Monday, 24 April 2017

Campbell’s Kingdom

In 1962 a retired colonel from the Black Watch regiment bought an old manor house in the Vale of Ffestiniog. He bought it on a whim at the auction of the Plas Tan y Bwlch estate and was doubly surprised that, not only was his bid accepted, but the bank manager agreed to the necessary loan.
Campbell building the signal box
The building was in a sorry state, with the roof leaking like a colander, a collapsed stone spiral staircase and over a hundred years of ‘buy to let’ neglect. It was a shadow of its former glory as the posh home to the Lloyds, minor nobles who traced their ancestry back to Llewelyn the Great.

Andrew Campbell spent the next, and the last, twenty years of his life restoring the house with the help of some grants and a lot of resourcefulness. His first major challenge was the delivery of materials – the only access was by foot up a steep path.

At this time, the volunteers, known as the ‘deviationists’, were building the deviation route to re-open the railway which had stopped operating at the end of WWII. The Central Electricity Generating Board had flooded the track with a reservoir, to create Britain’s first pumped-storage hydro station, and the new route needed to go above as opposed to through Llyn Tanygrisiau.

Starting from Porthmadog they had reached Campbell’s ‘new’ house and he offered them the use of his barn for accommodation and his help with the explosives. In return he was given a platform onto the railway and a running powers agreement which allowed him to drive his own engine on the line.

As well as for the delivery of materials, the railway was also a lifeline for Andrew’s daily commute, to the Merioneth Council office in Dolgellau, where he worked as the solicitor for the county. He had been a lawyer in the army, which is governed by the laws of England and Wales – this meant he could not practice law in Scotland and that’s why we had this charismatic Scotsman in Snowdonia.

In 1974 the story of his eccentric commute sparked the interest of the BBC which made a 30-minute documentary called ‘The Campbells Came by Rail’. They filmed Andrew parking his car at Tan y Bwlch station, where he hand-cranked his diesel engine, called The Colonel of course, and drove the mile up the line before parking on the siding. To get the shopping the fifty yards down from the platform to the house he used an electric aerial hoist.

By the time of the filming, the Colonel had just created a half-mile driveway through the nature reserve to the house, which would have detracted from the story, so the cameraman was careful to avoid any shots that showed the new road.

As well as the commute, the half hour documentary also covered the restoration of the house including some of Andrew’s carpentry. He built ancient looking doors and furniture out of reclaimed timber and left his mark in many places such as the wooden beam over the fireplace in the main bedroom. In the middle is his adopted coat of arms and on either end of the beam are Andrew and his second wife Mary. Andrew is dressed in his medieval clothes next to a heart with an M in the middle for Mary. On the opposite side is Mary with her heart beating A for Andrew.

Colonel Campbell died in 1982, the year that the line was re-opened all the way to Blaenau. There’s a memorial stone dedicated to him at the Dduallt railway spiral, but his epitaph has to be Campbell’s Platform, which together with the medieval house were Campbell’s Kingdom.

His twenty-year mission to restore the medieval Plas y Dduallt was a brief but important chapter in its long history. You can see the fruits of his labour in the above film which has been made to promote the sale of Campbell's Kingdom.

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