Friday, 11 November 2016


Torpantau (pronounced Tor-PANT-eye) is the name of a prominent slope on the south side of a range of mountains in the Brecon Beacons of South Wales. It's also the name of a station on the old railway line between Dowlais (now really part of Merthyr Tydfil) and Brecon. This steeply-graded line, closed in 1962, but reopened as the narrow-gauge Brecon Mountain Railway in the 1980s, actually climbed over the Brecon Beacons. It did include a tunnel at the summit - making it famous as the highest railway tunnel in the country - but for most of its route it was above ground and exposed to the elements. And my goodness, it must have seen some appalling weather! The hilly parts of South Wales attract cloud, mist and rain like a magnet.

Let me present three modern location maps.

The first shows the southern half of the Brecon Mountain Railway from Pant station northwards to what was once Dolygaer station. The second shows its northern half from Dolygaer station to Torpantau station, including the tunnel through the pass, and the old route downhill past Talybont Reservoir. The line went north, bent round to the east while still in the tunnel, and then headed off eastwards before turning north again (off-map).

The third map is similar to the second but shows how near the high summits this line went, Pen-y-Fan included. Click on the maps to enlarge them. The same with all the photos that follow.

It's difficult now to understand now what kind of pressing need caused this line to be built. The countryside is bleak and largely empty, suitable only for rough grazing on the uplands and forestry in the valleys. But in the days of independent small railway companies, such lines might have a strategic value for expanding a railway company's territory, and thus keep rival companies out of the area, or at least deny them a certain route. 

The line did in fact have some freight-carrying potential, being an extension of the extraordinarily dense network of colliery lines serving the South Wales coalfield, every valley to the south having its own line - sometimes two, one on each side of the valley. This Ordnance Survey One-Inch map from 1956 reveals the lines then still operating in the Merthyr Tydfil area, and you will particularly notice the complex of lines serving Dowlais, indicative of what an industrialised area this was. No doubt the route over the mountains to the north did make sense when built and first developed, when fed by traffic from all these other railway lines. But once the mining and quarrying began to be rationalised, once seams became depleted or uneconomic to work, the rail system rapidly thinned out and the hard-to-work mountain route no longer had a good enough reason to exist.  

Nowadays most of the old industrial scars in this area, and nearly all the old railway network, have been lansdcaped and greened over, covered with new housing and retail parks, or modern high-speed roads, notably the A465 'Heads of the Valleys' road (quite a long road that begins at the M4 motorway at Neath and runs generally north-east to Abergavenny, then on to Hereford, and then even further, eventually meeting the A44 at Bromyard, a bit short of Worcester).

If the mountain route was (for a while) viable for freight, the passenger potential would have been much, much less. So it's ironic that the rails that exist now, from Pant northwards, are strictly for tourist passengers - and not for taking coal and sundry goods to Brecon and other places beyond. 

On 28th October, out of sheer curiosity, I decided to go and see the Brecon Mountain Railway, approaching through Dowlais and parking for a short while at Pant station, just to take a look. Dowlais turned out to be a hilly place with narrow streets and a parking problem. It did however have the local retail park close by, containing big ASDA and Lidl stores, although they were built so high up from the valley, and in such an exposed windy position, that it must be a dreadful ordeal to shop there in winter. Pant was more sheltered. The BMR couldn't use the original station location, and constructed their own not far away. It had a Swiss look.

Contrary to my expectations, there were hoards of people visiting the railway here, and it was doing remarkably good business for so late in the year, and on so dull a day. It was dry but overcast: but not a day I would have chosen to ride a train into the mountains! I went into the station to pick up a leaflet and find out how the trains were running, and (just to know) what a ride might cost. I wasn't surprised to see no prices on display. Clearly they wanted to trap customers (mostly families) in a queue, so that they would discover the cost only when actually asking for tickets, and could hardly then back out. I wasn't going to play that game. I went back to where I'd parked Fiona, and drove of to the next station up the line, Pontsticill.

Pontsticill was once a junction station. There wasn't much left of the original station, the present setup consisting of a platform with a row of old carriages serving as waiting rooms and housing a tea room. But the original signal box remained, built into the side of a house, and there were workshops dating from the first days of the BMR. They had also created a small but interesting museum. The passengers are taken non-stop all the way to Torpantau, but stop for a while at Pontsticill on the return journey, when they can look around, view the museum, have a cuppa, and perhaps admire the adjacent reservoir. 

I hung around at Pontsticill because at Pant I'd got the impression that a steam train was due to depart shortly, and I had hopes that it would thunder through Pontsticill if I waited. And I was right. Except that it wasn't thundering. It was going rather slowly. But it was certainly in steam, and as anticipated it made a good picture running between the workshop sheds, and then on past the platform. The passengers seemed bemused to see me taking pictures!

Where next? I decided to drive on to Dolygaer, and, while waiting for the train to return from Torpantau, munch my lunchtime sandwiches. There was a bridge over which the train would pass, and I would surely get some decent shots of not only the engine but the passengers, who would probably be pop-eyed to see me again. The former Dolygaer station had been turned into part of a scouting centre, with adventure afloat (on the reservoir) and on land (mountain trekking) both in mind. But there was a farm track next to the line that led upwards, and gave me a grandstand view of the track curving away:

But where I was actually parked seemed better for the shots I wanted. I finished my sandwich only just in time. A hoot announced the coming of the train over the bridge. And there it was. 

Some of the passengers waved to me. How nice! 

Well, the show was over. They were on their way back to Pontsticill and Pant, and I would have Torpantau entirely to myself. Good.

But Torpantau station proved hard to spot from the road. I overshot, consulted the map again, then drove back to where it showed the present narrow-gauge line ending. There was a handy car park. Odd that, I thought. You surely wouldn't get carloads of people coming up to this lonely spot, just to see the railway trains come in and go out again. And looking around, what else was there? But it wasn't really for the trains at all. It was for keen walkers. This was where the Taff Trail came up from the south, shortly to join the east-west Beacons Way. Clearly both trails were very popular, and within minutes several people had appeared on foot. So much for solitude, just me and the breeze. It resembled the proverbial Piccadilly Circus. No doubt some of them began or finished their walk at this car park, even though only my car was there just then. This was mildly irritating. I'd wanted the place to myself. 

However, none of them seemed interested in Torpantau station. So I went through the gate and had a good long look.    

That green middle-distance hillside in the bottom picture is the one called Torpantau. The line once continued into a tunnel somewhere near that fir tree, right centre shot. There was hardly a trace left of the station that closed in 1962. The BMR noticeboard indicated that on 28th October trains would arrive here at 10.55am, 12.55pm and 2.55pm, and leave at 11.10pm, 1.10pm, and 3.10pm. So modern passengers had fifteen minutes to contemplate the scenery, which did - to be fair - include wide views and some autumn colouring: 

It was probably very nice in the summer, but - no surprise - less so in late October! And there were absolutely no facilities. Nowhere to have a pee, for instance. And frankly, it would seem chill and cheerless by mid-afternoon on the day I'd come. In the winter, it must have seemed utterly dreary to the few passengers passing through this very remote station up in the hills. And yet perhaps not to the railway staff themselves. They used to employ suitably-minded men (with their families) for such locations. They may even have enjoyed life at Torpantau, with its light traffic and many long leisure moments. Here are some archive shots off the Internet:

Torpantau reminds me of the stations I've visited in the High Pennines: places that could easily get cut off by snow and storm. Such as Dent. And in particular, isolated Riccarton Junction high in the hills on the old Waverley Line south of Hawick on the Scottish Border. The lowermost picture (in vivid colour) was apparently taken when the passenger service had ended, but infrequent goods trains still went through. Not long after, all was devastation:

I have the British Railways, Western Region, summer timetable for 1962 and this shows passenger trains leaving for Brecon at 10.11am, 1.05pm, 4.56pm and 8.59pm. In the other direction, going south, trains left at 8.20am, 1.05pm (clearly crossing at Torpantau with the northbound service, making the station seem busy for a minute or two), 2.53 pm, 7.06 pm (to Newport, on Saturdays only) and 9.00pm (to Cardiff, on Saturdays only):

Imagine waiting for a train here at 9.00pm, even in the summer! The only passenger getting on. With darkness falling and the wind rising. And the train no doubt running late...

I wondered whether it was possible to inspect the southern portal of the old tunnel, but it was on private land, and guarded by cows, with dense woodland beyond them. There were wellies in Fiona (seen left in the next picture) but I wasn't inclined to trespass. Although maybe, as this was inside a National Park, I had the right to roam. But that notion didn't occur to me at the time. 

There are of course pictures of the tunnel entrances, and what lies within, on the Internet. It's pretty waterlogged nowadays, definitely a job for wellies, a good torch, and possibly a hard hat - if you dare!

The BMR apparently want to extend their track through the tunnel at some future point. And then presumably down the side of the Talybont Reservoir, following the old route. That all seems very ambitious. But I hope they eventually do it.

One final thing I'd like to mention. This was the first time I'd been in these parts for over forty years. I was last on the road past Torpantau station in the early 1970s. I was driving with Mum and Dad, and it was either shortly before, or shortly after, I passed my driving test in August 1973. It was daytime but raining hard, and there was little to see, and nothing I especially now remember except that the road was narrow, steep, quite difficult, and devoid of any other traffic. 

It wasn't so when I came on 28th October. There were plenty of cars, and a lot of people had come up to park at one or other of the forest car parks on the other side of the summit, at the head of the Talybont Reservoir valley. I wish now that I'd parked there too, because it would have been close to the eastern portal of the old railway tunnel, which I understand is well worth seeing - and right by the Taff Trail, a proper track. Maybe another time. 

1 comment:

  1. can you explain where the north end of the tunnel is ....i have looked but find it hard to find

    the tunnel exit/entrance does nto seem t be shown on any of the local and OS maps..


This blog is public, and I expect comments from many sources and points of view. They will be welcome if sincere, well-expressed and add something worthwhile to the post. If not, they face removal.

Ideally I want to hear from bloggers, who, like myself, are knowable as real people and can be contacted. Anyone whose identity is questionable or impossible to verify may have their comments removed. Commercially-inspired comments will certainly be deleted - I do not allow free advertising.

Whoever you are, if you wish to make a private comment, rather than a public one, then do consider emailing me - see my Blogger Profile for the address.

Lucy Melford