Saturday, 24 September 2016
No, this is a shave of a different kind.
So...Dinorwig. I was confident that Petra and I would be impressed by the vast Australia Mill, the Compressor House, or the Caban with it's old coats and boots. How could we not be, after the anticipation engendered by all those wonderful photographs on the web. They didn't disappoint- and seeing them in the raw slate was so much more vivid and intriguing.
And yet...I found myself becoming attached to a couple of places that seemed to have a definite atmosphere about them; something hard to quantify, but that chimed with me. Places that were overlooked and little documented by the folk who love the place.
One such is the little drumhouse a couple of levels above Australia; I think we are talking about the Panws to Lernion incline, a straightforward Drum installation, although as always, I am open to advice on this from wiser heads than mine.
The point of this ramble is that the place is an isolated one, 1,800 feet above the valley. The ruined drumhouse is in the last throes of vertical life and will soon slowly sink to one side; gracefully, I imagine. It looks beautiful. Yes, I know, I have a strange idea of that concept since I like my landscapes punctuated by quarries and tips, but trust me, I trained as an artist you know.
And there we were, soaking up the atmosphere on an unusually sunny day hereabouts, not a soul to be seen anywhere. Petra was in the ruins, taking photographs. I was standing outside, gazing across the valley to Snowdon.
Then it happened. A curious sound, like the whoosh of an arrow. I felt something on my cheek and was very briefly aware of a shape; then it was gone and I saw a Sparrow Hawk come out of the crimp and soar upwards at fantastic speed. It took me a few moments to realise what had happened and, as the hawk flew off, a lovely little skylark emerged from the drum and quietly flitted away, seemingly unpeturbed by it's brush with death.
Tuesday, 13 September 2016
I can't say what had been stopping us from exploring Dinorwig before now. We'd always been aware of the place, but somehow felt it couldn't be as good as everyone said...and it had all been photographed and documented, there were no fresh angles, so heck, why bother?
Of course, we were so wrong. After three visits, I have a huge list of things I want to investigate, study and understand about the place; it may actually take quite a while.
Our first foray took us up to Marchlyn and over the hill, courtesy of the Hydro road. You come upon the quarry suddenly this way, after a tough walk uphill for a mile or so. I will never forget the view as the A7 incline Drumhouse appeared through the mist and all the galleries opened up below us. So this was it!
|The A7 Drumhouse|
Did I mention the weather? This place has it in abundance. What I thought would be unpromising conditions for photography turned out to be the perfect set-up, if you don't mind waiting for the sun to break through occasionally...and if you appreciate very cloudy skies. I don't go along with that old saying about there being no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing- that would be tempting fate at Dinorwig, but I got the feeling that the rare clear blue sky days are not appropriate for recording the place.
We mooched around on Lernion level for a long while, taking in the views and trying to imagine how the mountain looked before all the extraction happened, trying to see the negative space. There were all sorts of things going on down there, little shelters, inclines, round huts, rusty things...it took a while, looking closely at the photos afterwards to begin to appreciate everything. It was a Bank Holiday weekend, the first time we visited; not the best way to see the place. There were folk on some of the galleries, bellowing and shouting meaninglessly as some people do when confronted by bigger things than themselves. Some young adults were chucking things off another level while climbers enjoyed the slate walls as a set of problems to be overcome-thankfully not being strafed by occasional missiles. Yes, this is why we hadn't visited, we thought. All the people.
|Upper Penrhydd loco shed and caban|
Our weather was again just the same. This time we explored level Swallow and it's tunnel onto a gallery, went down another level to Tophet and Abysinnia and had a good look at the compressor house. Everything has been relentlessly explored, picked over, grafitti'd, examined and photographed, but it didn't spoil the sense of wonder we felt.
|Roller Taylor, Trwnc Incline|
The quarry will still be here for generations yet, a memorial to the men who worked in all weathers, outside on the rock.
|Sinc Braich, or "The Lost World"...you pays your money and you takes your choice :-)|
A note about the pay of the workers
The working rock face in the galleries ranged between 53 and 86 feet in height. It was divided into 'bargains' i.e. working areas up to 18 feet wide each quarried by one half of each bargain gang of 6 or 8 men. The other half processed the quarried rock into finished slate. These working areas were termed 'bargeinion' (bargains) because a price had to be negotiated monthly with the 'stiward gosod' - the bargain setter. If the team made a good bonus the previous month, then the setter reduced the poundage the following month. In the hey day of the industry, the quality of the bargain allocated to a gang often depended on its religious and political affiliations. The members were paid a basic weekly salary which was topped up by the monthly bonus paid according to the number of slates produced based on the poundage agreed at the beginning of the month. However, each team had to pay for the powder and tools used, e.g. holes drilled by the foot (6d a foot in 1940), use of dressing machine (2s 2d), pay for ropes, pay the blacksmith for sharpening tools, labourers for moving waste, hospital money etc. All these ate into the bonus.
It was not unknown for men to have slaved for a month and come home not only without a bonus but actually owing money to the company. This was in an age when the Hon. W.W. Vivian, the then, general manager was left a cool £70,000 in his employers' will.
I am indebted to Eric Jones for the above information, his Geograph photographs of Dinorwig are a fund of knowledge.
Jones, R. Merfyn. 1981. The North Wales quarrymen, 1874-1922 Studies in Welsh history 4. University of Wales Press. ISBN 0-7083-0776-0
Carrington D.C. and Rushworth T.F. (1972). Slates to Velinheli: The Railways and Tramways of Dinorwic Slate Quarries, Maid Marian Locomotive Fund.
Douglas C. Carrington Delving in Dinorwig Llygad Gwalch Cyf, Llanrwst
Reg Chambers Jones Dinorwic: The Llanberis Slate Quarry, 1780-1969 Bridge Books ISBN-10: 1844940330
James I. C. Boyd Narrow Gauge Railways in North Caernarvonshire: The Dinorwic Quarries, Great Orme Tramway and Other Rail Systems v. 3 Oakwood Press ISBN-10: 0853613281
Dave Sallery's feature on Dinorwig within his excellent Welsh Slate industry site here
|The Compressor House, Australia level.|
|The deserted Mill at Australia|
Sunday, 10 July 2016
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
Tuesday, 5 July 2016
|In the Opencut|
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.|
|Looking out from the Opencut|
|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/|
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
Saturday, 25 June 2016
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
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.|
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.|
|Gader Wyllt incline head and drumhouse.|
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.|
|The trial adit and ruined weigh house.|
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
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.|
|Moel Siabod glimpsed behind the mystery building at Cwm Fynhadog Uchaf.|
"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 Lower Adit|
|Remains of the forge|
|The processing area and office at Afon Lledr.|