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?

Model Rail (UK) - - Layout | Dinorwic Quarry - Words: Richard Fos­ter Pho­tog­ra­phy: Chris Ne­vard Art­work: An­drew Mack­in­tosh

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

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