Last week I was in Snowdonia in Wales to perform for the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railway as part of their annual Victorian Festival. The railway which was formed nearly 200 years ago is based in Porthmadog on the west coast of Wales (I mention that not because it has any bearing on the tale to come, but because I wanted to use the name in my title!)
It was a long drive from Oxford but as my first commitment was not until 6.30 on Friday evening I had a whole day to make my way west. Initially the journey took me over familiar roads and then at Birmingham I struck off towards the border county of Shropshire and into the Principality of Wales. As I crossed the border the gorgeous Welsh flag (white and green and resplendent with a red dragon) flew over many houses and the road signs were all double the size, being in two languages. On the roads I was encouraged to ‘araf’ rather than ‘slow’ before tight bends. The Welsh are a proud nation.
As I reached the town of Bala nestling on the banks of its magnificent lake so the enormous vista of the Snowdonia National Park rose before me. It is a magnificent part of our country and the drive through the imposing mountains with gushing waterfalls cascading through rocky crevices was magnificent. It was as if I was being filmed for an episode of Top Gear and this image was intensified by the amount of muddy, sponsor-be-decaled cars that passed me (the Rally of GB was taking place in Wales over the weekend and there were lots of support vehicles making their way from one area of forest to another).
As the route took me higher so I became enveloped in swirling low cloud and my only company were a few sheep grazing on the verge or ambling across the road being restrained by no fences.
Eventually I arrived at my hotel in the little town of Tremadog which nestles beneath a towering slate cliff. I had a couple of hours to rest before I had to get back into the car and drive up the mountain to the little railway station of Tan y Bwlch (I have NO idea how to pronounce that).
I was due to meet my contact Iwan at 6.30, but the station was deserted when I arrived and having unloaded all of my props and furniture I sat in the gathering twilight looking at the tiny slither of a new moon, and the twin golden streaks of the railway line disappearing into the distance illuminated by the last vestiges of a setting sun.
After a short while a car pulled up and out climbed the frock-coated figure of George who acts as a station host on the rail system, and who would be introducing me. George performed the same role when I performed here two years ago and has the beautifully modulated voice of a BBC radio announcer.
Unfortunately George didn’t have a key to the station either, so we chatted in the chill of the evening until Iwan arrived. The main room in the station is a tea room and it had already been laid out with seats in a theatre style. The area where I was to perform was quite small and the front row of the audience would only be a few inches from where I stood, but I managed to squeeze all of the relevant props in. Obviously being a tea room the lighting would not be theatrical, but there were 8 pendant lamps with enamelled shades spread throughout the room, unfortunately the bulb in one of those over the ‘stage’ area had blown, therefore casting an awkward shadow over me as I spoke.
Quite a gathering of railway staff had arrived by this time and there followed a variation on the old joke ‘how many railway staff does it take to change a lightbulb….?’ The dead bulb was removed and a live one liberated from a less important light, but then the bulbs got mixed up and the deceased one got replaced into its original holder, causing much hilarity! I left the team to it, as I had to change before my audience arrived.
For the first half of the evening I would be performing Doctor Marigold, so I got into my long socks, britches, collarless shirt and loosely tied necktie and when I was ready still had some time to practice the fast-paced opening sales patter section before the room filled up.
Usually an audience will start arriving in dribs and drabs around 45 minutes before the show starts, with the bulk arriving in the final 20 minutes before curtain up, but on Friday night with ten minutes to go there were no audience members to be seen, but we were not concerned for soon we heard the whistle of a steam locomotive and a train sighed into the station where it disgorged its passengers, all of whom quickly took their seats ready for the show.
George welcomed everyone and handed over the evening me. We were up against a slight time constraint as the train had to depart at 10, so I made my opening remarks as brief as possible before launching in to Doctor Marigold which, to quote the man himself, was ‘wery much enjoyed.’ The proximity of the crowd made Marigold feel very natural, as if the kindly cheapjack was really addressing a crowd at a country fair, rather than an audience in a theatre.
The interval could be no longer than 10 minutes if the train was to depart on time, and I didn’t want to be responsible for its late running, so I changed the set as quickly as I could and got into my all black costume ready to recite the ghostly story of The Signalman in a perfect setting.
Usually I preface the piece by describing the circumstances of the Staplehurst rail crash in which Dickens was involved and which almost certainly inspired him to write The Signalman, but with the ever present stationmaster’s watch ticking away I had printed some copies of my blog post on the subject.
(https://wordpress.com/post/geralddickens.wordpress.com/7535) so that people could get a little background information before the show started.
Tan y Bwlch is a remote station half way between Porthmadog and Blaenau Ffestiniog which nestles beneath cliffs of grey slate and heavily wooded slopes. In the darkness bats flitted here and there and as I told the story we could here the soft hiss of the steam locomotive panting impatiently, waiting to descend the mountain: it all made for a remarkable atmosphere. George told me later that as I described the ‘wild harp’ of the wind in the telegraph wires a refrigerator in the kitchen started to whirr, causing those at the back of the room to shudder nervously. All rather fun.
I finished the story at 9.50 and the audience duly filed back into their carriages on perfect time (I must say, I was rather proud of myself for that). The train whistle sounded a mournful requiem and with a sense of foreboding the passengers began their journey into the darkness to meet whatever fate awaited them……this year I refrained from crying ‘Halloa! Below there!’ as they rumbled away.
The demand for tickets to my show had been so great that on the Wednesday before I travelled to Porthmadog Iwan had asked me if I would be able to perform for a second night, on Saturday. I was happy to do so, although the station at Tan y Bwlch was not available so he had to scout around for an alternative venue. On Friday evening I learned that I would be performing my second show in the salubrious surroundings of the Porthmadog Football club.
Once again the Saturday performance would be at 7.30 pm which meant that I had a day to myself and I decided to take a drive to Caernarfon, some twenty miles away. Caernarfon is a wonderful town completely dominated by the castle that sits on the banks of the River Seiont and overlooks the Menai Straight and the island of Anglesey.
I strolled around the town for a while before making my way to the great fortress and walking into a shaky, grainy, washed-out coloured image from my past. Many many years ago we took a family holiday in this part of the country and an old cine film exists of the grass covered bailey on which a large circular dais was erected where the investiture of Prince Charles had been carried out in 1969.
I have no actual memories of my childhood visit to Caernarfon, only those burnt into a tiny strip of celluloid and it was almost as if I had become part of that home movie when I saw a gift shop proudly advertising that they sold film, complete with a yellow and red Kodak sticker from the 1970s.
I admired the scenery from the top of the ramparts and I was dutifully impressed by the museum honouring the Royal Welch Fusiliers, but eventually I was castled out and left my childhood behind me once more.
It was getting on towards lunchtime now and I decided to drive up into the mountains to Llanberis where I could buy a sandwich and have an impromptu picnic by the side of the lake. Llanberis is the focal point for those who wish to walk, or take a train, up Mount Snowdon and that mighty peak dominates the town (actually on Saturday a very thick and wet cloud, which contained Mount Snowdon, dominated the town).
Having finished my lunch I drove back to Porthmadog via the mountain road which took me around Snowdon and I was afforded some spectacular views of rock, mountain and wildlife.
Back at the hotel I had a little time to rest before setting off for my evening show at the football club. After the spectacular atmosphere of the night before I wasn’t very confident that Saturday’s show would work and those doubts increased when I first walked into the brightly lit, rather sticky clubhouse. Outside the rain fell heavily and I got very wet unloading the car, but soon all of the furniture was in and I placed the items for Marigold on a tiny semi-circular stage separated from the first row of the audience by a dance floor.
I was relieved to see that there were two small theatrical lanterns, one on each side of the room, which would illuminate the stage a little, unfortunately only one of them was working but it cast a healthy glow and meant that we could dispense with the harsh fluorescent overhead lights.
George arrived in a rather flustered state of mind having had a day of late running trains and general difficulty. The weather had been bad and the staff of the railway had been followed by a tv film crew making a fly on the wall documentary, and nothing had been easy. Other members of the staff arrived and they all had the same story to tell, all sharing their tales of woe. Passengers seemed to have been a major problem and George muttered at one point ‘we are a narrow gauge railway with Brunel gauge passengers!’
Once more we waited for our audience who this time would not be arriving by train (there not being a station alongside the Porthmadog football pitch), but by double decker bus, which duly arrived, steamed up and full, at 7.30. In the front row George had placed four paper plates with the word ‘reserved’ on them, for here would sit the royal party of Queen Victoria and her entourage, and who should turn up but my old friend Rita and her husband Frank from Llandrindod Wells. You may remember that Rita and I performed The Queen and the Commoner together back in August.
With the audience seated and the Queen in place it was time to begin, and once more Doctor Marigold took to the stage and did his thing. For all my doubts, for all the difficulties of performing in a football club, for all the problems with the lighting, for all the general negative atmosphere of a difficult day that hung over the railway and its staff, the show went really well, in fact I would say that my performances of both Marigold and the Signalman were better than the night before. Indeed as I closed the second half I received a standing ovation (albeit led by my tame Queen who rose to applaud leading others to dutifully follow)
The show over I chatted and mingled before the audience had to make a run through the pouring rain for the bus back to Porthmadog. One gentleman stood looking at my set for The Signalman and said ‘a very impressive block signalling system you have’. I was rather proud of this, for I had constructed my own device to represent the inside of the signal box, but then he went on and added the words which I knew would be inevitable when I eventually visited a working railway for the first time: ‘of course, the proportions are all wrong, it is far too big, but very good anyway!’
Eventually the bus departed and I was left to load my car once more in the pouring rain. I returned to the warmth of The Golden Fleece Inn and sat in the bar where I slowly wound down from the evening’s events.
It had been a most enjoyable two days both from a performance point of view, but also as tourist: Snowdonia is a most beautiful part of Britain and I hope to return one day soon.