Tuesday, 1 May 2012

The VoFf Way – Blaenau Ffestiniog to Maentwrog

Outline: this leg of the VoFf Way takes you gently down the railway side of the valley past pioneering hydro electric reservoirs, rock cannons, Britain's only railway loop and through pristine nature reserve where wolves roamed only 400 years ago. If you're lucky you might see some wild goats.

If you’re not catching the train walk northwards from Blaenau Ffestiniog railway station along the main street being careful not to trip whilst reading snippets of Welsh poetry in the pavement.  At the roundabout turn left and follow the main road around two 90 degree bends then turn right along the wide track between the playing field and Blaenau’s new allotments. Just after the corner of the allotments turn left up a small lane between two houses and follow it through the housing and turn left onto Glanypwll Road. Follow this downhill for a couple of hundred metres before turning right and crossing the Ffestiniog Railway on a footbridge at map reference 692459.

At the other side of the bridge turn left and walk upwards through a gate in a fence and at map reference 689457 go through a gate in a wall. Keep following this rough path through a kissing gate at map reference 686454 and a gate over a tramway. On your right hand side is a great example of 'crawiau' which is traditional slate fencing. After yet another gate at map reference 685453 walk down to Cwmorthin Road and turn left for about 100 metres until you see a sign on the right hand side marked Lle Chwarae (Play Ground). Follow a narrow lane alongside a  terrace of cottages and at the end veer towards the left and downhill along a path through brambles crossing the railway line by Tanygrisiau Railway Station and join the road at map reference 684449. A short way to your right is the Lakeside Cafe.

From Tanygrisiau railway station you have the option of going either side of the reservoir but I recommend the eastern side which gives better views of the mountains. Walk along the dam wall until almost the end then follow a slipway down to the base of the wall. A small footpath turns down to the left with steps onto the gully below – cross the gully (unless water is being released) then up the steps the other side and follow the path to the end of the wall. Cross the stile and follow the path to the southern tip of the reservoir. There are different routes that are self-evident depending upon the height of the water.

This reservoir captures the water that is pumped up to Llyn Stwlan, generally overnight, then released  through  four generating units providing enough electricity for north Wales for several hours. It is the first major pumped storage hydro electric station to have been constructed in UK. The underlying principle is a bit like a battery using excess electricity (use it or lose it) in times of low demand to send the water uphill and release it when demand is high. I think the ratio of input to output is 100 to 70 i.e. you get back 70% of what you put in, which is better than losing the lot!

When the water level is low you can see the different trackways of the Ffestiniog Railway. Coming from the power station to the southern end of the reservoir is the original track opened in 1836. Wagons came downhill from Blaenau and then had to be pulled uphill by waterwheel and this caused a bottleneck of traffic. By 1842 the new route through the tunnel was opened thereby enabling trains of wagons to operate by gravity all the way to the coast.

A rock cannon was drilled and fired to celebrate the opening of this tunnel. You can find the seventeen hole rock cannon at map reference 67804328, a slab of rock angled towards the reservoir, about forty metres to the east of the uphill track as it levels off.  If you want to know more about their history and operation you can find out more by clicking here.  

This track was used for over a hundred years until the railway ceased operating and, with no prospects of it re-opening, the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) plugged the tunnel and flooded the line to build the bottom reservoir.  The subsequent legal battle the railway and CEGB lasted over eighteen years but eventually compensation was paid enabling the current tunnel and higher track to be built. These days the back of the power station is the highest position on the track from which to travel to the coast by gravity.

Carry on walking along the original track and at the end of the tunnels you can see the impressive dry stone wall on which the 1842 track was laid. Keep on until you reach Dduallt Station. It’s Mecca to rail enthusiasts, the only railway loop in Britain, the only narrow gauge loop this side of India.  The loop enables thirty feet of altitude to be gained without increasing the gradient – this cunning solution to the flooded track enabled the same power engines to run the same size trains.

Walking towards the sea the lighthouse at Portmeirion is in view with the river winding its way down the Vale beneath the watchful eyes from Plas Tan y Bwlch. It’s a picture postcard sunset shot in the autumn.

Cross beneath the railway line down to Plas y Dduallt, built in the 1560s for the Lloyd family, descendants of Llywelyn the Great. The house at the front with large central windows was added in 1604 (beams have tree ring dated to between 1600 and 1604) and the arrow slits, beneath the balcony, by the eccentric Colonel Campbell in the 1960s. He is most famous for having his own engine, called the Colonel, which he parked in a siding and drove as part of his daily commute to the office. In those days there was no vehicle access to the house. The siding has gone but Campbell’s Platform remains as a private halt for the house and guests at its self-catering cottage.

In the late 1800s there was a thriving Sunday school here. More recently the house was used as a location for an overnight vigil by the Most Haunted team; there was much banging and screaming in the programme.
Follow the footpath (not the tarmac drive) into the Maentwrog Nature Reserve. This part of the reserve is called Coed y Bleiddiau, ‘forest of the wolves’, ancient woodland where the last wolf in Wales was allegedly slain. About fifteen minutes into the reserve is a cottage, also known as Coed y Bleiddiau, and opposite which is a larger than life howling wolf planted with several hundred rods of willow. The paling fence that surrounds it is a temporary measure to protect it from the wild goats; once established the fence will be removed and children will be able to crawl into the belly of the wolf and exit through the long tail.

The cottage itself was built for the railway inspector in the 1860s shortly after the line was upgraded to steam power. Over the years it has had many tenants including St John Philby, father of Kim Philby the spy, on a ten year lease from 1937. Philby’s guest at the outbreak of WWII was William Joyce who travelled from here to Berlin and became the propaganda broadcaster Lord Haw-Haw referring to the area in his broadcasts. It has been empty since Bob and Babs Johnson left in 2006 but hopefully some kind soul will take it on. Landmark Trust maybe?

Continue along the path and take the left hand fork into the conifers going downhill towards the coast, go past a cottage called Ty Coch, down its driveway and turn left onto the road with The Oakeley Arms on your left hand side at map reference 660409.  You are now about eighteen miles and only ten minutes away from where you started, ready to resume the coast path.

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