Lost Branch Lines: The North Pembrokeshire Line

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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