For Thu-Van

24/06/2017

I’m not going to scream
Or tear my clothes
(I’m far too British anyway)
But simply say
“I can’t believe you’re gone”.
I don’t know how or why,
Especially why…
You’re gone, but you are.
And I can’t believe it.
I remember
Giving you lifts to work
Or waiting with you for the bus
As a wren sang in the trees above.
And the conversations,
How we sorted out the world…
Rain drops in the river now
That flows into the sea,
Evaporates to fall as rain again tomorrow.
I’m not going to scream
Though I want to,
I’ll listen for the rain,
Think of you there,
Your gentle voice amongst
The rustling leaves
As the wren sings in the trees.

From My Diary, June 5, 2017

05/06/2017

An annoying day winds down, and I’m glad to see the back of it. It’s been raining and blowing hard all afternoon, and I’ve sat and listened quietly to it. No distractions, the block pleasantly quiet.

The driving drum of rain on PVC window frames is one of my favourite sounds, up there with sea crashing onto a rocky beach, a river’s rustle and the song of a skylark on a hot summer’s day. The open windows rattle and creak a little as the gusts bellow through the flat, a ship rolling in a heaving sea. The sounds surround me, wrap me gently in the warmest, softest arms and breasts. Annoyances hurled into the wind and carried away.

Time for bed, though it’s still light. A book open, music adds an extra background sound – the dreamy Sigur Rós () album seems to work well. It will soon be time to close the curtain and kill the lamp. But not just yet. Savour the peace a little longer.

Raining Again

05/06/2017

It’s raining again, and raining hard,
Late August, and for once the building’s quiet.
I sit beside the open window,
Listen to rain pattering plastic windowsills
And imagine I’m back at Grandma’s house,
In a comfy chair by the picture window
Looking out at the wet green garden.

In winter, the fruit trees bare,
Rattling bones on each other,
Spring, wind blown blossoms
Snow confetti round the greenhouse,
Summer, the borders awash with colours
Brighter than a child’s painting,
Autumn, the leaf litter swirling,
Crunching underfoot.

All the effort they put in
Mowing, planting, pruning, weeding
(How did they ever have time to go to work?)
Worth every ache and pain
To create this small city Eden.

So I drink deeply of the rain soaked air and
Remember, remember that house, that garden
Of long childhood summers
That were never quite long enough,
A house forever more home than home,
A house that always comes to mind
Whenever rain tap taps on PVC.

2006

Lost Branch Lines: The Heads of the Valleys Line And Other Observations

03/06/2017

January 2008 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the closure of the spectacular, steeply graded line between Abergavenny and Merthyr. When I first travelled in the area in the early 1990s, I had no idea there had ever been a railway here, and on the steep climb up the A465, it seemed unlikely. The Merthyr, Tredegar & Abergavenny Railway (MTA) was promoted by local interests and was incorporated in 1859. The first section, up to Brynmawr (“Big Hill” in Welsh) opened in September 1862, and used parts of an old tramway. The LNWR was keen to tap into the mineral wealth of South Wales. It had already reached Hereford via the Shrewsbury & Hereford Railway and had running powers south of there. In 1861, it secured a lease of the MTA, and an extension to Nantybwch opened in 1864. Plans to extend beyond there were opposed by the Brecon & Merthyr Railway, who had plans of their own. To circumvent this, the LNWR built a line jointly with the Rhymney Railway from Nantybwch to Rhymney Bridge down to Rhymney, which opened in 1871. This proved a worthwhile investment as with running powers to Cardiff, the transfer of goods between broad and standard gauge was avoided. The LNWR quickly opened a goods depot of their own in Cardiff. The next extension opened in 1873, to Dowlais, home of the famous ironworks. The LNWR and B & M settled their differences and with a new section of joint line, Merthyr was reached in 1879.

The line was heavily engineered, with severe gradients throughout. Starting from Abergavenny Junction (about a mile north of the present station), the line fell briefly, crossing the river Usk, to Brecon Road station. There was a large engine shed here, which once housed 100 locos. After here, the line started a gruelling seven-mile climb at 1:38/40 through the spectacular Clydach Gorge to Brynmawr. This is the highest town in Wales at some 1200 feet above sea level. The line then crossed high moorland, frequently scarred by industry, and undulated sharply with gradients as steep as 1:35, crossing several viaducts (including an impressive 770 feet long example at Cefn Coed which survives) and a 1040 yard tunnel at Morlais, near Pantyscallog. After Dowlais, it fell at mostly 1:46/50 and passed through a five mile semi-circle to reach Merthyr, some 400 feet below Dowlais.

As the MTA passed along the north edge of the coalfield, several branches were built to better tap into the valleys. The first to open, in 1867, was a 1½-mile line from Beaufort down to Ebbw Vale, mostly at 1:42. This was followed by the extension of the Sirhowy Railway north from Tredegar to Nantybwch, in 1868. After a proposed sale to the GWR fell through, the LNWR leased this line in 1876. In 1869, a branch from Brynmawr to Blaenavon was opened, which was leased to the LNWR straight away. This five-mile line climbed away from Brynmawr at 1:40, to reach a summit of 1400 feet at Waenavon (the highest on the LNWR and I believe the highest standard gauge line in England and Wales), before descending at the same gradient to Blaenavon, home to collieries and an ironworks. Part of this line survives as the Pontypool & Blaenavon Railway. Five years later, the line was extended down the valley to Abersychan, where it met the GWR.

The final branch opened in 1905, from Brynmawr to Nantyglo, with the passenger services operated by the GWR. This made the high windswept station at Brynmawr a busy place at times. Indeed, as early as 1882, there were more than fifty trains each way between there and Abergavenny Junction. In 1909, there were more than forty passenger departures, with around thirty of these to Newport, spilt between three different routes. In 1944, the station sold almost 98,000 tickets, twice as many as Swansea Victoria. Not bad for a town 1200 feet up in the hills!

Thanks to the ferocious gradients, powerful locomotives were required. 0-6-2 Coal Tanks were a staple from 1890 on, with sixty or so being based at Abergavenny at one time. Larger 0-8-0 and 0-8-2 types worked heavier trains, and there was also a massive 0-8-4T type, though this proved too long for some of the lines curves. Even so, coal consumption on the route was double that of the rest of the LNWR.

Traffic at the quieter Merthyr end of the line began to decline as early as 1890, when part of the production at Dowlais was moved elsewhere. The ironworks closed completely in 1930: I think it was after a visit here that Edward VIII made his famous “something must be done” remark. Of the thirteen mineral trains that reached Abergavenny Junction in 1909, only one started at Merthyr, though it remained the starting point for most passenger services. There were some through trains, and even a summer Saturday train from Merthyr to Blackpool. Trains were slow on account of the gradients, and typically took about 1½ hours for the 24½ miles.

Passenger closures began in 1941, when the Blaenavon service was withdrawn, though the line remained open for freight until the 1950s. The Ebbw Vale branch closed to passengers in February 1951 and the joint line from Rhymney to Rhymney Bridge two years later.

The line passed to the Western Region on nationalisation, so what happened next was entirely predictable. As seen, coal consumption on the steeply graded line was high, and freight trains were slow. Coal traffic had begun to decline, and the WR routed all through freight trains away from the MTA in 1954. In January 1958, the passenger service was withdrawn, with the final working being a special on the 5th.

This left the Newport-Nantybwch trains via Tredegar and the Sirhowy Valley, and these ended in June 1960. Part of this line survived for freight until 1970, when trains were diverted onto a former tramway on the other side of the valley. The Nantyglo branch, the last service to use the once busy Brynmawr, survived long enough to see DMUs, and closed in 1962. The final section to close was Abergavenny Junction to Brecon Road in April 1971.

I made two visits to the area in 2007 courtesy of a Freedom of Wales Flexipass. I wanted to visit the Pontypool and Blaenavon Railway, so caught a Stagecoach service from Abergavenny up to Brynmawr. From the A465, I could see the route of the line in a few places, and there was a viaduct clinging to the curve of the hillside. From Brynmawr, I changed on to the hourly Newport service. I alighted by the Big Pit Museum, then enjoyed a couple of trips on the P & BR, probably the friendliest heritage line I’ve been on. A two car “108” was in use, and the steep climb was clear to see. After ascending in first gear, the return simply used gravity! I got talking to the driver, and he said they were keen to extend southwards to Blaenavon High Level, and in the longer term, further up the hill towards Brynmawr. I wish them every success, and fully intend to return, if only to hear a class 37 on the 1:40!

A few days later, I took the bus all the way to Merthyr. It takes about 1½ hours, comparable to the train, but with the advantage of serving both Ebbw Vale and Tredegar. Beyond Brynmawr, a lot of the alignment has been destroyed by improvements to the A465: Rhymney Bridge station for instance, is now under a roundabout. I returned to Cardiff in a 150 from a rather Spartan Merthyr station: from five platforms with trains to Neath, Brecon, Abergavenny and Cardiff (fifty departures a day in 1920), down to a single platform with an hourly service to Cardiff. Such, I suppose is progress. Still, at least the surviving train service is finally to be improved to half-hourly.

The route of the MTA can still be traced in several places. Most of the viaducts, including that at Cefn Coed, are still standing, while ventilation shafts for Morlais tunnel can be seen in the car park at Pant on the Brecon Mountain Railway. My OS map suggests at least some of the line through Clydach Gorge has been turned into a cycle path. It would be a hard climb, but a rewarding descent!

In 2011, by which time I had a car, I visited Clydach Gorge and walked a section of the trackbed from Clydach to the eastern end of Gelli-felen tunnels. Clydach station is virtually intact and privately owned, and while the trackbed here is now part of NCN route 46, the section through the station and the Clydach tunnels is sealed off. A detour onto what a local man told me was a tramway, takes you to the other end of the tunnels and back onto the trackbed. The Merthyr bound tunnel at Gelli-felen is bricked up, but the other isn’t, with only a few boulders at the entrance. The path detours round it, though I didn’t go any further that way. Need to make another visit, I think…

1: Brynmawr
2: Ebbw Vale
3: Beaufort
4: Sirhowy
5: Tredegar
6: Ponststicill Jn
7: Heolgerrig
8: Pantyscallog

Timetable, September 1957

References & Further Reading:

Lost Lines in Wales, Nigel Welbourn
South Wales Branch Lines, H Morgan
The Origins of the LMS in South Wales, Gwyn Briwnant Jones & Denis Dunstan
Country Railway Routes, Abergavenny to Merthyr, David Edge

Clydach Viaduct, looking west

View from the viaduct towards the former Lime Works

Clydach station, looking west

Clydach station, looking west


Clydach tunnels, looking east

MP 7, just west of Clydach tunnel. This has now had a repaint.

Llanelly crossing, looking east

trackbed near Llanelly crossing, looking west

Gelli-felen tunnels looking west

Gelli-felen tunnel looking west

Looking east, Gelli-felen tunnels behind the photographer

The Golden Circle Tour, Iceland, March 2017.

13/05/2017

I’ve been fascinated by Iceland for over 20 years. It began when I was house-sitting for my Gran and I looked through my late Grandad’s books and came across a thriller called Running Blind by Desmond Bagley. In it, a British intelligence officer is sent to Iceland to deliver a secret package. He has connections in the country and speaks Icelandic. As the story unfolds, he’s chased across the country by the KGB, including a trek through the Óbyggdir, the wild and dangerous interior of the country. This culminates in a gun battle at Geysir, with one KGB thug getting caught by the eruption of the most active geyser, Strokkur, with unpleasant consequences. Bagley memorably describes Iceland as suffering from “geological acne” and the harshness and epic nature of the landscape is well evoked, with its boiling pools, lava fields, glaciers and glacial meltwater rivers. The spark was lit.

Couple this with TV documentaries and books about volcanoes, and the news coverage of volcanic eruptions, especially the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull in 2010, and the spark became a flame. How great would it be to go, I thought, endlessly. Until finally I said to myself: enough of the wishing, why not just bloody do it?

I’d flown in from Manchester on Monday, landing at Keflavík airport to bright sunshine and a temperature of 5°C. The journey to my hotel in Hafnarfjörður took about 40 minutes, across the mossy lava fields, scrubby grass and jagged rocks of the Reykjanes peninsula. In the distance, snow-capped mountains and clouds of steam rising. I was in Iceland. At last.

Tuesday was spent exploring Reykjavík and for Wednesday, I’d booked a Golden Circle Tour. This covers some of the geological sites near Reykjavík, including the famous boiling pools at Geysir. After a minibus ride picking up other passengers, we all transferred to a coach on the outskirts of the city. There were only 18 of us, so there was plenty of room; I had two seats to myself for the day. Out of the city centre, most of Reykjavík is generic urban sprawl, and I was keen to escape this and see the countryside.

For the first few miles, we followed Route 1, the ring road, Hringvegur, that runs right around the island. In 2016, Icelandic TV showed a real time journey along the entire route, set to music by local band Sigur Rós. I’d watched this on YouTube and was captivated by the unfolding scene, so it was great to see the real thing. After leaving the city, it climbed through snow streaked mountains and passed a geothermal power station with large clouds of steam swirling around. The Icelanders have harnessed this ready-made power source to provide heating and hot water which even heats some of Reykjavík’s streets.

Geothermal power station

After reaching the top of a pass, the road dropped sharply round numerous hairpins into Hveragerði (pronunciation) This small town on the Varmá river is a geothermal hot spot. The tour guide – a classically Nordic blonde lady named Harpa – told us that there was a wedding reception going on in the town hall one day when people noticed the floor was getting hot, so they went outside. A new hot spring then broke through the floor, so the town hall had to be demolished and rebuilt elsewhere.

Looking down towards Hveragerði

It felt good to be out in the country I’d wanted to see for so long. This was what I came for. A few miles further on, just before Selfoss, the coach turned off Route 1 and headed north. As it turned, Harpa pointed out the snow covered mountain in the distance to the east, was none other than Eyjafjallajökull, whose 2010 eruption grounded so many aircraft. She said that foreign newscasters’ attempts to pronounce it caused some amusement to Icelanders. Distant though it was, it was impressive, and seemed so benign under its coat of snow.

The distant Eyjafjallajökull

A few miles further on, we passed another volcano, Hekla, one of Iceland’s most active. It apparently erupts every 15 years or so. This was nearer than Eyjafjallajökull, and looked as benign, just another snowy mountain. As I looked at it, I had visions of it erupting. A detonating boom and a rapidly rising cloud of thick dark ash punctuated with lightning… It would have been an awesome spectacle, but a bit too close for comfort.

I was struck that the colour of the rocks had abruptly changed. Initially, they had been black but were now a vivid red, indicating the presence of iron oxide. This was especially noticeable as we neared the first stop, the volcanic crater at Kerið. A young place in geological terms, about 6000 years; the oldest part of Iceland is only 17 million years old. It’s fascinating that only 200-300 miles away in Greenland are the oldest rocks on Earth, over four billion years.

Kerið looks just like you’d expect a volcanic crater to look: rounded with steep sides plunging down. Instead of a seething lava lake, was a real lake of frozen greenish water. I walked part way round, gazing down at the frozen lake. One of the walls is low and so can walk down to the water from it, but unfortunately, I didn’t have time to do it. Harpa said that Björk once did a concert here, performing on a floating stage. What a place to perform, in a natural amphitheatre. What an introduction to the geology of Iceland.

Kerið

The next stop was Geysir. To describe it as “amazing” would be true, but inadequate. It’s a place I’d long wanted to see and I wasn’t disappointed, despite the crowds milling around. A footpath lead past several bubbling hot pools of vividly coloured water – one a sharp blue like that of a swimming pool – with the whole area wreathed in clouds of thick steam, pungent and sulphurous. The main geyser, Geysir, which has given its name to all the others in the world – only erupts occasionally and unpredictably now, but is smaller neighbour Strokkur (Icelandic for “churn”) blows every 8-10 minutes. Though it can shoot up to about 40 metres, today there was a strong and very icy wind which was strong enough to blow the water almost horizontal. To get to the other side of Strokkur meant crossing this path…

Strokkur

The eruptions came suddenly, a bubble exploding in a great whooshing plop of steam and boiling water. Amazing indeed. I shot loads of photos, the continuous shooting mode on the camera proved very useful here. I managed to get a video but had to take my gloves off to work the camera. I don’t think my hands have ever been so cold. The temperature was about freezing, but the wind must have shaved this down to about -10°C, and boy did I feel it! What a place; boiling bubbling pools; thick clouds of steam; the stink of sulphur. The surface symptoms of some vast, inexorable process going on under my feet.

The sense of amazement and awe were slightly blunted by the crowds. I’d read that mass tourism had really exploded in Iceland in recent years, and it’s something I’m conflicted about. I can’t blame the Icelanders for trying to bring more money into the country, especially after the banking crash a few years ago, but at what cost? And of course, I was a tourist too, doing tourist things, like this tour. But how else was I to see these incredible places? I’ve never driven abroad and I was certainly not confident in driving here. It’s also got a lot to do with my dislike of crowds. The ignorance, rudeness and general pushiness. Here it seemed to be large parties of nouveau-riche Chinese, loud and vulgar with their selfie-sticks. Ticking off places. Perhaps I’m being unfair, but tourist or not, I don’t think I was there just working through a list of must sees. I find the geology fascinating and admire the hardiness of the Norse people who settled in this strange, potentially hostile place. I also admire the Icelanders for their rich literary culture and the efforts they’ve made to preserve it and their language.

Even so, I was deeply impressed by Geysir. I couldn’t fail to be.

A short drive took us to our next stop, the magnificent waterfalls at Gullfoss (pronunciation). As at Geysir, it’s easy to run out of superlatives. You can’t see them from the road, but you can hear their great roar and spray long before you do see them. There are two massive falls, where the Hvítá river plunges down about 40 metres at a rate of about 100m3 per second… The river is fed from the Langjökull glacier (“jökull” is the Icelandic word for glacier and the “icle” in the English word icicle apparently has the same root). There were various proposals during the 20th century to use the falls for electricity generation. Sigríður Tómasdóttir, the owner’s daughter, even threatened to throw herself into the falls if they weren’t saved. It’s believed that this helped save the falls, though the Wikipedia entry (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gullfoss) disputes this. The roar was near deafening and it was hard to get a photo without the lens getting covered in spray, even from some distance away. The wind was even colder here and its vicious bite snatched my breath away; or rather, what was left of it after the rest being taken away by the stupendous sight before me. Truly wonderful.

Gullfoss

Looking away from the falls, I could just make out part of Langjökull, a brilliant white mass with blurred edges. The first time I’d ever seen a glacier. A large part of Iceland is covered with them and they supply many rivers. Most of them are steadily shrinking with global warming.

The final place we visited was the one that made the greatest impression on me: Þingvellir (pronunciation). This World Heritage Site is on the continental divide between two tectonic plates and a site of major historical importance for the Icelanders. It was here that they held their first parliament, the althingi, in 930. (The word Þingvellir means assembly or parliament fields, the English place Thingwall has the same root).

The land suddenly changes. There are great gouges and ripples in the rock where it’s been torn apart as the two plates pull away from each other (which means Iceland is getting slowly larger). Then you’re in no man’s land for a few kilometres before seeing the same effect again as you cross onto the North American plate. The coach parked close to this, by a rocky outcrop with truly amazing (that word again!) views down into the wider valley with the vast lake of Þingvallavatn. Behind me, a pile of old lava, solidified into a strange, swirly pattern which (dredging my memory for my O Level geology) I think is called Pahoehoe. A footpath descended towards the valley floor between two cliffs of split apart rock, and all around in the distance, snow streaked mountains. I just stood there and gazed out over it all. The sun had gone behind clouds by now and it was cold, but despite this and the other people (not as crowded here thankfully), I began to feel really calm; and small amongst such vastness, but in a good way. Awesome is a much abused word these days and has become debased. My dictionary describes awe as “a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder.” What I saw and experienced here was awesome, in the true sense: of feeling small and insignificant in the vastness of nature, of being impressed and humbled by it, with an undercurrent of fear too. Accept this, and the fear lessens and all your own worries are gently pushed into the background; for a time anyway. I wish I could have stayed there longer.

Þingvellir

Þingvellir

Þingvallavatn

Pahoehoe lava

And so back to Reykjavík. Harpa taught us how to pronounce the names of the places we’d been (I’d already impressed her by being able to pronounce Eyjafjallajökull). She then sang us an Icelandic lullaby. She had a soft and soothing singing voice and I could easily imagine a baby falling asleep to it. It was a gentle accompaniment to further changes in the landscape. Snow blanketed mountains came close on one side of the road, while the other reminded me of the northern fells of England: treeless, empty and covered in snow. The snow began to retreat as the road fell towards Reykjavík. The road got busier, buildings reappeared and we re-joined the Hringvegur to approach the city from the north.

What a day, one I’ll never forget. As sat back in my hotel room, the sense of calm I felt at Þingvellir was still with me, as well as a natural “high” from what I’d seen. Wow and amazing and wonderful and awesome and sublime. All of that and more, if you’ll excuse the cliché. To this I added an especially enjoyable tipsiness after having a few shots of that wonderful Icelandic drink, Brennivín. I want to go back. And soon.

For more pictures, see the slideshow here: https://youtu.be/7r9qaQznB8A

Route One, with music by Sigur Rós:
Part One
Part Two
Part Three

Remembering Hafnarfjörður

30/04/2017

Clouds swallow the moon,
A moon I last saw in Iceland
One chill morning as I waited for the bus.
It set behind Hamarinn –
Which I’d climbed on the first day –
So I had just a few stars and
A flickering streetlight for company;
Beyond, the velvet water of the harbour,
A trawler and the breakwater light.
The blossoms will be out at home,
I thought, but I’d rather be here
Though my feet were numbing,
And I still would, I think
As I set off for work
Under the now moonless sky.

The Stoke-on-Trent Central By Election

24/02/2017

I’ve long had a rather furtive desire to vote for the Monster Raving Loony Party. Probably a frivolous idea and a wasted vote, but there you are. As they only seemed to stand in by elections, and there was never one where I lived, I never got the chance.

Until now. My MP, Tristram Hunt, having been re-elected in 2015, recently fucked off to a new job at the V&A. At last, here was my chance… but no. Stoke-on-Trent has the dubious name as the capital of Brexit, with the strongest leave vote in the country. It’s not the first time Stoke has had dubious political distinction: a few years ago, the city elected 9 BNP councillors. In the 2015 election, UKIP came second to Labour, and they clearly fancied their chances in the by election.

I loathe UKIP. For all their pose as the new party of the working class, they’re made up of, in former PM Cameron’s words, fruitcakes and loonies. They’re more right wing than the Tories. I’ve never understood working people who vote Conservative, and working people voting for UKIP are turkeys voting for Christmas. And their candidate in Stoke Central, the new leader Paul Nuttall, was especially contemptible.

First, there were allegations that the address he gave on his nomination was false: it was an allegedly empty property in Stoke (https://www.channel4.com/news/did-ukip-leader-paul-nuttall-break-election-law) ; then there was his claim that he lost friends in the Hillsborough disaster, later revealed to be untrue; he couldn’t name a single one of the six towns when asked; and his election slogan to be defending the NHS was undermined by earlier statements that he thought the NHS unfit for purpose and that should be privatised (http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/paul-nuttall-want-privatise-nhs-9676639). All in all, a wholly unsuitable prospective MP.

The pundits were predicting a close contest in Stoke. I certainly didn’t want a UKIP MP, especially someone like Nuttall, so I could not in all conscience vote for the Monsters. The most likely to defeat UKIP was Labour, and this time at least, in contrast to Hunt, their man was local. So he got my vote. Not out of any conviction, it was purely tactical. If the polls had suggested an easy Labour hold, my vote would have gone elsewhere.

As someone who identifies as left-wing, and who is, according to the Political Compass Test, a left libertarian, Labour should probably be my natural choice. My problem is with their leader, Jeremy Corbyn. When he first stood for the leadership, I paid my three quid and voted for him. He seemed to be something hopeful, something different and left wing, a break from the near Toryism of the Blair years.

By the time of the second leadership election, my enthusiasm had markedly cooled. Partly his poor performance and incompetence, but I was alarmed when I came across footage of him describing his “friends in Hamas and Hezbollah”. Friends in terrorist organisations? Really? However much he might sympathise with the plight of the Palestinians, the founding charter of Hamas calls for the obliteration of Israel, and is virulently anti-Semitic. (more details here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamas_Covenant). Some of the stuff Hamas et al come out with could have been written by Hitler. And Corbyn calls himself an anti-fascist. Admittedly, he has since expressed some regret at this, but it strikes me as half-hearted (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/07/04/jeremy-corbyn-grilled-by-mps-on-labours-anti-semitism-problem/)

Even though Labour lost the other by election in Copeland, I’m sure Comrade Corbyn will stay as leader. As long as this incompetent fool remains, I won’t vote for Labour. I did so this time tactically to keep UKIP out.

To A Grieving Friend

09/11/2016

How can I grasp this
Beyond the obvious?
What to say, besides “I’m sorry”?

How do I unglue
My labyrinthed tongue and
Exceed the usual worn out words?

I could try the words of others:
Frye, Rosetti, Dylan Thomas,
Perhaps they can say it better than I.

Yes, I’ll offer their words instead.
And I’ll offer my shoulder,
My arms or perhaps just my ears,

Tuned and ready to listen.

Lost Branch Lines: The North Pembrokeshire Line

08/09/2016

Travel by train today on the West Wales line from Swansea, and after Whitland you will see the high ground of the Prescelli mountains to the north. Even today this is a thinly populated area, with little or no industry. Not the most likely place for a railway, you would think, but if you keep your eyes peeled after the train leaves Clunderwen, after a mile or so an overgrown embankment can be seen heading away from the main line towards the mountains.

This was the former North Pembrokeshire branch to Goodwick, which started life as the Maenclochog Railway, named after the largest settlement in the area. The initial impetus for the line came from the Cropper family who owned the slate quarries at Rosebush, the only industry in the area. The South Wales Railway had opened in the 1850s, and the closest point to the quarries was at Clunderwen. Edward Cropper obtained powers to build a line from Rosebush to the SWR (by this time owned by the GWR) and the GWR agreed to allow his trains access to Clunderwen for an annual rent of £500. Construction of the line began in 1873, and it took three years for the eight-mile route thanks to the difficult terrain. After running parallel with the GWR for a mile, it swung away northwards, falling briefly. After a cutting at Beag, the line then began to climb with increasing severity, culminating in a two-mile stretch at 1:27. It then curved west through a 100 yard tunnel and passed Maenclochog. A further steep climb (which included a stretch at 1:30) took it to Rosebush and the quarries.

The line was officially opened on 19 September 1876, and four passenger trains each way were run, which were allowed 40 minutes to make the climb from Clunderwen (and five minutes less going back down!) Stations were opened at Llanycefn, Maenclochog and Rosebush, and in the first two years, the line was profitable. Extension of the line towards Fishguard was also talked about, and the Rosebush and Fishguard Railway was established to build it. Construction began in 1879, but the company was dogged by financial problems and progress was very slow: several times it had to petition parliament for more time.

By this time, things were not going well at the MR. Even in the early years, the high fee charged by the GWR for the use of Clunderwen wiped out most of the profits, and by 1881, the line was losing money. The company built a hotel at Rosebush and attempted to promote the area as a resort, largely without success. The Rosebush quarries were also in decline, and as the GWR was the only outlet, the company’s position was bleak. The last trains therefore ran on 31 December 1882 and the line closed.

The RFR meanwhile, was still struggling to build its line to Fishguard. After a further petition to parliament for more time, it changed its name to the North Pembrokeshire and Fishguard Railway. Progress was still slow however, and only a mile or so of line had been built. Work finally got underway again in 1892 at the same time as Joseph Rowlands and John Cartland, a solicitor and an industrialist from Birmingham, took a controlling interest in the company. They had ambitious plans to develop Fishguard as port for a rival sea route to Ireland. Rowlands oversaw the completion of the line as far as Letterston and the purchase of the MR, and passenger trains started on 11 April 1895.

After the junction with the MR, the new line curved away from Rosebush on a falling gradient through Puncheston. It continued to fall for the next four miles to Letterston, which was the line’s principal station. The line beyond here, to Goodwick, took a further four years to complete. From Letterston, this fell at 1:50 to what later became Letterston Junction, which was followed by a further fall at the same gradient for two miles, Manorowen bank. The line opened in July 1899, by which time the company had been taken over by the GWR, who had plans of their own for Fishguard. After this, the line settled into a sleepy branch line existence, with only two or three passenger and goods trains a day. The severe gradients always made it hard to work, and it was soon eclipsed by the new GWR line to Fishguard.

In 1916 the line was closed between Maenclochog and Letterston so that the track could be sent to France for use by the military. After the war, it took the GWR until 1923 to reopen the line throughout. It was not to last, however. Despite several halts being opened in the 1920s, the passenger services were withdrawn in October 1937. The line remained open for a single goods train a day. This left Goodwick mid morning and was allowed a leisurely four hours to reach Clunderwen. If required, the loco would run back to Maenclochog to work a parcels train to Clunderwen, though on this line parcels meant rabbits!

During World War II the line was again partially closed, this time to allow the air force to use it for target practice: several locos were painted white and shot at while the tunnel was also bombed. The remaining train was finally withdrawn in 1949 and the track between Letterston and Clunderwen was lifted in 1952. Goods trains continued to serve Letterston, but in March 1965 these too were withdrawn and the track was soon lifted.

What remains of the line today? The first two miles or so out of Fishguard up to Letterston Junction are still in use by Arriva Trains Wales to Fishguard Harbour. The trackbed is clearly marked on OS maps but I believe parts of it south of Maenclochog are now marshy. Rosebush station platform still exists and is now in a pub garden. The owners have created a display on the platform and the pub contains some railway memorabilia (see http://www.disused-stations.org.uk/)

A more surprising survivor is one of the original MR locos, an 0-6-0 saddle tank, Margaret, (named after Edward Cropper’s wife). Although quickly replaced when the GWR took over, the loco not only survives but is still in Pembrokeshire at the Scolton Manor museum a few miles from Haverfordwest.

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Crossing The Usk

05/06/2016

Crossing the Usk, a slow flow of mud,
Water rippling in the rain,
I’m going home, the train engine
Roars louder as it climbs through Caerleon.
Is it home? It feels alien now,
Familiar, but not home,
Not that cosy, sad, untidy place
Of long known stuff and clutter
To return to in stormy weather.
Sure, the room’s the same,
The stuff the same, even the clutter,
But somehow home no longer.
Have the recent storms blown it down?
When did it cease to be safe?
I cannot answer that, and
Should the train stop
And retrace its route,
I would not be sorry
(Though what would I tell the boss
When I didn’t show up for work tomorrow?)
Return to a place that, as a youngster,
I couldn’t wait to flee.
Nantyderry, and the sky clears,
A hint of rainbow
Between grey cumulus.
The old dears opposite crack open the wine,
Hey, pour me a glass, perhaps
That will clear the fog,
Light the way to answers.
Fix headphones
(They don’t like it up ‘em you know)
Shut out the boring conversations,
Thud of music, annoying ringtones.
Abergavenny, and rain returns
With renewed roaring violence
As more miles are eaten up,
Forever closer to the cluttered room
– Perhaps I should call it my cell –
Something to be avoided,
A reason to be discovered
But all I can see are question marks,
Thick, black and growing fatter by the minute,
Smiling the rictus grin of a madman.
Llanvihangel, the summit of the line,
And down the train races, faster
And faster, clouds smoking
Round the mountainsides,
I’d like to be among those empty hills.
Fields of yellow stubble
Catch the odd sunbeam to escape
Clouds’ grey grip, and briefly glow,
A field of gold, light that bathes me too.
Today and yesterday, to see again
Places known from years ago,
I felt happy (yes, happy, there
Of all places), no pain now,
The reason I was so quick to flee
Can’t hurt me any more.
And though I head back to certainty –
The flat, the clutter and daily routine –
It’s no longer cosy certainty.
I want that cosiness back,
Want the firm door slam
That shuts out the world –
No, just fuck off –
Dinmore, and at last the sun is free,
Glittering lake so bright
My eyes hurt, a sudden floodlight
Into a long shuttered room.
Let me keep this, all of it,
The rain, the clouds and muddy Usk,
Even the dead oak alone
In the field near Craven Arms,
Brittle fingers reaching skyward.
Let me reach skyward too, keep
This bright-gentle light around me,
Warm me when back amongst the clutter
And dust, that would dull the blade.
You can never leave yourself behind, but
This journey will still be here, and
I can make it whenever I want,
Without leaving the flat.

Written on a Cardiff – Crewe train, July 2006


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