You know how we Brits bang on about our ‘fantastic railway summits’ being at Ais Gil or Drummochter but in fact there were many lesser and equally if not more, dramatic summits to be had and there’s practically none these days. Its because we don’t like the idea of railways being high up there on the mountain sides and would rather our railways, as always, stayed in the foothills completely tethered to the nearer sea level contours, suitably tamed in order to make sure any sort of level playing field between road and rail couldn’t be more unequal – clearly a rail traveller received a deep and clear instruction that the road user has far more freedom… no doubt that inducing a sense of excitement in Ernest Marples – whose companies would gain prominence upon the back of the excellent rationale the British had when it came to deciding which was to be the future: the car – or the train!
It shows our focus of ‘dramatic’ is anything but and its all down to how the British consciousness processed and rationalised its railways on the basis of some dubious cost analysis algorithm or some other perverse rationale. The act of burning rubber was clearly a far greater benefit to most and even though the Japanese were by now modernising their railways with trains that ran at speeds beyond the realm of many, Britain, the country that invented railways, was slowly but surely sending its own railway system to an early death!
Ticket for the last passenger train to Cwm Prysor 22 January 1961. Source: Michael Clemens Railways
This is the story of one railway many would like to see brought back. It was located in an area described by a famous artist as being a very pretty part of the country. Sadly of course its too late, there wont ever be another train that climbs up to the line’s lofty summit at Cwm Prysor, 1292 feet above sea level. This was in fact the second highest any standard gauge railway reached in all of Wales and England, the first being that at Waenavon in South Wales. The line’s final passenger train ran on 22 January 1961 and was a special organised by the Stephenson Locomotive Society.
Bala Junction (one of the few stations not served by a road but was purely a transfer point between lines) with a train from Phwlheli for Chester via Dollgellau and Llangollen. The Blaenau line can be seen curving away behind the locomotive. Source: Twitter
The remains of Bala Junction station in 2019. Source: Twitter
The remains of Bala Junction’s small corrugated iron waiting room in 2019! Source: Twitter
Thus it comes to pass that its sixty years since one of Britain’s last ever mountain railway routes closed – and which I’m sure many will have by now guessed was the Bala to Blaenau Ffestiniog Line. This was essentially a long branch that went over the Welsh mountains. It might have been a little used railway in terms of local traffic, however it provided a major supply route from one of the quarries in terms of ballast for the railway network. As one railway enthusiast put it, the closure of the line was said to have started off the notorious Beeching era! More on that in a moment…
The Bala-Ffestiniog Railway opened in November 1882 but only as far as Ffestiniog, with the remaining portion to Blaenau Ffestiniog temporarily covered by an extension of the Ffestiniog Railway. The full standard gauge route throughout opened the following year. Here’s a description of the line from 1884:
The Bala-Ffestiniog Line from Jenkinson’s smaller practical guide to North Wales (1884.) Source: Google Books
Cwm Prysor and the Beeching Cuts
It has been claimed the Cwm Prysor railway was the litmus for the impending and wholesale closure of vast sections of Britain’s rail network. The claim was made by Bill Rear, a noted North Wales railway historian, as the Daily Post reports. Its a bold claim and one indeed would wonder just how much validity there is in this claim.
In fact I remember as a small kid people actually held the view the railways were finished. The iron road apparently had no benefit of any sort. That was indeed the mentality back then. My own father was one such person, he was adamant the railways had no future and were a millstone round the country’s neck.
In terms of wanting to know more on this matter I approached the good people at Rail Forums – as I didn’t think I was any sort of expert on Beeching. And yes, as one person put it it very clearly, ‘Think that the good Doctor has become an easy target some six decades on. Not only does he get vilified for subsequent line closures that weren’t even listed in 1963’s “The Reshaping of British Railways” report, he’s now retrospectively getting much of the blame for earlier closures whilst he was still at ICI.’ I hadn’t even thought of that myself, and its quite obvious the assertion made by Bill Rear had very little substance. Thus I’ve updated this part of the post to reflect this.
An online guide to the Bala-Blaenau Ffestiniog Line
Anyway, I don’t really want this post to be a tome about the whys and wherefores of Beeching or what the country thought of its lines, so let’s go back to the Bala-Blaenau line and see for ourselves what the line was all about.
But first in terms of those years of the early and mid sixties I remember there were still a good number of lines that were still active. In terms of those in Wales I recall Caernarfon’s station when it was in full swing, a positively thriving station with routes to a good number of destinations and can also remember Llangollen’s station quite well and vaguely those towards Bala and Dolgellau.
I’ve no recollection of the line from Bala to Ffestiniog because it had closed by the time my family had visited Wales for the first time, however I do know the route over the mountains north west of Bala from later visits I made, and this area was in fact difficult terrain for any normal railway. The summit encountered on the line was one of the highest in the country – 1292 feet above sea level – and that’s higher than Ais Gil!!
Route of the Bala to Blaenau line adapted from the Railway Clearing House maps.
As has been recounted the final train ran on the line in 1961. The trip was organised by the Stephenson Locomotive Society who had some special publicity for that very occasion as can be seen below. The train itself was one of the most heavily subscribed by the SLS and many wishful enthusiasts had to be turned down. The weather on the actual journey wasn’t endearing, it rained and even snow was encountered.
The train had left Ruabon late and by the time it reached Bala it was over twenty minutes down. The first photo stop at Frongoch was cancelled as time needed to be regained on the late running special. That at Arenig was of course honoured and proved to be extremely popular, with people milling all over the tracks in order to get some shots of the twin pannier tanks (4645 and 8791) at the head of the train. It was said ‘an entourage of car-borne photographers which included a Midlands railway celebrity driving his newly purchased Jaguar Mark II saloon, followed the train.’ Nice!!
Front of the souvenir package for the SLS special to Blaenau. Sourced from Steam Days July 1992.
The only really good part of the trip weatherwise was the section from the summit across the Cwm Prysor viaduct and past the precipitous section at Craig Aderyn (not to be confused with Craig yr Aderyn) at the foot of Y Garn (not to be confused with several other Y Garns!!) By the time the special had reached Trawsfynydd, the weather had closed in again and it too snowed as it had done earlier on the departure from Bala. Late running was the order of the day for the train left Blaenau Ffestiniog 26 minutes late. The combination of the weather and the slippery rails proved a challenge for the pair of pannier tanks on the return journey with moments when it was thought the engines would stall completely.
Because of this extra work, by the time the train reached Bala, the pilot engine, no.4645 had run short of coal. It had to be replaced by 9669. The return to Ruabon was eventually attained 47 minutes late. Despite that everyone managed to get their onward connections to their various parts of the country. Timings and other photographs of the special can be seen at Six Bells Junction.
The final train’s headboard (with a spelling error oops! However its part spelling mistake and part english mistake…) Source: RMWeb
The line to Ffestiniog had seen its passenger services closed in 1960 (film on You Tube of last passenger train) however its freight services continued until 27th January 1961.
Bala station in 1966 after closure. It remained open for three more years after the Cwm Prysor route shut by remaining a serviceable branch off the main route at Bala Junction. Final closure came when the Barmouth to Ruabon line shut for good in 1965. View looks towards Blaenau Ffestiniog. Source: Flickr
The site of Bala station today. The town’s small fire station is about where the station’s overbridge stood. Source: Google Streets
The final layout at Bala station with the line towards Cwm Prysor (at right) now truncated. Source: RMWeb
A part of the line from Bala Junction to Bala is being reused as an extension for the Bala Lake railway and a new station will be built in the town though not on the site of the old one.
The first station out of Bala was Frongoch whose buildings still exists these days. As noted earlier the SLS special didn’t stop here due to lost time.
Frongoch’s station building as seen on Google Streets.
The signal box at Frongoch can just be seen from the road. Source: Google Streets
Beyond the line becomes more remote as it traverses the Tryweryn Valley. Sadly the valley became the subject of a controversial scheme to flood it and it eventually became what is now known as Lyn Celyn reservoir. The Bala to Blaenau line was in the way of this and as we saw earlier British Railways was given the opportunity to have a new line built around this. BR turned that opportunity down in favour of having a new road built.
The road through the area in those days was little more than a farm track beyond Capel Celyn. Cwm Prysor itself could only be reached by train, so a proper road was built following the closure of the railway and the construction of the reservoir. This is now the A4212, and still less than sixty years old these days.
Work begins on the controversial Llyn Celyn reservoir. The photograph also gives a rare view of Tyddyn Bridge halt and the rail bridge over the river. The location is now buried deep under the huge Celyn dam. Source: Daily Post/North Wales Live
Passengers travelling on the last passenger train to Blaenau had reported they could see ongoing work at many locations along this section with some parts well advanced. Not only that it was observed the new road that would traverse the valley had been substantially built by this point in time. At the time it was thought both Capel Celyn and Tyddyn Bridge halts would be flooded, but as events show these were not. In the event Capel Celyn halt’s location remains visible along with an overbridge, whilst Tyddyn Bridge halt was razed to the ground and the site landscaped to match the profile of the Llyn Celyn dam.
View from the Llyn Celyn dam looking south east towards Bala (sited in the Dee valley in the distance) and showing how the elevation rises higher than the surrounding country. The approximate location of Tyddyn Bridge halt is marked with an X. Source: Google Streets
I drafted this approximate scale map based on old plans of the reservoir’s construction showing how the railway would have been diverted around the reservoir by means of a lengthy loop which ascended the hillside to the south east of the dam. That was not to be of course – with the line closed altogether and sunk beneath the waves in the same unforgiving way the village of Capel Celyn and other small hamlets in the Tryweryn valley were too.
Under the Liverpool Corporation Act of 1957 provision was made for diversion of the railway around the new reservoir. By the summer of 1959 the idea had been dropped because BR did not wish to keep the line. To provide a rail link for the new Trawsfynydd power station, a link between the standard gauge stations at Blaenau was authorised. On 28th August 1959 it was announced this link would be built – which of course meant the Trawsfynydd facilities would be accessed from the Conwy Valley Line instead – and the line from Bala would definitely be closed.
Clearly there was no benefit in terms of the freight traffic the Bala-Ffestiniog line carried because that would be truncated and the new link through Blaenau not opened until 20th April 1964. In essence this meant BR had in fact lost the area a fair bit of employment as well as curtailing its freight operations completely for three years. Not only that it cut off its own leg in regards to the ballast traffic the line provided for other parts of the network. Clearly BR had showed the way ahead – the country didn’t need railways and roads in the area were upgraded instead to facilitate the construction of the Trawsfynydd power station.
The old railway was exposed during a drought in 2018. The line’s steep gradient can clearly be seen. Source: Twitter
During the line’s final years cement was delivered to Blaenau Ffestiniog for the new Ffestiniog pumped storage power station being built up in the mountains. In the meantime the proposals came up for a reservoir which would flood the upper part of the picturesque Tryweryn valley the line passed through. In a way this was ironic because the Cwm Prysor line had been supplying traffic for the Ffestiniog scheme which would too involve the flooding of the local valley there and dashing the Ffestiniog Railway’s hopes of rebuilding its line back to Blaenau. As just mentioned, the City of Liverpool offered money to help build a new route around the proposed reservoir but British Railways declined this and the quarries at Arenig lost their lifeline. Not much of a social benefit was it? Not even in terms of the decimation that would befall the area’s communities once the controversial reservoir had been built. As for the reservoir itself, it was a huge disaster for the small communities who lived here. It destroyed their homes, their lives and decimated their farms.
Part of the village of Capel Celyn looking from the bridge across the Afon Tryweryn. ‘A private bill, sponsored by Liverpool City Council, was sent to Parliament, bypassing Welsh authorities. Thirty-five out of 36 Welsh MPs voted against it and villagers fought an eight-year battle to save their homes. But the bill passed in 1962 and the valley was flooded three years later.’ Source: Telegraph
The proposed reservoir that would flood the village of Capel Celyn was very controversial. As can be seen the authorities tried to bypass the Welsh. Nevertheless 35 out of 36 Welsh MPs voted against the scheme. The farming community was thrown out of their homes and the valley flooded in order to supply water for Liverpool. There were ongoing battles and huge protests but Liverpool wasn’t having any of it. The Welsh told the English to get out, the message delivered by the Tryweryn community to the Liverpudlians suggested those in Loverpool should drown their own city and not the Tryweryn valley. Graffiti such as ‘drowned by English pigs’ and ‘murdered by the English bastards’ could be seen about the valley. There were even incendiary devices primed against the dam’s construction – here’s an interview with the men who conducted bomb attacks against the project. Sadly it was to no avail and a pretty Welsh mountain valley was drowned to provide a source of water for the English.
Here’s a bilingual article from BBC Cymru which details the battles the Trywerwyn residents fought in order to have the reservoir scheme scrapped. Even when that got built and opened, the locals’ feeling was extremely strong and the protests continued against the dam with battles between protesters, the police and dam officials and everything being done to try and prevent the dam from operating. There were huge crowds at the opening ceremony and battles on the hillsides between the locals and the police.
Capel Celyn halt on the Bala side of the line. The view is taken from the bridge seen in the next picture. Source: Twitter
The site of Capel Celyn halt and the adjacent road bridge can still be seen but not on Google. This picture from Geograph by Richard Law shows the old overbridge with a plate which says Brymbo 1880. This is practically the same as another bridge at Glynllifon St near the line’s terminus at Blaenau Ffestiniog, no doubt from the same company at Brymbo.
The nearest to Capel Celyn halt Google Streets can get! The old station site is sited just a couple of hundred metres to the east of this location. The former railway alignment continues its climb westward along the shores of the reservoir. The route now forms a farm access track. The bulk of Arenig Fach can be seen across the reservoir on the far side. Source: Google Streets
About where the farm track leaves the railway alignment, the old line can be seen making its way towards Capel Celyn viaduct as seen on Google Streets. Further up there are alternative views of the viaduct.
The twin arched Capel Celyn viaduct. Source: RMWeb
Part of the viaduct can be seen on Google Streets
View looking west towards Arenig Fach (the lower slopes of Arenig Fawr is on the left.) The railway alignment is on the right and continues its relentless climb towards Arenig and Cwm Prysor. A small bridge that carried the railway can be seen. Source: Google Streets
Arenig station in the 1950s. Source: Facebook
The last train to Cwm Prysor (and Blaenau Ffestiniog Central) seen at Arenig station 22 January 1961. Picture sourced from Steam Days July 1992.
Remains of a bridge that carried materials from Arenig Quarry to the railway. The site of the station is on the right however its not possible to show it on Google. However this bridge led directly towards the station good yard. Source: Google Streets
At the top of Arenig Fell Race the line reaches the site of an overbridge – the line is in the rocky cutting at centre of the picture. The overbridge has obviously been demolished. There’s more climbing yet to do in order to reach Cwm Prysor! The height difference between Arenig and Cwm Prysor is roughly 200 feet elevation in just two and half miles. Source: Google Streets
The private road to Nant Ddu showing a good prospect of Arenig Fawr with the railway itself climbing westwards (at right) towards Cwm Prysor. Source: Google Streets
To the west of Nant Ddu the line can be seen climbing relentlessly towards Cwm Prysor. Source: Google Streets
To wind up this first part of the ‘Last Train to Cwm Prysor’ feature, we take a brief look at a famous artist and his work. This is the celebrated painting of 1913 by Welsh artist James Dickson Innes showing a romantic view of Arenig Fawr (2802 ft/854m) from Llyn Tryweryn. The lake is right at the summit of the pass through which the railway traverses. Cwm Prysor station stood at the eastern end of the lake with splendid views across to Arenig Fawr. The railway would have been to the left just out of Innes’ line of sight. Source: Twitter
James Dickson Innes and Augustus John (a fellow Welsh artist) painted together at Nant-Ddu during 1911 and 1912. and a lot of their work depicts the Arenig mountains. Alas many art writers, even the Tate, says the lake in the painting is Llyn Tegid or Bala Lake! Its not even Bala Lake but Llyn Tryweryn as mentioned earlier. It is suggested the painting was completed in London at a later date. Innes work is strongly influenced by the output from impressionists such as Matisse and Le Douanier Rousseau, the works of which Innes may have seen in Paris.
One thing is certain about Innes and Augustus John! They took the Bala-Ffestiniog railway as far as Arenig station from which they reached a cottage by Nant Ddu they rented for £10 per year. Here’s a nice story on how Innes met Augustus John at Arenig station for the first time:
At the tiny Arenig station, Innes is standing on the down line platform between the signal box and the water-tower, his back to the mountain, looking over the opposite platform and across to the river below, the rounded shape of Arenig Fach rising from the flat marshland. Innes can see the smoke of the Bala train as it stops briefly at Capel Celyn Halt; now he hears the engine as it comes in sight and steams slowly into the station. Carriage doors are flung open, various items of luggage are thrown onto the platform and, as the steam clears, Innes sees that his friend has indeed arrived. Augustus John has come to Arenig. He is 33 years old, wealthy, hugely talented, famous, notorious even, a demon draughtsman, painter of people from rich celebrities to itinerant gypsies, and he has just fetched up in the wilds of Merionethshire at the instigation of his young artist friend. This meeting was to become a highly significant moment in the story of British painting, comparable to Van Gogh bringing Gauguin to the Yellow House in Arles. Augustus John and James Dickson Innes were at the forefront of the avant-garde practice apparently confined to urban subjects as exemplified by the Camden Town Group; yet here were the two Welshmen, returning to the remotest part of their homeland to pursue their work in a way which would deliberately emphasise their plein-air approach with vigorous, direct brushwork inspired by a wild and mountainous landscape. (Source: Wales Arts Review.)
In the next section we look at Cwm Prysor station itself and the trains in service and of course the famous viaduct and the spectacular sections of the line to be found in the locality.
Continued in part two.