I've been lucky enough to have had more than one adventure courtesy of the Ffestiniog Railway.
The first was when I was very small - to a three year old on holiday in North Wales, the slate waggons left abandoned on Porthmadog harbour were irresistible. Of course my efforts to move them were completely unsuccessful, but the attempt provided my first memory of the narrow gauge. Something must have stuck.
About 10 years later I joined and started volunteering. A second adventure. Long overnight journeys from London in vans or members cars, a day and a half’s physical work usually on the most basic track work, and just as long a return journey. How that would fit with today’s attitudes to child protection goodness alone knows, but none of us teenagers came to any harm as far as I know. Moreover it certainly taught me a lot about the merits of a leadership that is really engaged and well informed, as well as showing what a can do attitude could achieve. This experience formed attitudes that rubbed off on my railway career, and goes on doing so in the continuing adventure of directing the railway today.
But I suppose my most specific FfR adventure has been my involvement in restoring some of the railway's remarkable collection of Victorian carriages. These were the mainstay of the working railway during my spell of volunteering in the late 50s and early 60s, but the railway then focused on modern coaches for modern customers and became rather careless about this heritage. That in turn which led to losses and to what now seems poor work during the 70s and 80s. I had more than enough railway involvement through BR jobs at that time, and carelessness about conserving heritage on the FfR seemed wrong to me. So I rather lost interest in the railway at that time.
All that changed after I became a Trustee and then Chairman of the Trust. The trigger that started carriage restoration was (oddly enough) the foot and mouth epidemic in 2001. Snowdonia was off limits and the restrictions on access threatened to close both railways. We were worried about how we could sustain jobs if we were unable to run trains – even for quite a short time. Fortunately, it never came to that, but one option identified was to keep people busy by increasing capital work. Could I help? Former WHR carriages 23 and 26 had suffered particularly badly during the rush for modernity, and so I offered to fund their restoration for use on the WHR. In fact there was an added bonus in that funding these two coaches privately would unlock Millennium funds for two further new WHR coaches. In the event the 80s work left so little of the original 26 that we decided to build a replica instead (which became 24). These coaches were used for the opening to Rhyd Ddu, and have been in nearly every WHR train since.
23, 24 and 26 are examples of cheap and cheerful Victorian carriages. The real stars of the heritage carriage fleet are the Spooner designed carriages built in the 1870s. Beautifully built to quality rather than price, with panelled joinery in fine timber and elaborate paintwork. By some miracle, the FfR still had all six, though no brake vans remained in anything like original condition. The Heritage Lottery Fund had supported the restoration of the first two, and we hoped that they would help restore the other four – the four that reflected the height of nineteenth century carriage design and joinery. That was not to be, and so I found myself supporting the proper restoration first of 18 (from 1876) and then 19 (1879). The work on these really developed skills at Boston Lodge, and the results were superb. A Victorian train was incomplete without a brake, so I also supported a replica 1872 brake van – which though very largely new did incorporate what survived of the originals. Luckily, Boston Lodge was good at keeping things. Work on the original Lynton & Barnstaple bogies completed this particular adventure.
What did this adventure give me personally? At the simplest there is an intrinsic satisfaction from seeing work done well, from seeing something that I thought was really special come alive again, and from a sense of righting part of the wrong done by insensitive work in the past. But it has been more than that. Victorian carriages are not and will never be ‘right’ for the vast majority of visitors to our railways today. However anyone visiting the railway for a special occasion will see the sense of ownership and pride that so many supporters take in their heritage train. That sense of shared ownership will I hope encourage others to take on their own challenges in the confidence that there will always be a new generation ready to take over as the years inevitably take their toll.
Ultimately too there is great pleasure in feeling that this personal adventure has helped build a team at Boston Lodge committed to quality. A team that is increasingly recognised throughout the heritage and museum world. It is great to be able to provide challenging work for skilled and dedicated people, and to see such fine work coming from our very old works, in what to most people is a remote part of the country. And work not just for us but for others. Things like being given the job of restoring the London Transport Museum carriage for the 150th anniversary of the Underground recognises the fact that helping something special happen opens further opportunities for those involved to develop further.
Looking back, my involvement with the FfR over the years has been extremely rewarding on a number of levels and I would find it hard to recall any other undertaking that has been so worthwhile.
By the way, there are two more Victorian carriages, numbers 17 and 20, in need of someone looking for a similar adventure. I would love to hear from anyone interested…
John Prideaux is Chairman of the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railways Trust and the Festiniog Railway Company, which operates both lines.