I have been authoritatively assured that one day, sooner or later, I shall find myself facing the Great Assessor in The Sky. When that happens, I am told, he will have searching questions to ask me, so I had better be prepared. In particular, he will want to know whether I have achieved anything positive on this Earth, or have simply spent all those decades squandering my time (and his). I fear that the Great Assessor will show no particular interest in my writings, nor yet in my transient achievements in the workshop or the kitchen. But wait – wasn’t there just one occasion when I was in at the start of something rather splendid?
It began, I recall, on a day in February 1951 when I sat perusing The Times and my eye fell on a letter from a certain Mr L.T.C. Rolt. “The Talyllyn Railway”, he wrote, “which runs for seven miles up a mountainous valley from Towyn to Abergynolwyn in Merionethshire, is now the oldest surviving steam-hauled, passenger carrying, narrow gauge railway in the world….Following the death last year of Sir Haydn Jones, who was general manager and sole shareholder, efforts have been made to ensure that this historic railway shall not close…….”
I had long been bitten by the steam railway bug; among its curiously assorted victims there are those who initially content themselves with passive involvement; but sooner or later most of them experience an itch to find their way into the footplate, perhaps to shovel coal or – oh, glorious dream! – to place a hand boldly on the regulator. I myself knew such dreaming – and here, in the August columns of The Times, lay perhaps the golden key to my dreamland? Enough said. As soon as my academic duties allowed I hastened to Towyn and found myself stepping into the office of Wharf Station, unchanged for the better part of a century. Tom Rolt himself was there, struggling patiently with a Victorian ticket stamping machine. “Ah, there you are” he murmured to me, barely looking up. “That makes two of you for the track this week. You’ll find Bill Oliver up at Brynglas. He has a problem.”
The shriek of a steam whistle cut him short, as the ancient locomotive Dolgoch plodded into the station and backed onto its train. Plodded? Steam engines do not as a rule plod; they roll majestically along their steel highways. But here was no steel highway, merely an expanse of sand and turf in which lay two rusting rails, more or less parallel, now pressed a little more deeply into the earth as the engine’s broad wheels passed over them. Ten minutes and a dozen passengers later, Tom was able to transfer the morning’s takings into his leather bag, lock the station door and whistle to Dai Jones on the footplate to proceed. And proceed we did, slowly but surely, leaking steam in every direction, seemingly flattening out the track to provide our path as we went, all of half a mile to the next station at Pendre. Here David Curwen, the line’s unflappable Honorary Engineer, held sway, contriving with surgical precision and a truckload of simple tools to ensure that everything moved from hour to hour, safely and reasonably smoothly. And so it did; with a self-assuredness that it must have acquired in the days of Victoria our antediluvian train now steamed on, through Rhydyronen without stopping, and then into the hills around Brynglas.
Fifty yards from Brynglas station we spotted Bill Oliver in his blue overalls, brandishing a red flag to bring us to a halt. It was time for Tom to act. “What do you say, Bill?” he shouted. “Can we go through? Bill lowered his flag. “Just this once” he shouted. “It’s getting snaggy just before the crossing. Go slow, slow as you can…” And slowly we went, inch by inch, over a length of rail that bounced and tilted as we moved along. Finally, Dai was able to get us alongside the platform. “How bad is it, Bill?” murmured Tom. “Can you fix it before we run back? Here’s someone to help you.” My introduction elicited a grunt of hesitant approval; clearly I did not look like someone capable of working quick miracles on the permanent way.
But I had to suffice; as the ancient train plodded away into the hills I found a crowbar thrust into one hand and a spade into the other. We had just an hour and fifty five minutes to build a solid piece of railway. Like demons we dug, levered and strained, casting aside moist turf and the rotten remnants of a dozen sleepers. Within the hour Bill was sliding fresh sleepers – second-hand from somewhere else – into place and I was spiking everything together. We were still levelling out the track when the whistle from the down train sounded; once more Bill raised his flag. “Dead slow!” he shouted, “De-e-e-e-a-d slow!!” And this time, millimetre by millimetre, Dolgoch and her train crept over our fresh handiwork, clearing it triumphantly to earn a thumbs-up from Tom Rolt and a cheer from the passengers.
Such was my baptism of fire in railway maintenance. Nothing else that week quite equalled it, but there were unforgettable moments. There was that day when I strolled down to Abergynolwyn’s village grocery store. The place was (and perhaps still is) one where the advent of a stranger called for an explanation. What was I doing there? I presented my railway credentials, but to no good effect; the bus-minded ladies on both sides of the counter shook their heads. “The train, you say? Climb high, go slow and pay dear. No, I thank you.”
Back at the station there was ongoing drama; the train stood patiently waiting to return to Towyn, but Dolgoch had vanished. It soon emerged that Dai Jones, bored with the timetable, had decided on a spot of exploration and had steamed off up the track towards the old quarries, where no engine had ventured in a decade. Fortunately, bumping and rolling over the fragmented rails, he returned safely – and on time.
It was all very long ago. Today steam trains in their hundreds gleam, whistle and thunder everywhere in the world to the delight of millions. Yet still their champions look back to the pioneering days of the Talyllyn, venturing to achieve what everyone believed was impossible, and proving that it could be done. But…… what if the little train to Abergynolwyn had one day jumped the rickety rails and tumbled down the hillside to disaster, would that not have consigned the whole idea to history? How did they ever manage to make a go of it? I was there, modestly, almost at the start, but I do not really know. Yes, Tom and David were splendid people, bold yet cautious. The Railway Inspectorate, too, must have exercised its authority benignly. But surely there was more to it. Somehow I suspect that the Great Assessor in the Sky was also around, keeping a watchful eye on things. One day I may meet him; and perhaps he will permit me to ask.
Photo: Engine No2 arrives at Abergynolwyn with special train for the opening of the Nant Gwernol extension. 22nd May 1976. © Talyllyn Railway and contributors