Llanwrst to Porthmadog Great British Railway Journeys


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Llanwrst to Porthmadog

Michael explores the Conwy valley, stopping at Britain's first artists' colony at Betws-y-Coed and visiting the Victorian slate capital of Blaenau Ffestiniog.


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In 1840, one man transformed travel in Britain.

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His name was George Bradshaw

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and his railway guides inspired the Victorians to take to the tracks.

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Stop by stop, he told them where to travel,

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what to see and where to stay.

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Now, 170 years later, I'm making a series of journeys

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across the length and breadth of the country

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to see what remains of Bradshaw's Britain.

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In recent days, I've been travelling along a railway line

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that was built to speed the link between London and Dublin.

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It was a vital route of communication,

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carrying the Irish mail

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and it boosted trade and tourism along its length.

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I'm journeying across North Wales,

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using my 19th century Bradshaw's guide,

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towards the Irish ferry port of Holyhead.

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But today, I'm taking time out to make a diversion

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along the line that was built in the 1860s,

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following the course of the Conwy River

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through some of Wales's most beautiful scenery,

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to discover more about what these Welsh hills are made of

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and the sorts of people that they attracted in Bradshaw's day.

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In the 19th century,

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the railways sprouted mile after mile of branch lines.

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My Bradshaw's guide has set me to explore one of the prettiest in Wales,

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to appreciate how even a secondary line,

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could transform the fortunes of a locality.

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Along the way, I'll be discovering

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how trains helped an early mail order business.

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What is it they contain?

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Iron.

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What does it give you? Energy?

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Of course it does.

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Staying in Britain's first artist's colony.

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One of the descriptions in the 1840s and 1850s,

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is it looks like the encampment of an invading army

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because every blooming rock has got an artist sitting on it.

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'And exploring the Victorian slate capital of the world.'

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We've popped out into a different universe.

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Where are the trees now? Where is the green?

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Just piles and piles and piles of grey slate.

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So far, I've travelled almost 150 miles from Ledbury to Llandudno.

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Now I'm heading deep into North Wales and exploring Snowdonia,

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before crossing the Menai Straits to Anglesey and Holyhead.

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My first stop today is Llanrwst,

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then on to Betws-y-Coed,

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Blaenau Ffestiniog and finally, Porthmadog.

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This stretch of the journey takes me on a detour

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away from the mainline to Holyhead, along the Conwy Valley,

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on a branch that was built in the 1860s.

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I've never been down this line before and already I am surprised.

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The Conwy River is much wider than I had expected.

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It is very lush and green.

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And actually Bradshaw should have prepared me for this, he says,

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"This valley is remarkable for its beauty and fertility,

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"its luxuriant pastures, cornfields and groves,

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"and these are finely contrasted

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"with the bleak appearance of the Snowdon Mountain

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"which towers in frowning majesty above."

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Just about right.

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In Bradshaw's era,

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towns across the country cried out to be linked to the railway network,

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hungry for economic benefit.

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New lines like this spread like wildfire.

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-Good morning.

-Morning, Michael. Welcome to the Conwy Valley.

-Thank you very much.

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It's a fantastic railway line. Was it built for tourism?

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No, the original reason for this line

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was to convey the products of the slate quarry in the town of Blaenau Ffestiniog to the coast.

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So that was the real reason for the line.

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But of course as the years have emerged and industry has changed

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then tourism is now very much our main feature.

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'North Llanrwst station opened in 1863.'

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Bye!

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'The line carried slate and the mountains became accessible to rail passengers for the first time.'

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North Llanrwst station is beautifully situated

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and it was obviously built on a scale,

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a gateway to welcome tourists and visitors.

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Now looking a little bit like...

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faded splendour.

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I've come to see what attracted all the visitors.

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Bradshaw writes,

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"In the vicinity is Trefriw,

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"in a hollow of the Caernarvonshire hills,

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"where there are some salubrious mineral waters."

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The Trefriw springs were a local secret until the 19th century.

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When the railway arrived, the town blossomed into a fully-fledged spa,

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with a bathhouse and pump room.

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The bathhouse is no more,

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but of course, the famous waters flow still.

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-Hello, Hilary.

-Hello, Michael.

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'Hilary Rogers-Jones is a guide at the spa.'

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So these are the spa waters of Trefriw, is that right?

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Yes, they certainly are.

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And Bradshaw, my 19th-century guide,

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says they are very salubrious waters.

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And efficacious.

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And why is that? What is it that they contain?

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-Iron.

-Iron.

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And it's in solution.

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It was called Trefriw chalybeate.

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I think he may have mentioned chalybeate waters,

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which is iron in solution.

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Does it give you energy?

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Of course it does.

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And how do you best take it, then?

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Do you ingest it or do you bathe in it?

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No, you take it.

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They used to bathe in it.

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In Bradshaw's time they bathed in it.

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It was said that these iron-rich waters

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provided a natural cure for anaemia.

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Demand rocketed.

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And taking advantage of the new branch line,

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the spa created one of the earliest mail order businesses

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that made use of rail.

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They could get it in the post as well. Here's one of the very old boxes

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-Oh, that's fantastic.

-With the bottles.

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And it has "Trefriw Wells" on it.

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And I presume, sent off on the train.

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Yes, they'd be collected from here.

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That's when the Post Office came into Trefriw

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and then of course so much went by rail in those days.

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I had no idea that at that stage you could send away

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-and get a bottle of water.

-A little bottle of water, very expensive.

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This would be 42 shillings for an eight-week supply of water,

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which was a tremendous amount of money in those days. Just imagine.

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-That is. That is staggering.

-It's a lot of money. It is.

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-They must really have believed in it.

-Oh, they did.

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'Back then, 42 shillings was over a week's wages for most workers.

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'So the mail order service was an expensive luxury for the rich.

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'Those who took the train to the spa

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'could also take a dip in the special waters.'

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This is the bathhouse that people used to bathe in,

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from 1833 when it was built.

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-That's a huge bath.

-It is, isn't it?

-And what's this made of?

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Slate.

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-Good Welsh slate.

-Yes.

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-And the water...

-Just used to come...

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-Tumbling off the mountains...

-Tumbling off the mountains into here.

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I can understand that if you drink iron

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that might do you some good.

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But bathing in it - would that do any good?

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They believed it would, and faith is a wonderful thing, isn't it?

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Faith is everything.

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Yes, it is, isn't it?

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'I think I'll skip the bath,

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'but I wouldn't mind a taste of these famous waters.'

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-Mind your head.

-Oh, dark and damp.

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-Look at those iron stalactites.

-I know, look at them.

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Fascinating.

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Down the hatch!

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Very metallic.

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Oh, it's not so bad.

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I don't mind it, you see. But some people...

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It is metallic, but it's not unpleasant.

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-No, it isn't, is it?

-No.

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Just like...

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drinking steel.

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Today, the water still compensates for iron deficiency

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and is sold all over the world.

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As for me, I'm heading to the station,

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where I need to be on the ball to catch my next train.

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At rural stations, the trains stop only by request.

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Now, I've never had to do this with a train before,

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only with a bus or taxi, but I guess the technique is similar.

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That seems to have done it.

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I'm now travelling another three miles along the beautiful Conwy Valley

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to one of North Wales's prettiest villages, Betws-y-Coed.

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I can't resist stopping here

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because I've heard it's a train enthusiast's paradise.

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A whole world of railways opens up in front of the station here.

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Little North American steam engine,

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an electric tram.

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Ancient rolling stock with, apparently, a restaurant in it.

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Fantastic.

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Bradshaw would have loved it.

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The spectacular model railway shop at Betws-Y-Coed

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is owned by Colin Cartwright.

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This is the most amazing emporium!

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It makes me feel like a kid.

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That's lovely. Lovely to see you, Michael.

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This place is famous. It must be one of the best model railway shops in the world.

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-Yes, I think you could be right.

-You've got everything here.

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It's not just a shop - it's a playground.

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This is every boy's dream.

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All you have to do is press the button

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and you will control a train.

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It will come to life.

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There you are.

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Look what we've got here. We've got a huge station with about six roads.

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We've got over bridges, we've got the scenery.

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I love this, Colin, because I only had a clockwork model railway

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and some of my friends had electrics, and I always wanted an electric.

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Are you now realising your ambitions then,

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in actually controlling a train yourself?

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At last, I've realised my ambitions!

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It had to come sometime.

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-You actually stopped it in the station.

-I tried to do that.

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'The first model trains in the 1890s were known as carpet railways

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'because they didn't run on tracks.

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'They were powered by miniature steam engines.

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'Today's models are usually powered by rather duller electricity.'

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They're such fun, aren't they?

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They certainly are. And when you think, we were the pioneers of all railways.

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I think it's lovely that we can continue -

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especially with the youngsters of today -

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continue what's gone on before.

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But it's not just youngsters, I've seen some of your prices - thousands of pounds.

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-These are people with money who are investing in model railways.

-Of course.

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We think it is not only a passion for railways,

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-but it's also a relaxation.

-Yeah.

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I think it keeps families together.

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But Bradshaw didn't come here for the model railways.

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He writes, "In a green, sheltered nook of the Conwy

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"is a resort, well known to anglers and artists."

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In the 19th century,

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Betws-y-Coed became popular with painters

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who came to capture nature in this beautiful location.

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-Peter, hello!

-Hello, nice to see you.

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'I'm hoping art historian, Peter Lord, can explain why.'

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Bradshaw talks about Betws-y-Coed as a resort that attracts artists

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and that's been your great speciality.

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How did that all begin - the artists?

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It begins a long time before Bradshaw, actually.

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Because you're standing in one of the very early English tourist sites in Wales,

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or in Britain, to tell the truth.

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In fact, Betws-y-Coed was the first artists' colony in the country.

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It started with David Cox,

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who became one of the most distinguished landscape painters of his time.

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Cox starts to come here for the summer

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and stays over all the summers between 1844 and 1856 and he brings his friends with him.

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Cox is THE man.

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He's the big English painter.

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So, anybody who wants to be anybody

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in the art world in London, follows Cox here.

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Cox's landscapes helped to publicise the glories of the area,

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like the dramatic Swallow Falls.

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This is very lovely.

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Well, obviously, there's a lot more water here in the winter

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and you get the foam.

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-So this was the sort of place that attracted David Cox?

-Absolutely, yes.

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One of the descriptions of the place in the 1840s and 1850s

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is that it looks like the encampment of an invading army.

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Because there are easels and white tents

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and every blooming rock has an artist sitting on it.

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It was getting a bit crowded.

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So, he would wander off, he would teach a bit, talk to other artists.

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He was a very sociable man and everybody liked him.

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It's a fantastic scene that you paint.

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It's almost unimaginable to us now,

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that the hills would be alive with artists.

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The hills were alive with artists - that's a good way of putting it.

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Eventually, that becomes a tourist attraction. You don't just come to Betws to see the scenery -

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you come to see the artists.

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From the 1860s, when the railway line opened,

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artists and tourists descended on Betws-y-Coed in ever greater numbers,

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bringing wealth and fame to the village.

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So you've brought me in now to the back of the railway station.

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But you need to be looking that way.

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Ah. Beautiful, beautiful.

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We've got the lovely medieval church, which is rather ironic,

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because a little further on from this place,

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David Cox painted his very famous picture,

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The Welsh Funeral, painted in 1848.

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And that's one of the key events in drawing people to Betws.

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He painted it... Or the view that he shows in the picture,

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was more or less the middle of the railway line - over there.

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-So the railway is driven through the scene in the painting?

-Absolutely.

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It is ironic. Because it's partly the fame of Cox's picture

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which drew people to Betws.

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They came on the train after 1868 -

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middle-class tourists started to come.

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It's an extraordinary thing,

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but I think it's a reflection of the times.

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I mean, the railway comes for good economic reasons.

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It's high-Victorian capitalism.

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The moans and groans of a few artists and spoiling the view won't make much difference.

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'The first hotel to accommodate the artists opened in 1768

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'and luckily for me, it's open still.'

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We're on our way to the Royal Oak

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because this is where David Cox

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and all the early tourists would have stayed.

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It's a lot more grand now than it was then,

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but I think you'll find it very comfortable.

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It's a lovely place to stay.

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'Cox came here often

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'and painted a sign for the hotel which now hangs in the foyer.

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'It seems that in staying here,

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'I follow a very distinguished guest list.'

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I have arranged for the old visitors' book to be here

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so you can see that as well.

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-Hello.

-Hello!

-Here we are.

-Magnificent volume.

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Here you are. That's contemporary with your Bradshaw.

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It's the 1860s.

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Back here, with a bit of luck, I've marked it.

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There we can see...

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The Loyal Incorporation Of Artists at Betws-y-Coed.

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And here's a list of the artists in residence on October 3rd 1867.

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Down at the bottom you can see why they came.

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-They came for the booze...

-They came for the booze.

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..To have a smoke,

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and to fish.

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Fishing was a very good thing in Betws.

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-Bradshaw mentions angling here.

-Yeah.

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So it was an all-round experience.

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Fabulous.

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And they're all here.

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Fabulous.

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The next morning I set out for the train station to continue my journey.

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I'm leaving the lush valley of Betws-y-Coed

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for the mining town of Blaenau Ffestiniog.

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TRAIN HORN

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You cannot imagine anything more rural or more green than this.

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But I've been told

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that I will shortly pass through a tunnel, two miles long -

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the longest single track tunnel in Britain.

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And at the other end,

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I will pop out into another world.

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This tunnel was built in 1879.

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It takes me straight through the mountain

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to what was, in Bradshaw's day,

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the slate capital of Wales.

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We've popped out into a different universe.

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Where are the trees now, where is the green?

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Where are the sheep, where are the farms?

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Just piles and piles and piles of grey slate.

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A great grey mountain reaching down to the tracks.

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These huge heaps of slate are the waste from the quarries

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that have dominated the area for hundreds of years.

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The slate industry is all about

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and Bradshaw wrote of what he saw,

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"An inclined plane leads up to the edge of the vast mountain,

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"on the sides of which, above 2,000 hands

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"are employed in hacking and splitting."

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In its heyday, there were about ten slate quarries

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in Blaenau Ffestiniog alone.

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I'm meeting managing director, Andrew Roberts,

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who runs one of just two that are left.

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Good morning, Andrew. I'm Michael.

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ANDREW SPEAKS WELSH

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Thank you very much for your welcome to your amazing town,

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which I see down here in the valley.

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-Of course, I came down on the railway this morning.

-Yeah.

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Presumably that railway was built for this very purpose,

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for carrying the slate.

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The railway theme has been very important to the slate industry,

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you know, since the 1830s.

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The Ffestiniog railway, for example...

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was built because of the need to take the slate from Ffestiniog

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down to the port, Porthmadog, and then shipped all over world.

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So, historically, it just wouldn't have happened without the railway.

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By the late 19th century, the industry was at its peak.

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Two trains a day carried 400 tonnes of slate down to the port.

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The quarries were criss-crossed with tracks

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that conveyed the slate to the trains.

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Nowadays, slate is quarried at the surface,

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but in Bradshaw's time, vast caverns were dug down into the hillside.

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You've just thrown a stone

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to make me realise that that is very, very deep indeed.

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Almost every man in the village worked at the mine,

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many labouring by candlelight,

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blasting out the slate with explosives.

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It's quite moving, isn't it?

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It must have been VERY hard

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and it must have been quite dangerous.

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Very, very dangerous.

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Of course, you relied heavily on the skills of your fellow workers.

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You trusted them. You had to put your trust in them,

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working and drilling in very tight, confined spaces, with explosives.

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It's very hazardous.

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Welsh blue grey slate was considered one of the best in the world

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because it kept its colour well

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and could be split cleanly by hand into a variety of sizes.

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In the 20th century, imports began to displace it.

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Now it's mainly used in restoration projects

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and it all travels by road.

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My Bradshaw's guide refers to

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the workers piling up the slates in their thousands

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and categorising them according to size and name.

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And he talks about duchesses and countesses and ladies.

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Does that mean anything to you?

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It means a lot to me, Michael.

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It's the day-to-day language of this mill.

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-So the duchess would be larger and the lady would be smaller?

-That's correct.

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So you use the same terminology as was used in the 19th century?

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We do. It's unique to the Welsh slate industry

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and something that will continue

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while we still produce slates from this mill.

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Many of the workers, like Glyn Daniels,

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have fathers and grandfathers who worked in the slate mines,

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passing on their skills.

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Glyn can produce around 700 tiles a day

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and is going to teach me what he does.

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I love the chair, because it's all part of the tradition.

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I sit myself down like this.

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And quite a light tap to begin with?

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Yes.

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Oh, it's splitting already.

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-And now leave her a little bit?

-Put your hand there.

-Put my hand there.

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Oh, fantastic feeling!

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Look at that!

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Did I do that?

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Yeah.

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'Once the slate is split, it's trimmed and shaped by machine

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'so that it will fit snugly against other tiles.'

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Beautiful. So that now has a lovely chamfered edge

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-and that is the dressing.

-Yeah.

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So, this is a fully-dressed lady.

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Lovely piece of work.

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In the future, the slate industry may change again.

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Andrew's big hope is to use the waste from the quarries for road building.

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His dream is to transport slate on the railways once more,

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back down the line to Conwy.

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As for me, I'm looking forward

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to riding on the Blaenau Ffestiniog railway.

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Founded in 1832,

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it's the oldest independent railway company in the world.

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Now it's a heritage line,

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carrying tourists down to Porthmadog on the coast.

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-Hello, Driver. I'm Michael.

-Hello, Michael. I'm Paul.

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-So how does this lovely engine drive?

-Beautifully.

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It's unique to the railway. The wheels are articulated underneath.

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-So you can go around...

-Very sharp corners.

-You've got very sharp corners on this line?

-Yes.

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When it was built, engineers experimented with the track

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to negotiate the winding hillside.

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It was certainly one of the most important railways of its time.

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It was a real leader in the field.

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They realised very quickly

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they couldn't build standard gauge in the sort of terrain we're at.

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The railway also pioneered a kind of double engine

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that enabled it to power long, heavy slate trains

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through the steep mountains.

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As the slate industry declined, so too did the railway

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and the last slate train left Blaenau Ffestiniog in 1946.

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But less than ten years later,

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it reopened as a tourist line.

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And even today, its enthusiasts are growing in number.

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Do you work on the line a lot?

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I come up several times a year just to volunteer.

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You're a volunteer?

0:23:450:23:46

Yes, I am.

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And why do you volunteer to do this?

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I just fell in love with it and then decided to become a guard,

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so I'm doing my training at the moment.

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Oh, lovely, so this is just for the love of it?

0:23:550:23:58

Just for the love of it, yes.

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Knowing the line so well,

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what would you pick out as a kind of highlight

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that I should keep my eye open for?

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One thing that the railway's famous for is its Cob

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and it splits the estuary.

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So it's got some fantastic wildlife

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and you can see a wonderful view of Snowdon from it as well.

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The long embankment called the Cob, near Porthmadog,

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was originally built in 1811

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to reclaim land from the estuary for farming.

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It later proved to be the perfect structure to carry the railway.

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So now, at last, I discover what the Cob is.

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It's this immense sea defence.

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This huge wall.

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And the railway runs along the top level of it

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and two lanes of cars run along the bottom level.

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Then that's holding the sea behind me at bay

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and creating this vast inland piece of reclaimed land.

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And giving us the most fantastic views

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towards that looming peak of Snowdon.

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Riding the Cob takes me almost to the harbour at Porthmadog, where the slate was unloaded.

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And last stop for me, too.

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Porthmadog Harbour began to export small tonnages of slate in the early 19th century.

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When the railway gave it a high-capacity link to the slate quarries, it flourished.

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By the 1870s, over 120,000 tonnes of slate

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were loaded at Porthmadog every year.

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-John. I'm Michael.

-Hello, Michael.

-Great to see you.

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I'm hoping that maritime history enthusiast, Dr John Jones Morris, can tell me more.

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The railway arrived at the harbour in 1836 and allowed the easy transport of slate

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from the quarries down to the quaysides here at Porthmadog for subsequent export by sea.

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The standard trade was for the slate to be loaded on ships.

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Usually they would leave in about April.

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Demand for slate would either be sort of in Southern England or on the continent.

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Quite a lot of the slate went to the continent, particularly to Germany.

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In the early part of the 19th century, there was quite a huge fire in Hamburg,

0:26:130:26:19

and the quarry owners at Blaenau Ffestiniog, seeing a good opportunity,

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went over there and persuaded the city fathers to re-roof the city with Ffestiniog slate,

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or Porthmadog slate as we like to call it.

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The ships, having delivered their cargo in Europe, were filled up with heavy ballast to give them stability

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on the return voyage to Porthmadog.

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They used anything to hand, from rubbish to rocks.

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Having arrived at Porthmadog, they had to dispose of the ballast and they found a sand bank there

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and started unloading the ballast onto the island.

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And, as you can see, has built a considerable island over the years.

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-That lovely stretch of green?

-That sits on top of rocks from many parts of the Mediterranean.

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If you were to dig, there would be all sorts of different types rock and rubble.

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-There is a corner of a Welsh port that is forever Europe.

-Indeed. Yes, there is.

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As I've journeyed along the narrow tracks and valleys of the Welsh mountains,

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I've once more admired the skills of the Victorian railway builders.

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Their ingenuity opened this corner of Wales to opportunities and visitors.

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Victorian artists and tourists were attracted to the Conwy Valley

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because of its glorious landscape.

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Victorian mining companies were drawn to these parts because of what lay beneath that landscape.

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Now I'm looking forward to tackling that most famous piece of Welsh geology, Mount Snowdon.

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On the next leg of my journey, I'll be travelling

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to lofty mountain heights.

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It's magnificent. It's really imposing.

0:28:040:28:09

I'll be turning my tongue to the Welsh language.

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So, it's fairly easy, really.

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Llan-vire-pooll-guin-gill-go-ger-u- queern-drob-ooll-llandus-illio-gogo- goch.

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And tasting one of Wales's finest new products, salt.

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It hits you from the side of the tongue.

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It's got a wonderful texture. It's really crunchy, isn't it?

0:28:300:28:32

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:28:390:28:43

E-mail subtitling@bbc.co.uk

0:28:430:28:46

Michael Portillo explores the Conwy valley, stopping at Britain's first artists' colony at Betws-y-Coed, visiting the Victorian slate capital of Blaenau Ffestiniog and taking a steam train down to the harbour at Porthmadog.