WILLIAM “Ronnie” Howells worked on the railways from the age of 16 until his 65th birthday.

Turning 88 this month, Ronnie shared his memories with Nostalgia.

“I started at Whitland’s Great Western Railway Loco Depot in October 1943,” he said. “One thing I had to do to get the engine cleaner job was sit “colour tests”. You had mixed up coloured wool, and you had to draw the right colour out.”

Engine cleaners got dirty jobs – cleaning and polishing engines, shovelling ashes, relighting fireboxes - and worked shifts covering 24 hours.

“We had to carry a scoop of fire on our shoulders, and put it in the firebox of the locos,” Ronnie recalled. “Senior drivers had the same loco every day and took great pride in them – they had to shine. Sometimes we went inside warm fireboxes to clean clinker off the tubes. We’d put a sack on the bottom. It was too hot to touch.”

Cleaners had to go to drivers’ houses to wake them up for work.

“We had to keep shouting, until we got an answer,” he said.

“Sometimes the senior cleaner would take a different route to the house, and try to frighten you during the black out!”

In April 1944, Ronnie went to Bristol St Phillips Marsh Gardens Depot as a fireman.

“I travelled on the Cardi Bach,” he recalled. “I was a bit home sick and tired. They had found me a lodge, and a kind gentleman helped carry my case.”

One night, the air raid warning sounded. Ronnie’s landlady said she was going to the public shelter, but he could “please himself”.

“Air raids happened a few times, but that night they dropped bombs near Filton,” said Ronnie. “When the rest went to the shelter, I thought I’d rather stay in bed, because I was on an early shift in the morning!”

Follwing his brush with bombs, Ronnie had a run-in with the Home Guard, as he used a railway bridge to cross the river in the dark.

“They shouted “Halt, who goes there!” when they heard my footsteps,” he said. “I stood still. It’s a good job I did! A man came charging towards me with a rifle and fixed bayonet. When he saw me, he was very apologetic.”

Working as a fireman, Ronnie found most drivers helpful. They would teach him to get the best results from the engines. Sometimes, he was “able to sit down and admire the scenery”.

In June 1946, Ronnie transferred back to Whitland, and worked on trains to Cardigan, Pembroke Dock, Llandeilo, Fishguard and Swansea.

He laughed about scrapes he had at work.

“Once I was shovelling so hard I threw the shovel in after the coal! For the rest of that day I had to put the coal in using a bucket!

“Sometimes we’d have time on our hands. We’d stop at Rosebush and go to the Preseli Hotel. The driver and guardsman were in the pub, and saw the wagons and trailers moving. Local boys had taken the brake off. The driver had to run like hell to jump on and stop them getting away!

“The Pembroke Dock line was a single track worked by electric token. When a train left Whitland, the driver got a token, and no other train could leave Tenby until it was placed in the instrument at Tenby. One day I was in charge of the token. I had to do the handover without stopping, but at Saundersfoot I made a grab for the token and instead ended up with the signalman’s watch! The driver had to stop the train so I could go back!”

In 1960, Ronnie passed as a driver. The wages weren’t much higher, and a promotion would have meant leaving his young family. He stayed put at Whitland until the depot closed, then moved to Carmarthen.

“By now I was a driver, and trains were all diesel,” he said. “Driving steam engines was far more enjoyable. It was nice to hear the steam engines making an effort to climb – particularly the incline up to Narberth.”

Ronnie retired on his 65th birthday, in 1991. He still has his driver’s cap, and happy memories of railway life.