The Merioneth and Llantisilly Rail Traction Company Limited must be one of the best known and best loved railways in the world. The fact that it is wholly ficticious and exists only in the cartoon films, books and videos produced by Peter Firmin and Oliver Postgate has not detracted in any way from the reality of the neigbourhood.
Like all proper places, the top left-hand corner of Wales where Ivor lives and works was not so much invented as coagulated, patted together from a morass of memories, of the many small railways that infest the area, the works of Dylan Thomas, and an indefinable quality which might be called Welshness, but which probably doesn't exist anywhere except in the sentimental imaginings of writers.
Nevertheless, once the Company was formed and the permanent way laid in the minds of its makers, it took on a reality of its own, a reality so exact that a map was made of it, with viaducts, bridges, tunnels, towns, villages, coalmine and gasworks all firmly in place. And from then on the line had to be followed - Ivor could not go to Grumbly Town without passing through Tan-y-Gwlch.
The story is of course absurd - whoever heard of a railway engine wanting to sing in the choir! - but like all proper absurdities it was taken seriously and the task approached with care and kindliness by the ordinarily extraordinary people of that real imaginary place.
It is not an easy task. Such time-tables as the railway tries to follow have to be adjusted to suit Ivor's choir practice, and in any case there is not much chance of keeping to timetables when there is a dragon to be kept red-hot or an elephant in the Gasworks, with a bad foot to boot - and where do you find an elephant's boot?
Ivor the Engine had a more accurate moment of origination. In 1948, at the drama school where he was studying, Oliver Postgate met Denzil Ellis, a railwayman from Mexborough in Yorkshire who had turned to acting as a career.
When Denzil had been the firman of the Royal Scot (or perhaps it was the Flying Scotsman), one of his more mundane tasks had been to get up very early in the morning, make his way down to the engine-sheds and wake up the engine. He would rake the ashes of the previous day's fire out of the firebox, replace any clinkered firebars, and then, with crumpled newspaper, kindling-wood and selected pieces of coal, he would build and light an ordinary fire, a fire which would, later in the day, power the giant hundred-ton locomotive and sending it up the line to Glasgow (or maybe it was Edinburgh), with Denzil riding the lurching footplate, shovelling in the coal.
"That," said Denzil, "Would make a good story."
And so it did, eleven years later, though the engine in the story was far less glorious and he didn't thunder up the great main lines of England but potter about in a green and lovely country where the railways have always been an intimate part of the landscape.