Two special journeys on the Vale of Rheidol Railway

by The Curious Scribbler

I was privileged to travel free on the Vale of Rheidol Railway not once but twice in the month of June.

The first was on a Wedding Special on 2nd June.  Aberystwyth born Claire Lewis married Nick Lee in a charming secular ceremony at Nantyronnen station.  The groom and guests got on the train at Aberystwyth.  We all alighted at Nantyronnen to sit on hay bales, serenaded by a string quartet.  The bride arrived for the ceremony by vintage car and the couple and their guests  re-boarded the train for Devil’s Bridge,  sipping prosecco.  They then made their way to Mrs Johnes’ Garden at Hafod for the reception in a large marquee.

The string quartet awaits the bridal party

The train about to depart after the ceremony

Wedding marquee at Hafod

The railway is spick and span these days, a far cry from its racketty image back in the days of British Rail.  The shining brass work, the uniformed staff, and colourful station gardens make it an outstanding venue.  One or two of the London guests made a rapid bid to change carriages after the odd smut of soot wafted into the open carriage behind the engine, but this all added to the authenticity of the experience.

I had had a small part in the station garden display.  The preceding weekend I helped in the volunteer effort to replant the five great troughs on Nantyronnen Station  with colourful summer bedding, ready for the big day, and every other journey of the summer.

My second free ride came on 11 of June, as guest of the railway itself.  This special journey marked a number of recent milestones: the launch of the first of four carriages which allow disabled access, the restoration of a former weighbridge building at Devil’s Bridge, and the opening, within it, of an information display about the Pine Martin Reintroduction Project led by the Vincent Wildlife Trust. CEO Rob Gambrill, the man behind the railway’s phenomenal success, welcomed us all,  and at every station stop he roamed the platform chatting with guests and railway staff.  A man with a magnificent train set!

Rob Gambrill and railway staff at Aberffrwd station

As I have recorded on this blog, I was (many years ago when British Rail owned the railway) a passenger on the train which derailed spectacularly between Aberffrwd and Nantyronnen in 1986.  It was an early outing of the ill-fated Vista Coach which seated visitors stadium-style facing the view.  Pulled at the rear of the train on the return journey it tipped over on its face, bringing the train to a juddering halt.  It was a pleasing co-incidence to learn from the driver that the immaculately fitted open carriage on which I was travelling was none other than the Vista Coach, now re-designed with traditional seating.  There were no such crises on this journey.

Another reversion was that of our engine, Llewelyn, which until recently burnt oil, but now burns great chunks of anthracite.  The stoker, in true period style, was in contrast to the dapper guard, quite  black with coal dust. Standing at the station we could watch him shovelling coal into the furnace of the engine.  Those motes of soot  tormenting the wedding guests had real Thomas the Tank Engine authenticity.

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Marble lost at sea near Barmouth

by The Curious Scribbler

Few of the throngs of elderly dog owners in the cafes of Barmouth take time out to examine the Millennium sculpture on the quay,  and those who do may merely observe that it is a work by local sculptor Frank Cocksey, entitled The Long Haul.  It shows three human figures, in different period costumes, together pulling together on a thick rope.  They lie backwards like the contestants in a  tug of war,  and while they are obviously freshly carved in white marble, the un-carved plinth below looks grey and pitted and could be mistaken for some kind of concrete.

Barmouth  Millennium sculpture – The Long Haul by Frank Cocksey

In fact the entire block is of white Carrara marble from Italy, the material so beloved of Michelangelo and figurative sculptors ever since.  For around 300 years it lay on the seabed some 30 feet down and a few miles off the beautiful shore between Barmouth and Harlech.  It was one of 42 blocks found on the sea bed, neatly shaped and ranging in size from 13 inch cubes to great blocks like this one, 9ft x 3ft x 2.5ft in dimensions.  All were extensively bored by marine creatures.

The wreck was first discovered in 1978 and excavated by the Cae Nest group of archaeological scuba divers.  Nothing of the wooden ship remained, but the cargo lies as it was loaded amidships, and other finds include 25 cast iron cannons, a bronze bell dated 1677 and coins from 10 countries among which french coins predominate.  They also found navigational dividers, pewter plate and fine cutlery, a dental plate, a seal, remains of pistols and a rapier.  Opinion is divided as to the nationality of the vessel.  The Barmouth plaque states it was a 700 ton Genoese galleon, the Coflein entry suggests, on the basis of the coins, and the French pewter, that it may have been a French trader.  What is of little doubt is that it was a well-armed vessel, carrying a valuable cargo, and that it went down after 1702 ( the youngest coin) and probably around 1709.

Who in North Wales had sent for such a cargo?  The graveyard at Llanaber Church might provide a clue, for it is surprisingly rich in white marble memorials dating as far back as the mid 18th century, though I haven’t noticed any as old as the presumed wreck.  Could these pieces have been destined for an enterprising monumental mason?

The graveyard at Llanaber Church is rich in 18th and 19th century gravestones of white marble

There is a popular alternative theory: that this was a ship blown off course, missing the English Channel and forced up past Cornwall into the Irish sea where it eventually foundered.  The first decade of the 18th century saw Sir Christopher Wren rebuilding St Paul’s cathedral, a project requiring a great deal of Carrara marble.

Marble is a limestone, easily excavated by the sea creatures which secrete acid to dissolve their homes as the blocks lay under the sea.   The large round-ended holes were made by molluscs, the smaller interlaced hollows are the homes of sponges, while polychaete worms  bored several centimetres into the rock.  As Frank Cocksey carved away the eroded blocks he has exposed fresh white marble. In places the worms have penetrated even deeper than his carving, as is shown on the leg of the youngest seaman.

Bivalve, sponge and worm borings in the end of the large block of Carrara marble bear witness to its 300 years under the sea.

Marine worm borings puncture the 21st century sculpture ” The Long Haul” by Frank Cocksey

It has been suggested there was at least one survivor from the wreck, Juan Benedictus whose death is recorded in the Llanendwyn Parish Register in 1730, and tradition has it  that timbers and artefacts from the wreck found their way to Corsygeddol Hall.  Seafaring in the 18th century was a risky business and many ships must have foundered on this coast.  We will never know exactly what happened.

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