October 2019 Update

It has been quite a year for the BLR and regular readers will know that our monthly passenger figures have been consistently breaking records. October was a month of distinctly inclement weather but it seems that even this potentially unfavourable dose of ‘liquid sunshine’ did little to dampen the enthusiasm of our visitors. While the figures for the month and end of the running season, up to and including the 2nd November, equate nicely with the average of the last four years, we are still 1% up on last year for the season as a whole, and if the Santa Specials (of which more later) are as busy as always, the BLR again will have had the best year on record.

The Halloween Specials at the end of the month can only be described as a resounding success, with all bar one of the trains running full. Children of all ages (up to 75!) dressed up and really entered into the spirit of the events, no doubt helped by some simply wonderful decoration of Llanuwchllyn Station and Flag Halt. As the photos show, costumes had to be seen to be believed, and the sight of our own ‘Grim Reaper’ enveloped in steam as Maid Marian eased away from the platform was memorable, this being balanced earlier by his scythe getting caught in a carriage door, (did we detect a small exploration of the byways of Welsh invective?), but his slow progress through the stationary train certainly focused everyone’s attention. It was a cold and misty evening and the weather, in this instance, could not have been better.

The Bala Lake Railway Trust was delighted to announce during October that contracts have been exchanged on a vital land purchase which will help enormously in the quest to get the railway back into Bala.

Press Release from Bala Lake Railway Trust and Bala Rugby Club

The Bala Lake Railway Trust has just completed the purchase of a strip of land from the Bala Rugby Club.

The Rugby Club wanted to assist the railway with their project to extend the railway from the remote terminus outside the town to the newly acquired station site in Aran Street and this is a great example of two local organisations working together.

Julian Birley BEM, chairman of the BLR Trust said: “We are absolutely delighted with this acquisition as it is another great step forward in extending the railway. It is also very gratifying to think that the money for this land has come from funds raised from all over the UK and this has now gone into a local community asset. The Bala Rugby Club has been fantastic with their help and support and it is great to see the community benefit.”

Tony Parry, chairman of the Bala Rugby Club stated: “We were very happy to support and help the Bala Lake Railway as it will be of benefit to the whole town. It is great to have two local organisations working so well together.”

Support for the railway continues unabated from government level to the county council and town council. Local businesses and groups have had their own fund raising schemes as well. This is a great measure of how valued the railway is in the town.

Work continues now with all the background work required  to be done before submitting the planning application by the end of January.

With the railway terminating in the middle of the town, it will raise the profile considerably and we expect many more visitors to come and enjoy all that Bala has to offer.

23 October 2019

On top of this great piece of news, there appeared on page 12 of the latest issue of Heritage Railway a three-quarter page piece on the Trust’s activities by the magazine’s editor, Robin Jones.

As if this was not enough, the next issue of Steam Railway magazine will feature a four-page article on the BLR and the Trust’s activities by editor Nick Broderick after he came to visit the line for a couple of days. Early reports are that he ‘definitely got the atmosphere’ of the railway and its people, staff and volunteers, so the article should be excellent reading and will get the message across to an even bigger section of the heritage railway audience.

It is now common knowledge that we have another Hunslet loco in our Heritage Centre. Nesta has come to visit for a year, through the kindness of the owner, Robert Gambrill, who brought her home from Puerto Rico in 2016, along with Cegin, another Penrhyn Quarry loco. While Nesta is in wonderfully unrestored condition, her total demise could so easily have happened, such were the conditions in which she found herself, and we share here a brief history of her adventures.

Nesta at work in Penrhyn Quarry
Nesta at work in Penrhyn Quarry

She was built by the Hunslet Engine Company of Leeds in 1899 and was supplied new to the Penrhyn Quarry where she worked until the closure of the quarries in 1965. She was one of six locos (including our own Winifred) purchased by C.B.Arnette and exported to the USA. Unlike Winifred, which, along with Ogwen and Glyder, went to Indianapolis, as detailed in Julian Birley’s delightful story of her repatriation, Nesta had several owners in Alabama and Georgia before being shipped to Puerto Rico in 1989 along with Cegin, where she was destined for a working museum for the sugar cane industry which sadly never got off the ground. It was there that she was partly dismantled and subsequently stored in a swamp area that was prone to flooding, and each time the water level rose during a storm, more of her removed parts were slowly washed away.

Nesta in the Heritage Centre
Nesta in the Heritage Centre at Llanuwchllyn

2016 saw Nesta’s return to Wales by Robert Gambrill who was able to recover nearly all the missing parts by a remarkable piece of detective work where the swamps were poked and prodded and each metallic reaction produced another piece of Nesta’s puzzle. She was displayed at the Vale of Rheidol Lost Engines Gala earlier this year before being loaned to our Heritage Centre, and the BLR is indebted to Robert Gambrill for his kindness and, indeed, honoured that he considered us to be an appropriate location for his treasured loco, the last of the six exported to the USA to return. We are also grateful to the Penrhyn Quarry Railway Society for sponsoring the cost of transport from Aberystwyth.

There must be something about narrow gauge slate operations which inspires people from all backgrounds and interests. We were delighted to receive photos and an account from Mat about his project to recreate a slate wagon to his exacting standards. Mat is normally to be found on the North Norfolk Railway but decided, no doubt because of the strong link between the NNR and the BLR, to try a new endeavour, and he has written a fascinating account of his trials and successes along the way which makes excellent reading, written as it is in the third person.

New-ish volunteer Mat (who also helps restore Victorian carriages at the North Norfolk Railway) is rebuilding a Dinorwic slate wagon as a homework project. The iron components are genuine Quarry relics, probably over 80 years old. The timber is new Douglas Fir – some of it from Sandringham sawmill.

The original design used long threaded rods to hold everything  together, so that a damaged piece could be unbolted and replaced. Other fixings were kept to a minimum, to save on materials. This means that the timber parts have to slot together precisely, without glue or screws. Successfully drilling 12-inch-deep holes dead square through multiple pieces of timber, without the original assembly jigs, certainly makes your lunch taste better. So far, pilot holes have been drilled and temporary dowels inserted.

Mat has now glass-powder-blasted and primered most of the ironwork. The media-blasting cabinet he’s been borrowing is free but also old and grumpy and slow (and the other people who use it never seem to wash their hands before putting them into the rubber gloves…). For instance, each of the cast-iron “bobbins”, the spacers for the wooden rails of the superstructure, takes an hour to clean to bare metal (16 down, 8 to go…).

The cleaned-up axleboxes have gone back to Llanuwchllyn so that Engineers Mike and Rob can bore out the delicate old cast iron and fit ball-race bearings (one picture shows other axleboxes converted for a different project). The original axle bearing holes were badly worn: also, in quarry days, the wagon would have only travelled relatively short distances on its own wheels. At Bala, it will have to cope with 9- or 10-mile round trips.

The next job is to fit the central longitudinal timber that anchors the cast iron drawbar to the chassis.  Dinorwic wagons, being frugal affairs, have rather less cross-bracing than the wooden slate waggons used on the Ffestiniog Railway (and by 1896, Dinorwic couldn’t afford an extra “g” either). Mat has some ideas for non-prototypical hidden joints to anchor the central timber, in the hope that the wagon will stay square ad infinitum.

Another name appeared on the volunteer roster in October. Nathan McLachan was introduced by regular volunteer, Dave Fildes, and was rapidly put to work polishing Winifred’s side rods, which he took to most enthusiastically, as our photo shows. Stalwart volunteer, Bob Greenhalgh, sent the following comments;

Nathan had his safety briefing and then set about helping to prepare Winifred, the loco for the day’s schedule. Nathan also chopped firewood and cleaned out both ash pits before joining the footplate crew for the last train of the day. His help was much appreciated, particularly the wood chopping and the ash pits which seem to be neglected jobs so his efforts were particularly welcomed. For his efforts, he became a member of the Bala Order of Rod Polishers.

Nathan polishing Winifred

Dates and Data is an important section where we publicise numerous activities and forthcoming events coming up during the non-running season .

Firstly, the winter maintenance programme has already started with the Wednesday Gang clearing ditches before the winter rains and tackling the smaller jobs, whilst the Working Weekend team were busy on tree and foliage clearance along the track. There is nothing like total enthusiasm and, on one notable occasion, the crew were just about to finish for the day, having worked like beavers to feed the chipper with fallen and cut trees, when Rob Houghton, our Chief Engineer, suddenly decided that another tree merited his undivided attention and promptly got busy again with his chain-saw. The tree rapidly went the way of all before, such was the positive atmosphere of the whole team.

Other important dates;

Apart from regular Wednesday Gang activities where hard work is fuelled by a vast tea urn (and flapjacks if Bob Greenhalgh is present), there will be a Working Weekend on the 16th-17th November. This is intended to be a major track relaying session on another section of the line and is planned to continue until the 21st. To make the work a little easier, the BLR has invested in a tamping machine which should arrive before the end of the year. This will get the sleepers to bed in much more quickly, thus removing the tedious manual bashing and shoving to get them to seat properly .

The Santa Specials will take place on the 7th and 8th December, so any elves and helpers will, as usual, be most welcomed. Likewise, tickets are now available on the BLR website – they are selling well so please do not leave it until the last minute in case you end up disappointed. Find out more by visiting our Santa Specials page by clicking here.

Please note that further working weekends are scheduled for the 18th-19th January, 15th-16th February and 14th-15th March. There is no denying that these are hard work but they are enormously satisfying, achieve a great deal and come packed with our famous BLR atmosphere. If you are intrigued, please phone the BLR on 01678 540666 or email us at enquiries@bala-lake-railway.co.uk and get involved. It will be most appreciated.

Lastly, in this section, the 2020 timetable for the BLR is imminent and, as usual, will feature all our scheduled services next year along with special Galas, the annual May Bank Holiday Model Railway Show in Bala, plus other exciting events which will include photo freights, multiple heading (usually the last train of the day) and other items too numerous to mention. There is always something happening on the BLR. The website and social media will carry details when they become available .

And finally…… Bob Greenhalgh’s eagle eye spotted, on page 35 in the November 2019 issue of the Camping and Caravanning Club magazine, a short piece that lists the top heritage railways in the UK which are near Club-affiliated campsites. The BLR was the only Welsh entry with the particular campsite being located about 1.5 miles from the current Bala station on the road to Corwen. The piece also includes a small photo of George B .