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Wales Online
Wales Online
Joanne Ridout

The intriguing and heart-warming story of the isolated mountain railway cottage almost lost forever

All buildings have a story to tell, but some properties have a journey through time as unique as their design or location, and this cutest of cottages called Coed y Bleiddiau is definitely one such property.

The remote stone cottage nestled into the Snowdonia landscape was built as an intermediate request halt between the stations of Hafod y Llyn, replaced in 1873 by Tan y Bwlch, and Dduallt. It was part of the railway system taking slate from the mines around Blaenau Ffestiniog to the Ceredigion coast.

The little house and its 22ft platform were built in 1863 for the superintendent of the line and originally only had three ground floor rooms and one upstairs bedroom.

READ MORE: Renovation Nation project sees bottles of 'poison' and hidden coins found in old Georgian house

Peace and tranquillity in the remotest of locations (The Landmark Trust)
So cute (The Landmark Trust)

This is a tight squeeze for any family but the first occupant, Superintendent Hovendon, had a wife and seven children. Little wonder then that soon afterwards a rear extension was added, but the privy remained in the garden.

Hovendon and his family lived at the cottage until his death in 1913, and with the railway no longer requiring the property it was leased out. The first person to take on the lease and use the cottage as a holiday home was someone who, at that time, was considered a bit of a musical celebrity.

Enter Sir Granville Bantock into the story of this cute cottage, conductor of the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, a leading light within the international worlds of the arts and classical music, with friends that included Edward Elgar, Richard Strauss, Thomas Beecham and Sir Henry Wood, founder of the Proms.

Just a railway cottage and its track for miles (The Landmark Trust)
Sunset over the mountains is just one of many reasons this cottage has enchanted so many people over the decades (The Landmark Trust)

Bantock at the cottage would be the present day equivalent of Ed Sheeran leasing and regularly staying there and his mates Stormzy and Sir Elton John turning up to visit.

The cottage is enveloped by the majestic Snowdonia mountains and thick woodland in a remote spot that offers peace and tranquillity, until one of the glorious steam trains puffs by, of course. It's not hard to understand why this unique building in this enchanting location has mesmerised all who have stayed at the property.

Bantock's daughter Myrrha could easily see the spell that this cottage cast over all who visited, writing at the time: "No-one who stayed at Coed y Bleiddiau was anything but happy there. The lovely mountains all round, the feeling of peace and of being completely cut off from the civilised world was peaceful to the spirit."

And relax... (The Landmark Trust)
Mountain spring providing water to the cottage since it was built (The Landmark Trust)

And this magical place certainly mesmerised Bantock's friend Harry St John Philby, who jumped at the chance to take over the lease in 1933 and it remained with him until 1947. Philby's chapter of the cottage's story is again an intriguing and complicated one, that includes becoming chief head of the Secret Service in Mandatory Palestine, working closely with T. E. Lawrence also known as ‘Lawrence of Arabia.’

Philby's political career included meetings with parties involved in the Palestine question, including Winston Churchill, King George V and the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VIII. Research also suggests that Philby's son Kim joined the British Secret Service, so maybe the cottage was visited during that time by a MI6 spy?

It was later revealed that Kim Philby was a double agent, unknown to MI6 at the time who rather remarkably gave him the task of spying on his own father.

Babs and Bob Johnson at the cottage who stayed for over 50 years (Michael Davies)
Around eight or nine train journeys pass by per day so hardly Cardiff Central to London Paddington (The Landmark Trust)

In 1951 the cottage was blessed with the arrival of a charming couple who became synonymous with its most recent history, Babs and Bob Johnson who stayed at the cottage for over 50 years after moving to Snowdonia from London.

At that time it wasn't unusual to see the couple pushing a slate wagon full of provisions and coal up the track, when it was still unused, to the cottage, and over the years Babs and Bob became as legendary as the cottage. Goats were kept to provide milk and water was supplied by a dam across a natural spring in the garden. There was a vegetable patch alongside the tracks and cooking was done initially by calor gas.

Frequently seen tending to their flower garden at the front of the cottage, the couple and garden became highlights to look out for whilst travelling on the line, which had been restored through the early 1950s by volunteers to become a passenger service from 1955.

The couple often gave tours around the pretty and historic cottage to intrigued visitors to the area, and also offered occasional bed and breakfast at the property.

Until around the year 2000 the couple still parked their three-wheeled car in the forest and walked through the trees to the cottage but the remoteness of the property and the challenging access was becoming a problem for Babs and Bob, so they moved to accommodation more suitable for their advancing years.

The decline started around 2010 (The Landmark Trust)
Standing empty, silent and unloved (The Landmark Trust)
Roof leaks and ceiling collapses started the slide of the cottage into a rundown state (The Landmark Trust)

Such was the love for this remarkable property that after the couple passed away, their ashes were scattered at a memorial on the mountain side first erected to commemorate Bab's sister Lilian, who also stayed at the cottage and adored it.

The cottage then stood in silence from 2010 and its condition began to deteriorate, with the roof already leaking, the lath and plaster ceilings beginning to crumble, and the repairs and upkeep beyond the means of owners Ffestiniog Railway Trust. The future looked increasingly bleak for this precious building.

But in 2011 the Railway Heritage Trust approached The Landmark Trust to explore the possibility of the charity adding the cottage on a 99 year lease to its collection of saved and restored historic Welsh properties.

Enter The Landmark Trust to rescue the cottage, but access was difficult so the train track was called on for help (The Landmark Trust)
The restoration inside begins (The Landmark Trust)

Despite the obvious challenges of access the trust took on the renovation and restoration of the cottage with the roof receiving immediate attention thanks to a donation from railway enthusiast Richard Broyd OBE. The main fund-raising effort was launched in 2015 and the funds achieved a year later thanks to the efforts and donations of over 1700 supporters.

There was a long list of repairs to tackle after the roof was completed, including plastering, repointing, a complete rewire and the removal of some of the ramshackle later additions to the property. A septic tank was installed, plus a filtration plant for the water, which is still drawn from the stream in the garden, as it has been since the cottage was built.

Look at the kitchen now - gorgeous (The Landmark Trust)
Cosy lounge where so many occupants over the years have curled up next to a fire (The Landmark Trust)

And how was all this building material delivered to the cottage in the woods and the waste removed from site? By train of course, but even that was a challenge, with special diesel trains from Porthmadoc being sourced for the job.

These trains were used to deliver materials and remove waste and each train took three days to complete its mission - one day to load, one day to get to the cottage, and one day to unload.

Restored to its past glory (The Landmark Trust)
Every country cottage should be able to boast at least one log burner (The Landmark Trust)

The cottage is now a Grade II listed building and inside the original features such as the flagstone floors and fireplace and stove have been restored. The interior design is classic cottage, welcoming and comfortable, and this combination has ensured the magical charm of this cottage has returned to enchant anyone who visits now and long into the future.

Family friend and active Landmark Trust supporter Keith Drummond-Brassington, who spent much of his childhood holidays visiting the cottage, is thrilled it has been saved. He says: "Bob and Babs would be so pleased to see it lived in and enjoyed again."

The character continues upstairs (The Landmark Trust)
Two bedrooms sleeps up to four people (The Landmark Trust)
The pretty in pink bathroom is yet another beautiful, classic cottage room (The Landmark Trust)

The two-bed cottage now sleeps up to four people, has a log burner in the lounge and a bath with overhead shower - the days of popping out to the garden to use the facilities are long gone. You can stay at Coed y Bleiddiau via The Landmark Trust website, find out more here.

Thanks to the research provided by Caroline Standford and images from The Landmark Trust and Michael Davies. And don't miss the best dream homes in Wales, auction properties, renovation stories, and interiors - join the Amazing Welsh Homes newsletter, sent to your inbox twice a week.


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