Welshpool & Llanfair Number 2, the "Countess".
In pastoral Northern Wales, not far from the English border, is the little village of Llanfair Caereinion, present day home to the Welshpool & Llanfair Light Railway. This is rural country, not mountainous like farther west. The gently rolling landscape is dotted with small farms and pasture land. It was in fact agriculture that brought the railway here. Unlike all the other Welsh narrow gauges I visited, the W&L was built not for mining, but to haul agricultural goods and perhaps a few rural citizens to and from the small market town of Welshpool or to the standard gauge connection there with the Cambrian Railways.
The Countess with Llanfair Caereinion signal box in the background.
I arrived early for my visit and was expected. Kevin Heywood, Deputy General Manager had me sign a waiver, inspected my footwear and turned me over to Phil Crook who showed me around the signal box and the shops. There was still time left to watch as W&L Number 2, the Countess, was serviced before our run. The engine was built by Beyer Peacock in 1902 and currently wears the green livery of Great Western Railway engine number 823. GWR renamed Number 2 when they moved the nameplate to the cab side: "The Countess" was too long to fit, so it was trimmed to read, "Countess".
Servicing the Countess: first water.
Construction of the Welshpool & Llanfair was begun in 1901 when, railways and waterways were the only ways to move goods to markets efficiently. Roads and vehicles were poor or nonexistent, and travel was hard and slow. Having a railway meant a considerably increased market as well as far more convenient travel.
The little line had the support of the Earl of Powis, whose castle and gardens lie just to the south-west of Welshpool, and are now a National Trust property. The only engines used on the line were named in their honor -- "The Earl" and the "The Countess". The W&L was completed from the station of the Cambrian Railways in Welshpool just nine miles to the village of Llanfair; the first passenger train ran on April 4, 1903. No direct connection was made to the main line, because the W&L was built to two-foot six-inch gauge, making a transfer of passengers and goods necessary. The railway was a relative latecomer, built after the Light Railway Act in 1896 made it cheaper and easier to build a railway expected for light duty only.
Finally, the ash pit.
The Cambrian Railways operated the W&L until, as a result of the Railways Act of 1921, they were absorbed into the Great Western Railway on January 1, 1922. In 1948 Great Western became a part of the nationalized British Railway system. Despite the advent of better roads and vehicles, the W&L endured as a passenger line until 1931, and still hauled some goods as late as 1956.
The Countess passed by the signal box as we climbed up the steps for a visit.
I was introduced to our crew, driver Richard Green, fireman Eileen Niblock and guard Robert Robinson. Richard kindly provided me with his spare denim jacket to wear on the footplate.
Inside the signal box.
Soon we were on our way to Welshpool, and once past the shops, we entered quiet rural countryside which must have looked much the same as when the line was first opened. For the first two miles we were on a slight descent, but despite the gently rolling hillsides, we had a steep climb ahead to Golfa Summit, 200 feet above Llanfair. The railway may be rural in character, but the right-of-way includes many ups and downs including a short stretch of 4% grade on the eastbound climb.
It is easy to step aboard a 2' 6" gauge 0-6-0T.
An interesting feature of the Countess was that, while the driver stood on the right, the lever controlling the valve gear was on the left, and it was up to Eileen to control the gear. Richard thought that was a remnant of one time left side running. In addition to those of a traditional fireman Eileen had still more duties. She had to step down at level crossings, swing open the gates, flag our train across, and then reclose the gates before reboarding.
The reverse lever is on the fireman's side.
Once over the top at Golfa, we descended 300 feet in just over two miles on a steady descent to the W&L's new station outside Welshpool. The Countess kept a good head of steam all the way and never faltered.
At Cyfronydd, Eileen is ready to swing the gates open and flag the crossing.
Fortunately, when British Rail gave up on the railway, preservationists quickly organized, and the line was leased from BR in 1962. There were problems, of course. Much work had to be done on the neglected right-of way. The two original locomotives, the Earl and the Countess, had been saved, but the passenger cars had been scrapped; replacement equipment had to be obtained. The Welshpool Council decided not to allow trains to run through the town forcing the railway to build the new station just west of the actual town. Trains started operating to Castle Caereinion in 1963 and as far as the new station on the outskirts of Welshpool in 1981.
Nearing the summit, the pastoral view from the engine.
Passenger cars and additional locomotives were obtained, mostly from abroad, but now replicas of the original three coaches are available. The cars were built by the Ffestiniog Railway's Boston Lodge Works.
Eileen dutifully protects the crossing at Castle Caereinion crossing. The railway is just starting to raise £30,000 plus to fund a barrier crossing as advised by UK rail authorities.
All too soon, our train arrived at Welshpool Raven Square station where my wife and a British friend waited to rush me off for a bite to eat at Oswestry. I had only a little time to say my goodbyes, take a few more photos and move on. I really regret missing the trip back.
The amiable train crew: Guard Robert (Bob) Robinson, fireman Eileen Niblock and driver Richard Green -- all train crews are volunteers.
Address:Welshpool & Llanfair Light Railway Preservation Co. Limited,