Wrack and Ruin

A mid-life crisis in narrow gauge


It’s 1986. I’m on holiday with my parents, and we’re staying in a flat behind the Dolgoch Falls hotel. The falls themselves are a five minute walk away through the woods but, even better, if you go the other way then Dolgoch station on the Talyllyn Railway is closer still.

This is a photo I took at the station, looking through the woods and up the line towards Abergynolwyn. (Yes kids, you should never trespass on a railway line, even a little one. Although it’s not like an express was going to come roaring through at 60mph.) I’ve posted it here, not because it’s a particularly great shot or even because it entirely successfully captures the feeling I had at the time, but because it encapsulates the whole appeal of railways, and particularly the narrow gauge, for me. Which is this: I like railway lines. Not locomotives. Please, don’t throw that “trainspotter!” jibe at me. I can’t think of anything more boring than a book full of picture after picture of engines, each taken from the same three-quarters frontal view. Unless it’s also accompanied by a complete technical description of the boiler capacity, maximum power output, number of wheels and number of rivets, which is terminally dull. I can accept, just about, that railway lines aren’t much use without motive power, and I’m even partial to the odd steam locomotive myself. But what I love is the overall scene itself; the stations, halts, platforms, passengers, staff, trolleys, signs, water towers, bridges, fencing, huts, crossings - all the paraphernalia. And above all, the route.

Here the line wanders off into the distance, snaking through the trees, leaving us uncertain of its path but tantalised by the thought of a destination. You could wander through those woods and there would be trees, and roots, and grass, and moss, and then quite suddenly a pair of rails and a line of sleepers across your way, looking like they’ve just been laid and then maybe forgotten. Except…was that a distant whistle…?

I walked up to the little station and its platform every day, usually on the pretext of seeing the next train but often simply hanging around, soaking it all up. Perhaps there wouldn’t be another train. Perhaps this line is now closed? It’s just going to lie here and quietly moulder over the coming years and decades, until maybe one day we’ll come along and run a trolley down it for old times sake, just to see if it still works. Oh yes, I was already Melancholy at sixteen, you know.

While hunting out this shot, I came across an old folder containing several pages of excruciatingly portentous handwritten notes entitled “The Appleton Thorn Light Railway dossiers”. This was my grand plan for laying an SM-32 line around my parents lawn, and it was intended to persuade my dad that this would be a cheap, easy, invisible and cheap thing to do. Also very cheap. I even had a photo of some Hornby OO track on a buried piece of timber next to the lawn, to show how well-concealed it could be. HA! Apparently, it had been determined that “only five major plants will need to be moved”! I can just hear my dad’s snort of derision as he reads this, but only in my imagination because, of course, I never showed him. Deep down, I knew he’d never go for it in a million years, so for once I wisely avoided the disappointment of asking. The cost alone for approximately four dozen yards of track to circumnavigate our garden, even at 1984 prices (thirty pounds for twelve yards! half today’s price, except probably double it if you allow for deflation), would have been considered outrageous, and that’s before you even thought about how long it would take. (Only “8 months” tops, apparently.)

But I did come across this beautiful quote in the same dossier:

“The whole charm of a rural line lies in the infrequency, the perpetual waiting for something to happen.”
- T.V. Cooper, “Steamwise”, Practical Model Railways Aug 1984.

(This might well be Tom Cooper of Merlin Engineering fame.) That line takes me back to Dolgoch over twenty years ago, and reminds me why I’m drawn to these charmingly shabby little lines, and of the atmosphere I seek to create with my own miniature effort.