Friday 27 November 2020


There are many things wrong with Britain.  Brexit.  The Tories.  James Corden.  But the thing that annoys me most, the streak that runs through this country like a poisoned vein, the thing that is in its own way responsible for a lot of the other ills, is nostalgia.  Nostalgia for the past, nostalgia for your own personal past, nostalgia for a time that existed only in the imagination.  

Look, I get it: Britain is old.  And we've got a lot of history.  Every now and then someone on Twitter will post a really interesting story with "why didn't we learn this in history class?!?!" and my answer is, where do you fit it in?  I did History until I was 14 (I dropped it for Geography at GCSE, got an A, don't mind me) and I know full well that I have massive gaps in my knowledge of this country.  Everything between William the Conqueror and the Hundred Years War.  Most of my knowledge of the Georgian period I get from The Madness of King George and Blackadder III.  Teaching concentrates on the big hitters - the Romans, Magna Carta, the feudal system (those damn crop rotations) and the Peasant's Revolt, the Tudors and Stuarts and the English Civil War, the Victorians, the Second World War.  You've got to somehow cram two thousand years of history into the heads of bored children - go for the interesting stuff; they can learn about William IV or the Anglo-Dutch War in their own time if they're that bothered.

It's World War II: Electric Boogaloo that's got its greatest grip on the country's brain, probably because Churchill came up with Our Finest Hour and gave it a natty tagline.  I stepped out of my hotel in Blaenau Ffestiniog and found a town square made up to look like the 1940s.  There were sandbags and tape on the windows.  There was jitterbug music playing.  There were people who were far too young to have been in the war - far too young to have been in the Falklands War - wearing khaki and with their hair in rollers and dancing around.

Yes, it was a great period for this country, in terms of us helping to save the continent from Fascism.  Absolutely.  But it was also bloody miserable.  People who lived through the war had rationing and doodlebugs and relatives being killed and blackouts and way too much Gracie Fields.  It wasn't a six year party.  And here they were turning it into a theme park, a fun morning for all the family, get yourself a genuine wartime cake from the stall on the right (not actually genuine because it wasn't made with powdered eggs and you didn't have to save up three months of coupons to be able to make it but anyway).

I wasn't in the mood.  I wasn't in the mood to ride the nostalgia pony.  I'm sure everyone on the town council thought it was just a bit of fun, and the tourists probably loved it, but I found it annoying and wanted to get away from it.  I wandered round the town itself.  The brief impression I'd got the night before - that this was a town at the end of the world - felt even more true on a Sunday morning.  The narrow streets were deserted.  The shops were closed.  Above us, raw, grey rock loomed, making every view sinister.

I'd pretty much done the whole village in half an hour, so I wound my way back to the station square, where (unsurprisingly) Vera Lynn was playing, and bought a ticket for the Ffestiniog Railway.  It shares its location with the National Rail station, the two tracks laying alongside one another.  But while the Conwy Valley Line platform is perfunctory and ordinary, the Ffestiniog Railway is full on nostalgia.  Red and cream paint and wooden overhangs, ironwork and men in starched uniforms.  I sighed deeply and plunged in.

The Ffestiniog was built as a narrow gauge railway in the 19th century to carry slate from the mountains down to the docks at Porthmadog.  It soon attracted attention as a tourist attraction, with special passenger trains slotted in between the working trains, but after the war it was declared surplus to requirements and closed permanently.  A band of volunteers immediately sprang up to restore it, carefully bringing its trains and tracks back to life, even digging a new tunnel after the Central Electricity Board flooded the old route of the railway with a reservoir, and now it's one of Wales's biggest tourist attractions.  They even bought the West Highland Railway from Caernarvon, the two lines dovetailing at Porthmadog.  

I bought my ticket and loitered on the platform.  Regular readers will know I'm not really a fan of heritage railways.  The most interesting thing about a steam train is seeing it in full flight, and the problem with actually riding one is you can't see the engine unless you're willing to lean out of the window on a dangerous curve and risk being decapitated by a signal post.  It's nostalgia again, the conviction that steam trains were somehow better and more romantic as they belched out smoke and noise and embers that set fire to the washing of homes that backed onto the line.

The difference between the Ffestiniog Railway and other heritage routes, however, is that it serves an actual purpose as a link across Wales.  The regular railway ends at Blaenau Ffestiniog, so getting from, say, Conwy to Barmouth by train means going out to Chester, changing, heading south, then back through the middle of Wales to work your way up again.  A distance of 40 miles as the crow flies becomes a 150 mile round trip.  Time your journey right, however, and the Ffestiniog Railway lets you cut the corner off Wales.  It's still a faff, but it's an important enough link to get marked on the official rail maps, unlike any other of the heritage routes in the country.

As I stood on the platform I realised I hadn't taken a picture of me in front of the station sign.  I didn't fancy venturing out of the station now I'd bought a ticket in case they didn't let me back in so I'm afraid a platform sign will have to do you.  It's definitely there, you just have to squint a bit.  Complaints to the usual address, where they will be ignored.

A train chugged into the station, tiny but noisy, and we all lined up to respectfully take our pictures.  After a good deal of shunting and shifting it returned with some carriages and the scrum for seats began.

I picked a wooden carriage, rather than one of the sumptuous ones.  I thought I was getting a more "authentic" experience, plus there was a better chance that I'd not have to share a seat.  I installed myself at the back.  In front of me were two compartments, with upholstered bench seats stretching the width of the carriage.  An elderly couple took the very front one, then in the middle, a noisy Brummie family with teen children and a tiny spaniel.  They clattered in as the conductor came to inspect our tickets.  Obviously I couldn't find mine - it had stuck to the back of my phone - but he said "I trust you," and locked the door to the compartment.  There was a triumphant toot of the engine and then we were away, furiously barrelling out of the station and round the back of the town.

"It goes to Porthmadog, apparently," Dad read off the leaflet.

"What's that?" asked the Son.  Dad ignored him, and told them there'd be an hour's wait at the terminus until the train back.  The Son looked stricken.  "Will there be a shop?"  Meanwhile Mum lifted the dog - Oscar - up above the wooden side so he could get a better view.

The train clung to the edge of the mountain, letting us peer down into back gardens.  We poured down the hillside, following roads and rivers, sliding under bridges.  The railway was designed to use gravity as much as possible to help it down to the coast and it felt it, a slightly giddy air of falling as the train moved along.

Slow into the first station and the driver went to fetch his token to proceed.  The Brummies looked confused.  "Is that it?"  They moved to open the door to the carriage, but then the train jerked into life again, and we continued on our way.  The reservoir appeared with its squat brick control room.  There was a waterfall, almost comically beautiful, like it had been laid on by Disney, but I could see that the upper reaches of the reservoir were dry as the summer heat took hold.  Some hikers by the water paused and waved at the train, and then we disappeared into a tunnel.  Historic looking green shades illuminated us, though the bulbs underneath were modern LED; I expect they have received some furious letters from passengers protesting about the inauthenticity.

The route became lusher, harsh mountainsides giving way to thick woodlands barely a foot from our carriage.  Light filtered down through the foliage.  Mum turned to the Son.  "Sean.  Will you take a picture of me and the dog?"

At Dduallt - a name so Welsh it comes with a free daffodil - the line spiralled, turning a tight curve.  Instead of a simple right hand turn it instead did a 270 degree twist until you passed underneath the line you'd come in on.  I'd wondered, as we'd ridden along the line, why they hadn't simply converted it to standard gauge and made it an extension of the Conwy Valley Line rather than closing it completely.  Mad feats of engineering like this made me understand why.

We passed through Campbell's Platform, a private halt, without stopping, and got a glimpse of a castle on the horizon.  Or was it another power station?  It was hard to tell.  The trees twisted then thinned as a frothing white stream.  The valley was astonishingly steep, almost vertical, and the cars below looked tiny and insignificant.  The Brummies broke out the crisps.  They seemed confused by the concept of intermediate stations; I think they had it in their head that this was like a theme park ride, a very long rollercoaster on its way to Porthmadog.  Another tunnel, another lake - smaller, but natural - then we were pulling into Tanybwlch station between a rock face and a wall.

The bearded guard strode the platform, calling out the name, as we paused.  It was a rare strip of double track so this was where trains heading north could cross trains heading south.  Oscar the dog let out an impressive fart that made Mum giggle as the other train pulled in.  It was the David Lloyd George, red and shiny, far more impressive than our pootling little truck.  The engineers began refilling its engine with water as a woman walked along the platform with a box of Magnums, selling them through the window.  

We set off again through more woodland.  Below us in the valley were hikers on a path and I wished I was down there instead of up here.  After a while a train journey becomes a blur, just a load of magnificent scenery and a slowly numbing arse.  I pulled a peanut butter KitKat Chunky out of my bag and chewed on it as yet another impossibly scenic river rolled beneath us.  The Dad leaned out the window to take a picture, and revealed a good few inches of unnecessary buttock cleavage.

For a while we sped along at a breakneck pace, passing tiny sidings and the odd cottage.  We were moving out of the mountains now, into more tame farmland, as a herd of sheep appeared, grazing on wild grass.  The trees looked domesticated and maintained.  There were the outskirts of a village, then a level crossing, and the Son exclaimed "we're here!".  He was quite wrong of course; this was Penrhyn station.  His sister, incidentally, had been virtually mute the entire trip; the reason became clear when she began rooting around in her mum's handbag for travel sickness pills.  Meanwhile the two old people at the front finally broke their silence to admire the flowers on the platform. 

We were above the rooftops, lodged in the mountain still, but compared with the isolated Blaenau this felt almost suburban.  We moved on down the line, smoke steaming past our noses and filling our lungs, and then we were at Minffordd.  I broke into a grin.  This was familiar territory; I'd been to this station before, in 2012, when I'd worked my way along the Cambrian lines.  I'd got off there and walked to Porthmadog, but this time I rode the train, past the noisy clatter of a quarry and the works for the railway.  Acres of sidings and steel.  The volunteers paused to wave at us as we approached; some of them were barely teenagers.  Another generation of railway nerds.  We paused before the sweep across the Cob at the entrance to the bay and the Son looked around him forlornly.  "Is this it?"

Then we moved across the water, barely above the surface, and into Porthmadog station.  I unfolded myself from my seat.  I could barely feel anything below the waist - I hoped my legs wouldn't collapse as I climbed out.  The teenagers disembarked and looked around them with barely disguised disgust.  This was it, kids; enjoy your one hour until you have to do the whole thing again in reverse.  Hope you can at least find something in the gift shop.

Porthmadog remained as charming as I remembered it, a little touristy perhaps, but that's the problem with being beautiful; you attract admirers.  Blaenau Ffestiniog didn't seem to attract overwhelming quantities of tourists, put it that way.  I was glad I'd finally ridden the Ffestiniog Railway, but also glad I'd never have to do it again.  Nostalgia can be exhausting.


Anonymous said...

Excellent Scott, as usual. When you can, restart your rail journeys.

Stuart R said...

I'm a little late to your site, but the grammatic style is to be applauded. Mind you, as a lifelong Ffestiniog Railway aficionado I do urge you to take the 'up' journey, and possibly on a banquette, and possibly behind DLG. It's whole new world!