Return journey sets off to the age of steam

Jonathan Brown joins volunteers who spent decades resurrecting a Welsh railway line

It is 75 years since fare-paying passengers last rode the old steam train from Porthmadog to Caernarfon through what is now the Snowdonia National Park. In those days those on board would have numbered a few early tourists and the occasional slate miner on a day off from the quarry.

At 10.45am tomorrow, however, after decades of waiting and one of the biggest volunteer efforts Britain has seen, 600 enthusiasts paying up to £100 a head will board two trains at either end of the 25-mile line for the privilege of being among the first to ride the fully restored Welsh Highland Railway.

At 25mph it be will be a stately inaugural journey for the self-confessed "puffer-nutters" on the trip but a remarkable one none the less. Shut in 1936 with the collapse of the market for Welsh slate after only 13 years of woefully unprofitable operation, it was only through dint of fate and legislative quirk that the remnants of the line were not ripped up and turned into a footpath. In 1995, after it had been acquired by the adjoining Ffestiniog Railway, enthusiasts set about restoring the line in phases, the last of which between Porthmadog and Pont Croesor will be opened to the public from this weekend. It took more than 1,000 volunteers and £28.5m to return the line to its former glory, with many devotees giving up weeks at a time away from their families to toil in the horizontal rain in this fabled rail heaven known to generations of Ivor the Engine fans as the top left hand corner of Wales. In that time 30 bridges, 127 level crossings and 13 stations were rebuilt – a task which required 52,933 sleepers and more than 70,000 nuts and bolts.

Climbing aboard the painstakingly recreated carriages yesterday and slipping into one of the wingback armchairs for a test drive on the new stretch of track, it was easy to see the allure. With snow-capped Snowdon sparkling in the distance, buzzards hovering over fields, the hypnotic puff-puff of the engine and that unmistakable smell of steam, it is a journey that offers a unique treat for the senses.

Andrew Thomas, 59, who spent four years commuting from his home in the Cotswolds every other weekend as a volunteer before joining the railway full time, has watched the transformative powers of narrow-gauge travel. "You get all these people who come here who are not impressed by anything and when they get off they are smiling like 10-year-olds," he said.

In the real world Martin Page, 47, is an advertising executive from Wendover, Buckinghamshire. But for a few weeks each year he gets to ride the footplate as a volunteer fireman, setting off from the world's oldest passenger station and shovelling up to a tonne and a half of coal to haul the train up and down the line's 1,300ft gradient. "It is something completely different from the day job," he said. "But working with this wonderful Victorian and Edwardian engineering can be a hard physical day."

From next month the Welsh Highland will join with the Ffestiniog, offering an 80-mile round trip affording the hardcore puffer-nutter seven hours of non-stop scenery and steam. In the meantime the railway company hopes to continue the heritage-led renaissance in tourism which makes it the town's second-biggest employer after Tesco and brings £15m a year in visitor spending to the area.

Richard Axe, 55, another volunteer fireman and a specialist nurse in a Manchester burns unit, has been coming to help out here since he was 12. "I used to walk it before there was a track down and in my imagination I could see the engines running around but I never believed it would actually happen," he said. "I have to pinch myself every now and again to be sure it's real."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk