Sunday, 10 July 2016

A Blast from the Past: Dol-y-Clochydd


A little while ago, a friend mentioned to me about an ancient blast furnace near Ganllwyd. This gentleman is a very knowledgeable and precise fellow, not given to flights of fancy, so I felt that I had to go and look.  I couldn't imagine a blast furnace in such a beautiful spot; my mind would insist on conjuring up images of the old John Summers works in Shotton, or the furnaces at Port Talbot. What I found surprised me.
The story starts back in the first half of the C16, when it is known that a bloomery was sited at the Dol-y-Clochydd site. What is a bloomery?  It is the site of a small-scale iron furnace, where iron ore is heated and reduced to form iron-rich slag. This slag or "bloom" is heated  then reduced again by hammering the waste, or gangue, away repeatedly until finally a reasonably pure iron bar (wrought iron) is produced. There are still many impurities such as phosphorus, nickel and arsenic which are partly reduced to the iron, leading to some interesting alloys. One thing all this heating needs, though,  is a great deal of fuel. Charcoal.
Enter the first notable player in our story, Hugh Nanney, whose increasing status in 1586 as Sherrif of Meirioneth allowed him to acquire a great deal of land, including some of the lands belonging to Cymer Abbey. Dol-y-Clochydd was situated in one of these parcels and he wasted little time in leasing the furnace off to a couple of English fellows,  John Smith and William Dale . The deal was sweetened by including " all the trees on Penrhos Common, a low hill to the north, adjoining the said iron mill’ Here's a thing- you might be wondering why there was all this iron activity here, of all places- perhaps there were deposits of iron ore? After all, there were a number of other bloomeries operating at the same time in Coed y Brenin.  There were iron deposits on the slopes of Cadair Idris, and further up the mawddach valley, but, no...the crucial factor was the availability of timber in large stands of trees. Oak, that is, not the monotonous Sitka that pervades the area today. In a post-Elizabethan England where most handy timber had been used to build ships, resources were scattered in less convenient places, such as the upper Mawddach valley, although that still isn't quite all the story, as we shall see.
So, our Englishmen lost no time in cutting down a great deal of timber to make charcoal However, Hugh Nanney was either unscrupulous or careless, as it quickly came to the attention of the Crown that these woodlands were being decimated, and they sent a deputation to Nanney to serve a notice of theft on him- it turned out that the trees on Penrhos common belonged to them! The hapless Nanney was fined £1200 and sentenced to two years in the Fleet prison; it couldn't have been a comfortable billet. The fine was later reduced to £800 after the quality of the wood was disputed...it was decided that Nanney's tenants had taken 10,000 oaks at a cost of 3 shillings each, but a carpenter, brought to give evidence by John Smith, claimed that many of the oaks were unsuitable, and that the wood was difficult to extract from the steep hillsides.
Nanney didn't seem to be ruined by his spell at her majesty's pleasure, because soon afterwards, he was back on the scene. In 1596, he is brokering a deal to convert the site at Dol-y-Clochydd into a blast furnace, bringing William Grosvenor on the scene as a financial backer. By this time, Smith and Dale had taken out a new 21 year lease on the site. Sadly the new furnace only had a short life and it is reported to have been blown out by 1604, although this may have been because of a scarcity of wood to use as fuel- certainly, nobody would be thinking of taking timber from Penrhos common....
Coming back again to the question of why these men had developed the furnace in such an out-of the way spot; granted, the wood was a factor. But Nanney was a something of an entrepreneur, and despite his new status as an ex-jailbird, had many influential friends at court.  For instance, he was patronised by Sir James Croft, formerly Lord Deputy of Ireland and Comptroller of the Royal Household under Elizabeth. The aforementioned William Grosvenor, one of the backers of the project, had forges and warehouses in Chester, for the supply of arms for use in Ireland- so perhaps Nanney was making use of what was available to him locally at the time and using his contacts to find a market for his iron. What happened to Nanney, Smith and Dale afterwards is probably an interesting story, but for now, let's take a look at the site as it is today.



The furnace lies near the bank of the Mawddach at the foot of a very steep slope, which has probably contributed to it's survival, as it is difficult to access the place with agricultural machinery. We stopped our truck at the side of the road while I squinted down to the river banks, not quite knowing what to look for. Then, I saw it. Nothing more than a low, squarish mound, but undoubtedly something worthy of investigation.  We scrambled and stumbled down, slipping and then sinking ankle deep in mud, but soon we were at close quarters with a furnace that was last blown in 1604. I was quite excited to finally see this, after reading about it beforehand. It was excavated by a team of archaeologists in the 1980's, firstly by a group from Plas Tan-y-Bwlch who found evidence of "glassy blast furnace slag in the riverbank" and latterly by Peter Crew who has made a definitive study of the subject, referenced at the end.


There are the feint remains of a loading bank, or charging platform. The wood posts at each corner are obviously relatively new, but mark the king posts which would have supported a wooden structure around the furnace. The blowing arch can just be made out, with its sandstone lintel, while the lining of the furnace shows signs of sandstone blocks, vitrified by the intense heat. It is certainly a lesson in industrial archaeology brought to life with the help of a little imagination. Grass has grown over all the excavations, but in the 80's, signs of a casting floor were found and evidence of a water powered bellows. Today there are remains at the top of the bank of a stone built ore hopper where iron ore and bloomery slag would be offloaded from the road and sent down a chute to the furnace. It's not hard to imagine the activity and smoke here back in the very early C17.

I would like to apologise for the poor quality of the photos, it was a very dull and drizzly early spring day when we visited and no amount of C21 technology can quite make up for the lack of sunlight!

By the way, Dol-y-Clochydd means "the Sexton's Meadow".

Dol-y-Clochydd blast furnace, grid reference SH 734 220

P. Crew and M. Williams. "Early iron production in north-west Wales". In Medieval Iron in Society II. Stockholm: Jernkontorets Forskning H39, 1985, 20-30

"Ironworking in Merioneth from  prehistory to the 18th century" 
by Peter Crew   Plas Tan-y-Bwlch

Coflein link 

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Craig y Penmaen Copper Mine

In the Opencut
Earlier this year, we spent a lot of time exploring the area East of the A470 near Bronaber.  It seems at first to be a beautiful, but uninteresting slice of Wales until you begin to scratch the surface. Then, as always, fascinating things begin to emerge.
We were mine-hunting, of course- and uncovered a few gems, which hopefully will appear here soon. We also discovered that the area had enjoyed a very different life from the role of  holiday village that it mostly assumes nowadays. What we thought had been quarry buildings soon revealed themselves to have a rather more warlike aspect, helped by the notices here and there, warning walkers to keep to the path if they valued their limbs.  All this was, of course, in the past...Bronaber camp itself is well documented and was at it's peak in the two world wars, closing in the late fifties, when it had a brief period of glory housing the workers for the nuclear power station at Trawsfynydd. It's an interesting subject, and I may return to it sometime.


So, we weren't thinking much about unexploded bombs when we set off, up an unsurfaced track into one of the wilder corners of this area.  But, after a while, we noticed a burnt out area near the track , covered with slag.  For some crazy reason,  I thought it might be the site of a bloomery, although why, up here miles away from nowhere, I don't know. Once I had recovered from this aberration and started thinking sensibly, another, equally bizarre conclusion was the only one that seemed plausible. There was a fair quantity of molten steel which had melted into the ground and assumed the shape of the soil beneath it. Picking these rusted  pieces of steel up I noticed how very heavy they were...the only metal  this heavy, apart from lead, was some manganese steel I had tried to pick up at the shipyard, many moons ago. Scattered around were lumps of molten material like furnace slag, interspersed with hundreds of fuse bodies, shell cases, washers and other less obvious bits and pieces. I can only assume that an explosion had taken place, perhaps a large quantity of ordnance had gone off, and the resultant white heat of the concentrated blaze had vitrified the rock and melted the steel of the containers. Just a theory, of course, and if anyone knows otherwise, please let me know! I can only imagine the cost to the taxpayer of all that ordnance going bang, although I guess they were going to shoot it anyway. The other mystery is that the site was still bare of grass, presumably since the fifties?

The Dol Gain Copper Trial.
Suitably mystified, we continued on our way...and this was where more confusion began.  We were looking for a copper mine on the side of Craig y Penmaen, an outlier of Mynydd Bach. According to the Ordnance survey there were several excavations on the west side and Jeremy Wilkinson's excellent and normally infallible gazetteer notes them too. Looking on Google earth turned up a mine, but ...not in the right place. Looking back on the 1891 OS gave the same result as the gazetteer. Then, there was another mine which Petra spotted as we were stumping along, the Dol Gain Copper Mine, although the maps do have this one in the right place. The three mystery mines on the map are the Craig Penmaen East, West and South mines, although we couldn't find West and South.

Looking out from the Opencut
We eventually made it to what I assume is the East mine, to find a fine entrance opencut, a set of steps from a stile having been pressed into service to access the main adit. It's a lovely spot and the bosky entrance disguises the size of the excavation. Once in the mine, the drive goes along for a while and then twists to meet a roofing shaft. Above us we could see a  false floor, wooden boards straining with the weight of deads from above. It looked precarious and dangerous, so we didn't linger underneath it. Further investigation outside revealed a large stoped area on the hillside above, full of deads. None of this was on the OS maps, either historic or modern. A bit of a mystery, as the OS are usually so accurate. We had a good look around and there was no sign of the other mines marked...I wonder if an overlay had slipped back in 1891 when the cartographer had gone to lunch and he didn't notice it upon his return? The mine was nicely decorated with copper staining and fairly dry, although I don't think anyone without "miners eyes" would notice it. For us, the chalcopyrites in the wall gave the game away, as the adit is not visible from the trackway.

Copper leaching from the walls of the adit.


Petra's photo of filamentous fungus growing on a dead moth in the mine. https://mydododied.tumblr.com/
 We doubled back down the track, which is a bridleway, I should mention- to where Petra had spotted the other adit. It was a climb back to the foot of Craig y Penmaen and over a wall, then into a dip. The adit was a fine one, although entering was a huge disappointment as it turned out to be only a trial. Curiously, it drove both North and South immediately after the portal, similar to the Afon Gamallt mine.
The trek back to the road was wonderful, the views across to the Moelwyns in the distance the stuff of postcards and amateur watercolours. If only James Dickson Innes had come a little further West from the Arenigs and painted here. Skylarks were singing, too- and Petra noted the odd fact that when they are climbing, the song goes up...when they are descending the song goes down...
One last thing occurred to me as we walked back. Surely if ammunition had exploded, there would be a crater, and a wider area of damage? I am mystified!


Keith O'Brien's collection of old photographs of the military camp here

Petra's Tumblr

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Pen y Ffridd or Llanrhychwyn Slate Mine



Pen-y-Fridd has to be one of the most enchanting mines that I have ever visited. The daylit chambers open out into the woods near Trefriw at SH776612 and in some ways, feel a little like Clogwyn-y-Fuwch, but on a smaller, more intimate scale. A series of openings follow the vein along a dolerite sill, but the adjoining walls are worked away, so that only the pillars remain to hold the roof up.  It's a wonder that the whole place hasn't collapsed before now, but the result is a cathedral-like space, quiet and eerie in the woodlands.

We first visited a few years ago, but In a silly moment, I accidentally deleted all my photographs before I could process them. Petra and I have been meaning to come back for a long time...finally, this spring, we made it. Nothing much seems to have changed. You can still park in a lay-by along from the footpath entrance that leads to the mine, walking along through a farm and shortly afterwards taking the right fork up a steepish path that leads to the workings. This felt like hard going for me as I was carrying my excessively heavy tripod and underground kit, but the wonderful woodland setting made up for the discomfort.

It is an old mine. The first record of it is in 1786, when Pen y Ffridd slates were known to have been exported from Conwy. The slate is black and quite heavy with pyrites, liable to rust and crumble when exposed on a roof, but nevertheless, the mine kept up a good trade and between 1824 and 1840 it mainained an output of over 1000 tons a year. Output carried on spasmodically until it was last worked in 1865.


Walking up to the mine, you are aware of the tips on the left, so overgrown with trees and vegetation now as to be barely recognisable, looking more like river spurs or ridges. There may or may not be an incline, there certainly is a little bridge at one point. The records are coy about whether there were any tramways here, perhaps this was too early...we certainly didn't see any evidence of rails. Output seems to have been processed outside, with no signs of walliau or a mill, although the smithy is marked on the 1899 map. The smithy is a magical place and I spent some time trying to photograph it, although the encroaching trees nearly defeated me.


Getting in to the mine is a struggle, involving clambering over fallen timber and dense undergrowth. The path is well fenced off, too, being a public right of way, so barbed wire has to be negotiated. It's all worth it, though as the place really is breathtakingly beautiful. It is, as Williams and Lewis* say, an "eerie and mysterious place".





This time, we walked up to the top of the workings and found some scratchings and remains of workings on the highest level. I doubt whether this would have been a powder store as I wonder whether powder was used at all- I suspect the slate was hammered and crowbarred away from the gangue rock.


There are also run-in hints of lead mines in the vicinity, quite subtle and only seen with the mine explorer's eye of faith...a tip here, a depression there. It does add up to a picture of the place being very busy at the end of the C18. A new road was built in 1824 by Robert Hughes to take produce to the quay at Trefriw and there are some references to slate workers sawing blocks and splitting slabs on the quayside for onward distribution down the River Conwy.

"Gwydir Slate Quarries, Williams and Lewis, Gwasg Dwyfor, ISBN 0 9512373 5 7


Monday, 5 October 2015

The Llyn-y-Gadair Slate Quarry


Thanks to the relatively new Lôn Gwyrfai path, running for for 4.5 miles between Rhyd Ddu and Beddgelert, this quarry is very easy to access. Starting at the Rhyd Ddu car park by the WHR Station, the path skirts the lake, the first few hundred yards along the trackbed of an old tramway.

The path is new and raw, and has all the hallmarks of "best practice" with it's railings and stone supports along the way. The young Afon Gwyrfai is crossed in fine style with an oak and stone bridge. Every now and then there are impressive stone buttresses to hold gates...substantial ones, as this is a multi-use route for horse riders as well as cyclists, ordinary footsloggers...and slate mine enthusiasts. There are even carefully made mounting blocks for the horse riders. Well, if you are going to build something, better build it properly.

The magazine, with the tips of Llyn-y-Gadair in the background. Y Garn and Mynydd Drws y Coed rise up on the Nantlle ridge behind.
 So in no time at all, we were striding across the lower slopes of Y Garn, looking at the remains of what seemed to be a Nantlle style operation with an incline going down into the flooded pit. One of the good things about the new path is that it hasn't sanitised any of the remains and picks it's way through them. (Have a look at JAW's excellent "Remains of the Slate Industry" site here for some photos taken pre-path.)




The pit has various massive, well-built structures above it, mostly for the capture and storage of water. Two wheel pits lie here, possibly to power the haulage incline and machinery at the mill, once sited on the flat area to the side of the incline. The mill was demolished- possibly when  the quarry to the east came into production. From here, you can see the line of an old tramway which took spoil to tip into the lake. This has in turn been built over by the exit tramway from the eastern operations.

The Blacksmith's shop for the Gader Wyllt quarry to the east. A pair of substantial gates on the path can be seen to the left.
The site, while nominally called "Llyn-y-Gadair" is actually a collection of several concerns: Drwsycoed, Gader, Gader Wyllt and Hafoddruffydd. Looking at the NLS maps, the oldest, 1888, has this first pit working as "Llyn-y-Gadair". It was possibly worked out by the time the next concern, "Gader Wyllt" started up to the East. Certainly, Llyn-y-Gadair had ceased operations by 1890, as the HM inspectorate records show. There are records of a machinery dealer selling some of the rails to a quarry in Nantlle during 1897.

Gader Wyllt incline head and drumhouse.
 Gader Wyllt lies to the East, on higher ground. The mill here may use beams possibly from the demolished mill at L-y-G. There's also a ruined machinery room to the western side which would have housed some sort of engine. A line of Hudson track goes northwards towards an incline head and drum house- this is pretty much destroyed by the elements, while some primitive walliau snuggle beneath the level of the tip in a slightly more protected spot. These might have been a later addition, used by men working the tips during the 1930's depression.


 A pit lies behind the mill; it was impossible to see if there was an adit due to the vegetation and extremely boggy nature of the ground, although one is mentioned in Jones and Richards*.  Below, nearer the lake, the foundations of the newer, unfinished mill stand, a quixotic monument to a failed enterprise. Ownership of both quarries is a tangled skein, even by North Wales standards. The HM Inspectorate doesn't list this quarry until 1913, although according to the maps, it was working in 1888.  With the Lyn-y-Gadair quarries in general, various complicated plots emerge, involving among others, the North Wales Unionists Quarries, Cadwallader Humphreys, manager of the defunct Glanrafon quarry and even the famous (infamous?) J H Robinson of Nantlle at one point, until the Gadair Wyllt concern finally ceases in 1928. The interlinked story of the personalities and organisations concerned is a complicated one and too involved to go into here, but it is worth noting that while the Unionists Quarries company didn't come out of things too well, Humphreys bought the Quarry freehold for £2000 in 1924 and a year later sold the land to the Forestry Commission, minus the quarries, for £5000!

The Gader Wyllt mill and pit, with the primitive walliau beside the track on the left.
Going back to the topography, a well-engineered tramway goes off to the East towards a small working, with a weigh hut and an adit, much overgrown and choked with weeds. This is likely to be a trial working only, as there is not a great deal of spoil. Another trial also lies further Eastwards.


The trial adit and ruined weigh house.
Finally, there is a pit behind the unfinished mill, perhaps an earlier excavation, again it was too wet to explore very closely. Scattered around the site are many glacial erratics, left after the last ice age, when the boulder clay that overlies the slate here was laid down. Interestingly, one of the first prospectuses for the Llyn-y-Gader quarry points out the reserves of "fireclay" and an early lessee was Frederick Wallis of Kettering, a brick and tile merchant. However, there is no evidence that any clay was quarried here.

The mystery of the development of this site, like the machinations of the various lessees, will never be solved- but I can't think of many sites so easy or pleasant to access. In good weather it makes an easy trip out, with the added bonus of WHR trains passing across the valley. Of course, when we visited there were none, although the Snowdon Mountain Railway train could very clearly be heard chuffing up to the summit!

The remains of the new mill, unfinished at the time of abandonment.

* "Cwm Gwyrfai, the Quarries of the North Wales Narrow Gauge and the Welsh Highland Railways", Gwynfor Pierce Jones and Alun John Richards, Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, 0-86381-897-8

Lôn Gwyrfai path link.




Sunday, 6 September 2015

Mines of the Afon Lledr



We have wanted to look at these mines for many years, but were always put off by the inhospitable terrain.  The thought of slogging for hours only to find a few scrapings on the ground didn't seem a sensible pursuit. So what had changed our minds?  Well, we had been exploring the mountains around the Lledr Valley and found that it was quite possible to make good progress by sticking to the tops and flanks of the peaks. Coming from the Crimea pass, it's possible to get a good start by using the Tunnel road to the ventilation shaft workings. The trouble is, most of the mines are at the bottom of valleys.


After a lot of map study, we elected to go up from the Hendre Coed slate mine, following the river all the way up. (SH69655 51231)  It wasn't too bad initially, as a farm road goes for a few hundred yards. We crossed the river at the old bridge, finding the tracks of the farmer's quad bike also went our way...so far, so good. Incidentally, this bridge and the ruined buildings around it (SH68701 50298) seem to be shrouded in mystery. Geograph states that they belonged to the Moel Fleddiau slate mine...really? Since that mine lies on the bwlch between the Lledr watershed and Allt Fawr, and it is a short step to Blaenau ( a rather precipitous one, admittedly) I have my doubts...surely the mule track over Bwlch-y-Moch would be more reasonable. At any rate, on the OS 1888 map, bridge and buildings are referred to as Cwm Fanhadlog Uchaf and on the modern series, Cwm Fynhadog Uchaf .

The bridge over the Lledr by Cwm Fynhadog Uchaf, clearly of some antiquity.
One of the structures has the look of a chapel about it...I came this way several years ago and took photos but can't remember if there were any gravestones...this time the bracken was too high for exploration, but perhaps this was a chapel for the workers on the tunnel? Across and further up the hillside above the bridge is a powder house for the tunnel.

Moel Siabod glimpsed behind the mystery building at Cwm Fynhadog Uchaf.
We walked on. I was wearing a brand-new pair of boots and they were performing well, my last ones having disintegrated due to constant soakings. We came to a flat area where the pasture resembled a prairie, and here, the quad bike trail ended. Now the ground ramped up and became much more inhospitable. To describe the rest of the walk I can do no better than to quote the Walk Highlands web site, which states:

"following the river up the valley is probably the wettest stretch of walking imaginable, a long, long slog of waist-high reeds hiding knee-deep watery marsh…"

That's the one. If someone had been watching as we stumbled and slipped from one bog to the next, or pratfalled countless times, they would have been highly entertained. Gaining height simply changed the predominant vegetation to chin-high ferns, but still with the knee deep bog and with the added delight of sheep ticks. Every now and then, a rock outcrop was encountered, providing a welcome respite from the bog-bumping and falling over.


Petra spotted a small building, not immediately visible on Google Earth, right beside the river. It was a wal, with a modest waste tip alongside. (SH68112 49396) The small excavation went into an outcrop beside the river and must have been a trial. It made a nice photo, but it seems to have escaped the cartographers, as it is not marked on any map or survey, including the OS 1880 from the NLS.

However, we were emboldened now. Despite our pitifully slow progress, I reckoned we would be at the Afon Lledr mine in 35 mins. The next half mile was the longest and most painful of my life, but we made it. Perhaps it would have been easier in the winter, when the vegetation is not so high and the ground frozen...who knows.

The Afon Lledr spoil heaps.
The site of the mine is a very interesting one, comprising two possible concerns. The original Afon Lledr mine is nominally copper, and crosses the stream to a low adit, flooded to the ceiling and with deadly silt in the entrance. This would appear to date from the early to mid C19th as again there is no record of it being other than disused on the 1880 OS survey. The waste tips contain some fine chumks of quartz and galena. The mine is at SH67559 49299.

The Lower Adit
Further upstream there are some ruined buildings and three opencuts, plus a flooded shaft. The buildings are a fine range and as far as I can tell, comprise a forge, a barracks and an office. Processing seems to have gone on in the open air. The first opencut goes west, then turns at right angles upon encountering the lode. A fairly deadly-looking winze chases the lode further and lower.

Remains of the forge
 Another opencut is worked above and finally at the top of the outcrop, there is an opencut with a flooded shaft.  As far as I can tell, these are the workings of the Moel Fleiddiau lead mine, although all the mines here are thus marked on the OS.

The processing area and office at Afon Lledr.
 By now, the sun was due west and photography was difficult from some angles, hence my photographs of the workings are not as fine as I would have liked. However, this is a fascinating spot, well worth the crippling walk. We found no sign of the features in the stream that David Bick writes about in his "Copper Mines of Snowdonia" although the mine fits the bill in every other respect. And the new boots? They are still drying out.

The winze.
Further reading: "The Old Copper Mines of Snowdonia" by David Bick, ISBN 0 906885 03 5

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

The Coffee Pot Level


 Yes, that's right- we finally made it.  After some unavoidable business in Porthmadog, I realised that there might just be time to scoot over to Penmaenmawr and visit the old De Winton loco. The roads were crowded with cars, caravans, jet-skis on tow, AA trucks with cars on board and a plethora of other vehicles deemed essential when the British decide to enjoy themselves. Petra patiently negotiated all this and, with some relief, drove up the quarry road and away from the A55 mayhem.


Once parked up, we didn't see a single soul for the rest of the day. I've waffled on about the views and the location before, so please take it as read that Penmaenmawr didn't disappoint. It wasn't particularly easy to reach the loco, sitting in the sunshine outside the shed-  but we made it in one piece. The floors at every level were colourful, as the heather was in  flower and a smell of  Welsh Honey hung in the air. Spiders were everywhere, particularly in the ruins. Mostly the uninspiringly titled "Garden Spider", of which there were some fine examples. We also saw a wonderful Cinnibar Moth- unfortunately it didn't keep still enough to photograph. Underneath the ground cover it was evident that there were rails and wagon turntables, vestiges of wagons and countless bits and pieces of metal left by the quarry workers- particularly on the inclines, where rails were still there under nearly a foot of vegetation.


Eventually, we were standing outside the shed, looking at the old De Winton's remains. What a lovely thing it is, being left to rot away in peace. The unseemly paint daubs of a few years ago have faded away- after all, these days anyone who wants to know about the loco just needs a browser and Google. The light wasn't good for photography, it being five o'clock by the time we got there, but we soaked up the rays and enjoyed the views over to Llandudno. What better way to spend a Bank Holiday Monday?


Saturday, 27 June 2015

Deeper and Down



The mist had closed in, to the extent that I wasn't quite sure where we were. Our footsteps on the slate road  sounded as if they were coming from somewhere distant, while the giant five-ton rocks lined up on either side of the road loomed, one by one, as dark sentinels in a milky world. No matter, we were on the pit road and it would be safe- there would be no blasting or activity today, I had made sure of that.


For months now, the sounds of thunder and falling rock from the big hole had been mingling with the screams of the zip-wire thrill junkies, their cries carried on the wind to this side of the hill. My curiosity was piqued by the constant noises. I wanted to go up to the badlands and take a quiet look over the edge of the opencast...

On the way up, it quickly became obvious that the weather topsides belonged to a different world. It had been a warm summer evening in the valley. Now, the mountain glowered above us in his dark war-gear,  a tattered, black mantle of cloud above his head. Trouble was probably afoot.


Generations have scraped and blasted the back out of this old place; beginning in the early 1800's with a few nibbles here, some discreet adits there. Later, there was more serious, organised delving into the igneous bowels of the beast, past the Tuffs and Microgranites, Quartz intrusions and Breccias, past ossified Shale beds until finally, slate was found, deep below the horizon of millions of years. Into the dark , empty belly of the mountain, hewn by countless gnarled hands, other treasures were placed. For a while it was given the misguided status of a bolt-hole for the chosen few, worried about the ultimate folly of nuclear war.  The thought of royalty and capitalists emerging from the main adit into some post nuclear dawn, to be picked off and eaten, one by one, by the survivors of a hideously misshapen, zombie benefit claimant underclass who ultimately inherit the earth...it has a certain charm.  

Thus, we found ourselves descending into the pit. The lid was blasted off many years ago, leaving a gigantic scar and a lot of gangue rock to be got rid of. All this accomplished by a couple of blokes and a lot of bang. These days it helps to have a big Cat or two, some all-terrain tippers and a line in slippery talk to distract the bank manager. The old boys round here still talk of the "old man" with unconscious irony-  the generations tapping away on the ribs of time, men that gave their lives and passed on the knowledge now carefully measured out between the rock falls. They say there's no respect for the old ways, but that has to be uttered sotto voce in this place.



We came to a gathering of huts that looked as if it had fallen victim to a post-nuclear zombie attack. Everything was smashed or burnt and the office ransacked. One of the surviving folders in a filing cabinet was labelled with the name of an old part of the quarry. I felt warmth at the use of this old term, as if somehow there was an echo of respect amongst all this chaos. We walked further down the road, taking nothing, touching nothing, leaving just our footprints.



A brief movement of the wind parted the curtain of mist, revealing a working face, guarded by the inevitable big Cat. I was astonished to see how deep the pit had become- the big chamber we'd seen a few years ago was now marooned high above and an adit had been exposed, iron rails pointing out like the legs of a dead insect. We took photos before the mist fretted back in, swirling everything again to grey.


There are no treasures now, save the slate, which is all they, the delvers, diggers and agents of destruction ever wanted. All this mischief ... for what?  I don't know; it was always thus, except that in the past, the cost was measured in human suffering.  Up here, the few that pass rarely glimpse the cleverly concealed pit or smell the diesel. They hurry by, as if passing a beggar with a gigantic bowl on the street. We kept looking back as our truck grumbled down the steep road, until the mountain disappeared gradually from view behind the mist. Back up there, a corrugated sheet, coming loose from the eaves of one of the utility structures, was scraped one way, then the other by the wind. Marking a few seconds in the endless stretch of geological time.


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