Chronicling the development of my Cambrian and Narrow Gauge 4mm scale model railway

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Nowt decent on telly

I can’t even plan a model railway without putting it into context. Of course the true genius at this sort of thing is the Revd who built a whole island and its transport systems and then wrote a complete potted history book which is really a book for adults not kids (The Island of Sodor – long out of print).

I have done this previously for the mark 1 Penlowry but now I’m on to the Cambrian version I need a whole new story. I was troubled for a while as to how my track layout would work particularly as Penlowry beach needs to be north facing to get the church model to be the right way round. In the end, with nothing on telly (is there ever – until the Aviva Premiership starts up again at least), I researched some Victorian history and then settled on this back story.

The 5th Earl Lowry was not amused when he discovered that his great friend, but Liberal Unionist Minister, was in favour of Tariff Reform that was being muttered about in various circles, which the Earl could see would decimate the Welsh copper export market. As a Whig he was opposed to the Tory / Unionist shenanigans anyway but as he owned the largest still extant copper mine in North West Wales he was even less amused.

The Earl had been in discussions with the Cambrian Railways for some time over the building of a branch line off the Cambrian Coast line onto his island which he was developing as a tourist resort with the rising trend of Victorian holidaying and education, using the proceeds from his copper mines.

When it became clear the Unionist government (1895-1905), would back this reform and finding out that the Tory minister responsible for pushing for the reform with Chamberlain was Sir John William Maclure, 1st Baronet*, who was also a director of the Cambrian Railways, Lowry turned his advances to the Great Western Railway which had recently taken over the Vale of Llangollen, Llangollen & Corwen, and Aberystwith & Welch Coast railways, resulting in a GWR line from  Shrewsbury to Dollgelly (sic) via Bala. Lowry persuaded the GWR that his plan would result in huge passenger traffic to his resort and copper and granite traffic away from the island, benefiting the GWR coffers.

The GWR therefore upgraded the line to Dolgellau and then extended it to the north of the Afon Mawddach cutting north east through the escarpment inland of the coast, crossing over the Cambrian Coast line just south of Dyffryn Ardudwy and reaching the island via a girder bridge.

Whether Penlowry is an island or a peninsula (as the name suggests it should be) has long been open to debate as at high tide it is cut off but at low tide it is quite possible to walk or ride across the channel.

Once the GWR started building its new line, the Cambrian took umbridge and suggested the Earl had promised to use their railway. To appease the growing mob of Cambrian directors, and threats of court action, Lowry gave permission for a branch from a junction just south of Llandanwg entering onto his land, stopping at the halt of Penlowry Beach (which is actually on the mainland and not on Penlowry at all) but terminating immediately it crossed onto the island. The location of this terminus was at the port which is where the existing narrow gauge Rheilffordd Copr Lowry line came down from Llethrlowry and the ridges of Moelwyn Lleiaf to deposit copper and granite into the waiting ships. On arrival of the GWR, this location became Penlowry Junction.

Once the GWR arrived, it built a further line west to reach the town of Penlowry. Lowry himself, eyeing a further business opportunity, having seen the results of the similar line at Yr Wyddfa, built a mountain railway from Penlowry Junction which climbed to the summit of Moelwyn Anferth giving “stunning vistas of the Snowdonia mountain range, Cader Idris, the Llyn Peninsula, and on a clear day, the Isle of Man and Ireland”.

Following the grouping, the GWR diverted most traffic from the north via Penlowry Junction and Dolgellau although bizarrely a junction at Dyffryn Ardudwy which would have allowed freight from the North to bypass Penlowry, proposed many times, was never built. Questions have always been raised as to how much vested interest the GWR must have had in Lowry’s ventures to force all their traffic through this route. Knowing the persuasiveness of Earl Lowry it is not inconceivable that he managed to obtain GWR investment in his many schemes. A 2-hourly timetable was maintained between Machynlleth and Pwllheli to ensure through workings down the now lesser used route.


One aspect of the new through route was that the Cambrian section, despite missing Barmouth bridge was still weight limited by the bridge off the island on the Cambrian line and then the bridge at Penrhyn, Pont Briwet. As such a shed was constructed and loco changes were a regular feature of the reversing trains at the junction, much to the delight of many schoolboys whose parents had brought them west for sea, sand, and a bit of history, but then watched them spend all day on the long island platform of Penlowry Junction.

Post-war,  everyone was trying to get back on their feet and the Seventh Earl (the 6th having been a tank commander in North Africa in the war) set about doing to Penlowry what Billy Butlin did elsewhere. This included the development of private flying from RAF Llanbedr, and the lobbying of the Railway Air Services for a Liverpool – Llanbedr service to attract holidaymakers from the North. All this was possible because RAF Llandbedr had been built on the Earl’s land. All started well and Nationalisation caused little change until the combined hit of the car and Beeching saw mass closure of the railways of the area leaving the Cambrian Coast line as we know it today with its 2-hourly service still serving the people of North Wales.

We see the line in 1948(ish) when people were once more holidaying and wanted to go west for sea and sand; when people still travelled by train rather than car; when long holiday trains were seen from Easter through to September; when the copper mines were still going (just) but the narrow gauge railway had just woken up to the idea of tourism; when the locos were a mixture of Cambrian and GWR, most still in GWR livery (except those recently overhauled); when new classes such as Modified Halls, Counties, and Cathedrals were just starting to make their mark.

The map above shows my attempts using sighting lines to ensure the backdrop to Penlowry Junction is similar to the backdrop from the Cob just outside Porthmadog, albeit at a greater distance. Below is a close up from the same map.


This history story does mean my station boards have got a bit bigger….





  • *I would just like to make it absolutely clear that I have no idea whether Maclure backed the Tariff Reform or not; he just appears in the story to add flavour. He was a Tory MP, part of the Unionist Government, and a Cambrian Director so there is some truth in what I’ve written above. It also goes to show that politicians bickering about free (single) market vs protectionist tariffs is hardly a new phenomenon.
  • Maps are the free versions of OS Maps online



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Yesterday is heritage

There is often discussion about what constitutes heritage in the railway context. Is it pre nationalisation? Pre the end of steam? Pre the end of BR? Last century? The century before that? 

The reality is heritage is anything that has happened. Yesterday. An hour ago. It’s all in the past. It may be not heritage for us but what about our children who won’t remember the now? 

If a railway is going to consider itself heritage it needs to preserve the significant events of the now for the edification of the future. Otherwise it is merely a time capsule that is selectively recording the history that those who run it choose to remember. 

It is said that history is written by the winners (someone once said cruelly that explains all the blank pages in French history books, but I digress). 

This is the reason people get all misty eyed over the 1950s and 60s steam and why so many preserved locos until recently have only been in BR colours. Until recently most preserved railways were run by people who remembered those times. People remember the good but forget the bad and so the misty eyes had filtered out the bad parts of that railway system. The thing is though, history needs to record the warts as well as the diamonds. 

In this context I have been saddened of late to watch the erasing of a section of the history book of the Ffestiniog Railway. 

The late 1970s and 1980s were a time of historical significance for the Ffestiniog. In 1978 the deviation was completed. In 1982 the return to Blaenau became a reality. The following years saw a railway carefully recover from the strain of the cost of such endeavour. But where’s the record of this? The innovation of new carriages (the tin carrs) has been wiped with all either scrapped or sold (with the exception of 110 which isn’t a true tin carr and is a completely different design); the pioneer new Fairlie, Earl of Merioneth, has been condemned to the back of the shed because of the desire to build a glitzy new locomotive; the Alco, Mointaineer, has been out of traffic for a long time and has been leap frogged in the queue so often now that “queue” is just a joke word. 

The FR powers that be have their reasons I am sure but this is the heritage of my youth; this is the heritage that the young volunteers of the railway don’t remember as they were born a decade or so later. Why is our heritage not worth so much as others heritage? 

The pictures in this article are postcards from my childhood which I have kept. These were bought on family holidays to North Wales or sent to us from my Uncle who lived in St Asaph and worked on “Back to Blaenau”. 

Soon these will be all we will have left of this significant part of the FR’s history. We can run a train of Victorian carriages and locomotives but not of 1970s/80s traction and rolling stock. What made this acceptable? Why did we stand by and let this happen? 

Save our Square is gaining, err, traction; the murmurings about the Alco are getting louder; but to preserve tin carrs we must now appeal to the railway the FR has sold them to that should they sell them on, the FR should have first refusal to regain its lost heritage. 

But what will prevent this happening again? What will prevent another “new” locomotive going to back of the shed forever when it gets a bit tired or some other significant carriage design from being sold off when it doesn’t fit in with the policy of the day in 30 years time? 

Heritage is history. History is about recording it all. Not just the bits the individual perceives to be good. It is our job to challenge those who strive to rewrite history with omissions. 

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Penlowry potest in Cambria

And that’s enough Latin for one day. Apart from per ardua ad taberna perhaps.

In the second half of last year, a friend of mine, who from his nickname you would think was bright orange and had long arms, decided that he wanted to concentrate on 16mm live steam and as a result wanted to get rid of his layout which in a part built and dismantled state had ben carted about various places around County Durham without any progress being made. Knowing that I was me and I had two Mini-mes, he asked if I wanted to offer him a ridiculous price for it to take it off his hands. Having had my ridiculous offer accepted, a few weeks later I was in receipt of a part built model railway in 00. Since then it has been moved to various sides of the garage as I’ve used the space for other things.

The railway itself is a terminus station along an 8’ x 2’ board (currently split into two 4’ x 2’ boards), and a 6’ x 18” fiddle yard which folds in the middle for storage, the whole lot being wired for DCC. The boards and railway are well built and provide an excellent start point for what I want. The railway currently looks something like this:


The trains enter from the left through a road bridge into the station with brewery siding followed by goods shed towards the front and bay platform at the back. The road over the railway continues round the corner past some shops and slopes down to the station yard. Here are the two sections of the layout as it arrived.

As built picture.png

Now that my work sees me working from home more than not, one of the rooms in the house is to be converted into an office for me, which will result in sufficient space for this railway to be erected. The room is large enough for the 8’ section to run down one wall, and the 6’ section to run down the next wall at right angles, with a new corner piece inserted to join the two together. However, I’m not content with the terminus plan and I’ve been quite ambitious in my planning (but hopefully not rubbish). I plan to put the fiddle yard at the right hand end of the 8’ board, reworking the track at the current buffer stops so the track exits that way onto the curved board and onto the fiddle yard, and the original exit to the fiddle yard will have a short section of track beyond the scenic section long enough to hold a branch train. An additional piece of board will be added to the right hand end of the 8′ section for a shed scene, and a lower level surface added on the outside of the current front of the board to produce a dock scene. This will mean it will look something like this:



These 8’ boards will then be a model of the fictitious:


The raison d’etre of the model is that this is the loco change point for the Cambrian with trains coming from the fiddle yard on the main bidirectional line into the station where the train will then reverse with a Cambrian loco (you know, Manor, 90xx, Jones goods, etc.) to haul it down the Cambrian single bidirectional line back to the fiddle yard. The branch going off the scenic section to the short spur in the other direction will be the Penlowry Town branch and will see AEC railcars and short branch trains.

Over the Christmas break I had a play about with timetables and the 1904 Barmouth Junction summer working timetable has given me a good start point.


The corner section board will be of Penlowry Beach station and will be a recreation of a section the Patriarch once built for a corner of his layout with a station with a beach directly off it and a church on a cliff overlooking (complete with mermaid behind a rock on the cliffs and the Rector trainspotting from the churchyard). This was originally a model of a Cornish GW line and similarities can be drawn to the Welsh coast. The church in question is a model of St Mary’s, Lockington, East Yorkshire, built in Linka when the Patriarch was Rector there. The Beach station will only be on the Cambrian bidirectional line and so mainline trains will pass through the site of the station non-stop. A camp coach will stand on an isolated piece of track nearby.


Lockington Parish Church ©Peter Church

To keep my narrow gauge me happy I am going to insert a NG station at the back of the layout in the current station yard running from the fiddle yard behind the backscene of the beach section, with some NG track also in the Brewery yard and dockside. The hidden link between the two is a potential future addition if I can make it all work.

I have also shown the possible mountain railway section running from the NG station, heading to the left, behind the street scene which will be changed from low-relief shops to full depth houses.

In terms of date, my aim is to go for 1948ish. I say ish because that gives me flexibility. 1948 means that most things will still be GW not BR, particularly this far from London, but will allow the running of early BR stuff too. Being a loco change point, there may be the opportunity to see foreign locos working 1948 exchange trials to the Junction along the mainline. The Patriarch now only does model engineering so has promised to pass on all his 00 stuff which includes a Dean Goods and a Duke, both of which were still in use on the Cambrian at this point (free fact for the day – not all 90xx were Dukedogs, some were renumbered Dukes).

For me this post-war pre-BR Standards period is really interesting as there is a right mix of modern and frankly ancient traction and rolling stock and the drive for standardisation had not yet taken hold, there were no Mk1s, and hardly anything was in that all covering BR black that so many seem to get excited about. (We all know the only GW engine that looked good in BR black was 3717…)


Duke class 3254 Cornubia (built as number 3255 in 1895) which by 1948 had been renumbered into the Dukedog class as 9054 and been allocated to Machynlleth (and possibly sub-shedded to Portmadoc). By withdrawal in 1950 it had run 1,632,815 miles.

So what about my magnus opus layout? Well yes, I still would like to build it and maybe I will one day – or at least sections of it such as the tunnel through the fish tank. However I do feel I need to be retired (!) to have sufficient time to build something like that and realism has set in that I need to do something achievable if I am to do anything at all. Having this model railway fall into my lap so to speak gives me that leg up I’ve been needing. Having a location and era focus will help stop my ridiculous imagination running away with itself.

So welcome to the new Penlowry. It covers the GW stuff I want to do (Hawksworth locos); being a loco change point it will have a decent shed so it ticks that box too; it’s based in Wales and what could be better than that?!; it will definitely have standard gauge and narrow gauge; it has a brewery and sidings which is my sort of tipple; it may well have mountain railway as well at some point; and I am wondering if I can achieve a short section of 00-6.5 in the corner scenic section to cover that too. It may be possible occasionally to run the layout as an 80s layout allowing for test trains down the quiet Welsh railways to cover for my inherent desire to model that too.

At any rate, at some point in 2017 a model railway will start to emerge. Honest! I hope you will enjoy reading about my new journey as much as I intend to enjoy going on it.

So there you have it. Penlowry is on the Cambrian.


Dukedog at Afon Wen © H C Casserley

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Ages 38+

Mini me 1 and I were given some Haynes model books for Christmas. I’ve just finished the Spitfire. Apparently it’s for ages 8+. I’m 38 and it was a challenge. 

I’m “looking forward” to the next challenge but I might need a rest first.