Pontesbury Sidings

A model of an unusual British prototype in 4mm scale narrow gauge

The Snailbeach District Railways is one of the lesser-known British narrow-gauge lines, possibly because it never carried a fare paying passenger in its entire history. It is often wrongly considered an industrial line, but this isn’t strictly true as it was a fully functioning public common carrier railway established under an Act of Parliament. Indeed, it would not have lasted until 1962 if it had served only the original customers in the lead industry as it changed its main purpose and customers at least twice during its 85 year history.

Built in 1876-7 the line was the work of the renowned mining and railway engineer, Henry Dennis of Ruabon. He is probably better known for his re-working of the Glyn Valley Tramway, with which the Snailbeach shared a common gauge (2’4”) – well bar the odd ½ inch. The shared interest of Dennis meant that borrowed Snailbeach locos were in fact the first to work the Glyn Valley Tramway.

The Snailbeach was built to transport lead and other mineral ores from mines on the Stiperstones in mid Shropshire about 6 miles to a connection with the LNWR/GWR joint Minsterley branch at Pontesbury, and to take coal back in the opposite direction. The Act enabled two sections to be built – railway no.1 from Pontesbury to Crowsnest, with a spur to Snailbeach Mine (lead, spar and barytes); and railway no.2 from Crowsnest to Tankerville Mine. As usual the first section cost far more than the estimate, and the money ran out with only railway 1 built. 

The Shropshire Minerals Light Railway

A number of schemes were mooted to extend the railway to serve further mineral interests over the next 20 years. None got quite as far advanced as the final one – the Shropshire Minerals Light Railway.  This actually received parliamentary approval in 1891, unfortunately just as lead prices plummeted, and as a result no capital was ever raised or construction started. 

Had it been built it would have been a challenging railway to operate. Whereas the original SDR was a constant 1:40 down to Pontesbury this was in the direction of the principle load (smelted lead parcels and crushed mineral ores), with decreasing amounts of coal was worked back up grade. The SMLR however went over a summit with 1:30 grades in both directions before dividing and heading either into the Hope Valley to reach Roman Gravels Mine or curving right round the end of the Stiperstones ridge serving a number of mines almost reaching as far as the village of Habberly.

A layout is born

In early 2019 I decided I would attempt to build a model of part of the SDR. This “layout” is my second attempt to build a model of the Snailbeach, adopting the uniquely British scale of 009 (or if you are on the other side of the Atlantic   00n2¼). My first attempt was in the early 1990s, and was eventually abandoned due to poor planning, over ambition and the bad running qualities of most of the locos. However, times have changed, 009 models now run nearly as well as N gauge locos have for years, plus my modelling skills have had another 25 years to mature!

The present layout is based on a 6ft plywood shelf in my study, a space it needs to share interchangeably with other similar size layouts for my various other railway interests. The size was felt to be manageable in terms of relatively rapid completion by one person, and portable for exhibition or house moves.

Layout Design Elements

The model is based on the actual SDR Pontesbury Sidings, it’s not 100% prototypical but uses the “layout design element” philosophy espoused by Tony Koester and other American Model Railroaders. This takes the key features of the prototype and combines with some modellers licence to give an overall impression of a place. In the case of Pontesbury Sidings key layout design elements include the narrow gauge being raised on a tree lined embankment, a distinctive girder bridge over the main road, and a timber transhipment trestle over a standard gauge siding, and in later years a similar arrangement for road lorries.

For size constraints arrangement of the sidings is both compressed and reduced in number. A run around loop is included, whereas in real life there was none until the tarring plant was installed in the 1930s, instead use was made of a kick back siding allowing the loco, which was always at the downhill end of a loaded train to escape; the loaded wagons being then run down to the transhipment areas by gravity. This is not really practical in model terms and the track arrangement has been altered to suit.

Construction

There is nothing particularly unusual about the layout’s construction, 12mm hardwood faced ply for the base and embankment risers with a 6mm ply for the narrow-gauge track bed. All trackwork is Peco 009 “crazy” track – which suits the SDR’s dilapidated state, and is of course bang on scale for this 2’4” gauge railway. Control is conventional analogue 12v DC, I use two interchangable Gaugemaster hand held controllers – a model W (best for the modern coreless motored locos) and a model UF mounted in a handheld enclosure for Dennis (which needs the feedback controller to run slowly with its old 3 pole motor). The layout has its own lighting from strips of self adhesive LED lights bought very cheaply from The Range, powered off the 16v AC accessory bus via a simple rectifier / voltage regulator circuit.

Scenery is plaster-cloth shell with a brown coloured Sculptamould layer, then fine chippings, sieved earth, ash, and lots of static grass (Woodland Sceneics / MiniNatur / Noch) and Woodland Sceneics ground foam. I will be writing up another piece about my approach to trees.

Most of the masonry structures on the layout are scratch built from card, and use Scalescene’s downloadable papers which were then embossed with a run-out ball point pen. Originally, I planned a row of cottages alongside the main road, and kitbashed a terrace of 3 cottages from a Scalescenes kit to fit; but they made the scene look too crowded, so they will have to find another home. I think Scalescene’s produce some of the nicest observed British prototype building kits around, and their brick and stone papers are simply the best in the business. The only exception is the yard office which is a Ratio plastic kit that came as a magazine freebie – in real life this office wasn’t brick and looked a great deal like the garden shed it was made from! The unique transhipment docks for rail and road are scratch built from stained basswood. I have details such as telegraph poles, fences and the yard master’s allotment yet to finish.  I also need to do a top facia and drapes below to finish the presentation.

Changing the era

With the layout approaching completion, some thought has been made of how it could operate. The real SDR operated as a “one engine in steam” railway – there were no signals, sections or staffs. Pontesbury Sidings has been wired accordingly, and you’ll only ever see one engine at a time.

The real SDR’s operations at Pontesbury did evolve a bit over time. The once important coal siding was removed as less coal was carried up hill to the mines, and a new stone tarring plant put up to serve the new customers. In model terms the track layout can’t really change, so its other things which will need to change to set the era.

The rolling stock in use and being built lends itself to presenting the layout in 1914, 1924, or 1944. I can also run it as the semi-fictional Shropshire Minerals Light Railway in either of the earlier eras. Currently stock consists of copious amounts of the unique SDR hoppers (Dundas models kits), SDR coal wagons (also Dundas) and ex-Plynlimon & Hafan open wagons which arrived in the 1920s (Meridian Models). To haul this, I currently have a kit built Bagnall 0-6-0T No.1 Dennis and Baldwin 4-6-0T No.4 (Bachmann r-t-r). These can be used respectively for 1914 and 1924, a second Baldwin awaits detailing up as No.3. I have yet to find a way of satisfactorily representing SDR No.2 (Kerr Stuart 0-4-2T) or the earlier locos Fernhill and Belmont about which a lot less is known.

A few era specific road vehicles (in order – horse and cart and traction engine, Austin A7 van and AEC lorry) and the odd era specific standard gauge wagon completes the change in scene. I have yet to find a model of a Sentinel steam lorry – which were a signature road vehicle for this site in the inter-war years.

For the semi-fictitious SMLR I have freer rein – but have thought logically about what might have run if the extra length of railway had been built. For specific stock I have used ex WW1 army surplus wagons (Dundas / Bachmann / WD Models), and suppose that when he purchased the railway in 1923, the ever-thrifty Col Stephens would have purchased at least one larger loco to conquer the grades of the SMLR. Manning Wardle 0-6-2ST Canopus (ex- Pentewan Railway) was being offered for sale in 1923 no doubt very cheaply, and at 2’6” gauge might actually have been easier to re-gauge to 2’4” than the ex-WD 60cm gauge Baldwins, which never ran comfortably on the SDR. A model of Canopus is being constructed from the infamous Backwoods Miniatures kit, along with a Pecket 0-6-0T re-worked from the Fourdees r-t-r model. I am also contemplating building a Bagnall 0-6-2T based on Conqueror (Sittingbourne Paper Mills), using parts from a GEM Dennis kit and a trusty Graham Farish 08 chassis – there is a clear family resemblance between Conqueror and Dennis.

And finally…

In 1948 the SDR scrapped its worn-out steam locomotives and leased the line to Shropshire County Council – by then the only customer. The Council rolled the loads down by gravity but used a Fordson tractor to haul the empty hoppers back to their granite quarry – the rubber tyred tractor straddling the narrow-gauge rails. A 1954 scene can then be replicated with suitable road vehicles and the tractor – I have yet to work out how to motorise it!

About the author – James Taylor

I’ve been making models of trains, buildings, and landscape with the odd boat, plane or vehicle thrown in for more years than I care to remember. It all started with a family trip to North Wales and an encounter with a narrow-gauge steam loco called Dolbardan at the Dinorwic slate museum in the long hot summer of 1976. Model making came soon after and it’s been part of my life ever since! I’ve been a member of Alton MRG, on and off, since 2002 being part of the American modelling group. I currently have model train interests from right around the globe in a wide variety of scales from Japanese N (1/150) to 1/55 scale. I occasionally feel the need to write about what I’m doing on my blog Boxcar Jim Talks Trains  boxcarjim.blogspot.com