No. 17 - pp186-188


The Car Gwyllt


    The Craig Ddu Quarry, near Blaenau Ffestiniog, lies high on the slopes of Manod Mawr, a sprawling open quarry that has scarred the mountainside with deep pits and flooded it with spoil. Slate has long been quarried there, but it was not until the opening of the Festiniog and Blaenau Railway in 1868 that production rose sharply. With transport now available much nearer than Blaenau, a tramway, as usual of "2 ft." gauge, was built to just above the F. & B.R. at Tanymanod, from where the slate was taken on to Blaenau. At first the quarry tramway ended short of the F. & B.R., involving a 250-yard journey in carts before transhipment; but this expensive stage was cut out after 1876 by the extension of the tramway down a further incline to connect directly with the F. & B.R. When the latter was converted to standard gauge in 1883, the slate was not transhipped at Tanymanod, but the 2 ft. trucks were carried to Blaenau on standard gauge transporter wagons, after the manner of the Padarn railway. The tramway was over a mile long from quarry to railway, and fell at an average gradient of about 1 in 6 in an almost continuous series of four inclines. The third incline from the top ended in a yard beside the Ffestiniog – Blaenau road, the short, and later, bottom incline dropping down from the road to the Tanymanod wharves.

    In the mornings, the quarrymen were hauled up to the quarry in empty slate wagons, but when work was over in the evenings and wagons had ceased to run on the inclines, the weary plod down to tea and civilisation was not appreciated, and to speed the workmen’s homeward journey the Car Gwyllt was invented. The benefactor responsible was Edward Ellis, the quarry blacksmith, and the date was some time early in the tramway’s life - the first reference is in the late ‘70s. The name means ‘Wild car’, and wild car it was.

    The Ceir Gwylltion, to use the Welsh plural, were simple machines made by the Quarry blacksmith, gravity cars running on the middle pair of the four rails on the double-track inclines. They ran thus because the centres of the proper tracks were occupied by the incline cable and rollers, and because the distance between the tracks, 3 ft. instead of 2 ft., gave a steadier ride. The car itself consisted of a board, about 8 in. by 2 ft., supported in front by a small double-flanged wheel and at the back by a flat iron casting with guiding flanges, which simply slid down the rail and provided some much-needed friction. This wheel and slider ran down the left-hand rail of the right-hand track, and a simple brake bore on the wheel, operated by a lever projecting through the front of the board. Fixed to the middle of the board, and at right angles to it, was a long iron bar with a double bend near the end, terminating in a roller which rested on the right-hand rail of the left-hand track. The rider merely sat on the back of the board (with his posterior barely two inches above the rail), stretched his feet straight out in front, and grasped the brake lever between his knees with his right hand, and the cross-bar with his left. Every workman had his own car, on which he would carve his initials, and the really car-proud owner would have a detachable brake handle, which he would pocket so that nobody else could use his car.

    The sight at the end of the day must have been memorable. The moment the hooter went at 4 o’clock a queue formed at the head of the incline, and a stream of 200 cars or more poured down the top three inclines. On arrival at the road, the mean threw their cars into empty wagons, ready to be hauled up in the morning, and took their different ways home. Former quarrymen enthuse over the joys of the ride – "50 miles an hour we went" – but it is prosaically recorded that to cover the journey of 1,800 yards, with a descent of 1,040 ft., it normally took eight minutes; this time, however, included the two walks between the inclines, and the maximum speeds must have been quite high.

    It is not surprising with this form of locomotion that accidents happened, but they were rare and usually due to inexperience or misuse of the cars. In 1896 a local doctor, returning from the quarry clinic, fell off and broke his arm, and not long afterwards a workman from a neighbouring quarry, returning home via the Craig Ddu, borrowed a car to ride down on. Unfortunately, since he was a novice at the art, and since the car he chose possessed no brake – it appears that some of the experienced men used a piece of slate instead – the car went out of control and he was thrown off the incline and killed. After these accidents the quarrymen themselves drew up rules to prevent their recurrence: that cars and brakes should be kept in good condition, that cars should not be used by strangers, that two men should not ride on the same car, and that a ‘captain’ appointed by the men should lead the evening descent, to prevent the rest from travelling too fast (later the quarry officials came to lead the procession).

    These rules, however, were not always kept. Once two men went down before the captain, and one was killed and the other injured when the man behind lost control on the slippery rail and rammed his companion in the back. Another time two men indulged in the precarious practice of two to a car – the second man perched diagonally on the cross-bar, his feet resting on his mate’s legs – and not surprisingly the brake refused to stop the car. They broke their legs. In early days the quarrymen’s wives, after walking up the mountain with the menfolk’s lunch, used to make the return journey by car, but in later years female passengers were frowned upon, although illicit trips with one’s girlfriend on one’s knee were no rarity. A story is also told of a local lady who prevailed upon the quarrymen to let her have a joy-ride during the lunch-hour. Unfortunately she was already well under way when she discovered to her alarm that her skirt prevented her from operating the brake, and when she reached the bottom of the incline, at record speed, she was confronted by a slate wagon, underneath which she would undoubtedly have disappeared had she not had the presence of mind to raise her legs. Her feet met the buffer-beam and catapulted her up in the air – "She whirled over and over – just like a rainbow she looked", say the quarrymen – and after a spectacular flight she landed, understandably shaken, but unharmed. The Company refused responsibility for accidents caused by cars, but unless they were the result of folly or ignorance, mishaps were rare enough. "For those accustomed to the little vehicle", reported the Inspector of Mines after an accident, "there is probably no more danger than in cycling or tobogganing".

    In 1945 the quarry was closed and the track lifted, and most of the cars were scrapped. One has fittingly been preserved in the National Museum of Wales, and one in the Festiniog Railway Museum at Portmadoc; several are kept as mementoes by ex-quarrymen in Blaenau, and a few have found their way to new homes outside Wales. The Car Gwyllt was not copied elsewhere in the Ffestiniog district because no other quarry was governed by the conditions which ruled at Craig Ddu – long continuous inclines on a relatively gentle gradient. If the inclines were steep the car was dangerous, and if they were short, with long stretches of level between them, the car was not worth while. In fact nothing like it is known to have been used anywhere but on the Craig Ddu inclines; the Car Gwyllt was a unique institution.

*           *          *

    (This article first appeared in a past issue of the Festiniog Railway Magazine, and we are grateful to its Editors for permission to reproduce it here. Mr Lewis has taken the opportunity of correcting one or two minor points and has included some additional information.

    The name Car Gwyllt was also popularly used at Dinorwic in connection with the manually propelled passenger trolleys formerly used on the Padarn Railway, one of which is now preserved in the Penrhyn Castle Museum, at Bangor. The standard gauge transporter wagons mentioned in the article were parked in a siding at Blaenau after the quarry ceased work, and were observed there in rather woe-begone condition in April 1954. Similar wagons were also used by the London & North Eastern Railway at Buckley in Flintshire, but here they were used in connection with the brick industry. If any reader has further details of such wagons we would be very pleased to hear about it. – Hon. Eds.)