The Tanat Valley Light Railway and the Nantmawr Branch – Part 1

Llangynog Railway Station in 1930.

The Tanat Valley Light Railway (TVLR) was a 15-mile (24 km) long standard gauge light railway. It ran westwards from Llanyblodwel in Shropshire, about 5 miles (8 kilometres) south-west of Oswestry. It crossed the Wales–England border and continued up the Tanat valley, terminating at Llangynog in Powys. It opened in 1904, providing access to a fairly remote area, and transport facilities for slate production and agriculture. Its promoters were unable to raise the capital to construct the line, but a number of government grants and generosity by the Cambrian Railways company enabled the building of the line. The company was always in debt and in 1921 was obliged to sell the line to the Cambrian Railways. [1] But, in confirming these things, we are getting ahead of ourselves. … Suffice to say, this post looks at the history of the line and the Nantmawr Branch. A subsequent post will look in more detail at the length of the line and its infrastructure.These two plans show the route of the Tanat Valley Light Railway and its place within the local railway infrastructure. [1]

There were several schemes put forward over the years for the construction of a line in the Tanast Valley, but they failed due to lack of interest from subscribers. One ambitious scheme was to extend the West Midland Railway [7] through the region, passing through Montgomery and Bala penetrating the Berwyns by a long tunnel. If this scheme had been successful, it would perhaps have given the Great Western Railway a trunk line to Holyhead; as it was, the Chester and Holyhead Railway was adopted instead. [1]

In 1866 the Potteries, Shrewsbury and North Wales Railway [8] opened from Shrewsbury to the quarries and Nantmawr. That railway was intended to continue through the Tanat Valley to Porthmadog, but it failed to raise the necessary capital. [9]

In 1882 an Oswestry and Llangynog Railway had been authorised by Act of Parliament, but it failed to raise the necessary capital and was formally abandoned in 1889. [10]

The Light Railways Act [11] was passed in 1896, enabling the construction of low-cost railways. This encouraged renewed consideration of a railway in the Tanat Valley, and two alternative schemes were developed. One was for a narrow gauge line from the Llanfyllin terminus of the Cambrian Railways branch. The other was for a standard gauge line from Porthywaen, four miles south of Oswestry. After deliberation, the latter was adopted. [12]

Two months after the passing the of Act, the Oswestry and Llangynog Railway Company met and formed the Tanat Valley Light Railway Company (TVLR). On 5th August 1897 the Company presented its grant bid to the Earl of Jersey who was presiding at the enquiry on behalf of the Light Railway Commission and a grant was awarded. [20]

Wikipedia asserts that, “the Cambrian Railways agreed to work the line for 60% of gross receipts, and a Treasury grant of £22,000 was agreed, as well as an interest-free loan of £6,000. Financial assistance was also made available from local councils; the share capital of the Company was £15,000. The General Manager of the Cambrian Railways, Mr C. S. Denniss, estimated the capital cost of the line at £46,000. Receipts would be £2,950 per annum. After interest and fixed charges, this would enable a dividend of 4% to be paid.” [1] It was noted that the margin for dividends was small.

Wikipedia points out, however, that others saw things differently: alternative figures were “provided by the Town Clerk of Oswestry, Mr J. Parry-Jones. The total capital of the Company was to be £65,500. Local authorities had promised £18,500 in loans or share subscriptions; £18,000 had been promised as a free grant (though with conditions) by the Treasury; £20,000 had been promised by the Trustees of the Llangedwyn Estate, probably as a share subscription; £1,500 in shares by the Earl of Powis, and about £4,000 by other local investors. “The company’s borrowing powers are £12,000, so that towards the £65,500 capital required, they are sure of over £55,900.” [13][1]

The Light Railway Order was granted on 12 September 1899, [14] although modifying Orders were needed in 1904 and 1908 to assist in raising capital.[1]

Cambrian Railways Train operating on the Tanat Valley Light Railway in 1904. [1]

Construction started until July 1901. [14]. The line was inspected by the Board of Trade Inspecting Officer on 21 December 1903; [10] the line was formally opened on 5 January 1904, and the public passenger service started the following day. [9][14]

Industry in the Tanat Valley

The Berwyn Hills are part of the range that begin in Llangollen and end at Cader Idris near Dolgellau. The Western and Northern sides of this range drop steeply into the Dee Valley, but the Eastern side is broken into steep sided channels which form the routes for a number of streams and rivers that begin in the Berwyns. One of these rivers is the Afon Tanat which arises about 5 miles to the West of the small village of Llangynog, flowing eastward past the Llangynog for 12 miles until forced by Llanymynech Hill to flow South to a confluence with the Afon Vyrnwy. [2]

Slate and stone have been quarried across the Berwyn Hills for many years and mining has taken place since prehistoric times. The first documented evidence of mining comes from the latter part of the 17th century. A mine at Craig-y-Mwn was providing considerable amounts of lead but early miners found transporting goods to smelters at Pool Quay by the River Severn, difficult. [2]

Although there is no evidence to show that the South Llangynog Lead Mine was closed because of the inadequacy of the transport system, most authors imply this to be the case for other mines in the area. In 1870, the Craig-y-men Lead Mine closed despite having an annual turnover of £30,000 – a significant sum at the time. [20]

The lead mine at Cwm Maengwynedd and the phosphate mines at Cwm Hirnant and Cwm Gwenen were in a similar situation. Raw materials and supplies sent to Llangynog cost 20s a ton more than at Portywaen. Timber sold at Llangynog raised 7d a foot whereas, at Oswestry, it would sell for 1s a foot. The lack of a railway had limited the industries and was threatening their future. [20]

Joseph Parry, the Liverpool water engineer, reported in 1897 that, without the railway, the Vymwy aqueduct could not be completed. Damage to infrastructe would be too great and repair costs would mean that the venture would have been unprofitable. Industry needed a more sophisticated transport system. The railway was needed for the survival of the industrial life of the valley. [20]

The delay in the coming of the railway meant that the slate mines at Llangynog also found that they could not compete with other areas and gradually declined in importance. The arrival of the Tanat Valley Light Railway came too late to rescue the slate mines as by then the slate industry was in general decline. [2] Only line slate Maine remained open until 1936 (the Rhiwarth Slate Mine). [20]

However, the arrival of the Tanat Valley Light Railway gave new life to other mines in the area. Improved transport made it viable to quarry the granite chippings that abounded and which were being used as surface dressing for roads needed by increased popularity of the car. [2]

At the opposite end of the Tanat Valley there were a number of Limestone quarries which had been enjoying good transport links via the Ellesmere Canal and the associated tramway links for over 100 years. Considering the mineral and ore potential of the Tanat Valley it seems odd that a narrow gauge railway was not considered. [2]

Permission to build the railway had been granted in 1897, yet it was 7 more years before it was completed in 1904. The railway brought a renewed sense of hope to the Tanat Valley which had long been in decline. By 1900, only one of the 19 mines and quarries which had been operating in the valley was still in use. This was the Craig-y-Mwn Mine, 3.5 miles to the north-east of Llangynog. The mine survived because it was closer to the Rhaeadr Valley which had a better road than the Tanat Valley. [20]

By 1913, six mines or quarries had been re-opened. All of them were sited at the western (Llangynog) end of the line and all of them used the TVLR. All were stimulated into new life by the arrival of the railway. Prior to the opening of the line, all of the mines which opened in 1904 had, between 1898 and 1900, been worked by the Belgian Vieille Montage Company. This was one of the most prestigious mining companies of the time but it had been, in every case, unsuccessful in the Llangynog area. [20]

The mines were not workable until the arrival of the railway and the railway, in turn, was the stimulus for the re-opening of the mines. Three of these mines, Craig-y-men, Cwm Orog and Cwm Glenhofen, had closed by 1911, but the others all remained open until at least 1936.  These mines included the Rhiwarth Slate Mine, the West Llangynog Granite Quarry, the Makers Granite Quarry and the Craig Rhiwarth Granite Quarry. [20]

Noticeable remnants of the industrial activity in the valley still remain. Most noticeable are the spoil heaps at Llangynog whilst at the other end of  the valley the limestone quarry remains have mostly been reclaimed by nature. [2]

Agriculture in the Tanat Valley

While the Tanat Valley contained at least 19 mines or quarries, the maiority of its inhabitants worked on the land. A survey carried out on 28th July 1897 showed that 296 vehicles, 777 people and 793 travelled down the valley. Most of this traffic was agricultural in nature. The modes of transport used were old-fashioned and inefficient. [20]

Mark R. Lucas comments: “Many farmers could not afford the time to make these Journeys and were forced to sell the animals at their farms for £2 or £3 less per head than if they had been sold in the open market. The absence of a railway was causing a population decline because farmers could not afford to pay their labourers. [20]

The conditions of the grant that the TVIR applied for stated that the railway must “be profitable to Agriculture.”  As the grant was awarded, we can assume that the Earl of Jersey thought that the railway would “be profitable to Agriculture” [20]

The Tanat Valley Line

Perkins and Fox-Davies described the line in The Railway Magazine of May 1904.

“Passenger trains ran from Oswestry, southwards over the Cambrian Railways line as far as Llynclys, then turning west on the Cambrian Railways Porthywaen branch, leaving that at Porthywaen passenger station, a very small building, and now entering on the Tanat Valley line itself. The track was of much lighter construction now, consisting of Vignoles pattern (flat-bottom) rails [15] dogged direct to the sleepers. The Nantmawr branch of the Cambrian Railways converged from the north. The first TVR station was Blodwel Junction, a single platform station. Blodwel station had been opened in 1866, the terminus of the Potteries line, and known then as Llanyblodwel, part of the mineral branch crossing the path of the TVR. A road crosses the railway by a bridge at Blodwel; this is the only place where there is a bridge crossing of a road.

The next station stop was at Llanyblodwel; a short distance after the station the train stopped for the engine to take water. Glanyrafon was next geographically, but was not yet open when Perkins and Fox-Davies visited, and it was not referred to by them. This section was followed by a crossing into Wales, climbing at 1 in 64. Llansilin Road is the next station, serving Penybont. Llangedwyn station is next, where there was provision for crossing trains on the single line, followed by the small station of Pentrefelin, and then Llanrhaiadr Mochnant, also built as a passing station. A reservoir for Liverpool Corporation Waterworks was built at a location five miles away, and the railway was used for importing some construction materials. The line continues, calling at Pedair Ffordd and terminates at Llangynog. The journey time from Oswestry was 70 to 75 minutes.

The gradients on the line generally rose to Llangynog. It fell with a short section at 1 in 72 to Blodwel Junction, and then rose with a half mile at 1 in 64 but generally more moderate gradients all the way to the terminus. Porthywaen was at 132 feet above Ordnance Datum and Llangynog at 320 feet.” [9]

It seems as though passenger carriages ran with the mineral trains from 1904, but this ended on the first day of 1917. [4] Mineral revenue was about twenty times the value of passenger receipts, and the latter declined further in the 1920s and 1930s as reliable road transport was developed. [1]

From its opening in 1904, the Tanat Valley Light Railway Company was continuously in the hands of the receiver,[17][18] as its income did not enable it to pay the interest on loans. The Cambrian Railways subsidised it, but by 1921 it was obvious that improvements to the track and bridges were required, and this was beyond the financial resources of the bankrupt company. Takeover by the Cambrian was the only way out, and this was authorised by Order of the Light Railway Commissioners. [19]

The Cambrian Railways were themselves taken over by the Great Western Railway the following year. [1]

The passenger train service in 1922 consisted of three trains each way between Oswestry and Llangynog, with an extra train on the first Wednesday of the month. [1] By July 1938 the service was more complicated: successive trains ran from Oswestry to Llangynog respectively on Wednesdays; daily except Wednesday and Sunday; Monday, Tuesday and Friday; Wednesday Thursday and Saturday; daily except Saturday and Sunday; on Saturday only; and on the first Wednesday of every month, but also on 30 July. The return service was a little simpler, running respectively on Wednesday; weekdays only; weekdays only; Monday to Friday; and Saturdays only. [16]

While railways had an inherent advantage in transporting heavy minerals, the line’s viability was dependent on the commercial success of local quarries, and when local quarries output declined the finances of the line became irretrievable. [4]

Passenger services were discontinued on 15 January 1951. The line west of Llanrhaiadr was closed completely in July 1952, a residual goods service continuing as far as that point for the time being. The line closed completely in December 1960. [4]

In the short time that it had served the Tanat Valley, the TVLR had been efficient. regular and useful, but it was no longer needed as the area lapsed back into an agrarian lifestyle The industrial potential of the valley had declined so significantly that the railway could not be sustained. [20]

The seeds of the railway’s failure were sown right at the start of its existence. We have already noted the convoluted arrangements made to finance the line. The opening of the railway was an optimistic and joyous occasion and the then Chairman even announced that a second line between LLanrhaedr and Cwm Maengwynedd would be buikt. This was notbto see the light of day as the TVLR never managed to deal with it own financial difficulties. [20]

In March 1904, the Treasury withdrew all furthwer funding. This left the TVLR with an overdraft of £2,460 and an outstanding contractors bill of close to £14,000. By June 1905, the company owed £20,000 and went into receivership. By 1917, a writ for £40.676 18s 8d issued and six years later the TVLR had to sell its land to the GWR in order to make the repayment. [20] The TVLR was not able to invest in it future. It was in a desperate cycle of financial loss which eventually caused its downfall.

There appears to have been a very significant reduction in all forms of traffic on the line. Agricultural traffic, for some inexplicable reason declined between 1923 and 1938 from 732 wagons per annum to less than 450 wagons per annum. Passenger traffic leached away to the roads. The advent of the motor car and of  parallel bus service were the major factors here, although it is also possible that the condition of the passenger carriages was deteriorating. The close of moist of the mines meant that mineral traffic fell drastically as well as the table below highlights. [20]

Crippling debts and no forecastable traffic inevitably brought about the closure of the line. The Coal Crisis of 1951 was the final straw and after closure because of a lack of coal the line never reopened. [20]

The Nantmawr Branch Line

The Nant Mawr Branch of the Potteries, Shrewsbury and North Wales Railway (The Potts) was opened in 1872 to supply Limestone primarily for road-building and for the manufacturing of Lime. This was a primary incentive for the construction of what became eventually the Shropshire and Montgomeryshire Light Railway.

Access to the Nant Mawr branch was gained using ‘Cambrian’ lines (which the Potteries, Shrewsbury and North Wales Railway had running powers over for this part) these met South of Llanyblodwel station at a twin junction where Nant Mawr traffic then turned northwards onto the actual branch then slowly travelled north-west underneath the Llanfyllin Branch then across the River Tanat by means of a wooden viaduct, underneath the main road bridge and finally across the river once more using a second wooden viaduct and so into Llanyblodwel itself. [3]

The junction was known as Nantmawr Junction until the first world war after which it became the Llanfyllin Branch Junction.

The Nant Mawr branch was on a rising gradient all the way to Nant Mawr, starting from Llanddu it passed under the A495 road-bridge and then across Whitegates crossing which has recently been refurbished. The branch then curved gently to the left, crossing a small stream and finally entered the Nant Mawr quarry complex.

In the early 21st century, only the line from Llanddu to Nant Mawr with a run round loop at each end still exists, there is undoubtedly signs of the former workings buried under the made up land at Nant Mawr, some of which have already been uncovered.

The industrial heritage of the area is to reasonably well documented and like the railway which served it, has a slightly checkered past, in 1860 the Nant Mawr quarry was owned by Mr R France who as main contractor for both the Potts and the Mawddwy railways enjoyed similar interests to Thomas Savin.

Around the same time the Lilleshall Company based at Donnington in Shropshire was finding it difficult to source enough supplies of lime to ensure continuity at its iron furnaces (Lime was used in the fluxing process) and they took a lease on Nant Mawr quarry, after almost 60 years they surrendered the lease sometime in the late 1920’s early 1930’s for by 1938 the quarry was being worked by the Chirk Castle Lime and Stone Company who continued until Amey Roadstone took over in the late 1960’s before the quarry finally closed in about 1977. [3]

Rural passenger use collapsed and the railway closed to passengers in 1951, and completely in 1964. [4]

A new Tanat Valley Light Railway Company was established, and in 2009 opened a heritage railway centre at Nantmawr Lime Kilns, close to the earlier Tanat Valley line. [5][6]

The Nantmawr Lime Kilns

The imposing structure, reputed to be the tallest Lime Kilns in the country, provides a fantastic backdrop alongside the original (now excavated) kiln sidings and the first section of the railway to be restored.

Built in 1870 by a Mr France to service his quarry located further up the valley, the colourful and fractured history of the kilns, the quarry and the railway is only matched by that of Mr France himself who was a Victorian Visionary with a roguish side to his life.

Further work is being carried out in the vicinity of the kilns in order to create a static exhibition of how they would have been worked in their early years. The kilns provided the perfect setting for the return of steam to Nant Mawr in November 2009. [6]

References

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tanat_Valley_Light_Railway, accessed on 7th September 2019.
  2. http://www.nantmawrvisitorcentre.co.uk/tanat-valley-light-railway/industry-in-the-tanat-valley, accessed on 7th September 2019
  3. http://www.nantmawrvisitorcentre.co.uk/tanat-valley-light-railway/the-nant-mawr-branch, accessed on 7th September 2019.
  4. Peter E. Baughan; A Regional History of the Railways of Great Britain: Volume 11: North and Mid Wales; David & Charles, Newton Abbot, 1980.
  5. Tanat Valley Light Railway; Nant Mawr Visitor Centre; http://www.nantmawrvisitorcentre.co.uk/tanat-valley-light-railway, accessed on 7th September 2019.
  6. Nant Mawr Lime Kilns; Nant Mawr Visitor Centre;  http://www.nantmawrvisitorcentre.co.uk/nant-mawr-lime-kilns, accessed on 7th September 2019.
  7. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/West_Midland_Railway, accessed on 16th September 2019.
  8. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Potteries,_Shrewsbury_and_North_Wales_Railway, accessed on 16th September 2019.
  9. T. R. Perkins and F. E. Fox-Davies, The Tanat Valley Light Railway, in the Railway Magazine, May 1904.
  10. E. F. Carter, An Historical Geography of the Railways of the British Isles, Cassell, London, 1959.
  11. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Light_Railways_Act_1896, accessed on 16th September 2019.
  12. C. P. Gasquoine, The Story of the Cambrian: Biography of a Railway, Woodhall, Minshall, Thomas and Co., Oswestry, 1922.
  13. The Wrexham Advertiser: 16 September 1899.
  14. Peter E. Baughan, A Regional History of the Railways of Great Britain: Volume 11: North and Mid Wales, David & Charles, Newton Abbot, 1980.
  15. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rail_profile#Vignoles_rail, accessed on 17th September 2019.
  16. Bradshaws July 1938 Railway Guide, David and Charles Reprints, Newton Abbot, 1969.
  17. C. P. Gasquoine, The Story of the Cambrian: Biography of a Railway, Woodhall, Minshall, Thomas and Co., Oswestry, 1922.
  18. Preamble to the Cambrian Railways (Tanat Valley Light Railway Transfer) Order, 1921.
  19. Cambrian Railways (Tanat Valley Light Railway Transfer) Order, 1921.
  20. Mark R. Lucas; The Industrial History of Llangynog, North Wales; GCE Project, 1986. I came across this paper in the small museum in St Melangell’s Church at Pennant Melangell in August 2019.

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