During 2013, I made a number of family excursions on Wales’ steam heritage railways. I thoroughly enjoyed the Welshpool and Llanfair Light Railway on two occasions and once on the Ffestiniog railway. More locally, I have enjoyed a couple of trips of the Llangollen Railway, commenting on some of their memorial plaques in a previous posting. I have also posted on the nostalgia of smoking material culture on these heritage lines.
Today, I was back at the Llangollen Railway to enjoy one of their Mince Pie Specials, hauled by 3802, an ex-Great Western 2-8-0 heavy freight loco now in British Railway black livery.
The trip from Llangollen to Carrog (from spring 2014 extended to Corwen) involves spectacular scenery, much of it alongside the River Dee. I took two of my offspring – Tobias and Adah – and while I enjoyed mulled wine and a mince pie, complimentary with the ticket, they got chocolate and juice. We went into the giftshop afterwards and got Thomas the Tank Engine flags and a ‘Beware of the Trains’ metal wall sign. There was also a rather eerie Santa’s grotto in the static carriage at Llangollen station. The highlight for me and my kids was getting the chance at Carrog to step into the cab of 3802 and see its firebox and controls and all that lovely coal and the smell of steam.
With regard to steam heritage, it is unsurprising that the steam engines, carriages, uniformed staff, stations, signage, railways, seats, together aim to create a nostalgic environment of an ‘age of steam’. The most ‘fake’ of these I have always thought are the porter’s barrows with their stacks of empty suitcases.
However, it struck me that I had previously missed, in plain sight, one of the most obviously contrived elements of these steam heritage sites, that, from a heritage perspective, are actually quite interesting. A strikingly fabricated pastness can be found at the very entrance to the Llangollen Railway.
Elsewhere on these steam heritage lines, station buildings are adorned with replica advertisements from the age of steam, reminding those that remember and those that don’t, about the range of bizarre products once available, and the promotion of the British landscape through idyllic visions of mountains, lakes and seaside. But here, there is something else.
First, there are contrived heritage signs for the railway itself, giving the impression of authenticity. In addition, down the revetment wall of the approach to the Llangollen station, are a series of 11 mock-antique advertisements for local businesses and heritage attractions.
Two are elaborate faux-heritage ‘to let’ signs. The remaining nine advertise an eclectic mixture of advertised subjects. Five are those that cross-reference each other with the nostalgia of the past as components of local heritage tourism: the Motor Museum, horse-drawn boat-rides on the Llangollen Canal, the National Trust’s Chirk Castle, the International Musical Eisteddfod and a local gift shop. On the other hand, there are two local pubs and an local Indian restaurant. The final poster is particularly imaginative, adapting a picture of two children sitting, backs to the viewer, with the message ‘They need more than just… EACH OTHER: Fostering Solutions. Could you become a foster carer?’ This poster promotes foster caring in this very specific context of family days out.
The point that is interesting here is that these signs only work as advertisements in this very specific setting. I don’t just mean the setting of a heritage steam railway, but at this very point near the entrance to the principal station on the line; they are bespoke mock heritage designed for this specific location. A great example that, with citations of pastness, context is everything for it to have the desired impact. Whether it is nostalgia for colonial past (my favourite is the Indian restaurant’s crazy mix of Welsh dragon heraldry and oriental style), the medieval past, or the ideals of family life, here we find a very specific mock-pastness that collectively show off the tourist industry of the Vale of Llangollen at its most visited attraction.