Beyond the Vale

A short while ago I made a short pilgrimage to Aberystwyth for my sister’s graduation (very proud moment there, wipe away manly tear etc). And it almost goes without saying that after the ceremony, I found time to explore the railways of Aberystwyth.

The most famous, without a doubt, is the Vale of Rheidol. Why, it’s even mentioned in Malcolm Pryce’s Aberystwyth Mon Amour. This line runs from Aberystwyth to Devil’s Bridge, and shares a terminus with Arriva Trains Wales. The main station is severely reduced from its original glory, with only one platform in use and the main building having been turned into a Wetherspoon’s (although admittedly they’ve done a fine job preserving the original architecture).

The Vale of Rheidol departs from alongside the main line.

Number 8, Llewellyn, pulls into Aberystwyth

Number 8, Llewellyn, pulls into Aberystwyth

It then climbs through the titular Vale to Devil’s Bridge, which I am told is scenically spectacular. Unfortunately, the day we went there were only two trains running, so there wasn’t time to get out and look.

However, here is the station.

However, here is the station.

No. 8 at Devil's Bridge

No. 8 at Devil's Bridge

The line is currently owned by the Phyllis Rampton Narrow Gauge Railway Trust, a somewhat cagey charitable organisation founded with the aim “to preserve, exhibit, display and loan for demonstration for the public benefit and for the advancement of technical, historical and general education, steam and other railway locomotives, rolling stock, equipment, machines and relics which are historical, operational and of general interest and in addition are of educational value.” To this end, they keep the engines in private locations and don’t let anyone see them. Several are apparently stored at Capel Bangor on the VoR, presumably in that locked shed with no windows. I mean, I don’t want to cry “conspiracy”, but I strongly suspect that one of the trustees got drunk once and started boasting that they have, like, fifty locomotives. Then, the next morning, rather than admit their booze-fuelled exaggeration, they got caught in the lie and now they’ve got to act like they really do have all these rare engines. A cautionary tale for us all, I feel.

The Vale, as seen from the train

The Vale, as seen from the train

But more notable is the fact that, prior to 1989, it was still owned by British Rail. Yep, twenty years after the end of BR steam, BR was still operating this little narrow gauge tourist railway. The engines were known as Class 98 and painted in BR blue.

I’m not entirely clear how this is supposed to have happened.

No. 8 again, this time in blue.

No. 8 again, this time in blue.

I mean, it’s not as if BR was exactly sentimental at the time. None of the online histories seem to have any reason why this line survived while, say, the Varsity Line was closed. I rather imagine that it went something like this.

The Scene:  The office of Dr Richard Beeching. BEECHING sits with an UNDERLING, working out the fine details of the Modernisation Plan.

BEECHING: Right, let’s see who else is for the axe… Audlem, Ambergate, Chittening, Cheslyn Hay… Hand me that copy of the lyrics to ‘Slow Train’, would you? I can’t remember what comes next.

UNDERLING: I believe it was the line from Selby to Goole.

BEECHING: Ah, thank you.

UNDERLING: Oh, and one other thing – this Vale of Rheidol Railway rather stands out.

BEECHING: Never heard of it. Please explain.

UNDERLING: Oh, it’s this narrow gauge railway in Wales. Used to be all about timber and lead, now it’s all tourists.

BEECHING: Ah, a good point. Well, let’s –

Enter ERNEST MARPLES, Minister for Transport.

MARPLES: Good morning, Beeching.

BEECHING: Oh, good morning, Mr Marples, how are you today?

MARPLES: Very well. I am glad to say that there is still nothing suspicious about my extensive interests in road building, and that nobody has made the link between my pro-road, anti-rail policies and my many, many shares in road construction, which as you know I sold upon taking office and can buy back as soon as I leave. I also have no track record of corruption and certainly do not plan to flee the country in 1975.

BEECHING: I’m glad to hear it.

MARPLES: How goes the Modernisation Plan?

BEECHING: Oh, well, well. I am confident that our policy of considering each line in isolation rather than as part of a larger national network will not be counterproductive by removing sources of traffic from the main lines. I am also sure that, with hindsight, we will not come to regret the removal of many of these lines and have to reopen them at great cost.

MARPLES: Excellent! And dieselisation?

BEECHING: We think the way to go is to continue buying characterful but non-standard locomotives of varying reliability.

MARPLES: Excellent! Excellent – but here’s an idea. They are indeed characterful, so I suggest that in the long run we should consider painting them blue with full yellow ends that will make them look really ugly!

BEECHING: Brilliant!

BEECHING & MARPLES: (dancing) Paint them blue! Paint them blue!

UNDERLING: Sirs? Sirs? What about… Hell0? What about the Vale of Rheidol?

BEECHING & MARPLES: Paint them blue! Paint them blue!

UNDERLING: (shrugging) Alright then.

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