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Trainees on track

30th Ionawr 2020

by Richard Jinman

Senior Creative Editor

National Lottery funds are helping the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railways train a new generation of rail enthusiasts

Trainee Ed Laxton at work in the workshops of the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railways, Porthmadog, Wales

Edward ‘Ed’ Laxton is most happy standing in front of a lathe creating a component that will help bring a piece of vintage machinery back to life.

“A lot of the old machines are just better,” says the 26-year-old from Norfolk whose restoration projects include a Victorian lawnmower and a milling machine made in the 1940s. “They’re not just functionally better they’re also works of art. A lot of them were made at a time when engineering was the pride of the nation and I really appreciate that.”

In recent months Ed has been working on some rather larger examples of machinery from a bygone age: the collection of steam engines belonging to the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railways. Each year the vintage locomotives take thousands of passengers on a journey from Blaenau Ffestiniog to Caernarfon via Porthmadog, a 40-mile trip that takes in some of Snowdonia’s most picturesque scenery.

Ed is one of 20 trainees who are learning heritage restoration skills as part of a scheme funded by The National Lottery. As part of its £10.1 million Skills for the Future programme, the National Lottery Heritage Fund awarded the Railways a grant of £454,500 to fund the two-year initiative.

Since The National Lottery’s first draw took place on 19 November 1994, more than £40 billion has been raised for good causes in the areas of arts, sport, heritage and community.

Based at the Boston Lodge railway workshops near the town of Porthmadog – a facility recognised by the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest railway engineering works in the world – the trainees are being taught and supervised by the railway’s highly experienced staff. Skills covered by the scheme include heritage joinery, heritage mechanical engineering, heritage horticulture and interpretation, the skills necessary to communicate the significance of a heritage attraction to the public.

Trainee Laurie Price at the Boston Lodge yards of the Ffestiniog and Welsh Higland Railways, Porthmadog, Wales

The grant isn’t the first time The National Lottery has supported the development of the iconic Welsh railway. The £28 million restoration project – which was carried out in four phases – was supported by a £4.3 million grant from the Millennium Commission. In October 1998, a £375,000 grant from The National Lottery Heritage Fund funded the extension of the carriage workshop at Boston Lodge and the restoration of two carriages built in 1872.

Ed says the trainee programme represents a steep learning curve, but he couldn’t be happier. “I think I learn more in a day here than several months at school,” he says enthusiastically. “I could stop now and I would have learned enough for it to be life changing.”

Laurie Price, 29, feels the same way. Like Ed, she is focussing on the maintenance of steam engines during her year as a trainee and her only regret is that she didn’t enrol in a similar course at a younger age. “I wish I’d done this ten years ago,” she says. “But I’m glad I’m here now.”

Laurie has a degree in three dimensional design and a masters in conservation. But she relishes getting her hands dirty and finds the Boston Lodge workshops are the perfect place to do it.

“In museums it’s all about preserving the objects - here it is making them work efficiently and well,” she explains. “You’re getting the locomotives ready for the season and there are deadlines that can’t be missed. I’m not an office kind of person. I much prefer coming in here and getting covered in dirt and going home knackered.”

A locomotive in the Boston Lodge yards of the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railways, Porthmadog, Wales

Laurie’s fascination with heritage machinery – “I think I’m just quite old fashioned” – has taken her up and down the country. Prior to moving to Wales as a railway trainee she did an internship at the National Maritime Museum in London and worked at The National Museum of Flight in Scotland. Stints at a Georgian silk mill near Winchester and Crossness Pumping Station, a Victorian sewage pumping station in South London, taught her new skills and deepened her love of machinery from another age.

Now, she is starting to fall in love with some of the engines at the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railways. “I have a soft spot for the Hunslet engines (locomotives built by the Hunslet Engine Company),” she says. “Their proportions give them a nice look.”

Ed is also gaining a newfound respect for steam locomotives. “Someone asked me if I wanted to ‘fire up a choo choo’ last week and I said ‘yes!’ I spent a whole day going up and down the line on a locomotive called Linda which was wonderful. There were no carriages so it was just me, the driver and the engine. It was so peaceful.”