Archive for the ‘History’ Category

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

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.

npf-closure

npf-map

Schools Scared of Islam Deny the Holocaust

20/12/2014

I understand that some schools and universities have stopped teaching about the Holocaust. Apparently they don’t want to risk offending Muslims or be accused of Islamaphobia. Labelling someone an islamaphobe or racist has become a lazy way of stopping debate and blackening the reputations of those who disagree with you. And it’s one that is used far too often, even by people who regard themselves as enlightened and egalitarian.

However, to not teach the Holocaust is a denial of history. Holocaust denial is a staple of the neo-Nazi far right, and of Islamist extremists. It’s sickening that liberals, who rightly condemn the neo-Nazis, fail to condemn the Islamists, whose racist, homophobic and misogynistic ideology places them firmly on the far-right. In fact, they frequently ally themselves with islamist groups, and label anyone who disagrees with them as racist and islamaphobic.

I am neither, but I do not, and never would, deny the Holocaust. The gutlessness of these schools and universities disgusts me. It’s time the authorities took a long and very hard look at themselves. Islamism is a revolting ideology that has no respect for any of the values liberals purport to stand for. To deny the Holocaust makes them cowards at best and fascist fellow travellers at worst. They should be ashamed.

My Kingdom For A Tomb

23/04/2014

Stop Arguing And Bury Richard III

Richard III has had a bad press from history. This is in no small measure down to his portrayal in Shakespeare’s eponymous play, the hunch-backed devious murderer:

…since I cannot prove a lover…
I am determined to prove a villain,
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams,
To set my brother Clarence and the king
In deadly hate the one against the other:
And if King Edward be true and just
As I am subtle, false and treacherous…

(Act 1 scene 1)

It’s a great play, but it’s not history. Given that Shakespeare lived during the reign of Elizabeth I, it’s perhaps not surprising to portray Richard in this way: it was the Queen’s grandfather (later Henry VII) who defeated Richard in battle at Bosworth in 1485.

Richard only reigned for two years, so it’s hard to get much of an account of him as king. I have read descriptions of him as an able ruler and experienced military commander. He is, however, tainted by his alleged murder of Edward IV’s sons, the so-called Princes in The Tower, though it’s fair to add that this is also a charge levelled at Henry VII.

The recent discovery of bones under a Leicester car park and their confirmation as those of Richard was little short of amazing after five hundred years. The bones told a tale of violent death, with serious damage to the skull that would have been fatal. However, the discovery has been undermined by the unseemly row that has broken out over where Richard should be buried. I’m glad that he is to be buried – I’ve always found bones or bodies being displayed in museums distasteful. The team that discovered the King’s bones want him to be buried in Leicester cathedral, but there is also an argument in favour of York Minster: Richard apparently expressed a wish to be buried there.

Whatever they decide, I wish they would make their minds up. All this arguing is rather undignified. My own view is that as he wanted to be buried in York, his wishes should be respected. And soon.


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