Posted by: travelrat | April 20, 2017

Downhill to Porthmadog

Fest 4a

‘If you steal a sheep, they’ll hang you, but if you steal a mountain, they’ll make you a Lord’ says an old Welsh saying.

There’s evidence of this stealing of mountains all over Snowdonia. Where they haven’t carved the mountain out, and exported it all over the world, the slopes are littered with the stuff they didn’t want.

But, how did they carry away such large quantities, especially when a horse, or even a team of horses could only deal with a small amount?

If you lay down some sort of trackway, though, it reduces the friction considerably, so horses can manage a heavier load. That principle has been known about since mediaeval times; possibly even earlier than that. At Blaenau Ffestiniog, James Spooner surveyed such a trackway, right down to the port of Porthmadog, just over 13 miles away. He surveyed a route that was such that horses could be dispensed with on the downhill run. All that was necessary was a good push.

Brakemen ensured that the train didn’t gather too much momentum, and the horses rode down in specially built wagons called ‘dandies’, and used to haul the empty wagons back up to Blaenau Ffestiniog. Spooner became Manager of the line up to his death in 1844. He is remembered by ‘Spooner’s’, the café/bar at Porthmadog Station. (I expected to be offered stuff like chalk pops or ache and stale pie here … but that was another Spooner altogether)

Steam locomotives were introduced to the line in 1863. They hauled the empty wagons back to Blaenau Ffestiniog, but either returned to Porthmadog ‘running light’ or in charge of passenger or general goods trains. The slate trains continued to be driven by gravity alone until the closure of the line in 1939.

After the War, consideration began to be given to re-opening the line as a pleasure railway, and the first train ran, only a short distance from Porthmadog, in 1955. Gradually, using largely volunteer labour, the usable line was extended further, until it reached Dduallt … and an impasse.

The upper part of the line had been flooded by the construction of the artificial lake of Llyn Tan y Grisiau. Thus began the Deviation, constructed, again, by a largely volunteer work-force. It involved blasting out a tunnel, and construction of the only climbing loop in Britain. And, eventually, trains were able to run once more right to Blaenau Ffestiniog.

Fest 1a

I’ll tell about our ride later; meantime, I’ve illustrated this piece with (‘antiqued’ a little) scans of slides I took on an earlier visit.


  1. Been there long time ago (1978), so I knew the history and the technical side, but it is always nice to reread it. And I love your Welsh saying at the top, it is even more true in the modern day than it was then.

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