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News, Regional Blogs

Tales of a different nature

Mid-Wales reporter Rob Shelley has been out and about this week, looking at two very different sorts of tale… 

War Stories

They say that from the air, each city has its own individual shape. Imagine the scene: it’s wartime, you’re on a raid, and below you, you see the familiar rounded black splodge of houses, parks and factories that is Birmingham.

The factory in Newtown was know as a 'Shadow Factory' secretly working on Britain's WWII war effort

Not difficult to navigate your way – and your bombs – to the city where they made everything from tank turrets to the Spitfire assembly lines.

So cue a place that most motorists on their way in and out of Mid Wales probably don’t give a second glance to. The old Lion Works on the outskirts of Newtown.

The historical detective work of one man – historian Brian Poole – has uncovered just what did happen here – a secret that kept secret even after sixty five years.

Because this was a shadow factory – the place where they built parts for planes and guns, deep in the countryside, far enough away from anywhere built up to fool the Luftwaffe.

Just wandering round the maze of corridors and sheds and factories is a strangely potent way of getting back to how things must have been when around a thousand workers – many of them women who were virtually conscripted from South Wales – turned out the gun barrels that went from Newtown into the hands of the French or the Greek resistance, who built the hydraulics that helped Spitfires, Hurricanes and dozens of other aircraft to land safe home.

Walk past the old canteen and you can almost catch a phrase or two from ITMA or Workers’ Playtime; the furniture warehouse there now still comes complete with its own watchtower fitted with loopholes for machine guns.

And it wasn’t just Newtown: these places existed all over Wales – Llanfoist near Abergavenny, Beaumaris, Broughton in Flintshire, even the site where they ended up making toy cars just outside of Swansea. Many of the ladies who were 19 when the war ended are in their mid eighties now – it’s difficult to piece the memories of these shadow – and shadowy – factories together.

… And bedtime stories

Most of us never really remember the bedtime stories that were whispered to us, mostly in the hope that we’d finally go to sleep and then the adults could stay up and watch Bouquet of Barbed Wire (yes, I really am showing my age now)

Christopher's father wrote the famous Thomas the Tank Engine books

But Christopher Awdry can’t escape his – even though he doesn’t remember being the first person on earth, aged two, to listen to what from his father’s pen would become the Thomas the Tank Engine stories.

Well, six decades and a bit on, the really very moral tales of good – or rather, tank engine – triumphing over evil (normally trucks carrying tar – they’re a bad lot) on the Island of Sodor have caught the imagination of a world of childhood, and (prepare to gasp) – according to the latest figures, sold as many books in the Thomas series as Charles Dickens has sold in his entirety, or double the novels Ian Fleming shifted with James Bond.

The name’s Tank Engine, Thomas the Tank Engine…… at least Goldfinger would enjoy the irony.

The Talyllyn Railway hosted its celebration of the Reverend Wilbert Awdry’s life on Wednesday, complete with a special train, a lot of fond memories – and down on the platform at Tywyn’s Wharf station, a reminder of what Thomas means – a crowd of two and three year olds who’ve all come to see him – the second generation of people never to have heard a steam train whistle in anger on our bigger railways.

One small and bizarre note: everyone who loves Thomas has an irrational dislike of one of the characters. Despite sharing one of my middle names with James the Red Engine, I always hoped that he’d come to the end of his buffers and fall off the Island of Sodor….I didn’t share that with the son of his creator though……

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