Discovering Snowdonia Railway Walks with Julia Bradbury


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Discovering Snowdonia

Julia Bradbury continues her series of walks along Britain's lost rail empire as she visits the Mawddach estuary in north Wales, a beautiful part of Snowdonia.


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Britain is a country that owes a great deal to its rail empire.

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For 100 years, the railways dominated the development of this country,

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the network that supported a global superpower.

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But today, our island is home to 10,000 miles of disused lines,

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a silent network of embankments, platforms and viaducts.

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For me, and many others, they've become a perfect platform for exploring the country on foot.

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This week, I've come to Wales, to the market town of Dolgellau, to be precise.

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In the distance are the southern hills of Snowdonia National Park.

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Northern Wales tends to conjure up images of mountain scenery,

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rivers and lakes which, of course, are all major tourist attractions.

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But the railway walk I'm taking today follows a line that was

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actually built to bring those tourists here in the first place.

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It promises a surprising history and beautiful scenery,

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and yet this is one of the quieter corners of Snowdonia.

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And the railway walk apparently is the only way to fully appreciate it.

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And, of course, I want to find out why.

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From Dolgellau, my walk today follows the line that once

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reached out from the West Midlands all the way to the Welsh west coast.

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It was one of numerous lines that ran across Wales by the end of the 19th century,

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connecting these remote parts with Birmingham, Manchester and beyond.

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But in the Beeching era of the 1960s, the majority of these routes

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were deemed surplus to requirements, and disappeared from the map.

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I'm going to head downstream for a few minutes to find the old railway track bed.

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You can see that ancient road bridge.

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On the other side of that bridge is where the railway station used to be. Nothing at all left now.

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The cars and lorries of the Dolgellau bypass now rush past where the railway once stood.

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But in 1867, this was where two rail empires met head on.

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The race to control a route to the Welsh coast saw the English

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Great Western Railway build a line through Wales as far as here.

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But it was the much smaller Cambrian Railway company that built the line

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inland from the coast, the section that I'll be walking today.

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Before I set off, let's take a closer look at the route.

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I'll head west out of Dolgellau following the river and the bypass

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towards the head of the Mawddach Estuary.

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From here, the old railway makes its own path,

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across the reed bed and flood plains to meet the River Mawddach at Penmaenpool Bridge.

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Now the river really begins to look like an estuary.

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The railway path hugs the south bank as it follows the corridor through the Welsh hills.

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Before the estuary mouth, I pass through the slate mining community of Arthog,

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where tramways once crossed the line, taking the slate down to the waterside.

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And then there's a long curve as trains once reached the bustling

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Barmouth Junction, the final landmark before the stunning approach to Barmouth itself.

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Barmouth Bridge may be man-made, but what finer way could there be to reach the Welsh west coast?

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There are two things I've learnt since I've been in Dolgellau.

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One is that the history of Welsh railways is slightly complex.

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The other one is that the pronunciation of

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Dol-geth-lye or Dol-geth-lee is a bit of a mystery wrapped in a riddle.

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So I'm going to meet someone who's going to clear it up for me.

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And she's from Lancashire!

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When she's not preoccupied with her bed and breakfast business overlooking the Mawddach,

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Jacky O'Hanlon leads walking and bike tours of the estuary,

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and of course all of them make use of Dolgellau's old railway line.

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So, Dol-geth-lee, or Dol-geth-lye?

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I don't know why I'm asking you from Lancashire, but you've been here for

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a while now so you've heard all different pronunciations.

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Dol-geth-lye when you ask people - is the very Welsh way.

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Or Dol-geth-lee is also right, and people will mix between the two.

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-Just when you think you've got it, they'll use the other one.

-So there is no right or wrong really.

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There's a definite wrong, if you go Dollagaloo, but there's two rights.

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What on earth is a woman from Lancashire doing here?

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We heard about the scenery, the beautiful biking that's here, the walking that's here.

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The estuary, to be honest, it was a big surprise how spectacular that was.

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It's absolutely beautiful, hidden away, and it's a lovely place to live.

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It's nice to share that with people and introduce them to a bit more about the area.

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Here we are in this very picturesque setting and we're about to cross over to where the railway begins.

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We cross the river, and the other side of the footbridge is where the trail joins the actual railway track.

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You've mentioned Barmouth.

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That was one of the big reasons for the railway line,

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to ship the tourists in, but it wasn't all about tourists.

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No, Dolgellau had a very busy web trade, lots of weaving, that went out on the railway lines.

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Also slate mining along the estuary went out on the railway.

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I think a lot of people don't know how much there was here,

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because it's beautiful and tranquil and very quiet.

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The idea that once it was full of slate quarries and mining and

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shipbuilding and weaving and everything else.

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Now there's sheep grazing on the mountains, and that's about it.

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What should I keep my eyes peeled for along the way?

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The trail takes the south side of the Mawddach estuary.

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Along the north side you'll the mountains, where all the Welsh gold, the mines were up there.

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-Where I might find some?

-You might need to cross the river!

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-Do a bit of digging!

-Indeed!

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As well as the remnants of the railway, you'll also see Penmaenpool Bridge, which is beautiful.

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-And also there's some tank traps from World War II.

-Tank traps?

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-Why?

-During World War II they suspected that

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an invasion may come in through the estuary and they put blockades in the way to keep the tanks back.

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Tank traps don't sound picturesque and pretty in any way.

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They're not as bad as you might think they might look. They have a certain something about them.

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When you encounter them, you'll know what they are.

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OK.

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Jacky's agreed to meet me further down the line

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to lead me through some of the less well known landmarks on the estuary.

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But for now, it's time to cross the River Wnion and join the old Cambrian Railway.

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So this is it.

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This is where the old track bed used to be.

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You can't actually make out where it would have come out of Dolgellau there,

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but you can see the bypass. Just there, but not for long.

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The railway origins of my path soon become more obvious.

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Within half a mile, a distinct embankment appears.

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Then you're joined by another tell- tale feature of a railway line -

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an avenue of trees, lining the route as it cuts through the silted-up area of the upper estuary.

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This is now designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest...

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an important breeding ground for wetland birds, and a varied

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environment of salt marsh, swamp and perfectly flat grazing grounds.

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That might look like a field in front of me but in fact

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it is the largest reed bed in Wales, quite boggy underfoot.

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Follow my finger through to the village and that's where

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the two rivers meet, the River Mawddach and the River Wnion.

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Then the eye travels into the valley to the right hand side and you should be able to smell gold

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because that's where a lot of the Welsh gold mining industry took place.

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The rush for Welsh gold in this area started in the 1860s, the same decade as the railway's arrival.

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Since then, the industry has grown and shrunk repeatedly, with the most recent activity ending in 1998.

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The northern side of the Mawddach Estuary

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has produced some of the most prized and highly valued gold in the world.

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And to this day, British Royal Weddings are usually topped off with a ring made of Welsh gold.

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Ah, I can spy the toll bridge at Penmaenpool. There she is.

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Pretty obvious landmark.

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Since 1879, the wooden bridge has served as a permanent crossing of the estuary,

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connecting the railway station at Penmaenpool

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with the north side of the estuary and the gold mining industry.

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If it's 60p for a car, what is it for a Bradbury?

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Er, double!

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£1.20. That's still a bargain.

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-What is it to walk over?

-20p to walk over.

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It goes to pay the repairs and the paintwork.

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The bridge replaced a ferry service here, but of course

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it provided one more obstacle to a shipping industry already being overrun by the railway.

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You don't have to be an expert to notice the signs of a railway station at this point of the walk.

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Firstly, there's the signal box in the cream and brown colours of the Great Western Railway.

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Then there's a very familiar-looking station building

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and an immaculately maintained signal.

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Penmaenpool is a brief snapshot of the past, topped off by the centuries-old George Hotel.

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It's a favourite with locals and somewhere that I'm meeting an unlikely railway double act.

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Keith Davies and Des Thomas have known each other for a number of years now.

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One is English, one is Welsh, one's an artist, and one's a former train driver.

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But the important thing is Keith's passion for accurately painting the past.

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How long have you been based here as an artist, Keith?

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About seven years, 2001.

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Through many hours of going through the archives, looking for information on the railways,

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I managed to find Des, who worked and lived here.

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It was fantastic, because to talk to somebody makes it all come to life.

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-When was this painting?

-It's 1960, with Foxcote Manor,

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which is running at Llangollen now, all restored.

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Des, now, when you look at Keith's painting, when you look at that picture...

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how real is it to you? How much does it bring back to you?

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It's like being on it.

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And I probably was on that train!

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Driver's on this side, fireman on the other side.

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All you do is open the regulator, sit down and watch it go.

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That was it? Easy!

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Look at the scenery and enjoy yourself.

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Des, let's talk a little bit about your career.

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How old were you when you started on the railways?

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About 15.

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-What was the first job?

-Cleaner. You've got to go through the stages

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like, you know, like every other trade, apprentice upwards till you

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-become a driver.

-And how long, do you think, from start to finish, before you became a driver?

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I'd say about 12-15 years.

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And what did you feel when you were told for the first time in fact,

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where were you when you were told that the railways were gonna close?

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We were in the sheds there.

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The foreman of the sheds received letters to say

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that Dr Beeching had arrived and they were going to close the line.

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Not very happy.

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-It must have been sad and shocking news for you.

-It was.

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When the railways closed, everything else was rapidly closing down.

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The wool factories, they didn't last very long afterwards.

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They closed them down.

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Shops shut.

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Nothing there, was there?

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What did you think of Mr Beeching himself, or Dr Beeching?

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I'll pass on that!

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Can you remember your last day working on the railways?

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Yes, we had to take the last little tank engine which

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took the local train, we had to take that back to Machynlleth.

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And we were hooting the whistles all the way there and back.

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Really sad time.

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Then we had to travel home by bus,

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and that was the end of us. End of the railway.

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Leaving the pub, you pass the site of old sidings

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and a handful of buildings that once served the station and the line.

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Then you pass through a cutting, once blasted through this finger

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of hillside to create a flat and direct route for the railway.

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LAMBS BLEAT

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All right, I know they're lambs.

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And I know it's the time of year.

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But I've never heard such noisy sheep.

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BAA! BAA!

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They won't shut up.

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Of course it's no surprise when you walk along old railway tracks,

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that the path is excessively long and straight.

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For over three quarters of a mile, the embankment stretches out across the sands of the estuary.

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The valley may look wide and unthreatening, but flash floods have been a feature here for centuries.

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As recently as 1976, one such flood helped

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the creation of this path today, as it washed away much of the rocky ballast left behind by the railway.

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But your reward for this straight trudge

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is a view that you won't find on any other rail line in the country.

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There's the first sighting of Barmouth Bridge in the distance.

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Reflecting in the water, just a thin line from here.

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It must be about four miles away.

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For much of the rest of the walk, Barmouth Bridge becomes a teasing goal,

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regularly disappearing from view, then reappearing moments later

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just a little bit closer, as the railway hugs the line between the hillside and the estuary.

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It's nice to get off the track and go off-piste for a while.

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And, from here, you get the most magnificent view of Barmouth Bridge proper, for the first time.

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And it really is enormous.

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It's about half a mile long.

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Just think, the Victorians didn't even have to get off the train to soak in this view.

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That rather grand looking building over there is Caerdeon Hall.

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In fact, apparently, the whole of the north bank

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is littered with big fat houses built by wealthy Victorians.

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Caerdeon Hall itself was a bit of a literary haven.

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Tennyson, Ruskin, Darwin, even my mate Wordsworth from the Lakelands

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would come and hang out here for some estuary inspiration.

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The Mawddach estuary has certainly not been short of promoters in the past.

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The Great Western Railway advertised the trip to the Welsh coast as one of the most enchanting in the world.

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And it was Ruskin, certainly no great lover of railways in general, who once expressed the view

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that the only walk better than the one from Barmouth to Dolgellau was the walk from Dolgellau to Barmouth.

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Without the old railway line here, you wouldn't be able to do this, to walk straight through the estuary.

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You can see it clearly here on both sides.

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And I love these old telegraph poles.

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The bits of railway furniture, if you like, left from the good old days.

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The only bits.

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Whereas the north side of the estuary was defined by its mining industry, the south side

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that the railway line hugged was more agricultural, and there's still some stunning farms today.

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But, as you approach Arthog, and as Jackie suggested,

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this bank hasn't always been a place of peace and tranquillity.

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Aha! Now these must be the World War Two remains that Jackie was telling

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me about, because I'm fairly certain this concrete doesn't date back to Victorian times.

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I'm also very certain, looking at them, that they would have done a very good job of stopping tanks

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getting past. Sturdier than my Greek grandmother. Sorry, Yaya, but...

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As you approach the tiny mining village of Arthog,

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it's difficult to imagine a place less likely to witness a major invasion!

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This quiet collection of cottages owes its existence to the slate mining in the area.

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And from the air it's impossible not to notice the crater left behind by the local industry.

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Today, it seems as quiet as the rest of the village.

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But nothing could be quite as sleepy as the remains of Arthog station.

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Jacky, hello again.

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-It's not much of a station, is it?

-No, there's not a lot left.

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I was expecting there would be more, I must say.

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-You're standing where the platform would have been.

-Right.

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-And the trail would have gone along there.

-Yeah.

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And this is it. It was all made of wood, and there's not a lot survived.

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Would the station have been built for tourists? Not here?

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No, not here. This station was built to support to the slate quarrying.

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All along here were slate quarries.

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You can still see the heaps.

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And the cottages where the quarrymen would have lived.

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This station was built to support that, take it out to Barmouth and beyond.

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Now we are quite close to the water here, which I know now it floods,

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and presumably it would have done back in the good old days as well.

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It would have flooded then.

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There is a story, who knows if it's true, about

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the stationmaster for this station, clinging on during the floods, to his station, until the water subsided.

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And he was able to survive by holding on to the timber-built station.

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Yes! Which would probably have washed away, parts of it.

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Right, we've done Arthog. What else are we going to see out here?

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We're going to see some more World War Two remains.

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Ah. Because I've just seen the tank traps back there. So there's more?

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There's more this way.

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More concreteness!

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Yes, this is the remains, part of the remains of the World War Two

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marine training camp that was here, Camp Iceland. One of a number of marine training camps in this area.

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There was one over the hill, Camp Burma, where my grandpa trained in the war.

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What were they all training for, the marines, around here?

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Reputedly training for the D Day landings.

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-And your grandpa was one of them?

-He was, yes.

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The presence of so much activity here in the 1940s

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is a surprise to me and I'm sure to many other visitors to the area.

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But there was one reason why marines came to this spot outside Arthog in particular.

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In 1894, a Cardiff entrepreneur by the name of Solomon Andrews had thought he could turn this

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waterside spot into a tourist destination to rival Barmouth.

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He came here with grand plans to develop villas and transport facilities.

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His dream barely got off the ground, but it did leave the

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marines with enough facilities to set up their training base.

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But it didn't take off as a resort?

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-It didn't take off as a resort.

-Why not?

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I don't know. They had problems with subsidence.

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They had problems with flooding.

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And it never really came. JETS ROAR

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It was the marines, now it's the RAF training in this area.

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Yeah.

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All the time.

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Yeah, let's go and have a look at the houses.

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So these are the posh bits that Solomon Andrews built?

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Yes, these are the houses that he built for part of his...

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resort, that were then made use of by the marines' training camp.

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They had all of the first floor, with doors adjoining, so they could get

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from one end to the other without having to come outside. And half of the ground floor.

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Some residents stayed in the ground floors of their houses,

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and the marines made use of the rest of it.

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-We can't go in there obviously now.

-We can't go in there, no.

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The footpath goes around.

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With Jacky's help, it's time to head back to the railway and the final station en route to the coast.

0:23:230:23:28

-It looks like we're one another railway track.

-It does.

0:23:300:23:32

This is a tramway that was put here.

0:23:320:23:35

Solomon Andrews made use of tramways all in this area

0:23:350:23:37

for providing building materials for his holiday resort, and also the idea to use it to bring people in and out.

0:23:370:23:44

-The visitors?

-The visitors!

-The visitors that never came.

0:23:440:23:47

The visitors that never came. This would connect his resort that we've

0:23:470:23:49

already seen, to the railway station that we're going to go and see.

0:23:490:23:52

Right.

0:23:520:23:53

One mile short of Barmouth, my old railway path meets with an active railway.

0:23:560:24:01

In an area that lost so many of its major rail arteries to Dr Beeching's axe,

0:24:010:24:06

the Welsh coastal line was fortunate to survive.

0:24:060:24:10

And today, it does feel eerily quiet.

0:24:100:24:14

This used to be a platform of what was then Barmouth Junction station.

0:24:140:24:17

-Yeah.

-And it was a very busy station in its day.

0:24:170:24:20

The line between Dolgellau

0:24:200:24:22

and the Cambrian coast on our right, and the Cambrian coastline's over to our left, the siding here.

0:24:220:24:27

-So it was a big junction.

-It was a big junction, yes. It had five platforms.

0:24:270:24:31

The only ones in Wales that were bigger were Swansea and Cardiff.

0:24:310:24:34

-And what's it called now? Not Barmouth Junction.

-Morfa Mawddach.

-Say that again?

0:24:340:24:38

-Mor-va Mao-thach.

-Morfa Mawddach.

0:24:380:24:41

Jackie, this is where we part ways.

0:24:410:24:43

-I'm heading there.

-Yes, enjoy your walk over the Barmouth viaduct.

0:24:430:24:46

I will, thank you very much. Thank you for all your information.

0:24:460:24:49

-No problem.

-I have lived and learned today.

0:24:490:24:51

-Enjoy your walk.

-Thank you.

-Bye.

0:24:510:24:54

Here's another tramway. But to be honest, by now, all of your

0:25:050:25:08

attention is just focused straight up ahead on Barmouth Bridge.

0:25:080:25:12

And so to the last bit of my walk, which is shared with the quiet,

0:25:180:25:23

but definitely still active coastal line.

0:25:230:25:25

Opened in 1867, this viaduct, known simply as Barmouth Bridge, is the longest in Wales.

0:25:320:25:38

It was one of the final and most complex pieces of the link

0:25:410:25:44

connecting England and the Welsh coast at Barmouth.

0:25:440:25:47

It was hi-tech too, featuring a sliding section

0:25:500:25:53

at the northerly end that would allow ships to pass through.

0:25:530:25:56

At 2,292 feet long, the bridge is made up of 113 timber spans

0:25:590:26:05

and an eight-span iron section.

0:26:050:26:09

Each iron column had to be sunk 120 feet below sea level

0:26:110:26:15

through layers of silt and mud to find the rock floor below.

0:26:150:26:19

So here I am smack bang in the middle of the Mawddach estuary,

0:26:210:26:26

with a view that carries you all the way back to Dolgellau.

0:26:260:26:29

But I might not have been here at all, because if you look back through the newspaper archives,

0:26:290:26:33

you'll know that in 1980, this bridge was actually closed.

0:26:330:26:36

It was riddled, infested with shipworm.

0:26:360:26:39

Luckily it was treatable with worm-proof glass reinforced cement.

0:26:390:26:43

Try saying that after a pint at the end of a long walk!

0:26:430:26:46

Ship worm.

0:26:490:26:51

SEAGULLS CRY

0:26:590:27:01

The original sliding metal gate mechanism may have been immune to ship's worm,

0:27:060:27:12

but it took 37 minutes to open and close, so it wasn't a massive success.

0:27:120:27:18

A hundred years ago, it was replaced with this more conventional swing bridge.

0:27:180:27:23

But even this hasn't swung open now for over 20 years.

0:27:230:27:27

So, with Barmouth ahead, this is it, the end of the line that once brought fashionable people

0:27:300:27:35

from England all the way to Welsh west coast.

0:27:350:27:38

And, as I've seen today, those visitors of the late 19th century are just one of many developments

0:27:380:27:44

that this stretch of water has witnessed in recent centuries.

0:27:440:27:47

It's quite funny that here we are in the most Welsh part of Wales,

0:27:510:27:54

where the national language is commonly spoken.

0:27:540:27:56

And yet this town is known by the frightfully English name of Barmouth

0:27:560:28:00

when it's got a perfectly good Welsh name of Abermaw.

0:28:000:28:03

Which goes to show that those Victorian railway tourists have

0:28:030:28:05

certainly left their mark, haven't they?

0:28:050:28:07

But despite the railway and the mining, and the quarrying and the

0:28:120:28:15

shipping, and all the millions of visitors to Snowdonia every year, today I've found a little stretch

0:28:150:28:21

of water here in Wales that I think is one of their better kept secrets.

0:28:210:28:25

Until now.

0:28:250:28:26

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:28:310:28:34

E-mail [email protected]

0:28:340:28:36

Julia walks along the stunning Mawddach estuary in north Wales. The area between Dolgellau and the coastal resort of Barmouth is one of the least visited parts of Snowdonia, but in the 1860s it received a great rush of holidaymakers, taking advantage of the new railway that connected the valley to the cities of England.