5.5mm Association

The Malcolm Savage Archive

Gwynant Valley Railway

by Malcolm Savage

Photographs by Brian Monaghan.

Railway Modeller - Oct 1984

Reproduced courtesy of Railway Modeller

Over twenty years ago, a new scale/gauge combination for narrow gauge modelling was introduced commercially - 5.5mm scale on 12mm gauge. The size never became very popular despite its attributes, but Malcolm Savage still uses it to excellent effect. Note his beautiful scratchbuilt locos.

General view of the MPD. "Charles" and the Tasmanian Garratt are on shed and "The Countess" shunts Welshpool wagons.

I will spare you the history of my interest in model railways apart from the events that led to the construction of the present layout.

I had been interested in the Festiniog Railway for a number of years, so I found the introduction of 5.5mm scale kits, by GEM in 1963, very tempting. They were so tempting that when I saw a kit of a bug-box in a local model shop I bought it, assembled it, painted it and was hooked. I bought other kits, including the Mark I version of 'Prince', which I was unable to make work satisfactorily. This dampened my enthusiasm for a while until the Mark III version was introduced, a version that had far superior running qualities.

A layout was started at this time on an 8'x4' baseboard which was supported on an old bed frame. It consisted of an elevated oval with a terminus at baseboard level in the centre and a fiddle yard beneath the main line. When I got married and came to move into our new house the only way the layout would go into the spare room was through the window, after removing the glass - which, of course, we broke, on a Saturday night! This layout was never very satisfactory. I had been having trouble with the cast frog and blade units of the GEM points and had rebuilt one using some spare rail. This worked better than all the rest and this fact, coupled with the impending arrival of our first baby who would require the spare room, made me decide to scrap this layout and build a new one.

The next layout, part of which is incorporated in the present layout, was built on three boards 5' x 1'4" in size and formed an L-shape along two walls of the room. It was a freelance terminus to fiddle yard layout. The trackwork in the station consisted of a run-round loop, two sidings and a two-road shed with a coal road. The coal road was removed after a short time as the three way point that led to it gave trouble and was removed. The branch into the tunnel was provided with the intention of placing the fiddle yard at the end to form a straight layout. The fiddle yard was provided with a headshunt on a plank of wood supported on a single leg. Basic scenery was provided but smaller details were never added.

Tan-y-Graig station. "Taliesin" has arrived with an up passenger train and "Welsh Pony" is waiting with a down goods.

The layout stayed in this form for the next ten years apart from a short-lived extra board that fitted between the station and fiddle-yard making the layout U-shaped. The lack of activity on the layout was because I was spending most of my modelling time building locomotives and rolling stock.

In 1980 I was asked by the Dee & Mersey group of the Festiniog Railway Society if I would take the layout to a local exhibition where the stipulation had been made that the group's sales stand could attend only if accompanied by a layout. This I did and the layout was well received. This showing led to an invitation to attend another exhibition and this time I made the stipulation that the layout would attend only if accompanied by the sales stand. As a result of these two outings it was suggested at the group AGM in 1982 that a layout should be constructed for exhibition purposes. I agreed to do this providing that some help was forthcoming. Others volunteered and we met the following week to decide what we should do. As all but one of those volunteering had little or no modelling experience, it was agreed that we use my existing layout as the basis for a larger layout more suited to exhibiting.

We decided therefore to retain the two boards which carried the station, reverse them and extend the trackwork in both directions to form an oval with as many storage sidings at the rear as we could accommodate. This meant little alteration to the existing track and scenery and only plain track needed to be constructed on those boards intended for public viewing, although fourteen points were required in the yard at the back. We also decided to make a scenic feature of one end board incorporating hills, deep cuttings and a dry stone embankment and leave the other end board relatively open for future development. The decision was also made to use all the same techniques that I had used on the original layout so that the new parts would blend in with the old.

Shortly after we had made a start on the new layout in June, 1982 I received an invitation to take the layout to another local exhibition in October of the same year. I explained what was happening to the layout and that we would have it in an exhibitable condition in time. This we just managed to do and, apart from those alterations already mentioned, we fitted new legs all round, a new control panel was built, the whole layout was completely rewired and curtains were provided all round. The layout was a great success, especially as this was the first outing for the completed G16 Garratt (See Continental Modeller Nov/Dec 1983) and the De Winton 'Kathleen'.

After this first exhibition of the group's layout I sold my part to the group and the layout became entirely theirs. The locomotives and rolling stock, however, remained mine.

In the light of experience at this first exhibition we decided to make alterations to the track layout at the shed end. As an end-to-end layout the necessity of shunting out on to the main line had never been a problem, but with the alteration to a through station, shunting was repeatedly fouling running on the main line. The passing loop was rather short and could not pass the longer trains that could be held in the storage roads. We therefore extended the loop and provided a headshunt. Shed facilities also caused problems and a coal and ash road was provided which allowed shed movements to take place without blocking the loop.

Above left: The original L-shaped end-to-end layout plan.
Above right: "Blanche" approaches the second bridge under the lane.

The trackplans show how the layout evolved from an end-to-end design into it's present continuous form.

At its second exhibition in February, 1983 the layout won the visitors' trophy which came as a surprise to all of us. After this exhibition, alterations were made at the other end of the station. A branch was put in off the end of the loop which climbs around the outside of the main line. Although going nowhere at the moment this line will, some day, run up an incline into a quarry over the storage roads. In the station area one of the two sidings was extended and provided with a loading dock and the other was slewed over towards the loop. After the next exhibition we connected the headshunt to the abandoned formation in the tunnel to form a carriage siding.

Although originally conceived as a freelance layout, on which trains of various railways could be run, we decided to give the line a location. As part of its general undertaking of 1872 the North Wales Narrow Gauge Railway proposed building a line from Beddgelert to Betws-y-coed up the Gwynant Valley.

At this time the South Snowdon slate quarries were already connected to the Gwynant Valley by tramroad and inclines and we assumed that a connection would be made between this tramroad and the NWNGR at Nant Gwynant. The provision of a fairly large shed for such a small station we explain by saying that the route ahead up the valley would be difficult (it was to have included reversing spirals) and that locomotive changes would be made here; small locomotives bringing trains up from Porthmadog and larger ones taking them on up the hill.

The baseboards are made from ½" chipboard with a frame of 2" x ⅝" softwood. End pieces are 2" x 2". Pairs of 1" x 1½" legs braced together fit into sockets on the six boards. One board has two pairs of legs with a diagonal strut to brace it and the other boards have a pair at one end only, the other end resting on the ⅜" coachbolts that join it to its neighbouring board. The front and rear boards are 5' x 1' 4" and the two end boards are 5' x 2'. The legs are 3' 6" high and although the method of support seems rather unstable, once the layout is assembled it is surprisingly rigid. The baseboards have no cross-bracing except the one with the embankment, which has one longitudinal support that passes under the embankment. This baseboard also has a piece of chipboard mounted below the embankment on which the sub-baseboard scenery is supported.

"Charles" bringing a short freight down the quarry branch while "Welsh Pony" heads another towards the tunnel.

The track is all scratchbuilt using mostly code 75 bullhead rail soldered to rectangles of tinplate previously glued to balsa sleepers with UHU. A useful feature of UHU is its thermosoftening property which allows the pieces of tinplate to be adjusted as the rail is being soldered in place. Most of the track was assembled off the layout, although much of the recent alterations have been built in situ. Cascamite, or more recently Resin W, was spread over the baseboard, the lengths of track and points were carefully positioned, sawdust was pressed around the track and weights were placed on top for 24 hours. Excess sawdust was then removed and any minor misalignments were corrected with the soldering iron. Rail is cut into scale lengths and no fishplates are used. All points are worked by H & M point motors all between 15-20 years old. Spring steel wire soldered to the motor's crank passes up through a slot cut in the baseboard directly into the tiebar. Power to the frogs is supplied through the point motors' built in switches. Having identified the cause of occasional failure of these switches we have modified them to work with 100% efficiency. The phosphor-bronze strip which forms the moving contact is loosely riveted to the solder tag on the other side of the switch plate. It is the poor electrical connection between the rivet and the moving contact that causes the trouble. We solder the rivet to the solder tag and to the contact strip through a small coil of wire.

The control panel is mounted on two bolts behind the station. Three separate transformers feed the two Gaugemaster controllers and accessories. The layout is divided into a number of sections, each of which is fed via a four-way rotary switch. The four-way switch allows one off position, two positions for the two controllers and a fourth position for the projected provision of a third controller for the storage yards. There is a total of nineteen sections plus a further twelve isolating sections situated in the shed and at the ends of sidings. This may seem excessive but it does allow a variety of complex movements to take place. We have actually been asked if we use Zero 1! The points are controlled by pairs of push-buttons. Uncoupling magnets, also worked by push-buttons, consist of coils fitted around steel screws which pass up between the rails and are cut off level with the running surfaces. This provides a moderately unobtrusive uncoupler which unfortunately requires fairly accurate positioning of the stock to allow uncoupling to take place. We use a prototypical chopper coupling with a hook at one end only. Electrical connection between the control panel and baseboards is by multipin connectors. Where a wire crosses more than one baseboard joint the same pin number is used each time. This enables us to plug the control panel directly into any board for testing purposes. The large number of sections, magnets and points for such a small layout, require ninety-six connections from the control panel.

Hardboard edges, fitted around all the boards, were profiled to suit the proposed scenery. The ground itself was built up from expanded polystyrene, from a variety of sources, glued down with an assortment of glues. The required contours were produced by attacking the plastic with saw and Surform - a very messy job. Surface texture was then achieved by glueing sawdust on top. This was then painted with household gloss paints. The paint soaks into the sawdust and leaves a matt to semi-matt finish. Track and ballast were also painted in a similar way. Rails and baseplates were touched in afterwards with track colour. The rock faces are made from fine grain expanded polystyrene, carved to shape and painted with matt plastic enamels. The walls of the dry stone embankments are made from ceiling tiles which were lightly roughened and coated with a thin wash of Polyfilla before painting. The two bridges, temporarily provided in a hurry for the first exhibition, predictably are also made of expanded polystyrene; large blocks for the body of the bridges with parapets cut from ceiling tiles. Although these were made quickly they are quite effective and will probably remain on the layout longer than intended. Road surfaces have been made from a mixture of fine sawdust and ceramic tile cement.

"Talyllyn" passes under the high bridge and onto the embankment.

The double Fairlie "Earl of Merioneth" approaches the station.

After seeing a small narrow gauge layout at an exhibition in Buckley in the early part of 1983 we decided to try their method of simulating vegetation, which was to use moss. We had reservations about this, but having been told that some of the moss on this layout had been down for ten years and most of it for four years, we felt it was worth trying. By selecting suitable moss it is truly amazing the effect that can be obtained. It dries out and fades or "browns" but this gives the impression of spring turning through summer to autumn. Watering revitalises the moss and this has produced considerable amusement when we have done it during an exhibition.

Because of the unusual scale it is almost impossible to find any accessories suitable for use on the railway. The buildings have been built from Plastikard using 4mm scale random stone. The roofs have been slated with individual 'slates', a lengthy process, but worth the effort involved. The station building is based on the Festiniog Railway station at Duffws. This is a building that may be familiar to non-narrow gauge enthusiast holiday-makers in North Wales as its present function is that of a public convenience. The engine shed is very loosely based on buildings around Boston Lodge. It is an old model, having survived from the first layout, and is rather fragile, more so since a certain amount of rebuilding was required when the headshunt was extended to form the carriage siding.

Figures were one of the greatest problems, solved by cutting down Slaters 7mm scale figures. Only small amounts were removed, from waist, legs and arms, as these figures are actually modelled to 6.5mm scale. The seats are hand-made using a jig to bend the legs. The goods yard crane is a 4mm scale Mike's Model but does not look out of place. The telegraph poles utilise Airfix posts but with new arms, insulators and caps fitted. The fencing is made from lengths of rail recovered from the scrapped section of the old layout. These have been drilled, glued into the layout and wired with copper wire from an old electrical coil. We propose eventually making the level crossing work but for the time being the gates, based on those at 'Lottie's crossing' on the Festiniog Railway, are glued in place.

The station buildings based on Duffws station on the Festiniog Railway. Built of Plastikard, the model is now 14 years old.

There is only one signal on the line so far but we have plans for including slotted post and disc signals later. This signal is worked by rods in tubes from an old GEM lever frame hidden inside the scenery. At the baseboard join the operating wires push against spring pistons, in cylinders, mounted on the next board. The opposite end of the pistons are attached to the operating wires on that board. The signal arms are pulled on by their own balance weights and the pull rods extend down below the baseboard and make contact with cranks at the ends of the operating wires. The signal can therefore be lifted out and the baseboards separated without having to worry about disconnecting wires.

We intend putting some more detail into the layout, but not too much as we feel that an air of spaciousness is necessary to give a true impression of what narrow gauge railways are really like. In our opinion there are too many layouts where too much is crammed into the scenery and where the scenery takes precedence over the trains, both in quantity and quality. We look upon the layout as a theatrical set in which the actors - the trains themselves - must be the focus of attention.

Operation at exhibitions is a case of anything goes. Shunting takes place in the yard continually and trains keep moving on the main line although no train is allowed to make more than one circuit at a time.

Trains made up in the yard are sent out on to the main line to be replaced by stock sent round from the storage yard. Through trains may pick up or set down coaches or wagons, or change locomotives. Photo stops are made and specific trains are run by request. Things can get a bit silly at times, such as Garratts doubleheading a single two ton slate wagon, but through all this two rules hold; that stops and starts are made smoothly and that trains should run at realistic speeds. We have received many favourable comments about the quality of the operating.

I had intended the original layout to be purely Festiniog, but as time went by I discovered the other narrow gauge railways of Britain and conceived the idea of making the second layout a model museum 2'-2'6" narrow gauge railways. I would make a selection of locomotives and rolling stock of many different railways and run them on a simple layout, usually separate from each other but sometimes together to show the differences more clearly. With this idea in mind the collection of rolling stock has started to expand from the nucleus of Festiniog models. I will not describe the locomotives and rolling stock here because I propose a series of articles describing them in detail. Generally, however, all the stock is scratchbuilt (with four exceptions) mainly from Plastikard using Jackson's wheels and K's motors. The exceptions are three GEM kits of 'Prince', 'Earl of Merioneth' and 'Dolgoch' and a modified Airfix bit of a Drewry shunter. The layout also occasionally sees a Baldwin much modified from a Roundhouse kit by Mike Chinery.

"Dennis" hauls a Glyn Valley train across the embankment. The coaches show different variations in livery.

The Festiniog Railway's ex-Lynton & Barnstaple Railway Buffet Car No 14, in varnished mahogany livery.

Locomotives and stock
1. Festiniog Railway 'Palmerston' 0-4-0T + tender with a set of six bug-boxes in original condition and livery of 1863.
2. Festiniog Railway 'Welsh Pony' 0-4-0T + tender with an assortment of Festiniog wagons as running at the turn of the century.
3. Festiniog Railway 'Prince' 0-4-0T + tender with a selection of slate wagons in its late 1950's condition.
4. Festiniog Railway 'Taliesin' 0-4-4T Single Fairlie with a set of three carriages as running about 1900.
5. Festiniog Railway 'Earl of Merioneth' 0-4-4-0T Double Fairlie with a set of three new varnished coaches of the early 1960's.

6. Festiniog Railway 'Blanche' 0-4-OST + tender with a set of three cherry red coaches as running in the early 1970's.
7. Penrhyn Quarry Railway 'Charles' 0-4-0ST brother to Blanche in full Penrhyn Quarry livery with a North Wales Narrow Gauge Carriage and Wagon.
8. Penrhyn Quarry Railway,'Kathleen' 0-4-0T De Winton vertical boilered locomotive.
9. Tasmanian Government Railways Kl 0-4-0 + 0-4-0 Beyer Garratt. The first Beyer Garratt in its original livery with two Lynton and Barnstaple carriages.
10. South African Railways NG128 2-6-2 + 2-6-2 NG/G16 class Beyer Garratt, one of the last class of Garratts built.
11. Talyllyn Railway 'Talyllyn' 0-4-2ST with a set of four coaches as running about 1890.
12. Talyllyn Railway 'Dogoch' 0-4-0WT with a set of fourteen assorted goods and slate wagons.
13. Glyn Valley Tramway 'Dennis' 0-4-2T with a set of six coaches and eleven wagons.
14. Welshpool & Llanfair Railway 'Countess' 0-6-0T with a set of ten wagons in original condition and livery.
15. Freelance Diesel 0-4-0. Much modified Airfix Drewry shunter.
16. Freelance Baldwin 2-8-0. Enlarged Roundhouse HOn3 model.

"Palmerston", in original condition, posed on the embankment.


Malcolm Savage's "Gwynant Valley Railway" has been designed with exhibitions very much in mind. In fact, it developed directly from a display which accompanied the Festiniog Railway Society's sales stand. Now it is a very sophisticated layout which forms a background for Malcolm's scratchbuilt narrow gauge locomotives and stock. The scenery is well developed, and makes use of real moss to represent vegetation. The realism of this can be judged from the accompanying colour pictures.
A view of Tan y Graig station can be seen on the left above with locomotives "Blanche", "Charles" and "Kathleen". The station building is based on that at Duffws, on the Festiniog Railway. A closer shot of the station (below) shows the George England 0-4-0 tank locomotive "Palmerston" with a train of early, and colourful, four-wheeled coaches.
The picture on the left really shows the "natural moss" vegetation to good advantage. This is capable of actually changing colour with the seasons, and does need watering occasionally (!). The locomotive depicted is the single Fairlie "Taliesin", seen on an up train approaching Tan Y Graig level crossing. On the right, Glyn Valley Tramway "Dennis" crosses the embankment with a mixed train.