25 August 2008

On 40 years on

Radio 4 is running a brilliant series of five-minute sound collages at five to five each afternoon, covering 1968 day by day. Last week, as the link shows, followed the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia and the end of the "Prague Spring"; today covered the opening of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The counterpoint of the themes is fascinating. Almost as fascinating as recalling what I was doing this day forty years ago!

I was a "deviationist". While that sounds like some kind of marxist heretic who might be identified with the Czech dissidents, it was much less dangerous. A friend and I (with help from some assistants who were as ever much better at the task than I was) were volunteers leading a camp of a couple of dozen younger teenage boys from a Christian organisation (link here to its current incarnation) labouring on the Ffestiniog light railway in North Wales. We were helping to create a rising loop beyond Dduallt (pronounced THEE-a-cht) to go round the reservoir created for the Trawsfynydd nuclear power station to restore the link to Blaenau Ffestiniog.

In those days I had Freudian tendencies. I thought that boys who were keen on railways and train-spotting would be "anally-retentive" (obsessionally tidy and organised). How wrong can you be? We lived in an old Nissen hut at the end of the line. When the trains stopped running at about 6pm, we were totally out of contact with the rest of the world, other than listening to our transistor radios, until about 8am. The closest contact with civilisation was through Colonel Campbell, whose house was a 45-minute scramble away down a near-vertical but heavily-wooded face. (I seem to remember that he was merely "the Major" in those days.) He was the authorised person in charge of the gelignite for the blasting...

The camp owned an old minibus (bought for the duration and sold afterwards--cheaper than renting) which was kept in Porthmadog at the coastal end of the line. The radiator leaked, and so it was that, stuck in a traffic jam on a hot Saturday afternoon in August trying to cross the "cob"—the two-lane breakwater across the delta to Porthmadog—I turned the engine off to stop it over-heating, only to find when I tried to start it again, that it had seized up... Not only were we holding up the entirety of Welsh coastal traffic on the busiest day of the year, but rescue vehicles could not reach us... (Cue ground opening up to swallow me.)

On alternate days we were hewing away on the deviation, clearing the rubble from the blasting, or trying to create the required gradient with pick and shovel. 6am reveille for breakfast and bible reading to start on site at 7.30. Usually in the rain.

Wouldn't have missed it for the world—just a little ashamed that what we were playing at, others were doing for real, without the option.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous11:14 pm

    interesting, but the lake wasn;t for Trawsfynydd - it's part of the Ffestiniog pumped storage power station.


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