Nantlle Valley History



A Glimpse of the Early Days of the North Wales Narrow Gauge Railway

My grandfather, John Williams, was born in the village of Rhostryfan in 1872. He lived within 200 yards of the spot where the station of the North Wales Narrow Gauge Railway was built in 1877. In 1943 he published his autobiography Hynt Gwerinwr (The Story of a Country Man) which begins with a description of his early life in Rhostryfan. He left school at 13 and went to work in the quarry on Moel Tryfan. His book tells the story of how he left Wales for Liverpool at the age of 17 in 1890. He worked in the Liverpool area for ten years then moved to London to work in a roofing business, first as a foreman and later a manager. In 1923 he started his own roofing contractor business which prospered greatly in the 1920s. The business was run successfully by him with his two sons, who continued the business after his retirement. In addition to his success in business he became well known in Wales by writing a regular column from London to a Welsh newspaper and also through being a co-editor of a London Welsh monthly journal Y Ddolen (The Link). He was also a poet of some standing. In the early chapters of his book he makes several references to the railway which throw light on how it worked and its impact on the community. I can also recall other things he told me about its operation. In 1997 I translated his autobiography from Welsh and what follows is based on extracts from this translation which refer to the railway.

He records that:

About 1877 the narrow gauge railway was built from Dinas through Rhostryfan to Bryngwyn, and that was the main connection between the area and the world outside. It was only on Saturdays that a bus ran along the road to the town - Caernarfon - it was a horse-drawn carriage carrying eight to ten people. As a rule the men had to walk up the hill on the way home leaving the women only for the load. Most people used to walk the four miles to the town and back. There was nothing to carry travellers home after seven in the evening and it was only in summer that a train ran as late as that. In its first years, after 1877, the North Wales Narrow Gauge Railway worked to strict rule, a Master was kept at every station, signals were operated when trains came up or down. The station was kept clean and tidy and woe betide any child who went there without reason. But degeneration came soon.

The Rhostryfan Station Master (who also worked as a cobbler in the generous free time he enjoyed while waiting for the trains) was moved away. The station was then chiefly cared for by a man who worked as the guard on the train from Tyddyn y Gwŷdd (Tryfan Junction) to Bryngwyn. His name was Owen Benjamin Thomas.

I first remember him at Caer Moel and he used to come up to the chapel at Rhos. He was kind and full of fun. When he married he came to live at Bryn Hyfryd, Rhostryfan. Between one thing and another he was pretty busy all his days, but in between times he had leisure to care for the large number of birds he kept at Tyddyn y Gwŷdd station. As he had to work as Guard and as Station Master at both Rhostryfan and Tyddyn y Gwŷdd it was essential that he arrived at Rhostryfan station before the train came down from Bryngwyn, to issue tickets to the travellers. After this he would rush back to Tyddyn y Gwŷdd ahead of the train. To enable him to do this he had a little wagon (commonly called the trolley) and as there was an incline all the way from Bryngwyn to Rhostryfan and on to Tyddyn y Gwŷdd no engine power was needed to drive the trolley down, but it had to be drawn back to Bryngwyn at the tail of the train. Because of Owen Thomas' good nature the local boys were welcome to ride on the little trolley from Rhostryfan to Tyddyn y Gwŷdd. Although the little truck, in our minds travelled fearfully fast and there was neither arm nor side to keep us from falling off, I have no recollection of any mishap to any of the boys on those rapid rides. Of course a trip on the trolley required the young travellers to make themselves useful in doing little jobs for Owen Thomas, as far as I remember they were all willing.

Every boy had to be alert especially when Owen Thomas said something or other. One day a fairly credulous lad came into the station and Owen Thomas asked him with a serious face, "Did you hear about the big trouble yesterday?". "No", said the boy. "Llanberis lake caught fire" said Owen Thomas seriously again. When the poor lad returned home and reported on the "great trouble" to his mother, he was scolded for believing Owen Thomas' tall story!

When the trolley was on its way from Rhostryfan to Tyddyn y Gwŷdd it sometimes happened that mountain ponies had wandered onto the track, and if he had any boys with him Owen Thomas would yell "Lions, lions! Bears, bears! Help what shall we do?" One of the Forty farm dogs had the habit of running after the trolley barking. "Guns, boys, guns!" OT would shout and on the word would start pelting the dog with stones already placed on the trolley for the purpose. When with one thing and another a busy time came, Owen Thomas would say to the lads "It's very busy here today. Two huge loads of cockles just in from Llangernyw". We knew nothing of the geographical location of that place, as far as we knew it could have been the best place for cockles in the whole land!

Once when one of the mothers of Rhostryfan was intending to go to Caernarfon by train, a boy was sent to the station to ask Owen Thomas not to let the train go until his mother had arrived. At the sound of the train approaching, Owen Thomas asked the boy "Where is your Mam?" "At home" he said. "Well, what was she doing?" he enquired again. "Starting to dress!" replied the boy. There was enough good nature in Owen Thomas to meet the mother's request, and rarely did he tire of waiting although sometimes the wait would be long. Owen Thomas pretended that he could speak many languages and many a lad listened to him with great amazement talking like the people of East Africa, when it was only empty babble! On Saturday mornings a number of us used to go to the station to meet the ten o'clock train that would bring some travellers from afar. Owen Thomas fulfilled all the duties while the train was in the station. The train usually consisted of about a dozen slates wagons and one or two passenger coaches. I remember once that after the train had started, with a thunderous roar as usual, the Guard stood at the door of his carriage and yelled "Hey, Tommy, go to the bottom shop and tell them there's a chest of tea at the station for Lowri Thomas."

Because of the noise of the train the message was not correctly heard and so the lad went to the shop and announced "Owen Thomas says there are stakes of beef for you at the station!"

Narrow Gauge Railway
Image: The original Snowdon Ranger and train at Dinas Junction in 1895.

He moved from Bryn Hyfryd to Cae Garw and brought up a house full of children, but early this century he moved again to Tŷ'n-y-Coed in the area of Nant y Garth and it was there that he spent the rest of his life. On account of his willingness to do a favour, his wit and his kind words, a whole generation remembered him with high regard and affection. Because of the advent of the motor car, the train stopped carrying passengers after 1914. I think it was the LNWR Time Table of 1913 that was the last to give train times for Rhostryfan.

John Williams' memory of the opening of the line was good. Records show that the first section of the line to open was from Dinas to Bryngwyn. This was opened for mineral and goods traffic on 21 May 1877 and passenger traffic began on 15 August the same year. The Bryngwyn branch left the main line at Tryfan Junction and was busy with slate traffic from the quarries above Bryngwyn, the main revenue earner for the railway. It is interesting to note that Tryfan Junction is called Tyddyn y Gwŷdd (Weaver's Cottage). Clearly this is what the local people called this isolated station. Llangernyw is a small inland village in Denbighshire (Clwyd) and is certainly not famous for cockle fishing!

Discreetly John Williams relates the story about a mother asking the train to wait without identifying who the mother was. In fact some years later his own wife did the same thing! When on holiday from London with the family in Rhostryfan she sent Arthur (my uncle) to the station asking the train to wait. And it did!

The trolley was clearly a device to enable Owen Thomas to staff the whole branch. He used to attach it to the tail of the train and travel with the train all the way up to Bryngwyn. There he would issue tickets to any wanting to travel before scooting down the incline to Rhostryfan to issue tickets to any travellers there. It was on the next section from Rhostryfan down to Tryfan Junction that the boys enjoyed their thrills on the trolley. Frequently there was only one engine available at Dinas to run the trains and when this was the case the custom was to put the coaches for the Bryngwyn branch in front of the engine. The train then ran from Dinas Junction to Tryfan Junction where the main train was uncoupled while the engine pushed the front coaches up to Bryngwyn before running light back to Tryfan Junction to pick up the rest of the train for its journey to Waun Fawr and beyond. The Guard on the Bryngwyn coaches would release the brake when it was time for the return journey to Dinas. He would halt the train at Rhostryfan and at Tryfan Junction, but since there was a gradient all the way to Dinas no motive was needed.

In 1877 a new house called Talybont was built for John Williams' family in Rhostryfan but the builder was delayed and it was not ready until October. Since the family had committed to leave their old home at Chapel House, they went to lodge for a time with Owen Gruffydd through whose land the brand new railway line passed.

Owen Gruffydd of Tan y Gelynen was a man born in 1797 and who, throughout his long life, retained many of the characteristics of the 18th century. He was reputed to be one of the men who established the Methodist Chapel in Rhostryfan in 1820, but another common opinion about him was that he had spent the early part of his life in licentious and loose living. He used to boast about his work as the head slaughterman at Menai Bridge market at one time. After his Christian conversion, however, he became somewhat milder and he would be very penitent on his knees at prayer meetings. He held family prayers every morning while we lived with him. When the train happened to pass through his land and he was in the middle of prayers he would cut them short so that he could see how many were travelling and to count them. After they had gone by he would return and as a rule say "They all look down hearted" and then he would go back on his knees to finish praying. He died in 1884, 87 years old.

At school no one moved up until after the annual visit of the "inspectors" in December. The whole work for the year was in preparation for the "visitation", the days of climax when everyone had to "give account of his works and take the test"; days of fear and terror. It was the fear of failing to pass and having to bear the disgrace of remaining in the same class for two years and the terror of being examined by two men, who so far as we could judge by what we heard from their mouths, were totally English. There was need for neither almanac nor calendar to tell us children that the great and dreadful day of the "inspectors" was busy approaching. There were plenty of signs and tests at hand to remind us, because for weeks before the examination day the cane would be at work, morning and noon, lesson after lesson, from one end of the school to the other. No one dared to think of taking a break to go out to play mid-morning, on the contrary the set time for the school was extended by keeping the children there until five o'clock in the afternoon. Among the children kept behind were those who had not had a bite to eat since early morning, and if their clothes were wet there was no provision to dry them apart from body heat.

Mr Watts and Mr Roberts were the two examiners at the time I was at school. They would arrive at the school by the ten o'clock train from Caernarfon. Since the station was only the width of a field from the school everyone knew they were approaching when the train was heard moving on. The children would sit in their 'best clothes' as anxious and subdued as if they were waiting for the judge to enter the court. To please the 'judge' the children were ordered to rise to their feet when the door opened and then to sit and remain quiet as mice to observe the ceremony of 'opening the handbags' and withdrawing the papers, like breaking the seals of our destiny. Then the work of examination would begin. I remember well the fear of not being able to answer correctly, of getting a sum wrong or of misreading a word. Then there was the release and peaceful sleep of the night when the two days of the 'Exam' had passed.

My grandfather's brother, Gilbert Williams, continued to live at Talybont, Rhostryfan until he died in 1966 at the age of 92. During visits to him when I was a boy in the 1940s I used to wander around the old station at Rhostryfan. It was falling into dereliction but still largely intact and round the station yard were many bits and pieces left behind by the railway. There were one or two wagons still parked in a siding. On one occasion I wandered down the line to Dinas station and found the engine and carriage sheds. They were open and I crept nervously inside and gazed in wonderment at the sleeping locomotives, climbed into the old carriages and tested out their wooden seats. Even then I hoped that one day the line might run again and that hope has not died!

By E Pennant Jones ~ Journal 126
Published by The Welsh Highland Railway External link: Opens in a new window Ltd
Gelert's Farm Works, Madoc Street West, Porthmadog, Gwynedd, LL49 9DY

  Valid HyperText Markup Language (HTML) 4.01 Transitional Level A  compliance with the W3C's WCAC 1.0 Valid Cascading Style Sheets (CSS)