Saturday, 12 June 2010

Out and About

It has been too long since my last post, not through laziness but simply not been around long enough to get around to it. My travels have taken me to the Isle of Wight, to Wales, to the Peak District, and to Devon. In Wales I walked an old railway line which is now known as the Mawddach Trail and give a preview to a forthcoming project based upon the history of this stretch of the principality which was bathed in warm sunshine on the day I walked it.

"As discussed under the chapter on the Llangollen Railway, there is a ten mile stretch between Dolgellau and Barmouth which is now a bridleway and cycle route known as the Mawddach Trail or Llwybr Mawddach in Welsh. Together with the narrow gauge railway at Bala, the three connected routes show different aspects of former lines in the principality.
That this is one of the most popular routes for both walkers and cyclists alike. No wonder considering the splendour of the valley of the Afon Mawddach, where the river ages over a comparatively short route, opening out at the estuary and the bridge leading across to Barmouth.
A word of caution for those intending to follow this route note this is the Mawddach Trail and not the Mawddach Way. The former is almost perfectly level, a little short of ten miles, can be walked both ways in a day, and is even designated as wheelchair accessible. However the latter is a circular path around the estuary, is unsuitable for cycles, covers over thirty miles, climbs to a high point of over 1,100 feet above sea level, and experts advise to allow three days to cover this challenging route.
Back to our chosen route and we shall begin at Dolgellau in the Snowdonia National Park. From the former location of the station, only known by its Welsh name from 12th September 1960 and prior to that given the Anglicised version of Dolgelly, we shall follow the southern bank of the Afon Mawddach to the estuary. This is an ever-changing and peaceful journey, the river cutting through between the Rhinog Hills on one side and the Cadair Idris massif on the other.
The town of Dolgellau has plenty to offer with over two hundred listed buildings in its narrow streets. Dolgellau Station was opened on August 4th 1868, at a point where two former railway empires met head on: the huge Great Western Railway and the smaller Cambrian Railway Company who built the route we shall follow. By the time it closed there were two platforms with a passing loop, and an extensive goods yard with a turntable.
There is no sign of the station today, it disappeared when the A494 Dolgellau bypass was constructed in the 1970s. The line was constructed to bring the tourists into Barmouth from as far afield as the Birmingham and Manchester along a line which connected the West Midlands with the Welsh Coast, in the shadow of the Snowdonia National Park. However the businesses here soon took advantage of the artery to ship their own goods into the rich markets of England. Dolgellau's weavers soon benefitted from the larger market, while slate also made use of the line as we shall further along the route.
The first river is not the Mawddach, that we shall meet shortly, here the river is the Wnion (almost pronounced 'onion'), a brisk and pleasant stream which tumbles over the rocks and stones on its way to join its larger cousin. It is only half a mile along the footpath to the next landmark, the Wernddu footbridge taking us across the river to the trail proper, for it was along the north bank that the trains ran.
Shortly afterwards we pass a reed bed, a site of special scientific interest which can claim to be largest reed bed found anywhere in the principality. Look across to the northern shore and you are looking at the Welsh Yukon, here the gold mining industry was born in the 1860s and has been born and reborn time and again until as recently as 1998. Doubtless another vein will be discovered before long and, for a short period at least, gold mining will come back to the valley. The quality of the metal here is among the finest in the world, no royal wedding in memory has not used some Welsh gold in its the rings worn born bride and groom.
Another half a mile and we arrive at the next station which was Penmaenpool which, as with the previous station, had two platforms and a passing loop. However unlike Dolgellau part of the station is still here, indeed some buildings are still in use.
What were the platforms is now a car park. Those parked here may not be walking the trail, they could possibly be in the station's old signal box, still painted in Great Western Colours of cream and brown, which is now used as as information centre and observation post for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Alongside the signal box is the Penmaenpool Wooden Toll Bridge, built in 1879 it replaced the earlier ferry and was largely funded by money from the gold mines.
The toll bridge is a Cadw-registered building, the official body for the preservation of historic sites in Wales. What were the station master's house, ticket office and waiting room are also still here and have been converted into an annexe for the George III Hotel. Here we see a perfectly preserved signal with a warning sign to those who would trespass on the track stating: 'DANGER. Survivors will be prosecuted'.
Leaving the station there is an incline leading past the buildings which served the station and sidings. The track bed runs through a cutting blasted out of the rock to provide a gradient suitable for a railway. Travelling on the we head straight west to meet with the river estuary. It is this stretch which is of particular interest to the bird watchers who can view the mudflats here to see the waders and simply by turning around can see an excellent variety of woodland birds.
As the River Mawddach dominates the route we should say a few words about a river which is probably little known outside Snowdonia. Indeed in 1976 the flooding river washed away much of the surviving ballast from the trackbed, effectively producing the present pathway at a stroke. Six significant tributaries - Afon Cwm Mynach, Afon Gamlan, Afon Eden, Afon Gain, Afon Wen, and the aforementiond Afon Wnion - and many smaller streams drain a sizable area. Each river has its own individuality, from providing important habitats for mosses and liverwort to gold mining and panning.
Although it may seem difficult to believe when walking through this idyllic scenery in the twenty-first century, the river has suffered greatly from pollution in the past. The preparation of animal skins, artillery ranges, munitions storage, and as a major ship building centre in the eighteenth century all contributed to the pollution. Yet today it is an important fishery for trout and salmon, despite the relatively high acidity levels washed in from the peat soils on the hills. The number and size of the tributaries do mean the river is liable to flood during and after the heaviest downpours. Indeed the track ballast was washed away by one flood, assisting the development of the track for walkers and cyclists.
Crossing one bridge across a tributary we come shortly to a straight section of track where the embankment has been built to cut through the estuary itself. Waters have access points all along to accomodate the rise and ebb of the tides. Still we see the old telegraph poles which still stand alongside railway lines the length and breadth of the land.
Returning to dry land once more this southern shore is, and always has been, largely agricultural. Farm buildings built of local stone blend in perfectly with the walls bordering the small fields where sheep graze. The earlier concrete tank traps remain, still defending the estuary from potential invasion seven decades after they were erected. These are no eyesore, perhaps owing to the trees which now camouflage the regular shapes, and there is a distinct impression of a row of teeth, ready to bite at the enemy should he try to invade via the estuary.
It is a little more than three miles from the previous station to Arthog, however there are many picnic stops on the way and the easy walking and delightful views mean this is hardly the most strenuous exercise. Arthog, like Dolgellau, has no surviving station buildings, although the location of the platforms can still be made out.
Arthog was a mining community, not for gold but slate. Here the rows of workers cottages are a pretty picture, something which cannot be said of the scar left by the workings of the slate themselves although these are invisible except from the air. Arthog station, now with its picnic area and car park, is across from a pathway marking the line where trams brought slate from the mine to the railway and thereafter to Barmouth and beyond.
Here the railway leaves the shoreline and heads straight for a good mile through an avenue of trees which is highly reminiscent of a railway line. Then we loop around to the right and ahead of us is the station which was Barmouth Junction.
There are two tramways which are worthy of mention, visible to those who keep their eyes open for a fairly obvious embankment. Solomon Andrews tried to found a holiday resort here in the 1890s. His plans were grand but he achieved little, the few houses he did build are now private homes and set away from the main walk. One tramway brought building materials in to this part of the estuary, the second is found just short of the bridge at the mouth and is quite evident on the right.
For some time the bridge across the mouth of the estuary to Barmouth has been glimpsed, however we must first pass through the junction station of Morfa Mawddach. This is also where the old station platforms are alongside a still active line between Pwllheli and Machynlleth. This line crosses the bridge alongside the footpath, it is a toll bridge and revenue helped to reopen it to all but the lightest rail traffic after the toredo marine worm burrowed into the wooden piles and almost brought it down. It is three-quarters of a mile in length, the longest bridge in Wales and one of the most instantly recognised features in the entire principality.
The bridge has a wooden section of 113 spans and an iron section of just eight spans. This latter part once slid aside to allow the passage of ships into and from the estuary, although not popular with the railway for it took thirty-seven minutes to open and close added to which was the time it took to get the ship through the opening. The modern version is a swing bridge, one which has not moved for over twenty years. Each of these columns were sunk 120 feet below sea level, through the silt and mud to stand on the bedrock below.
Barmouth, or to give its Welsh name Abermaw, appears to be clinging precariously to the edge of the land between the hills and the water. As stated at the beginning this is linked to the another chapter, that of the Llangollen Railway. The link is completed here at Barmouth in the form of the station's old signal box which was redundant following the introduction of radio signalling. It was taken and erected at Glynyfrdwy Station on the heritage Llangollen Railway."

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