Latest News from the Bala Lake Railway
March 2017 Update
We all know the old adage about London buses, nothing for a while then two arrive in quick succession. After last month’s announcement about the acquisition of land in Bala Town for the site of the Terminus Station, we are truly thrilled to make a second announcement under the heading; ‘Bala’s Dragon starts to breathe fire’.
The Bala Lake Railway’s plans to extend into Bala Town received another major boost at the end of March with the award of a Heritage Lottery Grant to enhance the covered accommodation for the locomotives and rolling stock.
The staff and volunteers at the BLR are celebrating the award of £38,500 by the Heritage Lottery Fund to extend and improve significantly the existing rolling stock accommodation at Llanuwchllyn Station. This is to cope with the current increasing demand and to protect the improved rolling stock which will accompany their ongoing plans for the new station in Bala. Speaking of the award, Project Leader Julian Birley BEM said:
This is superb news for the BLR and for the local area. In recent years, the team has been reaping the rewards of its hard work to provide more events and a better visitor experience, and the year-on-year growth in passenger numbers reflects that. However, the existing facilities have become increasingly overcrowded and do not allow us to expand, particularly taking into account the increasing collection of historic locomotives and rolling stock.
Apart from larger and more secure accommodation for the rolling stock, the extended building will provide a much improved visitor experience through disabled access, as well as better interpretation of the heritage exhibits. A revised track layout, which will allow access from each end of the yard, will also provide better operational flexibility, which will be particularly useful during the increasingly popular programme of Gala events held each year. Heritage and Development Officer Toby Watkins, who secured this grant, explained:
While an improvement of the infrastructure at Llanuwchllyn Station is a necessary precursor to our expansion plans, the new building is also vital for the development of volunteer numbers and skills. Likewise, our developing activity programme requires suitable facilities, where visitors and groups can access our wide range of exhibits, in both Welsh and English, regardless of weather and physical ability. Without this grant, we would have had to wait years to begin this vital work. The HLF has been fantastic, providing us with valuable advice and guidance every step of the way, and it has been a pleasure working with them.
The new rolling stock accommodation is another project to be delivered as part of a portfolio of projects on which the BLR and the Trust will work together to deliver under the banner of ‘Prosiect Y Ddraig Goch/The Red Dragon Project’. These include a new engine shed, better passenger carriages, the extension and the new station in Bala itself, plus further enhancement of the heritage rolling stock which tells the story of the Welsh slate quarry railways. Describing The Red Dragon Project, Julian added:
This year has got us off to a flying start with this grant award from the HLF, and it endorses the incredible support from local residents and businesses all the way up to the Welsh Government for the Bala Lake Railway and its expansion plans. The first piece of land for the new station site in the town of Bala itself has been acquired.
As both a Director of the BLR and Chairman of the BLR Trust, Julian has been involved in complex negotiations for the funding and permissions necessary for the proposed expansion. Reacting to the extremely positive developments over recent months, he concluded:
A supporter watching our progress from over 200 miles away believes so strongly in the project that he has put up the entire purchase price of £85,000 for the next land purchase. This now gives the railway a strong presence in the town. It is well-known that, nationally, heritage railways contribute much to local economies. Now it really is the turn of Bala.
But life carries on. Under the heading of Locomotives, the 10-year strip and rebuild of Maid Marian continues under the expert eye of Chief Engineer, Rob Houghton, and while, to the untrained eye, the myriad pieces would present a bewildering task for most, Rob is confident, in his relaxed manner, that she will be ready on schedule. Please remember, she will reappear in her original ‘open’ format for this season only.
In the meantime, the serious attention that our trusty diesel, Trigger, has been undergoing, is nearing completion. Apart from being overdue for a large helping of TLC, Dan Laidlaw found that vibration from a broken engine mount had caused a crack in the frames, so it was a case of remove the engine to facilitate that repair, as well as attending to other items much more easily. She is now being put back together, and as Dan’s photos show, everything gets a fresh coat of paint, particularly the bits that are not normally visible.
While accessibility permitted, the brakes were modified and improved, and new brake blocks were fitted. The massive drive chains were cleaned and adjusted, the air reservoir was sealed and repainted, and the aforementioned repaired subframe was painted.
Her reappearance into service will take the heat off Chilmark, which has been in almost daily use for months, but it will mean that the railway now has two heavy diesels at its disposal at any time.
Work on the Penrhyn Coach has started again after a break and much has been happening. David Hale, who is building this coach entirely on his own, reports:
“I started again last weekend and the immediate job is to get on with the doors. Because of the confined workspace, and the need to be able to hang and swing the doors open, I made a couple of timber skids to fit to the steel underframe to enable me to move it, giving me almost a metre between the carriage and the boundary fence. In time, it will of course be necessary to move it in the other direction next to the house to deal with the door on the other side.
I have at last found a source for suitable hinges. After trying a number of so-called specialist firms in various parts of the country, but to no avail, I finally found a place locally, in Yeovil, who could supply almost immediately!
The order for the impregnated plywood for the floor will be placed very soon, so that it can be loose-fitted in readiness for the seats. Pipers of Sparkford have visited to take final measurements for the seats, and I am expecting them to visit once more next week to try the seat frames in place”.
Again, we cannot reiterate too much just how much detail is going into the construction of this beautiful coach, and the cramped conditions in which it is being so carefully put together.
The Wednesday Gang, our regular band of volunteers, has been achieving a great deal this month, and in all conditions. More sections of track have been relaid with new sleepers, two of the crossings on the line have had their timbers replaced, the work on Boathouse Bridge has been completed for this year, although one day did necessitate jobs in the workshop, such was the amount of ‘liquid sunshine’.
But one of the bigger achievements over the March Working Weekend has been the replacement of the entire platform fence at Llangower, the half-way halt on the line. The fence was delivered as a kit of parts, which included over 400 pickets, and with the horizontal rails pre-cut to size. In a fine piece of organisation, the team was put into four groups, the first setting out the panels and getting the spacing exact for the pickets (the upright timbers), the second fitting the pickets, with the third installing and completing anything else that was needed. The fourth team installed the fine new sign boards, all in all a finely executed operation.
But it must also be mentioned is that all the materials, posts, sign-boards etc. were purchased as the result of a wonderful donation from Ian Whitley. BLR Members will recall from an article in the Llanuwchllyn Express Members’ magazine that Ian had an adorable terrier called Pip who sadly passed away. Pip particularly loved visits to Llangower, where the lake, beach and plenty of sticks (and probably an inattentive duck or two) provided great enjoyment to him and his owner alike. In memory of Pip, Ian commissioned a painting of his pooch and sold the prints, the money raised being used to fund the new fence and signs. On the day of completion of the fence, Ian was invited to hammer in the last nail and to fix a small commemorative plaque in honour of his beloved terrier. To say that the railway is grateful for this touching generosity is an understatement. As a consequence, Llangower now takes on even greater significance.
And finally….. here are some important dates coming up.
We have already mentioned that the 10-year inspection and overhaul of Maid Marian is nearing completion, and we expect her to be back in steam by Saturday, 6th May, which will be the 50th anniversary of her sale and rescue from Dinorwic Quarry.
The week before Maid Marian re-enters service at Llanuwchllyn, she is due to attend the Bressingham Steam Museum Heritage Steam Gala in Norfolk. Interestingly, Maid Marian has been at Bressingham before as she was one of the early fleet of 2ft gauge locomotives at the museum, running there between 1967 and 1971. Further details of this event can be found by clicking here.
No heritage railway can ever have too many volunteers. To this end, we remind all that our next Volunteer Day is taking place on Sunday, 14th May. Numbers of those registered to attend are healthy, some coming from a considerable distance. Distance is subjective, particularly with such spectacular scenery en route.
On a final note, even after a serious day’s work, our volunteers still want to help. At the end of one onerous day, (while tea and cakes were being prepared – naturally), the ‘Catoflat’, our bogie works wagon, and the small P-way generator wagon, were given a thorough clean and tidy while still on site. As one remarked; “We had time, it was needed so we did it”.
February 2017 Update
As usual during the winter months, there has been a continued hive of activity on the railway, with a great deal of continued work on the trackbed, as well as continuing maintenance and repairs on what is referred to as ‘Boathouse Bridge’ at the Bala end of the line. We also witnessed the first scheduled running of George B when she hauled her first photo charter at the beginning of the month. This was the very first time she had been in revenue earning form for half a century, and her first proper appearance since her lengthy restoration and overhaul. All photo charters are noteworthy, but the photos of the event on the 7th February capture the nature of the occasion perfectly.
George B will be hauling her first passenger train this century on the 22nd April, and seats available to the public on this historic service can be booked online.
The Red Dragon Project made a most important announcement at the end of the month regarding the plan to extend the BLR back into down-town Bala. Contracts have now been exchanged for the purchase of the first tranche of land needed for the new station area in Bala, and this has been funded by generous donations from people all over the country, as well as by energetic fund-raising. While the next big hurdle to be surmounted is the crossing of the River Dee by a possible tramway method very similar to that of the Festiniog Railway in Porthmadog, and early indications are certainly favourable, this first major land acquisition is a major boost for all concerned, particularly those leading the quest. ‘Click here’ for a direct link to the Trust website which has more information.
Another working weekend took place on the 18th/19th and was well attended, including volunteers from other railways, Ashley Barrs coming across from the North Norfolk with his young son, Jack, to do some spirited work on changing sleepers at Llanuwchllyn. Saturday saw several track panels lifted in the station environs, and it is a credit to the enthusiasm of the team that all was back in place ready for the scheduled trains on the Sunday. There was relatively less pressure on the Sunday when sleepers were changed in the station run-round, as this presented no delays to the trains. Another volunteer, Jim Adams, was present over the weekend with his young son, and it is of note that both young boys were particularly enthusiastic in helping to prepare the locomotive early on Sunday morning. Grime, it seems, has perennial appeal.
Attention was also given, actually by the Wednesday Gang, to the aforementioned ‘Boathouse Bridge’. In earlier news updates last year, we reported that the main timbers of the bridge, those that carry the rails, were renewed, and since then, the side boarding has been renewed, in part so that anyone walking over the bridge, (legally or otherwise), can do so in safety. However, what became apparent after the winter gales, is that the relentless pounding of the bridge abutments by the waves has begun to erode the supports. To this end, a considerable amount of cement and rocks have been fixed in place to stop any further problems arising. Likewise, new steel beams are being fitted on the outboard side of the ‘walking’ area, with new brick supports underneath. As the photograph shows, it matters not what the weather, the job gets done.
We refer to this location by the name of ‘Boathouse Bridge’ because there is still to be seen, albeit in derelict state, a boathouse which was once for the use of residents of the John Lewis Staff Hotel situated on the other side of the road. The area around the boathouse has since silted up because of lack of use over many years, and is usually almost dry these days. But the winter gales whistling up the lake have flooded the overgrown undergrowth quite a bit of late, as if in a vain attempt to recreate its former splendour.
The Carriage & Wagon Department have been suffering from winter weather, as most of their tasks are currently outdoors. Nevertheless, we are delighted to show the almost complete cover for the newly raised water tower at the end of Llanuwchllyn Station, and this will be fitted as soon as possible.
Locomotives equal maintenance, and Maid Marian is still in pieces while she undergoes her 10 year overhaul. However, what looks like, to the untrained eye, an horrendous task was casually dismissed by Chief Engineer, Rob Houghton, as she will be up and running in a matter of weeks. Like jigsaw experts, he knows where the myriad bits should go, and the rest of the team are confident that she will be ready in time. As we mentioned previously, she is to be rebuilt in her original open form, thus it will be only for a few months that visitors and enthusiasts will be able to see her as she was during her latter years at Dinorwic Quarry. At the end of this season, she will have her full cab refitted, so please make a note to inspect her in this rarest of formats.
Likewise, our original trusty diesel, known to all by her nickname, Trigger, is also in dismantled state. She was overdue for a large bout of TLC, but after she had been stripped as necessary, she was found to have other issues, thus her engine has been removed for easier access. It will take a while for this locomotive to be back in service. But, thanks to the inspired work of our engineering team in fettling and constantly improving the larger of our two R&H diesels, Chilmark, there is never a problem and she has taken over Trigger’s mantle as main ‘yard-goat’ for the foreseeable future. Indeed, she has just been presented with a large headlight, originally from a rally car, which was demonstrated recently to remarkable effect. It looks remarkably effective. Instructions have been issued that said light is NOT to be used unless the engine is running!
Diana, our Kerr Stuart loco, is on her travels during the spring, and is at the Statfold Barn railway on the 25th of this month. Beamish will enjoy her company 6th to 9th April, followed by her return to the area for the Ffestiniog Quirks Gala at the end of the month. Lastly she visits the Apedale Gala in mid May.
Diana also celebrates an important birthday this year and it it great to see that an appropriate headboard, designed by Mark Freeman, has been cast for the event. As her owner, Phil Mason, says "The weight will also help with adhesion!".
Not counting the Wickham Trolley, a lengthy description of which can be seen in the ‘Locomotives’ section of the BLR website, there is one final locomotive on the BLR fleet.
Meirionnydd was the first locomotive on the Bala Lake Railway after its formation. She was built in 1973 by Severn Lamb in Stratford-on-Avon and is based on a Western Class standard gauge loco.
While she may not ‘fit’ into the quarry loco format, she has proved to be a most useful member of the fleet. She was re-engined in the 90s with a new Cummins diesel, notable for the fact that even after months of inactivity, the engine fires at the first turn of the key. In 2015, she underwent a thorough overhaul, which included being beautifully repainted by Dan Laidlaw. She is owned by the Meirionnydd Fund, in a similar way to Maid Marian who is owned by the Maid Marian Locomotive Fund.
As we mentioned in the December News, our next Volunteer Day will be held on the 14th May. The booking form for this important event is now available via the 'Volunteering' page of our website. It is essential to register for what will prove to be an inspirational day finding out about the many aspects of an heritage railway and all the fun and worthwhile activities that can be experienced.
January 2017 Update
It is regularly reckoned, by those in the know, that the off-season of a railway is busier than when trains are running, and the Bala Lake Railway is a case in point. We start this new year with a round-up of what has been happening in Llanuwchllyn.
Under the heading of Carriage & Wagon, Ian Whitson reports that work has recommenced on the wooden frame which will be fitted to support the new, elevated water tank. As always, weather is an important factor with outside jobs of this nature. Likewise, David Hale reports that the Penrhyn Coach has now had a primer coat applied, and the doors will receive the same attention shortly. A seating/upholstery expert has visited the coach to take measurements, and samples of leather for this sumptuous appointment will follow soon.
The repainting and revitalising of the carriage stock has started in earnest, and Ben Nelson has completed the first closed carriage, (no. 7, normally at the Llanuwchllyn end of the set, and which uniquely has an end window), including floor, sides and ceiling rubbed down and repainted, not forgetting the seat cushions and backs which have been removed and refitted, with replacements if necessary.
Two more carriages will receive his attention very soon, thus making the best of the time available. As Ben only has Tuesdays available for this exacting task, any offers of help will be gratefully appreciated.
While all this was happening, Dan Laidlaw has been very busy carrying out the mechanical inspections of the carriage stock, a task which includes the lifting of each carriage to check the bogies and the total maintenance of the running gear, a time-consuming job.
The Station Café and Shop have been getting a serious spring clean by Wendy Levy and Bobby Hine, in readiness for the early opening of the season on the 16th February, of which more later. When it comes to spring-cleaning, it is best to leave the ladies to it.
Rob Houghton, our Chief Engineer, has been busy getting our Locomotives ready for their annual inspections, namely Alice, Diana and Holy War. All have completed and passed their cold boiler inspections, and we now await the same results for their steam tests. Rob is also looking after the 10 year overhaul of Maid Marian, which we have already mentioned, and he has started to remove the boiler tubes. The Maid Marian Locomotive Fund, which owns this locomotive, has decided to replace her water tank, after several irreparable leaks appeared in the existing one. Maid Marian's chassis has also been stripped down and, as can be seen from the accompanying photograph, there is still much work to be done.
But the big news this month is the Trackbed. In just over a week, (it took two last year), 45 lengths of track were lifted and 400 new sleepers (actually mainline Azobe sleepers cut in half) were put in place, with everything reaffixed. To prove all was well, our diesel, Chilmark, ventured over the freshly completed metals with a bogie flat wagon, on to which were piled the old sleepers. Apart from the numerous willing volunteers, including directors plus the General Manager, all getting cold and filthy, the onerous task was done with the usual jocular positive atmosphere (plus copious amounts of tea and flapjacks). Hopefully the photos speak for themselves.
Mention should be made of the use of Rob’s tractor fitted with the railway’s ingenious home-made plough, which neatly gathers and then levels the ballast. Additionally, a 15 second film on Facebook by Dan Laidlaw, available by clicking here, shows how this bit of home-made ingenuity works to perfection.
January sees a change-over in the board of the railway, and we say goodbye to Roger Hine, erstwhile General Manager for many years. While Roger tendered his resignation a year ago, he agreed to remain on the board until a suitable replacement could be found. In the meantime, he intends to remain a valued volunteer, and his painting expertise, among numerous other talents, will be seen on Maid Marian and George B as they become ready during the season. The repainting of Winifred is testimony to his superlative talent for detail (and steady hand), but it is not widely known that he is not only a highly respected model maker but also a noted and very knowledgeable watch and clock restorer. Roger has given many years of his life to the BLR and he will be greatly missed, not least for his engineering eye and instinct. For example, it took but one leisurely glance from him and Rob at the replacement engine for our diesel, Chilmark, to prompt the laconic comment, “It’ll fit”, and this with the aid of nothing more than a tape measure! We wish him well for the future, and his visits to the railway will always enjoy a warm welcome.
We are delighted to announce the appointment, as a Director of the BLR Company, His Honour Judge Peter Heywood, someone already known to the railway for his enthusiasm as well as his various activities on its behalf, not forgetting regularly enjoying driving courses on the line.
Judge Peter Heywood was born in Bangor in 1949, the son of a clergyman in the Bangor diocese. He was educated at the John Bright Grammar School in Llandudno, and turned down a place at Oxford in order to read law at Aberystwyth. After achieving LLB there, followed by LLM at City University, he became a barrister of Gray’s Inn in London, was appointed Recorder in 2003 and then a Circuit Judge in 2008. He is currently a Probation Liaison Judge, from which position he will be retiring in 2019.
Peter has been a lifelong railway enthusiast and enjoyed the singular distinction of cleaning, firing and driving Holy War in Dinorwic Quarry after doing his O'Levels in the 60s. He has fired on the Festiniog Railway, and has been a regular volunteer at Llanuwchllyn since 2015.
To conclude our explanation of how the names of our locomotives came about, we list the remainder of our ‘fleet’.
Holy War is named after a successful race horse; the stable being owned by the Dinorwic Quarry’s owner. When she arrived at Dinorwic, she originally was known simply as No. 3.
Maid Marian was also named after a thoroughbred from the same stable, and was originally No. 5.
George B was yet another to wear a name from the owner’s stable, but ‘she’ was previously named Wellington, this also being the name of one of the slate galleries at Dinorwic. Incidentally, one of the quarry’s first locos, a de Winton acquired in 1870, was also called Wellington.
Our Lady Madcap, a Ruston & Hornsby diesel, was named in honour of the original steam Hunslet loco of the same name, which was thought to be lost (mostly scrapped) but is now actually being rebuilt by the Welsh Highland Heritage Railway with original pool spares and new frames. Our diesel is always ready to assist when needed.
Chilmark, our other R&H diesel, was ordered by the Air Ministry in 1939, and sent to work in the huge RAF underground ammunition silo, discretely located near the village of Chilmark in Wiltshire.
Last but not least, Diana, our resident Kerr Stuart, presents a problem. Her owner, Phil Mason, has researched as much as he possibly can about his cherished steed, but on the question of the origin of her name, he has had to admit that the details seem to be lost in the mists of time.
And finally, Important Dates are appearing already.
The railway will be open on Thursday, 16th February to offer a service for those on holiday from the few areas which have half-term earlier than the majority.
Likewise, George B’s first public outing will take place on Tuesday, 7th February. She will be the star of a David Williams Photo Charter, pulling a rake of slate wagons. As there are still a few places available, anyone interested should email the BLR and we will be happy to forward enquiries to David Williams.