"Taming the Dragon"

My Mother blames my Grandfather. He, alas, died before my sixth birthday so I cannot confirm the story with him, but I like to think he would not object to my addiction. In the early nineteen sixties when I was just a toddler my family apparently went to North Wales on holiday, taking my Grandparents on my Mother's side with them. I have no memory of the holiday at all but I am told that my grandfather was most insistent that we should take a ride on the Ffestiniog "toy" railway. Presumably we booked tickets on the afternoon train and entered the platform to look for a seat. The antique carriages would not have been overly comfortable and were arranged in compartments, two four-seater benches facing each other, with a door on each side and a drop-down window. My father must have been miserable since at 6'3" he would have found the confines of a narrow-gauge carriage somewhat restricting and the lack of toilet facilities somewhat concerning for his weak bladder. I, apparently, was lifted onto my Grandfather's knee where I could see out of the window. With a toot on its whistle the little steam locomotive started to huff and puff and draw us slowly out of the station and, so I am told, my eyes lit up with a strange fervour… The spell was cast and I was addicted to the Ffestiniog Railway.

I suppose there are worse afflictions in life. I never wanted to be a train driver, (well, not seriously at any rate) and I never became a train-spotter, (although I did hang around stations during the school holidays, happy simply to watch the trains go by). But I did develop an abiding love for this particular little railway in Wales that has stayed with me to this day. Originally built in 1836 the Festiniog Railway, (note, officially just the one 'F' - the English act of parliament mis-spelt 'Ffestiniog' and so, legally, it should be incorrectly spelt), was an engineering wonder. Built to a continuous gradient it linked the slate quarries of Blaenau Ffestiniog with the harbour at Porthmadog over thirteen miles away, transporting the slate by gravity alone. When it became clear that horses could not cope with the volume of empty wagons that needed hauling back up the mountain it became the first narrow-gauge railway in the world to use steam locomotives and a string of engineering firsts followed. But the decline of the slate industry brought about the slow demise of the railway and the Second World War all but killed it. In the early nineteen fifties a group of people formed a society to try and restore what had become a derelict and abandoned railway and by the time I took my first, goggle-eyed ride on it, they had managed to rebuild over half of it.

For a few years we took our holidays elsewhere but soon the lure of Wales was too strong and we began a sequence of annual visits, staying in the same place every time. At first my pester-power worked only to ensure I got a ride on the train some time during the holiday, but as the years went by my interest grew deeper and at some stage I joined the Ffestiniog Railway Society. I'd like to think I joined for some noble reason - to assist the Society in the rebuilding of the line - but I'm sure I only joined for the free travel. Now I could spend all day travelling up and down the line, but as the middle teenage years beckoned I wanted to be more than simply a passive passenger. The Ffestiniog Railway Society exists to support the Ffestiniog Railway and provides much of the labour to run the line in the form of volunteers. It is a sad fact of life that in order to run such an operation commercially only a limited number of employed staff can be retained and the Ffestiniog Railway, like so many other preserved steam railways in the United Kingdom, relies heavily on volunteers to assist with all aspects of the operation. Volunteers drive the trains and act as guards, they work in the sheds and workshops, on and around the line, in the station shops and on the trains in the buffet cars. Anyone can become involved and as a teenage boy I wanted to be part of that 'anyone'. After much pestering I persuaded my parents to allow me to offer two days of my holiday to the railway and I worked in the souvenir shop at Porthmadog, the main terminus. It was hardly convenient for my father, who had to drive me over twenty miles from our accommodation at the start of the day, nor for the rest of the family who had to arrange their days to be in Porthmadog to collect me again at the end of the working shift, but I loved it. Finally I was doing something for this railway I so loved, even if it was only selling guide books and mars bars.

Of course, having tasted such involvement my appetite was whetted and so I started making plans for a longer period of work. In the sixth form at school I realised that I would have a long summer holiday to fill and so suggested to my parents that I might offer to work on the Ffestiniog for a week, on my own… Much to my surprise they agreed. My father even arranged a lift there and back with a work colleague of his who was going to Wales for a week over the summer and could drop me off on the railway if I could find accommodation. I could hardly believe it! I had never been away from home on my own before, (other than to stay with relatives, which hardly counted), so a whole adventure suddenly seemed possible. I quickly wrote to the Railway offering my services. I pointed out that I had volunteered before and had worked in their shop and would be happy to do so again but would it be possible to do something more involved with the trains themselves? I had in mind maybe cleaning the engines in the sheds, or something like that. I was not prepared for the letter that came back. 'Dear David', it read. 'Your application for a position as Trainee Fireman has been accepted'. I couldn't believe it. Trainee Fireman! It was every boy's dream to drive an engine, even those who wanted to grow up and become brain surgeons, and here I was being offered the chance to ride on the footplate and live the fantasy. I was delighted. My parents were less thrilled as it meant I had to have a set of working overalls and a pair of steel-tipped boots, neither of which I possessed and neither of which were particularly cheap, but I think the look of piteous pleading I turned on must have won them over. Either that or my father perhaps thought that at last I was showing an interest in something real and manly and should be encouraged as much as possible. Either way, overalls and boots were purchased, accommodation was arranged in one of the volunteer caravans in Minffordd Yard through an acquaintance who was already a fireman and the dates fixed with my father's colleague. Come the day and he arrived in his two-seater convertible Triumph. My adventure had begun…

The journey itself was a revelation. Instead of taking the obvious route to North Wales Mr. Shaw preferred to use more obscure roads and so I found myself travelling over passes I had never seen before. When the soft-top was finally rolled back we basked in the weak Welsh sunshine as we descended into the Vale of Ffestiniog. He dropped me off at the entrance to Minffordd Yard and promised to pick me up a week later and as he drove off I suddenly realised I was on my own for the first time in my life. In my mind's eye I saw a forlorn, Paddington-bear figure standing at the entrance to the yard, bag in hand, feeling a little lost and I knew that figure was me. In truth I was a very shy, very sheltered boy, extremely green behind the ears. My family was polite and middle class and I had never been exposed to anything other than middle-class niceness. And here I was standing in a works yard for a railway, looking for a caravan and someone I knew only really as a passing acquaintance. But it was too late for second thoughts and so I set off to search for my accommodation. I use the term loosely, for in truth the caravan should have been condemned years earlier but it had a roof and a bed of sorts and Paul was already there. He was friendly and welcoming, though I think he quickly realised that he had a very nervous lad on his hands who was very young for his age. He showed me over the Volunteer hostel the other side of the yard, which was where I would have to go to shower, and I realised that our caravan was actually quite luxurious in comparison. Comfort and cleanliness did not seem to be words that were much used in the volunteer world of the Ffestiniog. Back in the caravan Paul rustled up a meal of some description and we headed for bed as the fireman's shift started early in the morning…

Boston Lodge Works was another new world to this sheltered city boy. I had never encountered grease before and everything here was covered in it, including the men who worked there. Even though it was only 7am the place was a hive of activity as teams of drivers and firemen prepared their locomotives for the day's service. Faces were already smeared with oil as they lubricated joints and pistons, overalls showing telltale stains where hands had been wiped. But what struck me most was the language. Not Welsh, for the majority of workers were of English descent, but blue. Very blue. In the space of five minutes I heard more words beginning with 'F' or 'B' than I had heard in my entire seventeen years to date, and I quickly found I had to match their output if I was to have any chance of being accepted. With my ears burning I followed Paul over to where 'Blanche' sat in her shed and he introduced me to her driver for that day. Phil Dowse was just as you would expect from his name. Short with tousled black hair and a snarl to terrify a pit bull terrier, it transpired he was renowned on the railway for his temper and his tendency to thrash the locomotives within an inch of their lives. He terrified me and I tried hard not to sound like an English nancy as he grunted a sort of greeting before turning back to his beloved engine. Paul obviously knew him and with a few choice swear words they were settled for the day. I trailed behind Paul as he went through his preparation, wondering at this strange, frightening but magical world behind the scenes and when it came time to finally board the engine and travel across the mile-long causeway to Porthmadog station I could barely contain my excitement. I might be in the company of uncouth ogres but I was on the footplate of a real, live steam engine and with the sound of the steam exhaust in my ears and the sea breeze in my face I smiled like a Cheshire Cat all the way over the Cob.

Phil Dowse and Blanche

Once at Porthmadog Paul showed me the routine of filling up with water, checking fuel gauges and coupling up to the carriages and then we ready for our first trip up the line. I tried to look nonchalant as the tourists crowded round the engine to take photos. Dowse scowled and snarled at the children but they seemed to think it was all part of being a train driver so I practised looking fierce until Paul asked me if I was constipated. Soon enough came the time of departure. The guard blew his whistle, Phil answered with a blast on Blanche's whistle and pulling gently on a lever in front of him the train puffed slowly out of the platform. This was the life! As Blanche picked up speed Paul and Dowse both concentrated on keeping her running smoothly and I was left to lean out of the cab and enjoy the sensation. It was much noisier than I had imagined, and much rougher too. I had always thought of steam engines as being like great ships, gliding serenely along the rails. Blanche had obviously never shared my dream for she bucked like an unbroken horse, screaming all the time as Dowse pushed her to the limits of her engineering. It was hot, noisy and uncomfortable but it felt like heaven. At the first station I followed Paul into the office to watch whilst he phoned Control and checked in before extracting the metal token from the machine which would act as his authorisation to proceed along the single track. Then, as the little train climbed high into the woods and the hills I ogled the scenery, staring contentedly out of the cab as we steamed up the valley.

My first shock came half way up the line. "Normally new trainees fire the loco from this point", Paul said, too casually, "but you haven't been watching, have you?" And I hadn't. I had assumed he would tell me when he was ready to give me lessons in firing, but apparently I was supposed to have been keen enough to learn simply by watching what he was doing. Dowse snarled from the other side of the cab and I resolved to watch Paul like a hawk from there onwards. Unfortunately as we pulled slowly out of the half way station of Tan-y-Bwlch I realised that firing was not as easy as I thought it was going to be. Paul had realised I was not going to be easy to teach the night before when I had confessed I had no idea how a steam engine actually worked. Things mechanical have always been a mystery to me and even now I am as likely to stare piteously at a broken machine until my wife sighs deeply and sorts it out for me as I am to be able to do anything practical with it. Paul patiently drew pictures of boilers and fireboxes and pistons and steam and I kind of grasped how it might work. But if I had hoped to be able to spend my time on the footplate honestly shovelling coal into the blazing firebox I was to be disappointed. The Ffestiniog Railway, ever at the forefront of narrow gauge technology, had converted all their engines into oil-burners. Instead of a shovel and a pile of coal I was presented with a valve and a gauge and a need to monitor the flow of oil into the firebox. I also had to keep an eye on the water tank gauge and had to keep the water pressure from growing too high. Every now and then whenever the pressure reached a certain level I had to perform a complicated set of knob turning and valve opening until the pressure was vented and I quickly learnt that watching scenery was not a pastime a fireman could enjoy.

At the top of the line we uncoupled Blanche from her carriages and Dowse eased her out of the loop to run round to the other end. I tugged and heaved at the heavy lever to operate the points and when they were set ran back to the carriages to ensure the coupling was done properly. As delicately as if she was made of lace Dowse eased Blanche towards the rear carriage, following my directions. "A little more. Nearer. That's it!" Only it wasn't. I had called him too far forward and the couplings were too close to engage. Snarling again he pulled Blanche back a little and eased her forward on my bidding. Again the couplings bent past each other and with barely controlled anger he repeated the process a third time. "Please God", I prayed, "let it couple properly this time", but it looked as if my prayers were not going to be answered. No matter how hard I pulled at them the couplings would not engage. I began to panic, wondering what Dowse would do to me if he had to shunt Blanche back a fourth time but at that moment the guard, who I suspect had come down the train to see what was going on, took pity on me and gave the couplings a hefty kick from his side. With a satisfying 'clunk' they dropped into place and I smiled my gratitude to my rescuer. He winked at me conspiratorially. "How are you doing?" he asked and when I told him I didn't think I was doing very well he leaned forward and muttered, "don't worry about Dowse. His bark's worse than his bite!"

I tried to remember that on the return to Porthmadog but I was too busy watching the valves and the gauges and too terrified of doing the wrong thing to think about it. Thirteen miles never seemed so far. In truth, I was scared I was going to do something stupid and blow the engine up. I just knew that if I did the pressure-release thing now it would be too soon and the train would grind to a halt due to lack of steam pressure or something and so Paul was constantly telling me I was too late in taking action. The one time I decided to act on my own initiative Paul yelled, "too soon" just as I touched the valve, causing me to jump and the valve to turn and he spent the next few minutes playing with flows and pressure gauges until the engine's equilibrium was restored. By the time we arrived back I was acutely aware of Dowse scowling at me and was not what you would call a confident fireman. Nevertheless we had to prepare for our second trip up and back the line, so Dowse ran the loco down to the water tower and leapt off to oil the motion. "Do you want to fill her up?" Paul asked, and I nodded in relief at finally being given something relatively simple to do.

I climbed up onto the boiler and unscrewed the water cap, then reached across to the tower and pulled the canvas spout over and into the tank. A twist of the valve on the tower and the spout quickly filled up with water that started splashing into the tanks. I watched carefully as the level rose, determined not to have it overflow and as it reached the brim I turned the valve off. The canvas spout collapsed and sagged with the residual water inside it and I carefully gathered it in my arms then threw it over the side of the locomotive, allowing the surplus water to cascade out onto the track side. However my action was greeted with a snarling howl and a string of curses such that parents with small children slapped their hands over the young impressionable ears. From beneath the loco Dowse appeared, soaking wet. He had been oiling the motions beneath me when I threw the water spout back and a good couple of buckets-full had landed on top of him! It was a good job I did not speak Welsh since at least I was spared understanding what it was he called me. Strange, though, how swearwords sound the same in any language…

As we started up the line on the second round trip, Dowse still dripping gently onto the footplate and me at the firing controls under Paul's resigned scrutiny, he suggested that I collect the token at Minffordd on my own. The office was at the bottom end of the station and to save time and a long walk the skilled firemen hung off the side of the loco as it entered the platform and stepped off whilst it was still moving. I had watched this happen many times and was eager to prove my worth somehow. As we approached the station Paul took over the fireman's controls and I swung out onto the running board, ready to step elegantly and confidently onto the platform. Behind me the passengers in the first carriage eyed me with casual interest as we swept into the loop. To this day I have no idea what possessed me to step off a train that was still travelling at about fifteen miles an hour. One minute my feet were on the running board, the next they were on the platform, but whereas they were not moving my body had all the inertia of something moving at considerable speed. My arms windmilled frantically as my feet tried desperately to catch up with the laws of physics but to no avail. In stately slow motion replay I tripped over my too-slow feet and fell up the platform like one of those graceless ducks landing on a frozen lake - all legs and arms and screaming fear. All along the train heads popped out of windows. Children laughed openly. Adults sniggered behind their hands. With as much dignity as I could muster, (which was not much), I picked myself up and made for the sanctuary of the Token office, there to lick my wounds in relative privacy. Token finally in hand I kind of limped the length of the platform back to the engine, face flaming red, acutely aware of every eye on the train watching me, every child's fingers pointing. One small child summed it up perfectly. "That the falling man, mummy!" He spoke for the whole train. To my surprise Dowse was smiling as I climbed back into the cab. "Bet that hurt," he said, without any trace of a snarl, and I grinned somewhat ruefully back him. "Just a bit".

I didn't get any better at firing over the next two days, despite the patience of Paul and another fireman, but at least Dowse snarled a little less. Eventually I took myself to see the Roster Manager, Dave Yates. "I want to retire before I'm thrown off", I said, and although he made a show of trying to dissuade me we both knew I'd made the right decision. The next day I wandered into the Works and found the man responsible for carriage restoration and offered my services. He was delighted to see me and set me to scrubbing the rust off an old underframe with a wire brush, a task I proved remarkably good at, probably because it didn't involve turning valves or monitoring oil-flows. I even made a few friends in the Yard, though I had to be very careful when I returned home not to use any of the words I had become accustomed to using in the presence of my parents!

On the last day I was waiting at Boston Lodge Halt to take the train into Porthmadog for a final meal at the café when Phil Dowse joined me on the tiny platform. I shrank into my anorak and tried to look elsewhere but he surprised me by grunting, "You can talk to me, you know", and I did. For a few minutes until the train arrived we talked of my experiences and laughed about my fall at Minffordd. He surprised me by saying that I should have stuck it out as a fireman and that lots of people found it difficult at first. I think he genuinely meant well and when the train finally came we parted on good terms. But I knew I had been right. I wasn't cut out to be a fireman, or a driver, or anything mechanical. A guard, perhaps, but another time. For now I had learnt a valuable lesson - that I was not infallible and there were some things in life that I just could not do. I had also had a crash course in the real world and discovered a whole new vocabulary. And I had met my very own Welsh dragon who proved not to be quite so fierce after all. All in all it had probably been the best week of my life, even though it had felt like hell at the time…
 

 

David Brown is a former volunteer who now runs a guest house near Barmouth.

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