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Prose – Back on Track

Updated Wednesday, 7 July 2021

Back on Track is a prose work by Hedley McCarthy, written in a creative writing workshop run by the Blaenau Gwent REACH project at Aberbeeg Community Centre in spring 2020.

Back on Track

My fond relationship with a Railway line by Hedley McCarthy

As a small boy I can remember travelling to Barry Island, Bristol Zoo and to my Great Aunt’s in Farrington Gurney, a Somerset village by train from Cwm. I can still recall the excitement, the gathering on the platform as the train came hissing and whistling into Cwm station. In those days there was a combination of old steam trains and the new diesel trains operating. It is the smell of the steam trains that I find most nostalgic, a mixture of sulphur, smoke, wood and leather. The leather was from a strap that opened and closed the window. My mother would say “ close the window or you’ll get smuts in your eye”. Our first stop would be Aberbeeg, then an important junction for the Ebbw and Western Valleys.

I remember arriving at Barry Island, children chattering and laughing, their mothers prepared for the worst in “state of the art” polythene macs. Another memory is changing at Newport for Bristol and arriving at what seemed to me the biggest Railway Station in the World, Temple Meads. Teeming with passengers going this way and that, moustachioed porters that looked like the ones in my Christmas Annual. The livery of the Great Western Railway as smart as paint, shipshape and Bristol Fashion.

On one journey to visit my Grandmother’s Sister who lived opposite the little, wicket gated station of Farrington Gurney my father promised to buy me a watch for my sixth birthday if I could learn to tell the time by the time we arrived, I had my watch and my parents had some peace and quiet.

So you can imagine the great pride I felt when 46 years later as Leader of Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council I boarded the first train at 6.35am from the new Ebbw Vale Parkway to Cardiff Central Station 6th February 2008. Also on board was Ieuan Wyn Jones Wales’ Deputy First Minister and my friend the late Harry Andres Leader of Caerphilly County Borough Council.

Pride turned to pleasure in April we opened Llanhilleth Parkway in my own ward and I was again on the first train from that station. It was also inspiring the day we took a special train to Cardiff with schoolchildren from Aberbeeg, Brynithel, Llanhilleth and Swffryd to Cardiff and each child was presented with commemorative mugs and baseball caps. A dinner was also hosted in Ebbw Vale for retired railwaymen who had once worked on the line.

Passenger numbers exceeded all expectations and it is expected that the original aspiration to link to Abertillery and Newport will be achieved.

There are those who take credit for the rebirth of the Ebbw Valley Railway, but the truth is My name is Legion – for we are many.

The Reshaping of British Railways, is commonly referred to as "The Beeching Report", written by Dr.Richard Beeching Chairman of British Railways. The report led to over 4,000 miles of track being removed from the British Rail network. The Ebbw Valley Railway passenger service which had operated since the 1850s was part of the cuts implemented by Ernest Marples Minister for Transport in Harold MacMillan’s Conservative Government in 1962.

About this work

This is a lovely account of Hedley’s train journeys told in its own direct line of connection between child and man.

The first half is a nostalgic recollection of the type of journey many of us will be familiar with. Hedley conjures up his child-like excitement at the approach of the ‘hissing and whistling’ train with the wonderful sensory descriptions of the steam, and the leather straps on windows that could actually be opened. His mother’s voice punctures the imagery with its warning, transporting us directly into the carriage with them as they approach Aberbeeg. The descriptions of Barry Island, of Newport and Bristol Temple Meads which follow are all told from an engaging child-like perspective, full of humour and wonder with Hedley’s Christmas Annual porters in their ‘shipshape’ livery as ‘smart as paint’. The anecdote about the watch is told with a gentle humour and links nicely to grown man he becomes and we can feel the pride and pleasure he feels at the successful restoration of the railway.

An achievement to be proud of for all in the community – as Hedley graciously acknowledges at the close.

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This page is part of the Blaenau Gwent REACH online exhibition.

Film and audio | Creative writing | Visual art

Digital stories | The history of Blaenau Gwent | About this project


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