The Swansea Valley Railway
Posted September 13, 2011on:
I now come to the railway. This replaced the canal, the first means of moving bulk traffic in the Swansea Valley. The railway started in the Saint Thomas area of dockland and worked up the valley, calling at stations roughly two miles apart until it reached Ystalyfera, where it branched off to Brynamman. The main line continued up the valley to Ystradgynlais and to Pen Wyllt (The Wild Top) near Craig-y-Nos where it met the Neath-Brecon line, long since demolished though Mam and I once travelled on one branch of the old Neath line up to Pontypridd as late as the 1950s.
This was the lifeline and mode of travel to the smaller villages in the higher reaches of the Breconshire Mountains before the First World War and up until the 1940s, except for the Neath-Pontypridd line which lasted a little longer because of the coal trains from the Rhondda. Then, because of the advent of buses and lorries, the local railways had to give up the struggle which they had been waging for about twenty years.
Madam Patti, the famous soprano that I’ve already mentioned, built her own private station halt at Penwyllt, which was very near to her home at Craig-y-Nos, and I would not be surprised if the ruins are still there. From there she travelled to either Neath or Swansea at the beginning of her many world tours, or to London. There also many famous people arrived off the train to stay at Craig-y-Nos where she performed for them in her own private miniature concert hall, built by the roadside in Brecon but inside the grounds of the castle, which is still used to this day by music lovers. It was a perfect replica of La Scala, Milan in miniature. One of the admirers, and often at the castle, was Edward VII, and one of her three husbands is buried at Ystradgynlais Church.
Now I will return to the railway. As a boy in the 1920s I remember going on a Saturday to catch the 1 pm train to Swansea with my parents. We walked from Heathfield Road to the station, quite a walk. Then, once in Swansea, we would walk from St. Thomas through to the dockland, to the bottom of Wind Street and Rutland Street, and either go up Wind Street to the centre of the town or catch the old Mumbles tram by Swansea Prison to the slip near St. Helens (and the sea shore there) or down to Oystermouth and the pier. This was an adventure in the early days as it was the oldest passenger train in the country, and had a steam engine that belched dirt all over the place. Swansea Bay at that time was a lovely stretch of clean sand. Afterwards, Llandarcy oil works was built in Skewen and the oil tankers soon polluted the beach.
The old steam train had to be seen to believe how old fashioned it was even then. Anything could happen on the journey down to the Mumbles, and often did. Even a carriage derailment sometimes, but as the train did not travel very fast not much harm was done, except perhaps a shaking. The carriages were not much better than cattle trucks. Open windows without glass and some of the carriages had upper decks open to the elements and the belching smoke from the steam engine. Nevertheless it was very popular, perhaps because there were not many other ways of getting from Swansea to Mumbles. The steam train came to the end of its life in 1929 and was replaced by the electric train that my sons will remember. The atmosphere of the time is, I believe, best explained by “The Ballad of The Old Mumbles Train”, written by someone named Dan Morgan.
During weekdays the traffic was mostly goods and heavy stuff like coal and steel. It was on a Saturday it really came to life. It always had a crowded platform on that day and everyone somehow squeezed into the carriages. 10d return fare! We would return home on the 6 pm or 7 pm train. The last one would be the 10.30 pm. This was called the Rowdy Train and carried all the drunks from the Swansea pubs to their homes in the valley. That is if they got there in time to catch the last train. Otherwise getting home was their own problem on Sunday morning. It was an eight mile walk, and that was only to Pontardawe.