(The images shown are not directly related to the story, but illustrate the units in the area at the time.)
Being a student in South Wales had its advantages. Firstly, the beer was a lot cheaper than most other places - a major concern for hard-up students and more so for their bankrupt parents. Secondly, I was living in a place where DMU operation was still practised - although by 1991 it was a dying art with most of Canton's faithful old beasts laid up and only the City line being a certainty for a chariot amongst the filthy bouncy buses. The unfortunate thing about this state of affairs was that the Cardiff City line was intensely boring. Not boring as in the slightly tedious way, but boring as in the brain numbing sensory depravation type way. I've yet to see anyone survive more than 2 runs on the city line and emerge without having been turned into a gibberingly incomprehensible roverbrain victim. The main thing I remember about the City line is the speed, or lack of it, and stopping at tiny stations 50 yards apart with no “passengers” as they were called in the good old days. There wasn’t even any decent pubs at the turnaround points... come to think of it, there wasn’t really anything at the turnaround points...
This may sound like a pretty bad state of affairs for a committed chariot basher, and indeed things on the Valleys had got progressively worse since the rancid 143's had appeared. It wasn't just the bashers that detested the things; a student friend of a friend once took his girlfriend to Cardiff for a posh meal, but after the 143 had bounced them to town she felt so sick they had to return home which turned him against the things too. I must admit I couldn't blame him.
With the dismal showing in Cardiff, we tended to head for Birmingham where the City line was still solid chariots. Tyseley's motley collection of units had been collected from depots all over the country that had been "plasticised", so there were examples of most types and some really old beasties all haphazardly collated into 2, 3 and 4 car units. We visited Brum more and more, but eventually the XCity line fell to the plastic units and for me the era of chariots was over.
Back to the subject. Apart from the brain numbing city line, there were other rush hour diagrams that "chucked out" chariots, but these too were becoming more and more of a lottery with plastics turning up to gloat at you standing withered on Cardiff platform 6. Fortunately, there was rugby. As anyone who has been to Wales knows, rugby is not their sport, it's their passion. With the event of big matches at Cardiff Arms Park most trains on the valleys were strengthened to double units to cope with the whole Valleys population descending on Cardiff for the day, which meant there weren't enough plastics to cope and involved borrowing "real" units from Tyseley and Swansea. These days were eagerly waited for by Fletch and myself as literally anything could happen with anything Canton could make turn a wheel being pressed into service.
It was International day on the Valleys. This meant all the services were paired, so we presented ourselves early at Cardiff to see what was working what. No great surprises, all the main turns were pairs of plastics and the Bargoeds pairs of DMUs. We decided on a spin up the Rhymney line for a pair back, then later cover the turns up the Valleys after the match.
By this time it was mid morning, so the Valleyboys were making their way into Cardiff as the pubs were opening. We leapt at Llanbradach for a pair back, which was already pretty full and by the time we left Caerphilly the units were packed to bursting point with Valleyboys invading the cabs and guards compartment. The journey down the bank into Caerphilly tunnel was unforgettable as the units had no lights and someone in the cab thought blowing the horn the whole way down in passable imitations of rugby songs was a good idea. As we rolled into Central and disgorged the singing masses, I thought how well behaved the fans had been compared to football thugs. However, we would have to wait and see how Wales got on in the match before we would know how they behaved on the way back.
With nothing really interesting out except for a pair of Swansea 108s, we adjourned for some beers before arriving back at Central for the post match circus. Several trains came and went, all pairs of plastics, until we noticed a Penarth-Treherbert was mysteriously starting from Central. Something was leaving the depot, and as it came round the corner it was like a slap in the face. A Met-Camm! As it pulled closer, it was evident that it was a PAIR of Met-Camms, almost unheard of on the Valleys!
We watched the pair of chariots arrive with glee. A pair on the valleys was supremely rare by this time and I'd not seen much work to Treherbert for a few months. This was going to be good. When they arrived we boarded quickly and got the favoured seat over the engines for the thrash. The train steadily filled up until it was packed with gloomy, dejected looking Valleyboys. They had obviously had a hammering from whoever they were playing - which was not unusual, as Tom Jones would say. We sat in our seats surrounded by morose Welshmen, staying very quiet.
I suppose I'd better explain our predicament for the people who haven't experienced Valley culture to the extent we had. I had found the Valleyboys to be superb people, very sociable but with a sort of joking dislike for the English. I had found that if you were from the North of England they were more hospitable; it seemed to be the Southeast accent they despised. They also disliked students with varying degrees of hatred. We were both English students (and Fletch was from the Southeast!) in a train packed with Welshmen who had just watched their country get stuffed in a rugby match. We both sat in silence and tried to enjoy the thrash as the units stormed up the main line towards Pontypridd, hoping nothing kicked off. If it did, we were not in a position of strength.
We left Ponty and headed North with the units putting up an excellent performance on cl150 timings, all 8 engines screaming away. As yet, no-one had spoken to us which surprised me; after all, the Welsh are extremely gregarious people, even after being thrashed at rugby, but I wasn’t complaining. It was about Trehafod when some of them decided that the 15 pints of Brains SA they had drunk before, during and after the match needed to be released. As the train was too full for them to find the toilets a queue formed for an open window. Valley boys are genetically not the tallest race in the UK, so to reach the window to expel the recycled Brains they had to stand on the seats. They took it in turns to urinate through the window and hold their compatriots to prevent them being unceremonially dispatched onto the ballast via the makeshift latrine. This was one of those situations I’d have loved a camera built into my forehead to record such events. I had my real camera but decided against photting the event on the grounds that we'd probably get a good kicking.
Anyway, we had now reached Porth, and we guessed most of the train's load were going to Treorchy, which is one of the punchiest places in the valleys. I knew Valleyboys from Pontypridd and the like who had never been there. "Treorchy?" they would wail. "No way butt, it's a bloody madhouse up there!". I had never had a walk round myself, but having seen the place and it's occupants I can see why they were reluctant to go. All seemed to be going well, when I noticed with something verging on horror that the valleyboy next to Fletch was talking to him. Here we go then, I thought. The conversation went something like this -
Valleyboy : "Where you from, Butt?"
Fletch : England.
Valleyboy : "Hate the English, Butt. What are you doing here?"
Fletch : I'm a student.
Valleyboy : "Hate f**king students, Butt".
This was not good. Then, the Valleyboy next to me tried to strike up conversation. I was relieved as he didn't seem to be spoiling for a fight, he was just being a Valleyboy and talking to a fellow passenger who he assumed had been to the rugby. I toyed with trying on my Valleys accent, but decided that even though he was pretty drunk he'd still notice and think I was taking the piss. I said I was English, and a student at Treforest and how much I enjoyed living there and loved the people in what must have been a grovelling whine. He was a bit taken aback, but quickly regained his composure and leaned across to his mate who was still telling Fletch how much he hated students, especially southern English ones, and declared "Hey mun, let's take these English boys out round town and show them how the Welsh drink!"
Now we were in a bit of a predicament. We hadn't been punched (yet) so that was good, but I was sure that despite our new friend's best intentions, if we joined them round Treorchy we soon would be, and probably by the whole town simultaneously. "Sorry mate" I pleaded in my best conciliatory voice "We're off to Treherbert to see a friend". Our friends were having none of it, and insisted we join them for a drink. "Only one then mun, then you can shoot off to see your mate, eh?" I desperately thought of a way to refuse without insulting them, as they were being very welcoming and not at all aggressive. It was just their 200 mates back in town I was worried about who would want to know who we were - with predictable results, as anyone who's seen a Valleys town on a Saturday night will know.
We were still protesting we had to go to Treherbert when, to my intense relief, we pulled into Treorchy and the whole human cargo burst out onto the platform and was gone in a sea of drunken singing. We looked at each other and slumped back into our seats. That had been close. The journey back was enjoyed much more as we could stretch out, savour the thrash and experience of a very rare chariot occurrence and talk without fear of being set upon by a trainfull of drunken Welshmen. Now, when was the next match? Bring it on!