Sunday, August 06, 2017

A Lakeshore Renaissance

I once assumed that, to experience a tiny, timeless paradise, where friendly, unhurried locals speak an incomprehensible language, an Englishman must necessarily travel across water. Not necessarily true; as I was happy to discover, a couple of days ago.

Llanuwchlynn – I dare you to attempt to pronounce it – is a small, quaint Welsh village (pop. 837). Had it not been for the construction of the Great Western Railway in the 1860s, it might have been condemned to eternal obscurity. A century later, though, the railway line was axed, thanks to the government’s infamous Beeching Report, but the local population refused to accept what many British people believed – rightly, in my view – was a monumentally short-sighted decision.

The village lies at the southern tip of the roughly rectangular Bala Lake, which is 3.7 miles (6.0 km) long and 0.5 miles (0.8 km) wide. It is an area of breath-taking natural beauty; and, naturally, the local population refused to accept the destructive diktat from central government, which decreed that their railway be taken from them.

In 1972, the tireless efforts of a local railway engineer called George Barnes came to fruition. The Bala Lake Railway opened, by means of a new, narrow-gauge track, a mile-and-a-half along the eastern lakeshore from Llanuwchlynn. By 1976, the line had been extended as far as the outskirts of the town of Bala (pop. 1,974), and a tourism renaissance was underway.

We set out from Llanuwchlynn at midday. The railway runs close to the water’s edge, in places no more than a few metres (Figure 109.1). Hauled by the refurbished 1903-built Maid Marian steam engine, the train’s carriages have open sides. It would be possible to hear the lapping water, were it not for the sound of the engine wheels and puffing steam. Partway along the line lies the semi-isolated hamlet of Llangower. Today, it is a haven for camping and water sports enthusiasts. Multicoloured kayaks, canoes and single-hander sailboats move smoothly on the lake surface. Across the water, on the western shore, there is what looks like a Scout Camp, with clusters of different-sized tents and two off-road vehicles with trailers parked in tree shade next to a pebbly shore.

Figure 109.1: View of Bala Lake from the train

Copyright © 2017 Paul Spradbery

The journey to Bala takes twenty-five minutes. From the station, it is a fifteen-minute walk into the town centre, which consists of a spinal main road packed with thriving cafés and small shops (Figure 109.2). All the pavement terraces are busy. Most of the townsfolk converse in Welsh. At one end of town lies the northern extremity of the lake. At the other, a grey-stone, four-arch road bridge spans the emerging river. The clear water is shallow around the bridge’s triangular cutwaters. Wading to the opposite bank would be a simple enough venture.

Figure 109.2: A statue of Thomas Edward Ellis (1859-99), a prominent Welsh nationalist politician, and son of Bala, takes pride of place on the town’s main thoroughfare.

Copyright © 2017 Paul Spradbery

The last train of the day leaves for Llanuwchlynn at 4:30 p.m. En route, the Llangower campers and daytrippers show no signs of packing up. A few wet-suited youngsters are attempting to flip a capsized kayak (Figure 109.3). Dinghies sail nonchalantly into the watery distance (Figure 109.4).

Figure 109.3: The view from Llangower

Copyright © 2017 Paul Spradbery

 Figure 109.4: Late afternoon on the lake

Copyright © 2017 Paul Spradbery

Back at base, the woman from the station shop wishes us well as we alight and depart (Figure 109.5). I say thank you in Welsh – diolch yn fawr – and she smiles and nods her head in return.

Figure 109.5: The Bala Lake Railway Trust has recently submitted ambitious, and fully-costed, plans to extend the line into the centre of town.

Copyright © 2017 Bala Lake Railway

I would not say that time stands still in Llanuwchlynn, but there is, thankfully, no rush.

Copyright © 2017 Paul Spradbery

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