The Bryngwyn Branch connected the NWNGR, and later the WHR, to a number of slate quarries on the slopes of Moel Tryfan, the upland area which rises to the right of the railway as viewed from a train heading from Dinas towards Waunfawr; it is not to be confused with the mountain Tryfan, adjacent to Llyn Ogwen alongside the A5. The Moel Tryfan area, extending over the ridge into Dyffryn Nantlle (Nantlle Vale) is thought to be the oldest slate quarrying district in North Wales, and was probably the source of the slate used by the Romans in their fort of Segontium (whose remains and museum can be visited in Caernarfon).
Although slate was the main traffic, the branch also carried supplies for the quarries and the nearby communities, and there was also a passenger service from 1877 to 1913. Although most of the NWNGR's tourist passengers were attracted to the line's other terminus at the foot of Snowdon, guide books of a hundred years ago also recommended the branch, for its scenic attractions; the commanding views across Caernarfon and Anglesey, and towards the triple-peaked mountain Yr Eifl to the south-west, are in their own way as grand as anything the rest of the route has to offer. Nevertheless the extreme scarcity of known photographs of the branch is in sharp contrast with the many known views of South Snowdon (Rhyd Ddu) in NWNGR days.
From the train of today, you can make out the start of the branch, which is now in use as a farm access track, through the gate visible on the right in the picture below. This spot is just past the remains of the Tryfan Junction station building, on the right heading from Dinas towards Waunfawr.
The branch curved sharply back on itself from this point, on a steep gradient of 1 in 39 which made it difficult to work when combined with the curve. The horseshoe curve is clearly visible as a line of trees in the aerial view below, above the railway and road crossing.
It is thought that this is why the engine built for the branch in 1878, the
handsome Hunslet 0-6-4ST Beddgelert, was rebuilt by its makers in 1894
with the boiler sloping slightly upwards towards the front (i.e. in the opposite
direction to a "kneeling cow" rack railway loco). This would have
allowed the loco to run cab-first uphill, with wagons trailing behind the smokebox
end, where the overhang was less and thus so was the risk of derailment; unlike
the much less powerful Snowdon Ranger or Moel Tryfan, Beddgelert
was not built to the Single Fairlie design. The inclined boiler allowed the
water level to be maintained on the gradient (Aidan Stell's graphic below shows
the loco in original condition).
Beyond this curve, the branch ran alongside the hillside parallel to the main line. It passed under the same minor road as the Tryfan Junction bridge a few hundred yards further uphill, by a bridge known locally as Pont y Bicell, which survives in original condition. Some way further on it then passed through the village of Rhostryfan, just under a mile from Tryfan Junction and site of the only intermediate station. This lay just on the edge of the village on the Tryfan Junction side, and boasted a single siding. The station building is long since demolished, and the station site is no longer recognisable as such.
A little further on, the road overbridge in the village is also
gone (on the same road under which the main line passes at Wernlas Ddu). The
bridge was unlike most of the NWNGR overbridges, with their masonry arches;
it featured a rectangular opening with a jack arch structure, resembling the
unusual bridge at Pont Betws on the main line. While it has been suggested that
this design could have been chosen for Pont Betws because of the oblique angle
of the railway and the road there, it is harder to tell why it was used at Rhostryfan,
unless it was to reduce the depth of the cutting, as the road and railway were
very nearly at right angles to each other. The cutting was filled in during
Beyond Rhostryfan the branch ran through open country for almost two miles, before describing a large horseshoe curve and entering Bryngwyn Station; there is no village (though Rhosgadfan, Y Fron and Carmel are within walking distance), the name is that of an adjacent farm. This was provided with buildings in much the usual NWNGR style, including one of the railway's very few water towers. There is virtually nothing left to see today, apart from an original gate (with rail gateposts) on the Rhostryfan side of the level crossing which lay at the entrance to the station.
The most tangible remnant of the station is the nameboard, which is on display in the Narrow Gauge Railway Museum in Tywyn.
From this isolated branch terminus, the famous cable-worked double track Bryngwyn Incline led up to a point known as Drumhead, where the tramways from the quarries converged. Rising 245 feet in half a mile, this long incline is much less steep than many of its kind - though still much steeper than even the Bryngwyn Branch - and there is a persistent but unsubstantiated and improbable legend that attempts were made to work it using Beddgelert. Even when worked in the conventional way, with the weight of descending full slate wagons pulling the empties and incoming supplies uphill, it must have had its moments - not least as it includes a level crossing of a (minor) public road! Much of the incline remains visible, particularly its less overgrown upper section.
Near the top, the incline is severed by the improved Rhosgadfan - Y Fron road, which originally crossed by a narrow overbridge. This structure survives, part-buried. It differs from other NWNGR bridges in that it is built from slate slab, with lengths of rail used in the parapets.
Immediately above, the incline takes the form of a raised embankment, which passes over a small bridge (left-hand picture) before reaching the summit. Part of the structure of the winding house still stands (centre and right-hand pictures).
There was a small yard beyond the winding house, now given away only by the presence of broken fragments of slate and slab. The Bryngwyn Branch "proper" ceased at this point, but the tramways connecting the quarries with Drumhead also form an integral part of its story, geography and archaeology.
There are many traces of the feeder quarry tramways running in different directions from Drumhead. This is in contrast to the Moel Tryfan quarries themselves, which are generally not that rich in industrial archaeology, as many features were destroyed by scavenger or bulk working after the main use of the quarries ended, and some sites in the area are now in re-use for recovery and crushing of slate waste for purposes such as roadmaking (and, on a smaller scale, the sub-base of the relaid WHR). The feeders fall into distinct systems, from North to South, converging at Drumhead.
a) The Alexandra Quarry Tramway
This is the most spectacular of these lines, and indeed it must have been one of the most striking railways in the Principality. Although the main workings of Alexandra (a.k.a. Cors y Bryniau) are adjacent to those of Moel Tryfan Quarry (below), the tramway avoided its rival's territory by going the other way round the mountain, covering a distance of around two miles. The line was built in 1876 (open by December); part of it seems to have fallen out of use after the various quarries came under common management after World War 1; later on in this period Alexandra was worked via a tunnel connection with Moel Tryfan Quarry. The tramway is thought to have been lifted by 1939.
The small 0-4-0T Kathleen (designed by Spooner & Co, built by Vulcan Foundry) seems to have been ordered to work the line, though the quarry also had De Winton locos. Any of these must have been tested hard by the work; even though the uphill loads would mainly have been empty slate wagons (plus coal and other supplies), the gradients are harsh and unrelenting for most of the way.
However, the first stretch is carefully engineered to give a fairly shallow climb. The tramway starts with a sharp left turn out of Drumhead yard, entering a now very damp, reed-filled cutting, before starting a gradual, winding climb on a course defined by dry stone walls on either side.
Approaching isolated dwellings above the top of the village of Rhosgadfan, and the site of the lonely and rather striking Capel Hermon (first picture below - demolished in the 1990s, the graveyard remains), the tramway executes a long, elegant and finely engineered series of S-bends, culminating in a sharp curve on an embankment leading to a cutting, close to the furthest extent of the Moel Tryfan tips (which were much further back when the tramway was built).
At this point the approach to design seems to have changed completely (was the money running low?). The tramway climbs away sharply, and to start with in a straight line, to reach Ponc Lefal Fawr. Although distant from the main quarry, this was an important part of the Alexandra workings, Lefal Fawr ("great level") itself being a long tunnel driven from this point through the mountain into the developing Alexandra site, and facilitating its development as it opened up a lower section before quarrying from ground level reached down to it. Once worked by a De Winton steam loco, Lefal Fawr entered the main quarry at a level equivalent to the present-day water level in the main pits.
To reach the main quarry, the tramway then describes a long right-hand curve right round the north flank of the mountain (and within striking distance of its modest summit), climbing all the way. Most of the route from the branch quarry onwards has been made up as an unmetalled roadway, though on the approach to the quarry the tramway appears in places to take a parallel course slightly on the uphill side. The route offers striking views over Arfon, Môn and Caernarfon Bay, and gradually reveals an unfamiliar set of views of the high mountains. You can hear the whistles of WHR trains from here; the tips are those which can be seen from the train around Betws Garmon.
The quarry itself is based around a huge pit (twll), like most in the district, though this one started off as separate pits which eventually merged. It is all but invisible from its surroundings, given the lie of the land. What buildings remain are in ruins; stripping roofs and walls for saleable material seems to have been one of the last "quarrying" activities here, and partly as a result, interpretation of what must have been the tramway yard is unclear. More recently, the quarry was used as a film location (Tomb Raider 2).
b) Moel Tryfan Quarry
This forms the "middle" of the Drumhead feeders, its tips are a familiar sight above the Rhosgadfan - Y Fron road, roughly in line with the Bryngwyn Incline, and can also be seen from WHR trains (look right as the train crosses the fields uphill from Dinas). These tips form the more northerly of a pair of "matching" but separate sets of tips, those to the south belonging to Braich Quarry. While the Alexandra tramway gained all its height without a single inclined plane, the link from Drumhead to Moel Tryfan gained a comparable amount of height by means of a quarter-mile incline, whose course is now much eroded. It started virtually at the top of Drumhead yard, and steepened on the approach to the quarry (below)
This quarry was the home of the reduced height Quarry Hunslets Tryfan and Cadfan, which may have also worked the direct feeder lines to the other quarries between the wars (Moel Tryfan Quarry acquired a Ruston Hornsby loco, now preserved at the Welsh Slate Museum in Llanberis), one reputedly wearing Kathleen's chimney.
The tips of Braich - or New Braich - Quarry stand to the right of the Moel Tryfan tips as seen from the road. The quarry was linked to Drumhead by inclines running down the north side of these tips, followed by a short tramway. This route was built to take advantage of the arrival of the NWNGR, and replaced a steep tramway down to Y Fron village. The quarry was worked in various stages between the late 1860s and World War One, with quite extensive scavenger workings since, which removed almost all traces of the buildings, as well as the better material from the tips; a steep feature which could easily be taken for an incline is in fact a roadway dating from such working in the 1930s. The quarry's main feature is its flooded pit, which illustrates the complex geology which was one of this quarry's problems; the strata on one side are very clearly not the same as on the other. In contrast to the lack of other surviving quarry features, the old fenceposts around the pit (and others close by) are not without interest; it is not unusual to find old rails used in fencing in and around the quarries, but those around Braich include isolated examples of older T-bulb and bridge rail sections.
d) Y Fron and Cilgwyn
Running southwards from Drumhead, tramways connected with some (but not all) of the various workings around the village of Y Fron (formerly Cesarea), and from there as far across as the former Cilgwyn Quarry (now a council tip) high on the slopes of Dyffryn Nantlle above Talysarn. The sections between Drumhead and Y Fron can be traced in parts, others having been lost when the road from Rhosgadfan was improved, and others are becoming less clear with time and landscaping, for instance a striking section between slate walls which has been planted with saplings.
Fron Quarry remains a striking and unusual site, nestling close to the village in contrast to the isolation of many slate quarries. The short metalled section of the old upland road between the Nantlle and Gwyrfai valleys runs between the two pits. The one to the north is also known as Old Braich, but was latterly worked together with Fron, and linked to the larger Fron pit to the south by a tunnel. The separate, later Braich Quarry workings lie between here and Moel Tryfan Quarry. Parts of the Old Braich site date back into the 18th Century. Like most of the quarries on Moel Tryfan, the Fron site is generally ruinous, with buildings and the better material from the tips having been worked for slate in scavenger workings after closure. In view of this, the survival of the 1904 mill is remarkable; indeed it is the only quarry building on Moel Tryfan which still has its roof.
The extremity of the Cilgwyn system could be regarded as the south-western extremity of the Bryngwyn network; part is in re-use as the access road to the tip, while a final stretch (right-hand pictures) continues towards the western end of Cilgwyn, which is now in use again for the extraction and crushing of slate waste.
Cilgwyn was only connected to Drumhead at a late stage, after World War One; previously, its traffic went out the other way, via the horse-worked Nantlle Railway and then the LNWR/LMS Nantlle Branch from Talysarn.
Cilgwyn was the original home of the well-known surviving locos Lilla (Ffestiniog Railway) and Jubilee 1897 (Narrow Gauge Railway Museum, Tywyn). Both of these were removed via the Bryngwyn Branch when sold to the Penrhyn Quarries in 1928. Lilla revisited WHR (Caernarfon) in September 2001.
A fresh survey of the branch trackbed was carried out by John Sreeves and Steve Harris in July 2002. The link below will open a separate window with the first part of the resulting profile (MS Internet Explorer 6 users will need to click the expand button which should appear over the lower right corner of the graphic).
Tryfan Junction - Rhostryfan (© J.C. Sreeves)
The Bryngwyn Footpath
The acquisition of the WHR trackbed brought the trackbed of the Bryngwyn Branch back into railway ownership; however there are no current plans to rebuild it. The community council for Rhostryfan has proposed an initiative to make it into a permissive footpath and cycle track. The railway has welcomed the scheme, provided it would not hinder any reinstatement of the railway along the branch at some future date.
Initial funding was secured by Gwynedd Council, from the Slate Valleys Initiative Scheme (a programme for regeneration of Gwynedd's slate quarrying districts) and also from Landfill Tax income. Work started on cutting back undergrowth on the Rhostryfan to Bryngwyn section in February 2002, and there have also been discussions regarding the Tryfan Junction - Rhostryfan section, which would link the village with today's WHR (Caernarfon). The section between Rhostryfan and the first level crossing on the approach to Bryngwyn was cleared and opened (i.e. not including the horseshoe curve on the approach to the terminus); the pictures below are close to the Bryngwyn end of this stretch.
In July 2006 attractive bilingual interpretation panels were installed at the access points to the path.
If visiting the footpath by car, starting at the Rhostryfan end is suggested, as there is no parking available at the intermediate crossing on the west side of Rhostryfan, and at best only parking for one vehicle at the Bryngwyn end. The path can also be worked into circular walks using various other footpaths close by.
Future possibilities, depending on funding, include a cycle park and picnic area at the Rhostryfan Station site, and reopening of a halt at Tryfan Junction, where restoration of the building has been adopted by the WHR Heritage Group. The extended path would provide an opportunity not only to link the railway with the network of footpaths in the Moel Tryfan area, but will also provide access to an extensive set of surviving original NWNGR artefacts, ranging from bridges to gates, which have not needed alteration or replacement to suit modern needs and regulations.