I returned from my brief American trip on the morning of Wednesday October 7 and had the remainder of that day and Thursday to rest a little, before heading off, on my birthday, for two days in Wales. Here is the story of that event:
Friday October 9
The journey to the heart of Snowdonia is a long one, so I need to leave plenty of time to allow me drive, eat, arrive and rest before the evening’s events. The shows that I will be performing (A Child’s Journey With Dickens and The Signalman) do not require any furniture or set, so I pack my costume, an old railwayman’s oil lamp and a red flag, before setting forth at around 11am.
A couple of years ago Liz and I were driving to Cromarty, in the Highlands of Scotland and developed a game to help pass the 9 hour journey and it is a game that I often use on the road these days: ‘Road Bingo’.
The game (no, I will refer to it as a sport, for I wish to create a World governing body and be responsible for the setting of the rules) is really very simple. The object is to spot a car representing each letter of the alphabet, in order. The letter may be the initial letter of either the make or model of the car; for example, a Toyota Corolla may be used for T or C.
I head out from Abingdon, onto the A34 and from there onto the M40 towards Birmingham and so the game begins: the start is easy and I am quickly through to D with an Audi, BMW, Cheverolet and a Land Rover Discovery. There is a bit of a pause as I scan the roads for something to give me my E, but there is nothing. I am looking for Lotus Elises, Mitsubishi Evos and Land Rover Evoques. It is the latter that gets the game back on track.
The morning is beautiful and the sky is bright blue, casting a perfect backdrop for the golden trees as they begin to welcome autumn.
A Ford Transit van and Volkswagen Golf overtake me and then a Hyundai IX35. Unfortunately, under my rules, I am not allowed to use the same car for 2 concurrent letters, I have to widen my search for an I.
On the opposite carriageway a rumbling diesel lorry made by Iveco passes me by.
I am now nearing Birmingham and taking the M5 to the West. It is a terrible stretch of road and is always slow but bad traffic equals lots of cars: I am rewarded with a Jaguar, a Ford Ka a Land Rover Defender, a Mazda and a Nissan.
The traffic trawls slowly passed the Ikea at Darlaston and I leave Birmingham behind me, heading towards Shrewsbury. The traffic is thinner here and my successful game hits a barrier as I can not find an O. The Favoured car is a Skoda Octavia, but none seem to driving into Shropshire today. I think I spot lots on the other carriageway, but I am not confident enough to know for sure whether they are the correct model.
It is lunchtime and I decide to stop at the next Motorway service station, which is at Shifnal. This is a rather nice coincidence because Shifnal is the village where Little Nell and her Grandfather ended up in The Old Curiosity Shop. In the Churchyard there is even a real grave stone to her memory, erected in the 1920s by an entrepreneurial clergyman, keen to make an extra buck.
I finish my lunch and get back on the road, and almost immediately I am rewarded by an Octavia, and another and another and a fourth. I appear to have become caught up in a Skoda Octavia Owner’s Club meeting.
The road takes me on and the traffic is thinning out now but I am rewarded with a Fiat Panda, Nissan Quashquai, Range Rover and yet another Skoda Octavia! This stretch of road is very profitable as a Nissan Terrano overtakes me.
I have now left Ironbridge and the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution behind me. The houses are ancient, black and white timbered now, and soon I will be climbing slowly into the mountains of North Wales.
My opportunities for Car Bingo are becoming more limited, but that is fine because the scenery demands my attention. The hills in North Wales are a remarkable mixture of heathland, with whipsy grass, fern and heather framing the slate shale fields.
I get a bonus of a VW Up! and a Vauxhall, but here the game comes to an end for a while. W is always a nightmare – the only real choices that I am aware of are the Jeep Wrangler, and the Renault Wind, both of which are rare in the UK. Perhaps there will be a few Jeeps up in the mountains!
The Snowdonia National Park is looking magnificent as I follow the sinuous single track roads winding ever upwards. The road signs are in Welsh and English, and the place names are ever more unpronounceable to an Englishman’s tongue.
Soon I am approaching the grey town of Blaenau FFestiniog, where I am to stay. Blaenau is set high in the hills: not exactly a valley, but surrounded on all sides by a slate bowl. Indirectly it is the slate that has brought me here today.
In its heyday this part of Wales exported slate all around the globe (I believe that New York City Hall has a Welsh slate roof). There was a plentiful supply of the mineral in the mountains and excellent sea port facilities in the town of Porthmadog, but the problem was how to get the one to the other.
A narrow gauge rail line was built, winding into the hills. Originally long trains of slate wagons were hauled up to the mines by ponies. The wagons were filled, the ponies were tethered into the rear carts and the whole thing rushed back down to the port, powered only by gravity.
Eventually steam locomotives were built to take the strain, and it is the 150th anniversary of the introduction of passenger wagons that the railway is celebrating throughout this weekend.
I check into the Isalt Guest House, which is built on a perch overlooking the Blaenau Ffestiniog rail station. It is owned by Richard and Barbara Hope and I chat with Richard as he shows me to my room, which has a spectacular view. He explains how the coffee machine works and brings up a brushed stainless steel vacuum flask with fresh milk and a Kilner bottle of pure water. It is the little details that make such a difference.
A Childs Journey With Dickens and The Signalman
I rest in my room for a couple of hours, before getting into costume and driving to the Tan y Bwlch station, half way down the line, where I am to perform in the café.
There to meet me are members of the company that oversee the running and preservation of the railway system. I am greeted by Clare, with whom I have been emailing for the past few months, and who is responsible for the festival. In turn I am introduced to Geoff, who will be introducing me, and Sam who is the resident historical expert and who has created a wonderful ‘set’ as a backdrop to The Signalman, using items drawn from the museum’s collection. Actually all of the items that she has found would look fabulous wherever I do The Signlaman (especially the bell signalling system), and I am trying to devise ways of sneaking them into my car later.
We all spend some time chatting and making sure everything is ready for the audience, who are due to arrive by train at 7.50. As the time approaches the train whistle can be heard echoing around the hills and the plume of steam announces her arrival.
Many of the audience have entered into the spirit if the event and arrived in Victorian costume, and it is a lovely atmosphere as we all gather in the small room. The only space to move is on my ‘stage’ area.
Geoff introduces me and I go into the first half of my show, which features my retelling of the charming little story ‘A Child’s Journey With Dickens’. In 1868 Charles Dickens was riding on a train from Portland Maine to Boston. During the journey a ten year old girl named Kate sat herself down next to him (as bold as brass) and began to talk. She was a huge fan and had read as many of his novels that she could get her hands on.
In 1912, to commemorate the centenary of Dickens’ birth, Kate recounted her memories of that memorable day to members of the New York Branch of the Dickens Fellowship.
It makes a lovely, gentle start to an evening that will become so much darker.
During the break the audience fetch their plates of cheese and salad, re-charge their glasses and resume their seats ready for The Signalman.
Those of you who have been following these posts will know that I have been struggling slightly with The Signalman in recent weeks and those doubts are playing on my mind as I get ready to begin again. I give myself a bit of a motivational talk: if I cant get it right here, on a dark October night just yards from the railway lines, then I may as well pack up and go home.
It works like magic! The audience are wrapped up in the atmosphere of the little signal box, the haunting cry of the telegraph wires, the fear of the signalman and the rush of steam and the scream of brakes as the story comes to it’s inevitable yet tragic end.
As they come to terms with what they have witnessed, it suddenly dawns on the crowd that they now have to board a steam train and head down the mountainside into the night: the dark, sombre night.
As the locomotive gets up steam and blows its whistle, I wave everyone off with a green lamp (not the red danger light) and head back into the station. A wonderful plate of lasagne and salad is waiting for me and I gently come back into the real world, from performing land.
I pack up all of my props and costume (reluctantly leaving the signalling memorabilia) , say goodbye to everyone and drive into the night, back to Blaenau, and bed.
Saturday October 10
I wake good and early, throw back the curtains and am greeted by a beautiful sunrise over the surrounding hills. Breakfast at the Isalt is a perfect full English (Welsh), accompanied by fruit juices which have been decanted into more Kilner Bottles. The breakfast room looks most elegant.
Today I have to join the millions of poor souls who have to commute by train to work. I get into my work suit (frock coat, waistcoat, cravat and top hat), say goodbye to Richard and Barbara and head for the station.
My duties for the day involve roaming around at Porthmadog station, talking to visitors and performing some ‘cameos’ as the brochure says. Parking will be limited in town, due to the festival, so I have decided to make use of the Blaenau Ffestiniog rail line.
Having purchased my ticket, I wait on the platform until the little locomotive hauls its rolling stock into the station. Prince is on duty today: he was built in 1863 and is one of the oldest locomotives in service. The train is made up of a variety of coaches and carriages – there are smart first class coaches, and fairly comfortable looking third class compartments, but I decide to ride with ‘the workers’ in a quarry workmen’s carriage. It is basic in the extreme with no springs, and no comforts. It is little more than a wagon with a roof.
I am joined by a few rail enthusiasts who have come to town for the festival, one of whom makes a ribald comment about ear plugs. The guard locks the door, Prince whistles and we are off. I immediately understand the ear plug comment for it is a noisy, rattling, jolting ride. I even begin to feel a little sea sick as the little truck sways and bucks its way down the line.
The scenery outside the window is amazing, although the view is limited: a phrase written by Charles, when he rode on American trains, comes to mind: ‘There is a great deal of jolting, a great deal of noise, a great deal of wall, not much window’. Soon we arrive at Tan y Bwlch, where I performed last night. As we sit another train pulls in, this one drawn by David Lloyd George. The platform is full of enthusiasts and families, who just love being part of an event like this.
As I look at David Lloyd George at the platform I can quite understand why people become so attached to preserved steam railways. A locomotive is a thing of beauty, it is a piece of raw pure engineering: it is made up of carefully fabricated pieces of heavy metal, each of which has a definite purpose: this piston pushes that connecting rod, which via a crank turns that wheel. The steam seems to ooze and seep out of every riveted seam, waiting to be harnessed either to drive the engine forward, or to be diverted through the whistle to sound its shrill warning. Quite amazing.
We resume our way towards sea level and an hour and ten minutes after leaving Blaenau we arrive at the Porthmadog station. The festival is in full swing! Everywhere you look people are in costume, promenading on the platform. There are Hussars and police officers; there is an organ grinder; there are handsome Victorian Gents, with demure Victorian ladies on their arms.
Among the crowds are many people who were at the show last night and they offer their thanks and congratulations for the performance.
I am greeted by Sam, from the organising committee, who is dressed in a wonderful black, white and grey dress. Sam is the resident historian and fills me in a little on the history of the railway line, and that of the Victorian festival. Almost on a whim we she decides that we should all ride on the Carousel which is whirling around behind the station. Even the horses on the carousel have a history: Sam explains that in the days of the travelling fairs, if a member of the showman’s family died a horse was painted black out of respect. When a new baby was born into the family, one of the black horses was repainted white representing the moving on of the family.
After our fairground ride is over, we decide that I should do my ad hoc cameo on the platform, so Sam press gangs her costumed characters to spread the word among the public. The Chinese whispers works well, so much so that as I am wondering what to say and do in my presentation, a chap whispers to me: ‘there’s going to be a show here soon, you should stay and watch!’
A very good crowd gathers, and I decide to talk about Dickens’ childhood and upbringing. It is a well rehearsed and oft repeated routine, and is filled with gags and one-liners to keep everyone laughing. A Dickens scholar would hang his head in horror listening to it, but as a piece of entertainment it works beautifully!
As I continue, the crowd grows and the laughter floats away to sea on the breeze. After about half an hour, I have reached the point in the story where Dickens has published Pickwick to great acclaim, and is embarking on Oliver Twist. I am trying to work out how best to wind the story up, when the answer comes to me in cacophony of ringing bells. The platform is right next to the road and I am aware of the level crossing gates starting to close – this means that a train is imminent and I know that I cannot compete against a steaming locomotive. As I speak I watch the oncoming train out of the corner of my eye, measuring the distance until as it pulls in I can say: ‘and that is the life story of Charles Dickens and THAT is timing!’
Everyone laughs and applauds, which is very nice!
I spend a little more time on the platform, talking to lots of people, before getting myself some lunch in the station café. I find myself sitting with Geoff (he who introduced me last night), and two wonderful ladies, Ann and Evelyn.
The food takes a while to arrive, so I have to wolf it down rather, because the 13.30 train back to Blaenau is about depart. Fortunately I have reserved a seat (in a comfortable carriage this time) and when I get on I find that I am next to Ann and Evelyn, and Ann’s husband Dave, who is portraying the English Bobby. Dave is a natural entertainer, with a ready line for every occasion. When I first saw him on the platform he had a big, bushy false moustache fixed to his top lip. I passed him again as I got ready for my performance and the moustache had gone: ‘shaved?’ I had asked. ‘No,’ he replied as quick as anything, ‘sneezed!’
We have a wonderful journey back, and Dave regales the carriage with stories from his extraordinary life, which has involved spying on Russian helicopters during the cold war, driving coaches for tour groups and riding huge Harley Davidsons (on one of his rides a member of the gang had been asked by an elderly lady ‘are you Hell’s Angels?’ to which the reply was, ‘No, we are Jehovah’s Witnesses’. ‘Oh, that’s MUCH worse!’
The journey passes quickly and soon we are back at Blaenau Ffestiniog. I say good bye to my new friends and walk across the footbridge to my car. I have a long journey back, but I don’t change, just throw off my frock coat and waistcoat, then set the Sat Nav for home.
I leave the slate of Blaenau and am driving through the wilderness, when I suddenly aware of cars and motorcycles coming the other way gesturing to turn round. Sure enough I can see that there are flashing blue lights ahead and that the road is blocked, presumably by an accident.
I am very glad that I am not solely relying on the satnav and that I have a map in the car, so I can plot out an alternative route and soon I am on my way again. Eventually the satnav gives up trying to return me to my original route and becomes resigned to the fact that I am changing my plans; it tells me that I will be ten minutes later than it had originally imagined, and I know I would have waited at the accident for much longer than that, so all is good.
There is another benefit of my alternative route, too: there parked in a farm track is a Mitsubishi Warrior. I have my elusive W! I quickly see a Citroen Xsara, a Toyota Yaris and a Vauxhall Zafira and the game is complete.
The journey home is easy and traffic free and by 7 pm I am back at home, with Liz once more, and we settle down for a lovely relaxing evening together.