Monthly Archives: August 2023

Great Big Trains of Wales

Llangollen Railway: Carrog Station, Denbighshire (2022)

The first time I visited Llangollen (by car), you could still catch a train there and head east to Chester or Shrewsbury.

Those days have long gone:  the Beeching Axe fell in these parts at the beginning of 1965.  Freight trains from Ruabon continued to serve Llangollen Goods Yard until 1968, after which the track was quickly lifted all the way to Barmouth on the west coast of Wales.

A group of enthusiasts leased Llangollen Station and three miles of trackbed westwards, and when the station reopened to the public in 1975 sixty feet of track had been reinstated.

Subsequent developments were not unlike saving up pocket money to buy more track for a train set:  Shell Oil offered a mile of redundant track, which enabled the Llangollen Railway Trust to lay three-quarters of mile to Pentrefelin and use the rest to construct sidings for the accumulating quantity of rolling stock.

Thereafter, once the Dee Bridge had been refurbished by the local council, the route steadily grew in length – firstly 1¾ miles to Berwyn (March 1986), then Deeside Halt (1990), Glyndyfrdwy (1993) and eventually Carrog, 7½ miles from Llangollen (1996).

Development has been slowed by a succession of misfortunes.  The Llangollen Railway PLC experienced financial difficulties, not helped by the pandemic lockdowns, and went into receivership in March 2021.  Services were taken over and resumed by the Llangollen Railway Trust from July 2021.

In recent years, the track has been reinstated to Corwen, ten miles from Llangollen, and a brand new Corwen Central station opened in June 2023 to replace the unusable original, so that services can resume to a commercially worthwhile destination: Llangollen Railway | Heritage Train Rides in the United Kingdom (

The ride up and down the beautiful Dee Valley is a restful experience, whether on a 1950s diesel railcar or on a loco-hauled train which may include an observation car.  There are refreshment rooms at Llangollen, Berwyn and Carrog.

While I savour the experience that a generation of enthusiasts has worked to recreate over decades between Llangollen and Corwen I can’t help regretting what was lost in the 1960s. 

The Ordnance Survey map shows mile after mile of “dismantled railway” stretching through beautiful Welsh countryside between Ruabon and Morfa Mawddach, the junction for Barmouth. 

Ten miles of trackbed is available to walkers on the Mawddach Trail between Dolgellau and Morfa Mawddach and the Bala Lake Railway runs narrow-gauge trains over a 4½-mile lakeside stretch but, because of the sacrifice of small sections to road improvements and building developments, the rest of the line is rendered useless and inaccessible.

It took only seven years to build this line as a commercial undertaking in the 1860s and even less time to dismantle it for scrap a century later.  Safeguarding its integrity as an amenity would have been a simple administrative matter. 

There was no way of computing social and environmental benefits in the 1960s, and we are the poorer for it.

My dad’s lost opportunity

King Edward VII School, Sheffield

I’ve known for a long time that my dad missed a lifetime opportunity in 1926 at the age of twelve when he was awarded a scholarship to King Edward VII Grammar School, which had a reputation as the best place in Sheffield to gain an education.

King Ted’s, as people called it (and still do), was at the time a fee-paying school where there were social expectations alongside academic opportunities.

My dad’s parents felt compelled to turn the scholarship down because they simply couldn’t afford the incidentals such as uniform and fares and needed their sons and daughters to start work at the then school-leaving age of fourteen.

In addition, it was the year of the General Strike and they had five children, with a sixth on the way, and there was no telling which of them might pass scholarships in future.  My granddad was a boilerman in the coke ovens at Tinsley Park, so their finances were precarious.

All this was simply family history of purely personal interest until I came across an obituary for Bill Moore (1911-2008), a celebrated figure in left-wing politics in Yorkshire and beyond, who was said to be the first Attercliffe boy to win a free scholarship to grammar school:

This set me thinking.  King Edward’s was founded in 1905.  If it took seventeen years for a lad from any of the numerous elementary schools in the Lower Don Valley to gain a free grammar-school education, perhaps my dad might have been the second.

I checked the Education Committee minutes and without looking further back than 1920 I discovered that Bill Moore was by no means the first Attercliffe lad to go to King Ted’s.  Between eleven and twenty scholarships were awarded each year from 1920 to 1926, mostly to pupils from schools on the prosperous west side of the city. 

In 1921 William Wild, aged 12 years 3 months, left my alma mater, Huntsman’s Gardens Council School, for King Edward’s on a Close Entrance Scholarship.  His father was a brass foundry manager, so could no doubt afford the tram fare, yet the family lived on Brinsworth Street, two minutes’ walk from Huntsman’s Gardens, in the very heart of the industrial East End – by no means a leafy affluent suburb.

By the time Bill Moore was eligible in the summer of 1923 the system had changed and under his birth name, Enos Leslie Moore, he was awarded a Free Scholarship, “tenable for the period of school life and covering free tuition, the provision of all school amenities and the use, but not the gift, of books” along with a maintenance grant.

He stayed at King Edward’s until 1930 when he won a further scholarship to study history at Oriel College, Oxford.  In 1935, after graduation he joined the Communist Party and engaged in left-wing politics for the rest of his long life.

Bill Moore’s story gives me a perspective of the magnitude of my dad’s loss, and explains why he and my mother were so keen for me to have the opportunity that had been denied them.

For that I have always been profoundly grateful.

Reclaiming a wasting asset

Queen’s Pier, Ramsey, Isle of Man (2023)

Photo: © John Binns

When I wrote a blog-article about Queen’s Pier, Ramsey in the Isle of Man in 2011 there was little to suggest that it wouldn’t continue to decay, as it had done for twenty years, yet despite many delays and the tribulations of the pandemic, effective plans are at last in place to restore the Isle of Man’s largest surviving engineering structure.

The island is rich in industrial and transport archaeology because the Manx habitually leave redundant structures standing unless there’s a need or an economic reason to destroy them.

That’s why the island still retains steam and electric railways, a horse tramway, the Great Laxey Wheel and much else in situ and in use.

The flip-side of this conservatism is that the wheels grind slowly when decay becomes dangerous and restoration is urgent.

The last Steam Packet ship departed from Ramsey in 1970;  the disused landing stage became unsafe and was closed in 1979;  the little pier tramway closed in 1981.

In 1991, after the café at the pier head was burnt down, rebuilt and twice vandalised, the Manx Department of Highways, Ports & Properties closed the entire structure permanently and commissioned a survey which concluded that demolition would cost over £1 million and a full restoration £2.5 million.

The Manx government, Tynwald, continued to provide £40,000 a year for minimal safety maintenance, and a Friends of Ramsey Queen’s Pier group was formed in 1994, initially with the comedian Norman Wisdom, a Manx resident, as president.  The following year the pier was added to the Manx list of protected buildings to safeguard its future.

Discussions about restoration proceeded at a glacial pace, until in 2011 Tynwald allocated £1.8 million to stabilise the structure.

This led to a fresh report which planned a sequenced restoration in seven phases, each of them costing £1.2-1.7 million, overseen by the Queen’s Pier Restoration Trust (QPRT), which in 2016 began work on the fifty metres nearest the promenade.

The first three bays (of a total of sixty) were reopened to the public in 2021, with the return of the tramway’s locomotive and carriage from the Jurby Transport Museum.

The current phase involves restoration of Bays 4-8, of which the first three bays are close to completion.

This steady, methodical process of fundraising and practical work is an admirable exercise in co-operation between volunteers and the Government, which will clearly take a decade or two before the public can, in the words of the historian Richard Crowhurst, “stroll along these decks once again taking in the sea air, and partake of a cup of tea and a sandwich at the end”.

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2014 Manx Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £10.00 including postage and packing.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.