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

Nowt decent on telly

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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




Author: Chris H

Having now officially reached middle age, I am a rolling stock engineer and have worked in many different locations including a 7 year spell in Sydney, Australia, where I arrived with a suitcase and left with a wife and a son. I am now based back in my home county of Yorkshire where I juggle full time work, being a Dad to two rascally mini-mes, and trying to fit in railway modelling, assisting the GWR 1014 County of Glamorgan project, and visits to the top left hand corner of Wales. In addition to my heavily railway themed life, I am interested in rugby, cricket, reading crime novels, falconry, and medieval re-enactments.

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