Fairbourne sits in the curve of Wales where it meets the Irish Sea. It’s a small place, and lately getting smaller all the time. It’s also the place where most of my memories of growing up reside.
My parents were the proud owners of a static caravan on a small—some might say primitive—site on the very southern edge of the village. Trapped between the sea, soaring cliffs, a thousand foot mountain and a railway line, the caravan lay no more than forty feet from the sea at high tide.
My earliest memories are of lying in bed with the sound of surf churning and sucking at the pebble bank—the only thing separating us from the waves. Now, fifty odd years later, the bank is damaged and, if another tidal surge occurs the village will be left to its own devices. Sink or swim, as they say. Except, in this case, it will be sink.
Most of us have had a best friend. Mine was a kid called John Walford, who is no longer with us. We spent most weekends together between April and September, and also the long summer break from school. Six whole weeks. My father would deliver us to the coast, a two hour drive in those days and those vehicles, and deposit my mother, myself and my brothers at the caravan. We wouldn’t return home until the day before school started. And for the entire six weeks I was barely indoors. There were cliffs to climb, mountains to explore, fish to be caught, sea to swim in. And a railway bridge.
It spanned—and continues to span—the Mawddach estuary. If you don’t know Wales and don’t know the pronunciation that likely comes out as Mawdak, but it’s softer than that. More like Mowthach except the ch at the end is softer than you think.
The bridge runs for a mile or more, linking the Fairbourne side to Barmouth. It’s fashioned out of thick wooden piles encrusted with barnacles, and if you go there at the right time of year salmon hang lazily in the current before they foray upstream. It was, and remains, one of the most beautiful locations in this world.
The caravan site closes at the end of September and doesn’t open until Easter weekend. Between those dates it is cold, wet, deserted and out of bounds
Except that year when I was seventeen John Walford and I had plans. We were going to spend Christmas at Fairbourne. Whether we were meant to or not.
I took the train because I was only three months into being seventeen and not yet passed my driving test. John, a little older, came on his motorbike. A BSA with learner plates. In those days you could ride a machine up to 250cc on learner plates, so that’s what he did. We met at the caravan site, hoping nobody would discover us. Then we had to decide what to do with ourselves.
The railway line ran above the site, raised on a high boulder bank. When we were younger we’d put pennies on the line and wait for a train to come along. Somebody told us it was dangerous, the coins might derail the train and it would come careening down from its high position. But we did it anyway.
The train would come, roaring and steaming—yes, in those days they steamed—and our pennies would clatter up and outward.
Afterward we went in search of them. If we were lucky they’d be flattened, made twice the size. It was a challenge to put the coin on the line a second, third or fourth time to see how flat, how large they could grow.
But on this Christmas Eve, let loose from family control, we had to go somewhere, do something.
I was too young to drink. Here in the UK you can legally buy and consume alcohol from the age of 18. I wasn’t. But John was.
We both knew there was a public house on the station at the start of the long bridge. In those days it was Barmouth Junction, but now it’s called Morfa Mawddach. Remember the pronunciation? There might be a test later.
We could have ridden there on John’s BSA, but we knew we intended to drink pints of beer. As many as we could manage. It never occurred to us we wouldn’t get served, and in that we were right.
We walked. Along the railway line. Climbing the boulder bank and making our way through the darkness. The last train was due at 10 pm, and we started off at 9. More than enough time. The distance was no more than three or four miles, and that Christmas Eve boasted a clear sky with stars pricking holes through.
At the station we entered the bar, me tentative, John, as always, more confident.
I sat in a wooden chair at a wooden table. John went to the bar. Behind it stood a barmaid. Thirty years old. To me, then, that was old. How things change.
John returned, two pint glasses in hand, and we set to.
When we arrived we were the only customers. Then the last train came through. It stopped. It went on. Two men came into the bar. They glanced around, bought drinks, then took a table across from us. If I thought the barmaid old, these two were ancient. Grizzled men of the hills, farmers or fishermen, we never did find out. But, as the beer continued to flow, they told us the tale of the Ghost Train.
There was a film once, they said, back in the 1940’s. Not a great film, but entertaining all the same. And by coincidence some of the filming took place at the very station, in the very bar, we now sat.
“I don’t believe in ghosts,” said John.
“Don’t matter,” one of the old men said. “They don’t much mind if you do or you don’t. They just am.”
John laughed and I, already the worse for wear, giggled along.
“‘Course—it were based on a true tale.”
John laughed again, but it came out uncomfortable this time.
“Line was busier back then,” the man said. “There’d be ten, twelve trains a day. And the station were busier too. People waiting on people coming home. Except one day they waited too long.” He looked at us both with rheumy eyes which had seen everything, including two kids who had no place in a bar on Christmas Eve. “One day the train went over the cliffs south of town. Went tumbling down, taking all the folks with it. Nobody survived. Except…” He paused, maybe for effect, maybe because his glass was empty.
I got up and went to the bar.
The barmaid eyed me. I more than likely looked even younger than my seventeen years, but she poured four pints of bitter anyway. I paid and carried them back, two in each hand.
The man sipped at his, smiled.
“Except,” he said, “the folks waiting saw the train a-coming. Heard it first, o’course. Always do, don’t you? Then the smoke, and finally the train. ’Cept this time she looked different. Not as solid as she should. But her kept on coming. Coming and coming. And then she roared through the station and out over the bridge, trailing smoke and sparks and wisps of grey… something. Until it was gone. ’Twas only later those folks waiting on their kin heard what had happened.”
“Ghost train, it was,” said his companion.
“That’s right. Ghost train.”
I sat back. I listened—for the sound of a distant whistle, for the rumble of something on the tracks. Nothing. But, on this first Christmas Eve on my own, the night felt different. I looked at John. He looked back. We nodded and drank our pints and stood.
The moon silvered the track ahead of us as we stepped from wooden sleeper to wooden sleeper, the distance never quite right, either too short or too long. Behind us silver light illuminated the languid current of the Mawddach estuary.
“Bollocks,” said John. “He was talking bollocks.”
“‘Course he was.”
Our breath plumed the air and white frost decorated the grass beside the line. We came to Fairbourne station and went on, little more than half a mile to go. We didn’t speak again. Our eyes followed the twin tracks of the railway line until they met in the distance. We were watching. Waiting for something to appear.
Of course, nothing did.
We came to the bridge over the roadway and John started down the bank.
I hesitated, feeling in my pocket and pulling out a penny. I knelt and laid it on the line, taking a moment to get it square. They always worked better if they were square to the metal.
John stopped and looked back at me, then climbed up and placed his own coin on the other rail.
We stood for a moment staring at them, the sound of the surf on the beach loud, then we scrambled down and burrowed under the covers and slept the sleep of drunken youth.
Except, at some time in the night, I turned over, disturbed by some sound. I was barely conscious, and more than likely what I heard was nothing more than a dream, but it sounded like a train running fast along the line, rattling and clattering, growing loud, louder, then passing to fade away. A distant whistle sounded and I fell back into sleep.
In the morning we woke late. Remembering the dream I climbed the line in search of my penny, only as I was almost there remembering it was Christmas Day and there were no trains. Except I was wrong.
My penny wasn’t on the line where I had left it, solid and squared.
I looked around. Sometimes they would lie close. Other times they were flicked away, sometimes so far you never did find them. This one I did. Ten feet from the line. My penny lay dull in the grass and I bent to pick it up, turned it over, turned it again. It was wide and flat and thin as a sheet of paper where something heavy had run across it in the night. It was wider and flatter and thinner than any I had ever seen before. And some kind of light clung to it in the grey air of Christmas Day.
I tossed it in the air, caught it and slipped it into my pocket. Good luck or bad? I still don’t know.