February 2020 Update

“February is always a dead month”. So it was blandly asserted recently, which prompted the reply, “Piffle”, (or a slightly more forthright and contemporary choice), as the following will attest.

Amidst of a lot of activity during the month, some of it planned and other parts not, as we will report, the BLR was a busy as ever. But the undoubted highlight was the major award won by the railway at the Heritage Railway Awards Ceremony in Birmingham, which took place at the Burlington Hotel, a most suitable venue as it was originally, and most appropriately, built by the Midland Railway. Nominees were invited but the awards were a total surprise to all .

In the category of Outstanding Visitor Attraction, the Bala Lake Railway beat off some stiff opposition from the Bluebell Railway, the Crich Tramway Museum, the London Transport Museum (again) and others with our Heritage Centre, opened last year and which has received such good reviews.

HRA Award presentation

Initially proposed by General Manager, David Jones, the idea was taken up by our own Dan Laidlaw who made the whole project very much his own, not only what was to be on display and where but also creating the information cards for each exhibit. Likewise, his inclusion of various artefacts from all aspects of not only historical interest but also from the slate industry tipped the balance in our favour. Add in a large group of historical items from the Festiniog railway and Dinorwic Quarry showing the history of the slate quarries, together with different track gauges and sound effects, and you can see why the judges were impressed. On top of this, the display is constantly changing, thus heightening and broadening the appeal. Credit must also go to Francis Stapleton who not only owns some of the wagons on display but also provided much invaluable advice on quarry history. All in all, it was a superb team achievement and the BLR is justifiably proud of not only the award but Dan Laidlaw. History relates that he retired to bed with the award on his bedside table.

The first running and working weekend of the year coincided a little too closely for comfort as storms Ciara and Dennis did their best to foul things up. But the team of staff and volunteers bravely ignored such pestilence and dealt with the immediate problems of blocked culverts speedily, particularly at ‘Brasso’s Cut’ where a large amount of detritus had been washed down from the hills above.

Without rapid rectification, a deluge can wash ballast away but the team cleared the main culvert plus a couple of others, thus the first running of the year, the traditional ‘schools run’ took place without problem. It is worth mentioning that six one-ton skip wagons were filled with rocks, earth and mud that had flowed down the hills, and the rock content will be used again. Mercifully, no trees had been brought down, thanks to careful previous work by the Wednesday Gang. The other major task dealt with was the fence near Llanuwchllyn, the concrete posts of which had been leaning badly, probably caused in part by cattle having a good scratch on them as they are wont to do.

Alice with coaches next to the leaning fence

David Jones’ photo shows the problem before rectification, and coincidentally shows the two carriages before they were stripped, rebuilt and fitted with doors on the other side – for future use. We will cover this later. Suffice it to say, the aligning of the fence posts was carried out during a howling gale complete with a generous pelting of hailstones and shows true BLR fortitude at its best.

The first running of the year happened in frankly awful weather, hence numbers were a bit down on last year over the same half-term period, but nevertheless, the enthusiasm was there and, likewise, large numbers of local people took advantage of free travel on St. David’s Day even though the wind was bitingly cold. Both trains and the station café were busy with happy customers. To give an idea of how the water in the lake had risen, we include some photos of the excess water and part-submerged fields as well as the approach to Llangower Halt where Llangower Point itself had all but disappeared. However, the water level never reached the track-bed, a testament to the care and diligence taken by the original surveyors of the line in the 1850s. They did their calculations very well indeed.

The new tamping machine had its first serious workout during this period and you may recall that, during track re-laying at the end of last year, the track was left useable for work trains but the final tamping and resetting was delayed until the new machine arrived. To say that this acquisition is a boon is an understatement as, previously, around 1200 feet of track, each individual length being about 24 feet, would have taken 10 to 14 days of hard work to complete, but with the new machine, the same job was finished in only a couple of days! It has transformed permanent-way operations. The two parts of the machine have now been named Rob and Dan, a delightful gesture but as one humourist commented, now they know who to blame when one half of it goes wrong!

The Bala Lake Railway Trust is hard at work and while there has been little news of late, it is a case of ‘no news is good news’. The main activity of the Trust, and in particular, Chairman, Julian Birley, is currently to prepare the monumental planning application for the whole of the extension route into Bala. This application runs to over 100 pages and is incurring considerable expense, let alone vast amounts of his time involved in preparation.

Our Locomotives, Maid Marian, George B and Winifred all sailed through their annual steam tests and are ready for when the season starts in earnest on the 28th March. The boiler certificate for Alice is near to expiry thus she is being kept out of the way while other improvements are carried out prior to the fitment of her new boiler later in the year. She is currently featuring in the Heritage Centre.

The Carriage Stock is undergoing the slow process of total refurbishment and this includes the fitting of doors on the other side in anticipation of the arrival of the railway in Bala Town. The two carriages we previously mentioned have been stripped down to the bare chassis and have now been reskinned with new roofs as well plus the aforementioned extra doors. As time permits, the remaining stock will receive the same detailed attention, and as you can see from the photos, the standards are very high indeed, to the extent that a passing wag reckoned “one could eat breakfast off the floor. It’s a shame to put the seats back”.

Continual infrastructure updating happens all the time and on one particular day, you could find, for example, volunteer Roger Kent busily painting carriage seats in the engine shed. It has a heater! But at the same time, devoid of warmth and protection, Tim Williams, Francis Stapleton and Dave Harris were busy outside laying cables for the first phase of a site-wide internet upgrade. As Tim reports, “Once complete, this will enable us to connect security cameras, internal phones and better WiFi for the use of on-site volunteers. Some of the equipment has been donated by our new communications volunteer, Richard Sterne, who will be assisting with the later phases of the upgrade”.

Dates. We list below the list of dates for events up to mid-summer. For a complete list throughout the year, please go to the BLR website. In the meantime, we list those fast approaching.

4th April – Race the train. This is our annual contest between a train filled with exceedingly noisy supporters of the numerous paddle-boarders who attempt to reach the Bala Sailing Club from near Llangower Point before the train. This exciting event is nearly always a very close finish.

10th – 13th April – Easter Egg Hunts. Over the Easter weekend, there will be the usual hugely enjoyable Egg Hunts for children of all ages.

26th April – Volunteer Recruitment Day. Hosted as always by Russell Prince, this is a golden opportunity to sample all aspects of volunteering at the BLR. Whatever your preference of activity, we cover it and you will be in very good hands. To register, please visit the BLR website. You will not regret it.

23rd – 24th May – Great Little Trains Model Rail Show in Bala. Our annual show will feature numerous layouts, most having a narrow-gauge theme. As always, a vintage bus will provide free travel to and from the current Bala Station to the show which will also feature tempting trade stands, where one should immediately disregard the misguided axiom ‘Model Railways can damage your wealth’ .

28th May – Jackets, no ties. This enigmatic title describes our unique event where baked potatoes are wrapped in layers of foil and popped into the locomotive smoke-box for an early evening run down the line. On the return leg, we stop at Flag, a rare event in itself, where the potatoes are served with various toppings, and dessert is included too! A smoke-box baked potato really is like no other and is why this event is so popular. Do not miss it. Just taste one and you will understand the appeal.

13th – 14th June – Bala ReRailed. While there is a vast amount of work still to do to get the railway physically back into Bala, this much awaited event will give the biggest demonstration yet to the town of Bala of our aims and ambition. We will lay 2-foot rail across the station plot for a locomotive, probably Winifred, to do demonstrations runs. As well, there will be a 7.25” railway, a display of classic cars, including the famous Ivo Peters Bentley and Trust Chairman, Julian Birley, will conduct two walks along the proposed track outline at specific times.

Bala ReRailed Visualisation

This is another inspired BLR event and should not be missed as it will be the first time in 55 years since a locomotive has steamed in Bala. Click here to go to our Special Event page for fuller details which will increase in detail as the date approaches.

And finally……. we include a short video of the new BLR tamping machine being exercised soon after it was put together. Rob and Dan certainly work well together!