Sunday, September 27, 2009

Corris and Dinas Mawddwy – musings 28th June 2009

Today we visited the Corris Railway and Museum and the Merrion Mill at Dinas Mawddwy. This led to reflections on the nature of the past and its presentation, and also on continuities.

The line of the Corris Railway after closure was not at all obvious. A wide shelf, often below the road level, alongside the main road between Corris, Pantperthog and below, roughly fenced in slate, provided the main sign, and between 1982 and 2009 much of this was altered, with the provision of skid rails and the widening of the road over parts of the site. My first recollection, on my visits in the 1980s, was of the building at what is now called Maesporth Junction, with the eventual appearance of a short length of rail. Compared with the Talyllyn nearby, this seemed both a forlorn hope and a token attempt at preserving some sort of remains. After final closure in 1948, and subsequent demolition, two locomotives and some rails had been salvaged by the Talyllyn Railway Preservation Society, and it seemed unlikely that revival would ever happen.

We began at the only station, with its accompanying museum, visiting the latter before and after the rail journey. This was in exceptional heat, and we sat in one of two carriages, on wooden bench seats, talking to a lady from London who owned two separate weeks of a timeshare at Plas Talgarth, and was enjoying the second one. She said that the timeshare grounds were well-maintained, but that the timeshares themselves were almost impossible to sell. She had not considered buying the rights to the intervening week, as she barely had time to get away from her other commitments. Like many retired people, she had become so involved with voluntary work that she could not get away for long, and she had had to find someone to over her for the two separate weeks when she was away. She said that she was planning to downsize and that if she moved she could get away from her voluntary commitments. It made me wonder about the "voluntary" nature of "voluntary commitments".

The journey along the line was disappointingly short – two straight sections and a bend, with no overbridges or underbridges – indeed, the Corris had few, if any, of these. There were views across the valley of a large modern house and a well-screened caravan park. It was not long before the train arrived at Maesporth. This, historically, was the point where there was an engine shed, and there was now the preserved version and a new shed which had just been completed with some Objective One and WAG money. We were shown round by a volunteer, a younger middle-aged man in a waistcoat and bowler hat. The chequered and complex history of the Corris lines, from horse-drawn to locomotives, was sketched, and the modern locomotives, for which all the money had been raised by volunteers with some wealthy benefactors. It was stressed that money and volunteers were sought, and this was one of the few preserved lines that did not have departments, so that volunteers could work on track or locomotives as they wished, and the driving of the latter could be carried out at a much earlier stage than on other lines. There were plans to extend the line south to the Forestry Commission site at Tynycoed, at which visitors could park to take the line up to the museum.

One feature mentioned by our guide was the concerns about the Talyllyn; pressed, he pointed out that it had experienced financial problems and had had to sack the general manager and appoint a previous one on a voluntary basis. Considering that the first general manager, Tom Rolt, was paid on a limited basis in 1951-2, as were presumably his successors, this seems to be a step backwards. I wonder if this is a consequence of the recession and the reduction in tourism, or because the Talyllyn is static as an attraction (bar the rebuilt museum at Tywyn) and the new Welsh Highland seemed about to open fully [actually, not until 2011].

Our guide stressed that the employee who used to fire the engines in the shed at Maesporth worked a 14.5 hour day, with leave only on part of Sunday! I have read about the very low pay to those at the Centre for Alternative Technology, and that this is one of the few operations that actually pays anyone. Maybe these tourist attractions – for that is what they are – are based on minimal or no pay, at levels that may not prove sustainable.

We returned slowly to drink coffee and buy two books at the Museum. This was an oddly old-fashioned building and exhibits, one a carriage that had been used as a henhouse for many years, and some excellent models that showed, for instance, the way the working line had looked at Pantperthog. It was all somewhat miscellaneous, and did not tell the story in any structured way, but was nevertheless interesting, as an example of a museum inspired by amateurs.

We talked to the very vocal and affable man behind the counter, who had come there with his wife, from Rhyl, about 1.5 hours drive away. He revealed that he had been out of work for about 12 months, and I wonder how he affords the journey to Corris – maybe his expenses are paid, and I hope so. He proved to have interests that crossed with mine – he was President of the sailing club at Foryd, which Denbighshire Council was hoping to improve. He had a love of non-fiction books, and a large collection. And he was trying to find out about his father, who had died 30 years ago, having been in the Great War. He had tried to find out his war record, had been to a regimental museum, and had seen a book there, which he wanted to read again, but could not find through the internet. He was surprised when I pointed out that any book could usually be obtained through inter-library loans. I suggested that he should contact my sister about genealogy, since he wanted to find descendants, if any, of his father. As we were talking, an older man came and showed him a photograph in a railway magazine of himself on the locomotive Katie, which is used by the Duke of Westminster at Eaton Hall. The track there is just used for pleasure, but he said that it used to run parallel to the main drive at Eaton Hall and across the fields to Balderton, over land that has been partly sold. What was strange is that we had seen Katie at Whit, and that an earlier Katie had inspired Tom Rolt, who visited other narrow lines and co-founded the TRPS, on a line less than 10 miles away…… Coincidence has a long arm. In different ways, all three of us were engaging with very different pasts, as was, indeed the railway and the enthusiasts who backed it.

We made our farewells and drove up a long and remote road before Aberfelleni, with many dramatic slate workings, one apparently in use, and then through the forest to Aberangell and north to Dinas Mawddwy. Our destination was Merrion Mill, in the remains of the terminal station of the branch line to Dinas. Just before it began to pour with rain, we got into the mill, and there I found an odd booklet, Arriving at Dinas Mawddwy, that in fact dealt with the railway and the mill building.

Like the Corris, the GWR had taken over the branch to Dinas and removed passenger traffic in 1930, in the face of bus competition, while damage caused by the Dovey floods had led to total closure in 1951 (against 1948 in the case of the Corris. The Dinas line had been built to exploit the same veins of slate as the Corris, and it too had been the subject of plans for ambitious extensions northwards, to Bala in its case as against Dolgellau for the Corris. The Corris Railway Society had been formed in 1970, and has steadily revived elements of its line, but the Dinas line was the subject of quite different approaches.

Even before final closure, a group of farmers had taken over a terminal quarry building, now the Merrion Mill. From 1946 they began to weave wool there, the produce of their own sheep, with the control and guarantee of prices in mind. This lasted, on a limited and reducing scale, until 1963, after which a Yorkshire firm took over, modernised the building and machinery, until it became insolvent in 1965. Another firm took over in 1966 and restored the mill and many of the station buildings; from 1974 this planned to run a short preserved line from the Mill. This operated in 1975 but not for long afterwards, due to increasing costs and limited viability. It seems that this was run as a commercial operation, and it is interesting that this started and ended before the Corris had laid a single rail over its line. The booklet makes it clear that weaving continued at Merrion Mill, but not when it ended (although its last edition was in 2004, little seems to have been updated since the first in 1974). The Mill is now a large shop, with a tea-room, selling woollens, other clothes and memorabilia.

Both the Corris and Dinas quarries began as part of speculative efforts to exploit slate an other resources (part of the “improvement” of the area, explicit in the case of Dinas), and in a way they have ended as part of late 20th century tourist development. They have now also become enmeshed with a past, in ways that remain indeterminate and ambiguous.

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