Completion of a project to re-signal 50 miles of the North Wales Main Line in Spring 2018 means that anyone travelling along the coast by rail towards Holyhead will now wait until reaching the Isle of Anglesey before encountering any semaphore signalling.
Once on the island, though, there are four fascinating outposts of mechanical signalling along the final 19 miles of the route, including one of our oldest working signal boxes and one of only two working semaphore distant signals to survive in Wales.
Paying a return visit (10-13 May 2021) for the first time in four years, I was keen to explore a number of locations I had not been able to visit on my brief January 2017 visit, when I had not had a great deal of luck with the weather
Basing myself at the convenient Holyhead Travelodge, my first challenge was to get to the remotest of the four signal boxes at Gaerwen, junction for a branch line to Amlwch, which survived for freight traffic long after it lost its passenger service in 1964 and is now the focus of attempts at a potential re-opening.
Gaerwen station only outlived the branch line’s closure by a couple of years, succumbing like Valley and others on 14 February 1966, yet remaining a block post and controlling an adjacent level crossing to this day. With no station, my trip from Holyhead involved travelling on an Arriva bus 4, using a £4.60 Menai day rover ticket.
One notable feature of the 1882 LNWR box at Gaerwen is a post box built into its base, which stands alongside the level crossing it controls, as seen above.
Four semaphores remain under the control of its 20-lever frame, with home signal GN4 and section signal GN5 in the down direction and up signals GN19 (home) and GN17. But look closely in the trees west of the signal box and you will also spot GN16 protecting exit from the mothballed and long-disconnected Amlwch branch.
Having been prevented by dismal weather from getting any decent shots on my only previous visit, my Anglesey OS map (114) suggested that decent photos of the signalling here could be got from a foot crossing to the north-east of the signal box and from a farm over-bridge south-west of the former station site.
Alighting from the bus at a stop called Gaerwen Railway Farm, just north of the level crossing, I walked back towards the A5 at Gaerwen before taking a footpath to the right, as seen in the map extract above, from where on a clear day there was a good, but rather distant, view of the signal box and its signals.
Returning almost to the level crossing, I then took a right turn along a lane that soon crossed the heavily-overgrown Amlwch branch before reaching a left turn into a farm, where one of the family kindly let me pass through the farmyard onto their over-bridge, from where there was a panoramic view back towards the signal box and its four semaphores.
Apart from some great views of regular TfW rolling stock, in the form of Class 158 and 175 units, along with an Avanti West Coast Class 221 unit, a real highlight of my 45 minutes on this bridge was the sight of DB 67010 heading an ECS working from Holyhead to Crewe, with four Mk4 coaches and DVT 82216 in tow, as seen above.
Day three on Anglesey (12 May) took me back to the remote request stop at Ty Croes, where the main feature is its Grade II listed signal box – now only a gate box. This is not only one of our oldest working boxes (1872) but also one which has a working distant (TC1) among the trio of semaphores it controls.
When being selected for listing, the box was described as “a well-preserved example of one of the signal-box and station ranges built to serve the Anglesey section of the Chester to Holyhead railway with a well-composed design, enhanced by decorative brickwork detailing, and original name plates.”
What makes Ty Croes architecturally significant is that there is a single storey extension on the south-east side of the box that once served as a booking office and waiting room – facilities long since dispensed with.
Both its other semaphores stand close to the staggered station platforms and protect its level crossing – down home TC2 and up home TC5 (both seen above).
Having exhausted the photo opportunities on the station, my next challenge was to set out in search of that elusive down distant signal, around a mile east of the station, and which my OS map suggested might well be visible from a nearby over-bridge.
Getting to the bridge is an easy 15 minute walk along a quiet country lane that runs east and fairly close to the railway. Once at the bridge there is a splendid view of the line and of down trains passing the signal, with other views from the road either side of the bridge.
For a front view of the signal I walked on for a further five minutes to a point near an under-bridge, where the farmer who owned a field next to the line kindly allowed me in amongst his sheep to get this shot (above) looking across the field and up onto the railway embankment.
One final stop before the ferry port of Holyhead is Valley, a small settlement best known for the large RAF base of the same name. Like Gaerwen, Valley was one of many stations on this route to have succumbed to Beeching, and closed on 14 February 1966, but re-opened in March 1982, though now temporarily without trains (since 6 July 2020) due to its short platforms and the distancing requirements of the current pandemic.
Here another Grade II-listed signal box (LNWR, 1904), at the south end of the up platform, controls a level crossing and sidings to the south of the station which form a triangle and, having originally been installed to provide a means of exporting spent fuel rods from the island’s Wylfa nuclear power plant in 1962, is now used to turn any steam locomotives operating special services to Holyhead.
The immaculately restored signal box gained its listing due to timber cladding, large sash windows, slate roof and an original 25-lever frame in the box itself. That frame now controls just two semaphore signals, an up home (VY23) immediately in front of box and up outer home VY24, which can be seen from a road over-bridge north of the station.
Finally to the end of the line at Holyhead, a place which has a rather sad and down-at-heel feel about it, having seen its once important passenger ferry traffic to Dublin lost to low-cost airlines. Standing on its largely deserted station it is hard to imagine the days when trains like the Irish Mail would disgorge hundreds of passengers transferring from train to ship.
Holyhead station is built in a Y-shape, with platforms 2 and 3 providing the closest connection to the ferries, while platform 1 is closest to the town centre, or would be if modern looking footway above the railway tracks had not been permanently locked out of use.
This platform is used by Avanti services to London Euston, currently largely curtailed to Crewe, while Transport for Wales (TfW) services normally use platform 2, with platform 3 not normally seeing regular use, but currently in service while work on the station roof requires temporary closure of platform 2.
An interesting signalling feature can be seen towards the buffer stops on platform 3, where there is a (fixed) home signal and shunting arm beneath facing the buffer stops, as seen below.
Otherwise, the station is a mixture of mechanical and colour lights, although the starters from all three platforms are semaphores, with tall signal HD23 protecting platform 3, HD35 platform 1 and a short post with signal HD38 controlling exit from the station’s busiest platform (2).
A large 1937 London Midland & Scottish Railway (LMS) signal box stands some 300 yards south of the station and can be seen and photographed from a roundabout at the start of the A55 North Wales Expressway, the major dual carriageway road built along the North Wales coast in the 1980s and meaning that road is a major competitor for speed with rail.
Another good vantage point is from a footbridge some way south of the signal box, from where two colour light signals can be seen protecting access to the station, with a semaphore section signal (HD39) and another semaphore protecting exit from the TfW depot (HD95), both of which have small shunting arms below the main signal.