|The Northern Weekly Salvo
Incorporating Slaithwaite Review of Book Law, Weekly Notices, Tunnel Gazers’ Gazette. Descendant of Teddy Ashton’s Northern Weekly. Printed on 100% Papyrus
No. 103 June 30th 2013 The WaterwaysTakeover Issue
Salveson’s weekly digest of railwayness, Northernity and skewed political comment from the Pennine slopes. Read by the highest officers of state, kite fliers, boat people, members of the clergy, medical profession, the toiling masses, monsterologists etc
Quote of the Week. Who said it, about what?
“With every twist and turn the scene changes – wooded banks and cuttings give way to open views and valleys to mountain peaks. The mountain that a moment ago appeared to be slipping behind is suddenly in front again.”
Back from holidays
Our week afloat was a success with a good combination of mostly fine weather, good food, a decent number of bookshops, industrial dereliction, pleasant walks and convivial company. We hired a boat from Goytre Wharf on the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal. On our way down we stopped off overnight at Stourport, a fascinating canal town which remains a sort of inland Mablethorpe for the West Midlands. It has some fascinating canal architecture and our B&B was located next to the wharf. Stourport has strong links with Stanley Baldwin, the inter-war Tory prime minister who seems to have been quite a nice chap on a personal level (putting aside the General Strike, the Means Test, etc.). The Lion pub, looking out onto the Severn, served up a very nice pint and fruit cake, and we were able to carouse outside with the locals - the idyllic scene completed by strains of Elgar’s ‘Severn Suite’ floating from the public bar*. We continued our route to Wales via Breckhampton and made our unexpected visit to the Violette Szabo Museum (see below) before arriving at Tram Inn, a level crossing on the Hereford – Abergavenny Line and one of those evocative names of which the ‘North and West Route’ has so many. Sadly, the eponymous pub has long since pulled its last pint, though the fine Great Western signalbox still controls classic GWR lower quadrant signals. ‘Tram Inn’? This area once had lots of tramways and the original line from Abergavenny to Hereford was a tramway before it was expanded into a ‘proper’ railway. The station itself closed in 1958 though the very fine buildings remain in private use. Our return was equally complex, heading via Talywain (see below), Blaenavon, Builth Wells, Llandrindod Wells (coffee stop; bike museum closed for the day) and then a scenic route over the mountain to Kerry. This small and slightly eccentric town of black and white buildings once had its own branch line which connected into a network of tramways which served local quarries. The stationmaster (going back a bit now) celebrated his daughter’s wedding by converting the engine shed into a ‘Chinese Palace’ (presumably covering the ash pits) and throwing a lavish party to which the local populace were invited. We were unable to find any trace of engine shed, or discarded Chinese lanterns, though it did close as long ago as 1931. We continued our merry way, passing Abermule, noted in railway annals for a head-on collision in 1921 which resulted in several deaths, including the chairman of the Cambrian Railway. From here we continued along the route of the Montgomery Canal (known as the A483) by-passing the Cambrian’s former Oswestry HQ and then joining the notorious Chirk By-Pass towards Chester and home. Yes, we could have done it by train but it’s enjoyable exploring these by-ways which c an spring some nice surprises on the alert traveller. * I made that last bit up, in case you hadn’t realised
Along The Mon and Brec
The Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal is one of Britain’s loveliest waterways and was re-opened in 1970. It is navigable from Brecon down to Cwmbran, though the section beyond Pontymoile (better known to most Salvo readers as ‘near Pontypool Road’) is difficult to negotiate, by all accounts. Eventually the entire route will be re-opened through to Newport making it part of the canal network. As things stand, it is a 35 mile stretch of isolated waterway which has the advantage of making it pretty quiet. We picked up our boat – Red-Billed Finch - resplendent in what looked very much like LMS maroon and cream (blood and custard) livery, and headed south to Pontymoile. I took the regulator (apparently called the ‘tiller’) and we promptly ran aground. This was the first of many groundings and it turns out that it’s quite normal on what is a very shallow waterway. We were equipped with a long shunting pole (minus hook) to push us off the bank. We had two excellent guidebooks – Pearson’s Canal Companion – Welsh Waters and The Monmoutshire and Brecon Canal (why not call a spade a spade after all?) by John Norris. Both have similar information though Pearson’s is more engagingly written and includes shed codes (86G). Norris is more aimed at a canal crank readership but none the worse for that and its detailed route description, and suggested walks, came in very handy. The canal meanders along the contour of the hillside, with the mighty ‘Blorenge’ looming above us to the west. To the east the views of the Black Mountains and the Herefordshire hills were magnificent. There are plenty of good local pubs and our first port of call on Saturday night was The Star at Mamhilad. We got as far as Llangynidr, where a small flight of locks begins. We did the first lock just so we could say we’d done it and then turned back. You can get too much of a good thing and we wanted to keep Talybont and Brecon for another time.
Abergavenny has two good bookshops. The ‘Abergavenny Bookshop’ is new stock and has a good selection of local publications. Opposite the historic St Mary’s parish church is Bookleaf Bookshop which has a very good second-hand collection which is particularly strong on politics, Welsh history and literature. My ‘finds’ included south Wales miners’ leader Arthur Horner’s autobiography, Incorrigible Rebel, Walter Benjamin’s bible of highway engineering One-Way Street and a history of the Vale of Neath railway. Blaenavon is slowly developing as a ‘book town’ and there are several small shops which are worth a visit. My main focus, predictably, was ‘The Railway Shop’ which comprises a model r shop downstairs and book rooms upstairs. It has a good railway stock, but all my purchases were non-crank items: Dai Smith’s biography of Raymond Williams and two recently-published novels by Welsh writers. Book-ish Bookshop in Crickhowell is a small, friendly independent bookshop with a very good local selection and a modest selection of modern literature.
Austerity in south Wales
It would not have been a proper holiday without some steam, so a trip to the Pontypool and Blaenavon Railway was de rigeur. We didn’t have time for a full exploration and inspection of the route but we did pay a fraternal visit to the railway’s HQ, Furnace Sidings, where we patronised the newly-opened station tea room. It is part of the new building. We were able to admire the railway’s finely polished ‘Austerity’ 0-6-0 saddletank ‘Mech. Navvies Ltd.’which was at the head of two coaches. It trundled off to the headshunt at nearby ‘Big Pit’, came back and the4 friendly driver and fireman had a brew before departing for Blaenavon. The ‘Austerity’ was built in 1945 as War dept. no. 71515 but spent much of its working life at Swalwell Open Cast site in the North-east where I saw her, looking a bit grubbier than now, back in the 70s. We will go back and take a ride next time, and try the bread pudding which was on offer in the tea rooms.
Back in the 1970s I read the more well-known Alexander Cordell novels such as Rape of the Fair Country and The Fire People. They were easy reads but combined socialist politics, working class history and a strong sense of place. He is largely forgotten outside his own area, but he is a million times better than most ‘popular’ novelists of today. Brought up in England, he settled in Wales and spent most of his later years in Llanfoist, a village on the ‘Mon and Brec’ near Abergavenny. Hhis most famous book, Rape of the Fair Country, is set in this area, featuring the canal and lives of iron workers and their families living in the isolated communities on the side of The Blorenge. Little remains of Garnddyrys, once home to about 300 families, apart from a huge piece of slag left marooned on the hillside like an ice age remain. Many of the ancient tramways are easily followed. Hill’s Tramway, which ran from Blaenavon over the Blorenge and down ‘The Big Drop’ to Llanfoist is traceable for most of the way. A tunnel, just about negotiable, takes the course of the tramway round the hillside. Many of the original stone sleepers remain though the rails have long since disappeared (well it did shut in the 1860s). The three inclines were rope-worked and many of the stone sleepers show wear by the cables. Local author Chris Barber (who befriended Cordell) has written much about the places and history associated with Cordell’s novels (see Cordell Country, In the Steps of Alexander Cordell, and other books of local history which refer to his novels).
Return to Talywain
After steam finished on BR in 1968 the real die-hards had two options – go abroad, or go ‘industrial’. Whilst I was able to scrape enough money together to get to France, West Germany and Northern Ireland, I didn’t have the resources to get to the real choice stuff in eastern Europe. But I was able to get to see the surviving industrial steam around the UK, and in the late 1960s there was lots to see. And in a way I was lucky – while I never experienced high-speed steam between Berlin and Dresden, nor the Portuguese broad-gauge beauties of the Douro valley, I did get to pretty much every working pit in the UK which still had working steam, and that was quite a lot of them. So Maerdy, Graig Merthy, Hafodyrnys, Mountain Ash, Merthyr Vale, Penrhiwceiber were familiar names to me. But none equalled Talywain. Not only did it operate ex-GWR Pannier Tank (no. 7754) it actually ran passenger trains, for miners going to and from their shifts, up the steeply graded and highly scenic line to Blaenserchan Colliery, perched high above the villages of Talywain and Abersychan. The pit closed in the early 1970s but I was immensely privileged to have seen it, photographed it, and ridden in the cab of 7754 battling up that ferocious incline.
So I had mixed feelings going back. I didn’t think much would have survived but one very prominent feature was the huge arched bridge which carried the colliery line under the former GWR’s line from Newport to Blaenavon. It was Hester who spotted the arch, across the valley. And it was fairly easy to find, being just off the ‘back road’ from Blaenavon to Aberasychan. It remains impressive, a reminder of an outstanding piece of industrial and social history. There are a couple of photos – then and now – on my website.
Some interesting industrial dereliction discovered
No holiday is complete without wandering around at least a couple of derelict factories. So we were delighted to discover a top-grade example of dereliction just off the canal at ‘Mill’sTurn’. The old mill was almost completely hidden by trees but was remarkably intact, with some machinery still inside. Nearby are the remains of a water wheel but we were not able to get access to it. More delight was found in the discovery of the tunnel which took Hill’s Tramroad round the Blorenge Mountain. We had less success in locating two other tramway tunnel entrances near Pwll-du but we will return.
In the steps of the signing-on point ramblers
The holiday was a trip down memory lane in other ways too. Back in the mid-1970s (when I had a ‘real’ job, as a guard) a few of us at Blackburn depot set up the ‘Blackburn Signing-on Point Ramblers’ – basically a walking and drinking society for drivers, second-men and guards. Our precise objective was to walk disused railways and drink beer, generally having a good time in the process. Oh, we did them all: Whitby –Scarborough, Low Gill – Clapham Jc, even the Meltham and Holmfirth branches. One of our best trips was a weekend away exploring the Merthyr Tredegar and Abergavenny (MTA) Railway, which was a wild and rugged outpost of the London and North Western Railway’s empire. The line was so steep that the LNWR actually built a small batch of ultra-powerful 0-8-4 tank locos to cope with the gradients, though Webb’s ‘Coal Tanks’ performed well on the short passenger trains. The SOP Ramblers arrived at Abergavenny in style, with long-gone Sulzer 46.001 hauling us down from Crewe. We stayed at what was then still ‘The Great Western Hotel’ whose bar featured a fine picture of a ‘Castle’ climbing up to Llanvihangel, along the stretch of line immortalised in Raymond Williams’ Border Country (see below). We were able to follow much of the route of the line, which had lain derelict and fairly untouched since closure in 1958. The platforms at Clydach were still in situ and (I think) those at Gilwern and Govilon. The Mon and Brec Canal is intertwined with the railway up to Gilwern, after which the railway heads up the Clydach Vale on a gradient of 1 in 38. It’s now a Sustrans route and the stunning views from the railway can still be enjoyed, enhanced if you play a recording of a Coal Tank or ‘Super D’ on your i-pod as you pedal.
Canal and Rivers Trust: railwayman takes over
We had the pleasure of meeting Andrew Stumpf, the Canal and Rivers Trust ‘Head of Wales’, for lunch in the delightful surroundings of Abergavenny’s Angel Hotel. The trust took over from British Waterways two years ago and is now responsible for the management and development of most of the UK’s waterways. The trust is an interesting model – the product of the last Labour Government but fitting in well with the current ‘Big Society’ agenda. As long as the trust maintains its funding from Government, it should be well placed to develop as a more inclusive body than the old British Waterways. The trust has established a number of ‘waterway partnerships’ which echo the ideas behind community-rail partnerships and have potential to every bit as successful in engaging ther wider community (i.e. not just boaters). Andrew, whose waterways career goes back to the mid-70s, is based in a restored canal warehouse at Govilon, probably providing any canal crank’s ideal job in the perfect location. The warehouse is close to where the former MTA railway (see above) crossed the canal, and of course it was the railways which saw off the canal competition in the 19th century. Ironic that now the Mon and Brec is enjoying a new lease of life, whilst the MTA is only a memory.
Yet in an interesting move, the Canal and Rivers Trust has just appointed a railwayman to run the organisation and this has had a mixed reception from some canal interests. Ex-First Great Western Richard Parry was welcomed by an ‘opinion piece’(from someone appropriately titled ‘Old Bilge Pump’ in the current issue of TowpathTalk. The author uses his ‘welcome’ to mount an ignorant attack on railways in general and First in particular, based on one train journey from Pewsey (say no more). He accuses customer service of being ‘dire’ with services deteriorating and ‘many trains cancelled or delayed’. Now readers will know that I am no uncritical admirer of rail privatisation but this is going too far and ‘Old Bilge Pump’ needs to put a sock in it (or an Ikea bag like the one that got wrapped round our propeller). Apart from anything else, it’s rude and discourteous to use what should be a ‘welcome’ to the new head of the trust as an excuse to mount a personal and ill-informed attack on the poor guy. Go and take a running jump in the nearest canal, Mr Bile Pump.
Boating for beginners – a class analysis
Hester is a much more experienced boater than I – in fact my canal boat virginity was only thrown away (with reckless abandon) a few weeks ago with a short trip from Stone to Kidsgrove). So the ways of the boating world are a mystery to me, though I am beginning to see the many gradations of boating and the increasingly evident hierarchy in this strange parallel universe. The aristocracy of the canal world appears to be the people who own their own boats. Not any old fibre-glass ‘Saucy Sal’ floating gin palace with outboard motor but a 60’ long narrow-boat which is equipped with brass headlights. On no account must you refer to a narrow-boat as ‘a barge’. This will cause great offence and lead to your ejection from ‘The Towpath Inn’ or whatever tastelessly-decorated canal-side pub you happen to be in. If you are part of this ruling class you will have your own moorings and probably a man-servant in attendance. Beneath this category are aspiring boat people who cannot quite afford the luxury of a brass headlight or man servant but come close. There are several more nuances of difference in descending order. There are some boats which are shared between several owners which incur the sneers and opprobrium of the individual owners. Of course the owners of the ‘Saucy Sal’ (‘Saucy Salvo’?) are disliked by everyone else, and the self-appointed ‘captain’, usually a rotund retired accountant from Droitwich, will be wearing one of those ludicrous caps you can buy in canal gift shops. The hired boats and their occupants are the subject of derision for all of the owners, especially those who manage to go aground. Amongst the hirers, weekly or fortnightly renters score higher than the hapless day trippers. But everyone is united in their hatred of those non-boaters: cyclists. It’s amazing that the canals don’t run red with blood from rival warring tribes. A good job there aren’t these tribal rivalries amongst railway enthusiasts, that’s all I can say.
Entrism in the Canal Party
Following on from the appointment of a railwayman to run the canals, the time is right for a gradual take-over of the canal world by ‘the railway interest’. History is ripe to repeat itself, not as tragedy, not as farce, but as fun in our post-modern age. This needs to be a clandestine process, with gradual infiltration of canal societies and the election of officials into leading positions who are undercover railway cranks. I can report that this has already occurred in several instances but I am not, for obvious reasons, able to divulge their precise whereabouts. Within the next 5 years the Canal and River Trust, as well as the canal societies and Inland Waterways Association, will be in our hands.
Blaenavon in carnival mode for our visit
Blaenavon markets itself as a ‘heritage town’ which sounds a bit odd. You expect the townsfolk to be dressed up as miners and foundry workers with the women looking ground-down from multiple childbirths and generally oppressed. Maybe ‘historic town’ would be better? It certainly is an historic town, and has ‘World Heritage’ status which I suppose is why they’ve called it that. Just doesn’t sound right. But anyway, shut up, I would like to say many positive things about Blaenavon. We thought it might be an uneasy combination of ‘heritage’ and a run-down ex-industrial community whose raison d’etre, other than entertaining tourists from Huddersfield, would have gone. It didn’t feel like that. They had very kindly laid on a community festival for our visit with lots of stalls selling plants, cakes and beer (we took away half a dozen bottles of ‘Bevan’s Best Bitter’). The shops along Broad Street looked as though they were doing well and we did our bit for the local economy by purchasing some of the fine products of The Blaenavon Cheese Shop as well as having several good finds in ‘The Railway Shop’ more or less opposite (see above). This was very much a preliminary visit pending a longer expedition. We will return to visit the Big Pit mining museum, ride on the steam railway and generally wander round this fascinating town later this year.
In Border Country
Few literary critics have a thorough understanding of the principles of absolute block signalling. In fact probably the only one who did know the bell-code for a partially-fitted goods train was Raymond Williams, one of the great figures of 20th century writing. He was brought up in Pandy, just north of Abergavenny and close to the English border. He was the son of a signalman and clearly spent quite a bit of time ‘working the frame’. His novel Border Country is very largely autobiographical and the fictionalised village of ‘Glynmawr’ is clearly Pandy, whilst neighbouring ‘Gwenton’ is Abergavenny. I last read the novel in the late 1970s and it is a joy to re-read this great work of literature and railway signalling. It’s about place and identity, family, politics – and the generational changes within the working class after the Second World War. The narrator is ‘Matthew Price’ who leaves his village to go to university and ultimately become an academic. Williams went to Cambridge and had an uneasy but highly productive time there. He was one of Britain’s outstanding socialist thinkers who avoided the inanities of the Marxist far left and the dull pragmatism of Labourism. I’m sure many Salvo readers will have read Border Country, but if you haven’t, you would enjoy it.
Carve her name with pride (for Armed Forces’ Day)
It’s remarkable what you can find down an English country lane. On our way down to Wales, taking our usual meandering course (on this occasion an elaborate Hereford avoiding route which brought us to Tram Inn, a place well known to railway folk), we went through the small hamlet of Womelow, in south Herefordshire. At a bend in the road we passed a small sign proclaiming ‘Violette Szabo Museum’. We stopped and went back to find out more. We met Mrs Rosemary Rigby MBE who is the curator of the museum dedicated to the memory of Violette Bushell, taxi-driver’s daughter, hairdresser’s assistant and war hero. The story is well told in the Spartacus website:
Violette Bushell, the daughter of an English father and a French mother, was born in Francein 1921. She spent her early childhood in Paris where her father drove a taxi. Later the family moved to London and she was educated at a Brixton Secondary School. At the age of 14 Violette left school and became a hairdresser's assistant. Later she found work as a sales assistant at Woolworths in Oxford Street. During the Second World War Violette met Etienne Szabo, an officer in theFree French Army and the couple got married in August 1940, just before Etienne was sent to fight in North Africa. Soon after giving birth to a daughter, Tania, Violette’s husband was killed at El Alamein. She developed a strong desire to get involved in the war effort and eventually joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE), despite considerable opposition from some of the army establishment. She was parachuted into France and was briefly arrested by the French police. However, she completed her mission successfully and after being in occupied territory for six weeks she returned to England. Violette returned to France in June 1944 to work with the Resistance and was ambushed by a German patrol. Szabo was captured and taken to Limoges and then to Paris. After being tortured by the Gestapo she was sent to Ravensbruck Concentration Camp. Sometime in the spring of 1945, with Allied troops closing in on Nazi Germany, Violette Szabo was executed. She was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre and theGeorge Cross. Her story is told in the book and film Carve Her Name With Pride.
The museum only opens on a Wednesday though Mrs Rigby was busy with preparations for the annual get together of Szabo lovers, which takes place today, June 30th.
So here’s to Violette – not the archetypal upper class derring-do spy but one of those ordinary people who did remarkable things in the fight against Nazism.
In praise of The Black Country Bugle – a bostin’ good read
Here at The Salvo we are great fans of The Black Country Bugle, published every Thursday price 60p and available in most shops and garages, within 10 miles or so of Bilston. We collected the latest edition on our way south. It’s a fascinating mix of local history and culture, focused on that area that isn’t really Wolverhampton and definitely not Birmingham. The publication even has a horoscope (which one of these days I will introduce to the Salvo – anyone interested in doing it?). It informed me, correctly, that I was heading for ‘a bostin’ good holiday’ with ‘the added bonus that spending time away will help to plan and decide what you want to do. This should help to add some thought to a big decision you have been contemplating.’ What could that be?
It’s Official: Labour Garden Party on July 21st
Warm on the heels of Dr Beeching’s Garden Party, The Official Labour Party Garden Party will take place on Sunday July 21st here at 90a Radcliffe Road at 13.00h; according to Rule 56(a) (‘constituency Labour Parties must organise at least one garden party in each calendar year, with nice cakes, drinks and camaraderie’).It has to be done. Fortunately, following the last-minute reprieve of the Bank Top Garden Railway, trains will be operating as normal. Star of the show will be our newly selected parliamentary candidate, who will be chosen with due pomp and ceremony at Honley Socialist Club on July 6th. It must be stressed that the party will not be an all-women shortlist and persons of either or both genders will be welcome.
Let me know if you can come.
Crank Quiz: The response on tunnels was a little late but we did get some, more details next week when things have got back to normal. For now, we must have a canal question…but I’m struggling to think what. Maybe examples of canal architecture still extant on the national rail network (maybe too easy, not sure but go on – have a go). I know (additionally): examples of where a railway was built directly onto the course of a canal and – yet more! examples of where waterways use railway-style infrastructure……
Quote of the week John Norris waxing eloquent about ‘The Mon and Brec’ in The Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal (incorporating the Brecon and Abergavenny and Monmouthshire Canals) (naturally)
Special Traffic Notices
July 1st IPPR North event with Leanne Wood, Plaid Cymru leader, in Manchester
July 3rd Colne Valley Area Committee 19.00 Golcar Prov -
July 6th Colne Valley labour Hustings for new Parliamentary candidate – members only, Honley Socialist Club, 11.00
July 13th Durham Miners’ Gala
July 21st Official Labour Party Garden Party, here at 13.00h (prompt)
August 10-18 Off on holiday again ha ha ha (Burntisland; Skye)
August 20th Garstang Arts Festival: Salvo speaking on th’dialect
September 8th Longwood Sing (‘The Mother of All Sings’)