I enjoyed just one day with the real Penrhyn Quarry Railway. It should have been more but in 1961 when I was a 14-year-old schoolboy budgetary consideration and travel dependency on other people meant that the PQR had passed into oblivion before I possessed the earning power and independence to make such things possible again.
A school friend Peter Midwinter had invited me to join him and his parents at Conwy – then spelled Conway – for a few days on their family holiday. The PQR was something I seen referred to in the Festiniog Railway Society’s magazine but, beyond that reference, I knew little of the system and its equipment.
Peter and I resolved to visit Port Penrhyn and see the place for us. It was still a working port; although if my memory serves me correctly, the trading visit of ships to pick up the slates transported from Bethesda had reduced to once a month by this stage.
More than 40 years later I can still recall the fascination of the place. Being well-behaved young lads our first visit was the Port office to ask permission to be allowed on the site. That courtesy brought immediate dividends because our politeness was rewarded with the question: “Would you like to go for a ride on the railway?”
I can recall very little about the inside of the offices except that every thing was very neat, clean and the place smelled of paint. We asked about how much a ticket would be because, as schoolboys, we didn’t have more than a few shillings in our pocket. “It’s free”, was the reply and all we had to do was sign the indemnity form.
Now whether a schoolboy’s signature is legal or not didn’t matter to us but I can remember quite clearly that the form they asked us to sign had been used before and I recognised a signature of a well known Festiniog Railway luminary on the same page. I’m blowed if I can now remember who that was but, at the time, I recognised the man’s name and that added gravitas for us with the office employee.
In the yard we wandered across to the engine shed, well that’s what you did when you were schoolboys, and found ‘Charles’ sleeping peacefully on one side and ‘Blanche’ being prepared to take the one train of the day up to the quarries at Bethesda and back on the other.
The fireman who was raising steam was just little older than we were, but he assured both Peter and I that we wouldn’t be left behind. Steam, he told us, would take another hour to raise and that would give us ample time to wander round the yard.
We found stub points, mixed gauge tracks, slate wagons by the score, pieces of railway equipment rusting peacefully and plenty of evidence that this had been an impressive railway operation.
The reverie was disturbed by the arrival of another steam locomotive but this wasn’t a narrow gauge beast but British Railways Standard Class Two 2-6-0 who brought a short train down the branch from the North Wales Coast main line.
For a long time we watched the standard gauge engine go about its business sometimes disappearing into the grass where metals had become hidden from view by luxuriant undergrowth.
Just for a very short time there were two steam locomotives on the wharf as ‘Blanche’ assembled her train and the BR Standard continued its affairs.
The BR locomotive departed with trucks and a guard’s van under the bridge that guarded the Port entrance for both the narrow and standard gauge tracks. Peter and I had walked a slight distance up the parallel routes to watch the departure of the standard gauge train and, at the same time, have some insurance the PQR train wouldn’t leave us behind.
The journey up to Bethesda was bumpy. After riding on Festiniog and Talyllyn Railways I knew that narrow gauge trains were not quite a smooth as the BR equivalent but the PQR’s permanent way was showing signs of real neglect. The lively ride didn’t seem to disturb the two engine-men. They sat unconcernedly on the cab side crew ledges while ‘Blanche’ bucked and rolled at speed. They didn’t seem to notice the wagons crashing up and down over dished rail joints and totally confidant that everything was under control.
The journey up the line was breath taking even for two 14-year-old schoolboys. Scenery, steam, a passing loop in the middle of no where, level crossings with signals and the final drive into the yard at Bethesda.
That brought something we were not expecting, a line of disused steam locomotives in varying stages of rusting, with cab spectacles still in place and strange names painted on their tanks. We wandered at will through the workshops. It must have been lunchtime because I can’t recall seeing anybody working all the time we were at Bethesda – although time plays funny tricks with your recall so I wouldn’t be totally sure what time it was in reality. There were steam locomotives and the grey-painted, four-wheeled little diesel rail tractors all under repair or being maintained.
It was magical for two railway mad youngsters. We were left to look in every nook and cranny.
After the workshops we moved onto the first level of the quarry – health and safety officers would have had a fit these days – ‘Cegin’ was left simmering on a single-wagon train just by itself and a number of diesel tractors were simply turning over quietly in the sidings.
We looked at the inclines with empty wagons waiting to be transported to the levels above and wagons with slate waiting to be processed.
A whistle from ‘Blanche’ indicated that it was time to return to the coast. Peter and I resolved to find out how much it would cost to buy one of the scrap line locomotives and we returned to Port Penrhyn captured by the spirit of the place.
The dream of buying a locomotive died like so many other schoolboy ambitions but I never forgot the Penrhyn. As a Festiniog Railway volunteer I gained some hands on experience with the PQR equipment working as a volunteer when both ‘Linda’ and ‘Blanche’ first moved from Port Penrhyn to Porthmadog and was part of the rescue effort when ‘Linda’ leapt the rails at Squirrel Crossing.
I also helped lay and maintain the PQR rails that were purchased by the FR through a quarter century as a PW volunteer on the FR.
But it wasn’t the same as riding the PQR train from Port Penrhyn.