Savage, and joined him on FRS East Midlands Group working parties. We took on a variety of jobs, including track maintenance with Ron Lester and Fred Howes and building work at the Lodge. During the latter I was persuaded to sample the delights of (oil) firing, and eventually passed out as a fireman. This latter event came as some surprise to me: in those days there was no structured training and no exams: if the drivers liked you and you could do the job, you were in!

I continued to visit the railway after leaving university, as work, finances and girlfriends permitted. Most of my firing time was spent on Blanche with Phil Dowse, though I did get to fire Earl, Mountaineer and Linda as well. Phil was a great character, and fun to work with. When not firing I helped around the Lodge, where I learned to arc weld, fabricating part of the rear frames for Prince in the process.

After this my visits to the FR became less frequent. Like many regular volunteers before and since, the FR faded into the background in the face of getting married, becoming a parent, etc. My last visit was in 1980, on a working party constructing a temporary Barlwyd Bridge for the return to Blaenau. However, I continued to follow events on the FR, and later the renaissance of the Welsh Highland.

Working on Barlwyd Bridge in 1981

In October 2005 I joined a working party on Phase 3 of the WHR, along with a number of other ex-Deviationists. I subsequently became a regular member of the Rest of the World gang, building Phase 4 of the WHR, carrying out track and lineside maintenance, and more recently reconstructing Harbour Station. Also, as a historic building specialist I’m undertaking surveys of the FR’s listed buildings, to inform their future maintenance and use.

For me, those two weeks in 1967 were a revelation. They have given me a life-long interest, many really good friends, an escape from the pressures of the day job, a chance to employ different skill-sets, a sense of achievement in a job well done (most of the time!), and all this on two superb railways in a fantastic location.

Finally, how many people can tell their kids they helped to build two railways?


Bob Zeepvat first worked on the Deviation in 1967, subsequently gravitating to track maintenance and working at Boston Lodge. After a gap of some twenty years, he returned to North Wales in 2006 as a volunteer on the WHR, and is now a regular member of the Rest of the World tracklaying gang.


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