We gathered at the engine sheds for an early morning briefing, wearing warm and sombre clothing, in keeping with the elements and the heritage. The ‘professionals’, in the sense that they’d done this before, were in their donkey jackets and bowler hats. They would be in charge of the brakes but would not have looked out of place at a funeral procession.
|Head Brakesman in Bowler with Bugle|
coming into Campbell's Platform
There were all sorts on board: in the wagon behind was the railway’s general manager, carefully laying down a large piece of cardboard on which to stretch out, ahead of me was the editor of Steam Railway magazine. Beyond him the director of the Rail Museum in York and someone from the National Slate Museum. Including the brakesmen, we were a crew of 30.
Horses were not available so a coal fired steam engine was to pull us up the track and we set off engulfed in a cloud of atmospheric steam. We spluttered out of the first tunnel – glasses and cameras all steamed up. After a level crossing, a water stop and a couple of token exchanges (signalling), we arrived, an hour later and 11 miles up the line, at the highest point from which we could freewheel.
It looked pretty flat to me but 1 in 80 was steep enough to get us going and within a couple of minutes we were rolling through the 310 yards (283m) of the Moelwyn Tunnel. Onwards and downwards with the occasional jolt and judder as the head brakesman raised his flag – red for all brakes on, yellow with a number shouted meant the first number of wagons to brake, and green for all brakes off.
|Matt Baker rounding Tank Curve for Countryfile|
As we rounded each bend, approached tunnels or trespassing sheep, the head brakesman was blowing a bugle but I heard none of this above the clatter of the wheels on the tracks.
For safety reasons we were doing up to 15 mph but 30 mph was said to be the speed at which they used to be operated – maybe full of slate they’d hug the line better? Being low to the ground, through cuttings hewn out of rock, there was a sensation of speed a bit like an open top sports car.
As we approached the coast a red signal caused us to stop and lose momentum. We started off once more but with only enough speed to get us a short distance across The Cob – the mile long embankment built by William Madocks in 1811.
Another steam engine came to the rescue and shunted us to the end of the line at Harbour Station for a celebratory breakfast. What a journey – the ultimate 11 mile rollercoaster ride.
Matt Baker from BBC Countryfile also enjoyed his ride on the Gravity Train.