Regular members of the Rest Of The World Gang may have occasionally encountered a handful of nondescript helpers who claim a greater allegiance to model, rather than 12" to the foot, railways, and are therefore somewhat bemused to find themselves working with tools and track considerably heavier and more awkward than those they are normally used to. This is one version of how this has come to pass.
In the beginning, a certain medical doctor (with at the last count six sets of letters after his name, plus an MBE by marriage) acquired a small flat literally within a stone's throw both of Porthmadog harbour and of the Ffestiniog terminus. Its proximity to Spooner's Bar was also a carefully-calculated benefit. The purchase was intended both as a retreat from the rigours of interviews with Merseyside's many and varied benefit claimants, and as a means to enjoy more frequently the delights of the narrow-gauge train to Blaenau Ffestiniog.
As time passed, news was heard of the building of a second railway, this time approaching Porthmadog from the north. The good doctor immediately saw a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to contribute to construction of a complete new railway, albeit a partial reinstatement. Stirring Churchillian thoughts were spoken to fellow-members of the SMRS, along the lines of 'never in the field of modern railway construction has so much to be built in so little time, by so few and with so much Lottery money'.
Now, it chanced that the SMRS chairman was planning a celebration of his 40th birthday, due in the closing months of 2010. This was to take the form of a railway tour of India, with carefully-screened members invited to participate. Other club members have made similar expeditions to the sub-continent, and he saw no reason why mere underlings should have all the fun. It was clear however, that such a trip could only be undertaken by those of a minimum fitness level. The Chairman, with the insight which has made him famous amongst taxpayers throughout Bootle, immediately recognised that working parties on the Welsh Highland Railway were an ideal means of achieving that level, at the same time weeding out those of inadequate physical or mental stamina.
And so the first, tentative approaches were made to ROWG coordinator Paul Bradshaw, and such was the demand for labour that we were accepted with barely a thought as to our suitability or motives. In February 2007 the first three-man team was despatched to the WHR, with the Chairman wisely remaining at home to receive reports and judge the appropriateness of his future attendance. We were introduced to the mysteries of rail-handling, sleeper-clipping and track-aligning by a group of friendly and enthusiastic workers. We were struck by how well the team worked together, and how quickly we were accepted into the gang and encouraged to participate, with due allowance for our novice status. The more scientific amongst us appreciated the cunning way the laws of physics were applied for the maximum benefit of our manual labour, with just a hint of quantum to spice the magic. And riding homewards at the end of the day over track we had just laid was a surprisingly rewarding experience.
Our feedback was sufficiently positive for the Chairman himself to join in with our next visit later in the year, and to immediately show his leadership skills by taking command of a mechanical bolting appliance. Apparently the noise, and in particular the vibration, were irresistible. And his skilful placing of the small plastic pads on top of each heavy South African sleeper, as we laboured to lay them out in front of the track-laying party, received much appreciative comment. Despite this, the railway has continued to make good progress and over the six or seven visits we have paid we have witnessed tracklaying virtually completed and gained some insight into future maintenance activities.
The weather has varied from exceptionally cold, clear days of unbroken sunshine, through unseasonably warm to very seasonably cold and wet. I for one have been surprised at how much water North Wales can contain, and sometimes fail to contain. Throughout Spooner's has been a haven of warmth, good food and beer of considerable quality and variety, and the Ffestiniog railway has provided the very necessary opportunity for rest and recreation after a hard session with crowbar and Jim Crow bender. Jim's flat has somehow managed to expand to take the necessary numbers in residence, and his policy of foregoing all reward in favour of occasional donations to the Railway Children charity has found universal acceptance.
The final selection for Darjeeling and environs has yet to be made, but the Chairman can be confident that the candidates will be up to the standard demanded and will have completed the necessary Three Tasks. Hopefully we will continue to carry out WHR missions, to keep up our fitness levels and contribute to its well-being. Opening a new railway in the middle of the deepest recession since the Black Death will be quite a challenge, and it will need all the help it can get. Even the Chairman's.
This article first appeared in the Welsh Highland Railway volunteers' newsletter 'Keeping Track'.