On a cold and overcast day we ventured within the old boundaries of Gwent to the Pontypool and Blaenavon Railway, which is a 2-mile (3.2 km) volunteer-run heritage railway. The railway runs trains between a halt platform opposite the Whistle Inn public house southwards to the town of Blaenavon via a two-platform station at the site of former colliery furnace of the Big Pit National Coal Museum.
The line began in 1866 by the Brynmawr and Blaenavon Railway to transport coal from the fertile mines to the Midlands via the Heads of the Valleys line. The line was completed in 1869 and commenced operating passenger trains the following year. Several years later it was extended to meet the Great Western Railway at Abersychan & Talywain. Here the line carried on down the valley through Pontypool to the coast at Newport.
By 1938 many of the coal mines had ceased production having exhausted coal reserves and many of the branch lines were removed in 1937. The line was closed to passengers, not during the Beeching Cuts which befell many train routes, but due to the exigencies of the Second World War. Blaenavon shed closed in 1942 and eventually goods also ceased in 1954. The line was retained for wagon storage until 1953. The declining situation continued through the 1950s, leaving only Big Pit as the primary exporter of coal.
Although the track along the whole route to Brynmawr was finally lifted in July 1961, the section from Blaenavon to Pontypool was still in use for coal trains until Big Pit finally closed in 1980. The line from Cwmbran was dismantled right up to Blaenavon High Level station whilst the washery and other colliery buildings were demolished during 1987. Much of the railway today has now become part of the National Cycle Network Route 46.
We had our own carriage, and as we looked out the window towards the slate grey hills and rolling clouds we observed birds of pray circling this inspiring industry-built landscape. Afterwards we had a cup of coffee in the station house café and one of the volunteers told us a little about the railway and how busy it can get in the summer and Christmas during special events. We had come at a good time she said, just before the busy season. It truly felt like a step back in time.