IT'S THE WEEKEND: Blaenavon heritage railway is a top attraction
11:30am Saturday 31st August 2013 in News
EVERY year, thousands of people visit Blaenavon's Heritage Railway is set in the heart of the World Heritage Site.
The railway is a totally volunteer-run attraction and can trace its roots right back to 1869 when the railway was initially opened from Brynmawr to Blaenavon and later on down the valley to Abersychan, and Pontypool.
Volunteer at the railway for seven years is Mary Mahabir, 54, who has had a love of steam trains since being a child.
Mrs Mahabir, from Ystrad Mynach, explained that she has fond memories of going on steam engines as a child with her father who was an engineer.
She also believes that she's a relative of the inventors of the Stephenson's Rocket an early steam locomotive, built in 1829 by George and Robert Stephenson and was the most advanced locomotive of its day.
Her interest in the railway has led to more than her volunteering in the heritage station's tea rooms, as in 2009 she purchased her own locomotive.
She explained that the opportunity came about after she saw it on sale in Yorkshire and she ended up buying it.
It was delivered on the back on a loader lorry and took seven months to restore.
She said: “It was thanks to other volunteers at the railway who carried out restoration jobs that it was completed.”
Her locomotive, RSH Mech Navvies Steam Locomotive 71515, is now based at the Pontypool and Blaenavon Railway, and from 2010 it has carried thousands and thousands of passengers.
She believes that the locomotive was first built for the war department in the 1940’s in the north east of England, and it continued to be used until 1970’s when it broke.
It was then bought by enthusiasts and taken to east Somerset, before being sold to a buyer in Yorkshire where it was used on a heritage railway.
She said: “I loved the restoration project and its pleasing to see it back in use again.”
A volunteer of over 15 years is Alex Hinshelwood, 28, who, after receiving a train set for Christmas at the age of 12, was inspired by his grandmother’s neighbour to go with him to the station where he volunteered as a guard.
Mr Hinshelwood, from Newport, began with the smaller tasks of ticket inspector, travelling up to the station once or twice a month when he could get lifts.
His time spent at the railway increased as he was able to find other volunteers able to give him a lift and once he was able to drive, he was there weekly.
He said: “At the age of 18, I became a director and remained so ever since.
“I now spend between 30- 40 hours at the railway a week carrying out a range of tasks.”
He wears a number of hats including guard, train driver, traffic manager, as well as time tabling the trains and creating a rota for the volunteers.
Mr Hinshelwood explained that as they are quite a small team of volunteers, everyone has to get stuck in and carry out different tasks.
Currently the team are restoring a locomotive, Rosyth No. 1, that will celebrate its centenary next year.
He also carries out a training role with the new volunteers.
He said: “It’s important to us to inspire youngsters to get involved and we have been successful in doing so.
“We start them off in roles such as collecting tickets and hope to keep them with us to learn other roles like driving.”
His paid job is with Network Rail, where he is responsible for drainage for 935 miles of railway, but he explains that this doesn’t impact on his voluntary role as they are completely different.
He said: “Obviously volunteering is hard work at times, but its rewarding to see people enjoying the locomotives and it makes it worthwhile.”
Mr Hinshelwood also owes his love life to his voluntary role as a chance meeting with Ms Mahabir’s daughter, Shakira, who had come to help her mum in the station's tearoom, led to them developing a relationship, which is still going strong after four and a half years.
At the railway, whilst the last passenger trains ran in 1941, it remained open until 1980 to carry coal south from the various mines in the area, the last being Big Pit at Blaenavon.
It was at this time, that a small but determined band of enthusiasts had got together to save some of the line and in August 1983 they ran their first trains, from Furnace Sidings to the Whistle Inn.
For many years this remained the case, but in the past few years the railway has grown rapidly and now operates a compact but busy network with trains running to Blaenavon High Level, Big Pit and the Whistle Inn.
The operations are based on the railways award winning station at Furnace Sidings which has been totally built from scratch, although it looks a lot older than it really is.
The front of the station building being clad in stone that came from the station at Pontypool Crane Street when it was demolished.
The station makes a great place to explore not only the railway but the surrounding area as you can leave your car in the free car park and take the train to Blaenavon, and Big Pit or even up to the Whistle Inn for lunch.
Nearby are the Garn lakes which make for a nice walk as you watch the trains go by.
Then you can call in at the station tea room for refreshments before another trip on the train.
The trains are normally steam operated but heritage diesels also play their part and the railway features several that used to call South Wales their home when they were owned and operated by British Rail.
As 2013 is the railways 30th year it is holding a big steam gala on September 14 and 15 featuring two engines not seen in South Wales since the 1950s, including one that worked the last train from Abergavenny to Merythr Tydfil, via the Heads of the Valleys railway in 1958.
A fitting way to celebrate 30 years of operation.
More details of events, times and prices can be found on the railways website www.pontypool-and-blaenavon.co.uk or by calling the railway shop on 01495 792263.
If you fancy volunteering, the railway will be more than happy to talk to you and find you something to do.
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