My first involvement with the Ffestiniog Railway was as a schoolboy in 1958, when a friend organised a working week for five of us in Porthmadog. As unskilled labour we were issued with mattocks and other jungle clearance equipment and despatched to Minffordd Yard to clear out the low-level coal road so that a BR coal wagon could use the exchange siding above to deliver coal to the emerging railway. At that stage the end of the passenger line was Penrhyn, and one afternoon we walked from there through the semi-jungle to Tan y Bwlch. I joined the FR Society and was fortunate to be able to travel on two of the FRS Specials to Porthmadog, joining the train both times at Birmingham Snow Hill. In 1959 I organised another week for a group, by then the line was open as far as TyB, with the plug in Moelwyn Tunnel blocking further progress. I recall walking to Dduallt and into the mouth of the old tunnel, which was wet and dark and smelt as through there was probably a dead sheep somewhere ahead. As we had no torches we didn’t go far in! Some of my photos from those early visits were published in the FR Mag No. 200 in Spring 2008. On leaving school I joined the Royal Navy, which got in the way of volunteering on the railway until I ended up at the Naval Engineering College in 1963, but I decided early on that Life Membership of the FRS would probably be a good investment – at £15!
As we were encouraged to do useful things in our Naval leave periods, during our Easter leave in 1966 I persuaded half a dozen of my fellow engineering students that a week in North Wales would be fun, and duly wrote to Allan Garraway offering our services. One of us had relations who ran a pub and B&B in Y Felinheli, and Allan was encouraging, so we turned up at Boston Lodge to ‘be useful’. We completed various tasks during our week, and commuted daily from the Menai Straits, sometimes via Beddgelert. That was my first acquaintance with the Welsh Highland Railway, and we all thought it such a shame that we were never likely to see trains running through Aberglaslyn in our lifetimes!
I left the Navy in 1973 and joined IBM, first in London and then in Hampshire, where I remained for the next twenty years, too far from North Wales for more than an occasional fleeting visit, but still keenly interested in every development on what I have now come to think of as my first railway adventure. Following early retirement in 1993, more time was available so I started to lead tours for Ffestiniog Travel, with whom I had travelled as a passenger on several occasions. Then came the news of the start of work on the Welsh Highland. Having originally trained as a steam engineer in the Navy, it seemed logical to volunteer for the footplate. Qualifying as a firemen in 2001, I got into the habit of being in North Wales quite a bit, but since there were no trains running during the winter months, I decided to get involved with track laying too.
My first track-laying experience was on Phase 4 at Meillionen. On our arrival the head of steel was at the up-hill end of the platform, and we spent the next two days advancing towards Tyn y Coed. At the end of day one, Conway Castle brought the works train down to the platform, and I was the first passenger to step out onto the new platform - where are the cameras when you want to capture a moment in history? Another gap, and this time the head of steel was in Cutting Mawr, next time it was at the South portal of Tunnel 4, with track laying across Cwm Bychan, and then down on the level at Parry’s Pig Farm, and later still at Ynysfor crossing. In late 2008, as one of Andy Savage’s team during a working week, two of us wheeled measuring wheels from Rhyd Ddu to Harbour Station over two days to calibrate the whole of Phase 4, whilst the works train followed with the kilometre posts and the concreting team. The FR PW team were working on the Welsh Highland point at Harbour when we arrived and were rather surprised to see us wheeling our way over Britannia Bridge, approaching them from the wrong direction!
One of the more memorable works train rides was as part of the crew of three on the first train from Porthmadog New (New) to Dinas one evening, accompanied by Ben Rosen and Andrew Thomas. Operating the stop blocks and point clips at Rhyd Ddu with only the light of the point indicator signal and the loco headlight was ‘interesting’, and the celebration hot chocolate at Dinas was most welcome! Having started my adult life with the adventure of the re-birth of the Ffestiniog, it has been another great railway adventure and a privilege to take an active part in the renaissance of the Welsh Highland Railway in my 60’s and 70’s!
|James King is a member of the Rest of The World Gang that helped build the Welsh Highland Railway. He is also a tour guide for Ffestiniog Travel.|