A history carved in stone
He’s run real-life railways, so how does Julian Birley build and operate a model layout, based on the harsh and gritty environment of a Welsh slate quarry?
What does a bad day at work look like? A train cancelled so you squeeze into the next one. A road closure that throws your commute into chaos. Your computer fails, leaving you floundering around, unable to do anything. Spare a thought for the Welsh quarrymen at this time of year. At the best of times, they’d have to walk four or five miles to and from work. They’d work a 12-hour day, six days a week, with bread and butter for lunch. They’d have to deal with everything the weather could throw at them. If things turned particularly cold, they’d have to get to work early to thaw out their equipment. They’d only be paid for the amount of slate they removed that day – and winter days are shorter than summer ones. They’d dangle precariously over sheer drops, with minimal safety equipment. The risk of death or serious injury was always present. Somewhere along the line, we’ve all gone a bit soft. That hardship forged a spirit; those quarrymen became a true band of brothers. The caban was not just a place to eat lunch. It was a social hub, where spirited debates were held on all manner of topics. Even the circular toilet at Port Penrhyn was designed to encourage a convivial atmosphere, but the less said about that the better.
The North Wales slate seam is considered to be the best in the world. It was quarried and mined for generations before the Industrial Revolution, but it became a boom industry in the mid-1800s. There is evidence of quarry activity throughout North Wales, but the four biggest centres were Penrhyn at Bethesda, Dinorwic at Llanberis, the area around Blaenau Ffestiniog and the Nantlle Valley, to the west of Snowdon. Whether Dinorwic or Penrhyn was the bigger operation remains open to conjecture, but that of Dinorwic is definitely the most visible. Drive down the sublime Llanberis Pass today and the Dinorwic slate tips appear on the right-hand side. Snowdon makes Llanberis a popular tourist resort. Even if you don’t visit the National Slate Museum, a quick glance at the scarred mountainside reveals how the quarry worked. Rock was removed from the pits and faces on the individual levels – or galleries – and brought to the mills for processing. Dressed slates were brought down on the inclines, while waste rock was unceremoniously dumped on the surrounding hillsides or into the lake. What’s not clearly visible from the Llanberis side of the lake is that the narrow gauge slate wagons were loaded, four at a time, onto the 4ft gauge Padarn Railway. This left Gilfach Ddu, Dinorwic’s main workshop and now home to the National Slate Museum, and headed for the sea at Port Dinorwic, some six or so miles away.
Railways and the slate quarrying industry are intertwined. The movement of coal spurred the development of the steam locomotive; the need to move slate gave rise to the development of steam
locomotives to run on tracks narrower than 4ft 8½in. The Festiniog Railway became the first steam-worked narrow gauge railway. Railways enabled the slate industry to grow. They allowed a greater tonnage of slate to be moved to ports for export and enabled more rock to be moved around the quarries themselves. The quarry companies initially bought 0-4-0VBTS from De Winton of Caernarvon. That was until the Hunslet Engine Company of Leeds developed a simple 0-4-0ST that suited quarry owners’ needs just perfectly. It is the so-called ‘Quarry Hunslet’ that draws enthusiasts into the intriguing world of the Welsh slate industry. They such an absolutely perfect fit – rugged, powerful and reliable – that 35 were built between 1883 and 1932 for Penrhyn, Dinorwic and Pen-yr-orsedd quarries alone to the same basic design. There was no need for improvement! What’s most incredible about the ‘Quarry Hunslet’ story is that all those 35 still survive and most have been restored to working order. There are few narrow gauge railways that don’t have a ‘Quarry Hunslet’ or two, and these locomotives can now be found throughout Britain, from Cornwall and Norfolk to the North East and Lancashire. One man who fell in love with the bewitching charms and cheeky looks of the ‘Quarry Hunslet’ is Julian Birley.
Julian is a well-known figure in railway preservation circles for his work at the North Norfolk Railway. His guiding hand has helped turn a railway that was under threat of losing its main station into an award-winning tourist attraction, with a main line connection. Despite his enthusiasm for the Norfolk railway, he’s most fond of the Somerset & Dorset Joint Railway. Or, rather, he was. His home was an S&D shrine, from a route map in his downstairs loo to his epic ‘O’ gauge re-creation of Evercreech New station in an outbuilding. Parked in his garage was the dark blue Bentley made famous by legendary railway photographer Ivo Peters. That was until Julian took Ivo’s Bentley to Wales in 2009 as part of the ‘Great Welsh Grice’, organised by Model Rail’s sister title Steam Railway… and he came away from Wales with a new obsession. He bought ex-dinorwic Hunslet Alice. He travelled to the US to negotiate the return of Penrhyn Hunslet Winifred. He’s scaled the heights of Dinorwic quarry to retrieve the remains of old wagons, which he’s
The hunslet bug
lovingly restored. He’s also become chairman of the Bala Lake Railway Trust to finally fulfil the railway’s long-standing dream of returning train services to the Welsh town. But, as ‘Evercreech New’ proves (MR159/160), Julian is also a modeller of some repute. Working in London during the week, Julian switched from building SDJR locomotives in his evenings to building ‘Quarry Hunslets’. “I caught the ‘Quarry Hunslet’ bug about ten years ago,” he recalls. “I’ve been absolutely fascinated by the uniqueness of the quarry workings in North Wales and, not being able to sit still for very long and with all the boring times I sat around in London, I decided to create an interpretation of a little bit of Dinorwic quarry. “Having spent 17 years building ‘Evercreech New’, I wanted to get back into the hobby and have something to show for it. I wanted something small and transportable. “In years gone by, I would start to build layouts that were so complicated that you were soon drowning in complexity. They became an uphill battle. Now, with all the layouts that I build, I tend to make them to quite simple designs. This enables me to concentrate on the details. “The pleasure that I get from a model railway is in the build. I’m quite happy to let either someone else operate it, or to build it in such a way that it’s automatic so I can just sit and watch the world that I’ve created.” Julian has used Heathcote Electronics’ equipment to enable three trains to run on his layout at a time. A shuttle unit keeps one train moving on the gallery while infrared IRDOTS [Infrared Detector Of Trains] control the lower level and its passing loop (see MR255 for more on IRDOTS). The IRDOTS, says Julian, “allow one train to arrive into the loop, slow down and pause”. The points change and a second train pulls away. “That is fun to watch,” he says with a chuckle.
Vital STATS layout: ‘Dinorwic Quarry’ Size: 6ft by 18in Gauge: ‘O-16.5’
The modeller: Julian Birley is chairman of the Bala Lake Railway Trust and owns ‘Quarry Hunslets’ Alice and Winifred, now based at the BLR. He lives in Wales.
The building is scratchbuilt from the drawings of one of Dinorwic’s office buildings. The telegraph pole is a chicken satay stick. 6