Wales's steam railways seemed lost forever with the Beeching cuts of the 1960s. This series celebrates their revival with archive film and memories of passengers and railwaymen.
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50 years ago, almost everyone in Wales lived in sight
and sound of steam trains.
They were part of the fabric of everyday life.
Then, in the early 1960s, chairman of British Railways
Dr Richard Beeching took an axe to the rail system of Wales.
Within a few years, his plans for modernisation and efficiency
closed hundreds of branch lines, stations and tunnels.
And steam power was scrapped in favour of diesel.
But Beeching had not reckoned on the passion for steam trains
amongst the people of Wales.
Put your head out of the window and you get a face full of smoke.
When you come in, you're filthy, but it was great!
As a small lad, when you were on that train,
it was the power of the thing.
You moved the regulator up and, within a few seconds, she'd respond.
And suddenly, you'd see the countryside starting to go faster.
There was an art with the old steam. It was like a living machine.
And it was sad to see the demise of it.
It's nice to see the preservation boys keeping it up, you know.
In 1975, just eight years after the last steam engine ran on
British Rail, a group of enthusiasts started Llangollen Railway.
Other enthusiasts, like amateur cameraman Jim Clemens, kept
the spirit of steam alive by filming branch lines before they closed.
Much of this rare footage has never been seen on television before.
By weaving it together with images from heritage railways,
and memories of the last heyday of steam in Wales,
this is the story of a world almost lost forever to Dr Beeching.
One of the main reasons for people's fond memories of steam trains
is because of the holiday excursions that took them to the Welsh seaside.
In South Wales, many communities that lived in the valleys
booked day excursions to Barry Island or Porthcawl,
both reached directly by train from their local station.
During the miners' fortnight,
day excursions to Aberavon remained popular amongst Rhondda families.
Gareth Evans lived with his parents
and younger brother in Treorchy in the 1950s.
These trips, they were either organised by local chapels
or local working men's clubs.
You'd never find the two amalgamating,
because the chapel people wouldn't get on very well with the drinkers!
But they'd be reserved entirely as an excursion train.
So you'd get on at Treorchy station with your parents.
On whoever's train it was,
you'd have the chapel deacons or the club stewards marshalling you into
some sort of order, shouting out,
"That's your coach, that's your coach."
Your parents would bundle you aboard,
sandwiches would come out straightaway, and it was a good day.
Peter Roberts grew up near Blaengwynfi in the Afan Valley.
We'd park up in the morning.
Sandwiches, bathers, buckets, spades.
And to see that train coming through, the steam
and the kids hanging out of the windows, shouting and cheering.
Get on the train. One compartment, basically, to four or five families.
It would be crowded.
Go down through Cymmer, down through Duffryn and off into Aberavon.
It was a brilliant day down there.
And in those days, that was our holiday.
Every day, going down the beach in the miners' fortnight.
In North Wales too,
steam railways were at the heart of the holiday experience.
The Llangollen Railway likes to revive the appeal
of the North Wales Radio Land Cruise that was
part of a trend for steam train specials, made popular in the 1950s.
These cruises took holidaymakers on a tour around North Wales,
sightseeing and stopping at resorts,
all accompanied by commentary and refreshments.
The routes varied, sometimes going via Corwen and Dolgellau to the
Cambrian Coast, and up to Harlech, before returning to Llandudno.
These excursions ceased
when the circular route was broken by the Beeching cuts.
Jenny Griffiths remembers tours to Rhyl and Barmouth
from her childhood home in Mold, Denbighshire.
We used to go to Rhyl, because my uncle lived in Rhyl.
He was also on the railways.
And then we used to go and stay with him.
We used to watch for Uncle Gaius in the signal box.
And, quite often, we used to go past the signal box and he'd be there,
looking through the window, and you'd have a little wave.
And then you'd pull into the station and get off the train.
There were quite a few trains there,
because they'd have all sorts of trips and things going on.
And when we were there,
we used to go on what we used to call a mystery tour.
And you'd go to the station and Mum would go and buy the tickets
and you'd get on the train.
You hadn't got a clue where you were going until you got there.
Very often, it used to be Barmouth, we used to go a lot.
But it used to be fun.
I think it was the noise of the train because,
if you sat there,
you could hear the train going, "Got to go back, got to go back,
"got to go back, got to go back," all the way along.
The love of steam is rooted in childhood memories.
Many a Welsh schoolboy was drawn to trainspotting.
But it was not unknown for girls to take up the hobby as well.
Jenny Griffiths lived half a mile from Mold station.
My friend and I used to go there a lot, trainspotting, as you do.
So we had an exercise book each, and a pencil, and a rubber.
And off we used to go to the station in Mold.
And we'd sit and watch all the goods and things coming in.
Watch the porters working and the station master.
And we used to go over the bridge to the other side
and watch trains coming in the other way.
And we used to sit on this wall for hours,
fascinated by all these trains.
It was the noise of it.
It'd let off all the steam and then when he filled it up with
the water, we used to find that quite fascinating because,
Very often, the fella that was filling it used to get wet as well!
So it was great fun, actually.
For many children, the best chance of getting a ride on a steam engine
was at one of the coalfield sidings near where they lived.
Scenes like this had been common in North and South Wales
in the 1940s, when Harry Loundes was growing up,
a few miles from the Caerall colliery near Wrexham.
This is the engine that I remember. The Welshman.
The driver would be slowing down for you to get on the engine
and have a ride up
and come back down.
It was great.
You'd stand, one of you would be that end
and one would be this end.
And riding up and down and looking out, seeing where you're going.
It was the engine, getting on the engine,
riding the engine. That was great.
Children who rode the footplates
dreamt of one day being a train driver.
For Mike Griffiths, who grew up in Mold,
this dream came true while he was still a boy.
At the age of ten, he befriended engine driver Bill Lewis,
who taught him how to drive an engine.
I got to know Mad Bill, as he was called,
and he took me on the footplate and he taught me
what the levers and the rest of it was for,
and how to drive a steam train.
You get drawn to this massive metal beast.
There was steam coming, there was a pressure valve going.
It was just magnificent.
The boy driver took trains as far as Bodfari, a few miles from Denbigh.
Although engines of various sizes worked the line,
like this pannier tank, commonly used in many parts of Wales,
for a ten-year-old boy,
all the controls on the footplate seemed massive.
The one Mike Griffiths liked best increased the speed of the engine.
This was the regulator.
I thought it was fantastic, because we had the regulator open
and I was pushing up under the regulator.
It was a huge thing.
I wasn't that strong, but we managed to get it going.
And the gauge said 40 mile an hour, and Bill said,
"That is as fast as you'll go. She won't go any faster."
When you were on that train, it was the power of the thing.
You moved the regulator up and, within a few seconds, she'd respond.
And suddenly, you'd see the countryside starting to go faster.
Despite the often friendly relations between crews and the public,
the presence of children on a moving engine was strictly forbidden
by British Railways regulations and, in 1956,
the station master at Mold was determined to put a stop to
the boyhood driving career of Mike Griffiths.
There were several times, I can remember quite clearly,
I was in a hell of a state.
Because the station master came up the platform and he used to say...
AFFECTS NASAL DRONE: "Hello, how are you?"
He used to talk like this.
And he asked the engineer had he seen me?
"No, I haven't seen him today," Bill Lewis said. "Is he about?"
He said, "He's about somewhere." "Oh, I haven't seen him."
And I was on me knees, underneath the brakes,
underneath the engineer's seat.
I was in a hell of a state.
Because if he'd have stuck his head through the window,
he'd have seen me.
"No, I haven't seen him at all," Bill Lewis said.
And he said, "Right, we're away. We've got the signal."
He took the brake off, pulled the regulator
and we all had a good laugh about it.
At Llangollen Railway,
volunteer crews worked the footplates of the passenger trains.
Drivers have qualified at the heritage railway after gaining
experience and taking examinations.
In the 1950s, passion for steam often did lead
to a career on the railways.
But a young fireman could expect to be kept in his place by the driver,
very much boss on the footplate.
In 1955, Bryan King worked at Neath yard,
when he first fired a passenger train to Brecon,
on what was commonly known as the N&B line.
The first Brecon turn I had was literally weeks after
I got to Neath and Brecon.
A cleaner came over and he said,
"You've got to go on the 4:10 passenger to Brecon."
So I'd never been through to Brecon at all by that time
and I was a bit uncertain about the whole thing, you know.
But I had to do it. There was no getting out of it.
You were a fireman and you was expected to go, you know.
So the driver was Ben Matthias.
A typical grumpy type of driver.
Had kind of a white line around the middle of the footplate
and that was your half and this was his.
That was the type of man he was.
It was quite a nice run, actually.
It was firing all the way to Onllwyn.
You wouldn't see much of the scenery.
You were firing all the way.
When you was shovelling, obviously up to Onllwyn,
when you got to Onllwyn, it evened out a bit, you know,
you were down to your T-shirt.
We used to have a famous red scarf around the neck.
Well, of course, that wasn't there for decoration.
That was to wipe the sweat away.
And, going through tunnels, you would have to put it over your mouth
to stop the smoke and sulphur going in.
So there was that little red scarf we used to wear.
And then we used to tie knots in the four corners of it
and put it on your head, you know, to keep your hair clean,
because you didn't want to get your hair dirty when you was a youngster.
Here in the Dee Valley,
a train approaches the Berwyn tunnel on the Llangollen Railway.
The frequency of tunnels in Wales have often been
a test of endurance for passengers and crew alike.
Being brought up to it as a young fireman, I remember it, being a
young fireman going it through it the first couple of times,
it was quite frightening. That was until you realised you was
in the hands of an older driver.
And it was quite safe then, really.
It was very, very smoky.
Very narrow. You had to careful.
You wouldn't look out of the engine or anything because, in some parts,
the side of the tunnel was only about that much from the engine, like.
It was reputed that the fumes in the tunnel were
very good for bad chests,
and I was, and still am, an asthmatic.
So my parents would force
my head, physically force my head, out of the carriage window.
You had one of these big leather straps and the window dropped down completely.
"Go on, get your head out. Breathe!"
"I don't like it."
"Breathe some more."
The sound of the engine would magnify.
It would be echoing all around you.
And clanging, banging, couplings back and forth,
they were vibrating and you had a sense of being confined.
Some people were almost terrified of the experience,
going through the tunnel, but we used to enjoy it.
In the age of steam, hundreds of branch stations served
the industrial and rural communties throughout Wales.
Here, a train bound for Brecon arrives at Talyllyn junction.
Such scenes, captured by amateur enthusiasts
in the last days of this historic rail network,
are rare and remarkably valuable.
Every line that snaked through every valley provided frequent access
points for families and workers to travel to destinations near and far.
The Beeching cuts destroyed the way of life that had grown up
around these stations,
places of dependability,
held together by the people who ran them.
The booking clerk provided a whole range of services,
available at each station.
Glyn Jones remembers the process of issuing tickets at Prestatyn.
Draw tickets out of the rack.
Cardboard tickets out the rack.
Had it inbetween your thumb and finger and...
But twice. That meant both ends had been dated.
So it was...
It was a flick of the thumb and finger.
Turned it round, you see.
At Prestatyn, we had a row of ticket racks there
and another row around there.
Some were in geographiocal order
and some were in alphabetical order, you see.
And the prices were on but, of course, your float,
the money, you had pound notes, ten shilling notes, crowns,
florins, shillings, six-pences,
pennies and ha'pennies, all in rows.
At many stations, like here at Llanarthney
on the line to Carmarthen, signalmen did the job of
crossing-keeper, booking clerk and porter, all rolled into one.
Points and singalling levers were sited outside on the platform
to make it possible to carry out all these jobs single-handed.
On the line from Chester to Denbigh, closed in 1962,
relief signalman Harry Loundes worked at most of the stations
in the lates 1950s, including Llong in Flintshire.
We used to cover signal boxes and platform staff.
So we used to issue tickets at all different stations.
At Llong, it was a station.
In the office, you used to be selling tickets
to the passengers for the passengers to go on the trains.
And you was also a signalman working the levers,
and they were on the platform.
The station house at Llong has survived to the present day.
After being abandoned for many years,
it is now being slowly restored as a private dwelling.
Harry Loundes is visiting Llong Station with Jenny Griffiths,
whose grandfather, George Parry,
worked as a signalman there from the 1920s.
Harry kept a piece of wood from the station after it closed.
-Oh, what's that?
-This piece of wood, if you look on it, and you'll see...
My grandfather's name on it!
-And the year?
-1929. January '29.
And all the names are on it.
-Yeah, Llong Station 1854.
As with all signalmen who worked the line,
Jenny Griffiths' grandfather George Parry had many responsiblities,
but he always had time for family visits.
When I was little, I used to get
the train here with my mum
and my sister, but my sister is
three years younger than me,
so she'd only be a tot.
And we used to come here and get off the train.
And then if my grandfather was working, we used to stay
and watch what he was doing.
He used to close the gates, the gates used to go over the road.
And he used to close those down.
And then he'd come up and he'd be pulling the levers on here.
We used to think he was fantastic.
We used to think he was big,
big muscles, you know, to pull those levers.
And that's when he used to help people on and off the trains.
But the one thing I do remember was, to get on the train,
we used to have to go up the steps.
-Steps! The steps.
-Yeah, there was two, yes.
Was it two?
Well, if anybody was getting on or off the train,
you had to carry them from there to each carriage,
for people to get in and out of.
And put the steps there and put your foot on them, save them moving,
so the people could climb down or climb up into the carriage.
And then you'd move the steps away.
The station house at Llong had been built in 1849 as part of
the Saltney to Mold branch line.
Victorian railway companies tended to favour a similar
design of house for each station.
Down the line from Llong was Hope and Penyffordd.
In 1959, Glyn Jones applied for the stationmaster's vacancy here.
Such was the standing of the job in the age of steam,
the local newspaper reported Glyn's success.
And with the job
came the stationmaster's house.
But when Glyn arrived from Prestatyn with his young family,
he found his idea of the rural idyll was not matched by British Rail.
The house wasn't bad, really.
There was a nice open view from one side
and there was a shop on the other side.
But we'd got two little children then and there was no toilet.
And we'd got two little children.
So we write and ask to see if we can have the toilet put in.
We got a very, to my mind, rude reply from the head office.
"You must remember that Penyffordd is a place in rural Wales
"and not every rural place in Wales has an indoor toilet,
"so why should you have one?"
You know? Oh, dear!
But, eventually, we did get one put in.
I enjoyed the work and I enjoyed the staff and the company.
I was lucky, I had good staff.
They didn't treat me as a boss, like. "You're one of us," you know.
Harry Jones, who also looked after the station gardens in Penyffordd,
which, incidentally, got first prize twice for station gardens,
he had a terrific whole length of one platform was
different coloured geraniums, all the way along.
It was marvellous.
And, of course, the white platform edges, which Fred Foster used to do.
He was keener on the brush and shovel
and keeping the place tidy, you know.
Glyn Jones and his family had to move out of their station house
at Hope and Penyffordd
when the Denbigh line closed to passenger traffic in April 1962.
But one member of staff was able to continue.
Relief signalman Harry Loundes frequently worked at the signal box
during the five years the line stayed open to carry goods trains.
Unlike most station houses along the line, Glyn Jones' old family home
still stands, amongst a modern housing estate.
Harry Loundes got to know the new owner, Ray Ankers,
while working at the signal box, but has not been back for many years.
By God, Harry, how are you doing, lad?
All right, Ray.
-How are yourself?
-Hey, you're looking well.
You're not looking too bad, either.
-Well, still here. And that's the main thing, lad, innit?
Former fireman Ray Ankers has spent nearly 50 years adapting his
stationmaster's house into a unique home.
Wouldn't recognise the old place now.
Well, no, not all this. You've put all this on.
Aye, me and my mate across the road done that.
It wasn't all that much different, really, like.
The only thing, we had to have new windows.
And I had it rendered because...
I've got a photograph there of the house exactly as it was.
With the brick?
It's in the conservatory. With the brick.
It was all just the brick, like.
Oh, you've still got Hope & Penyffordd off the platform.
Well, look after the signs, aye.
Well, trying to make it look as original as possible, you know.
I think you've got the signal in the...
The right place or the wrong place?
In the wrong place.
-I had an awful job of putting it up there.
-Is it distant?
No, it's a western signal.
There was a school there and the box was, well...
Near about where that lamp is there, more or less.
Yeah, the school was about 20 yards away from the signal box.
That's it, yeah.
Here in the Afan Valley, signs of the old railway lines
and stations are difficult to find.
Before the Beeching cuts, the trains that travelled to and from
Abergwynfi and Blaengwynfi were vital to local communities.
The Valley has changed greatly since Peter Roberts was a boy.
We're in Blaengwynfi, just across the dividing line from Abergwynfi.
And the river just there, that's the dividing line.
The Abergwynfi station.
The station was just to the left of the river,
just in amongst the trees there.
Actually, there's nothing left of the station now,
but that was the terminus for the Maesteg to Bridgend and Cardiff line.
Life in the Afan Valley is much quieter than in the age of steam.
The stations have long gone
and the tracks have been replaced with footpaths, or left to nature.
Much of the landscaping created as the lines criss-crossed the river
can still be found, if sometimes a little hidden.
But like many valleys that once reverberated to
the sounds of steam power,
the Afan holds mixed emotions for people who remember the railways.
It ruined this valley when they closed the lines.
The tourism that this valley could have now, with this line and with
Afan Argoed, and all the cycle tracks here, it would be unbelievable.
Richard Burton called this valley Little Switzerland in Wales.
And, well, they come from all over the world now,
just to go on the cycle tracks here.
Every year, thousands of visitors beat Beeching at Llangollen Railway.
It is as if time stood still,
as they relive the joys of steam railways
in the setting of the picturesque Dee Valley.
Today, there is a new commitment to restore some of Wales'
historic branch railway lines.
Steam is now regarded as an important part of the Welsh tourist industry,
to be preserved and cherished.
On heritage railways, steam-hauled passenger trains continue to
attract many visitors to the joys of a bygone age.
They are a reminder of how much steam power
lay at the heart of Welsh communities.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
The steam railways of Wales seemed lost forever with the Beeching cuts of the 1960s, but this series celebrates their revival with wonderful colour archive film combined with the memories of passengers and railwaymen from the age of steam.
In this episode, we meet a schoolboy driver, a station master, firemen and some holidaymakers who share a passion for steam with the volunteers at Llangollen Railway.
We also meet the last generation of Welsh steam railwaymen and visit the heritage railway which keeps their glorious past alive.