Cwt-y-Bugail, Last outpost in the Blaenau Badlands
Cwt-y-Bugail, seen from the Rhiwbach Tramway
The old Cwt-y-Bugail quarry lies high in the hills above Blaenau Ffestiniog, in a wild tract of moorland frequented only by ragged sheep, combing the meagre grass for sustenance. Up there, the ravens’ hoarse cries often echo in the wind, swirling round sharp crags and quarry walls alike. Now they have taken back what was always theirs. The quarry is best seen on the kind of day that this part of Wales does so well, when the scudding clouds paint swift rays of light on slate tips, making them sparkle like silver petticoats.
There are a few ways to reach Cwt y Bugail; but whichever one you choose, it requires putting a fair bit of altitude under your boots. From Blaenau, you must pick your way through the shattered remains of the Votty and Bowydd quarries above the town, climbing two long and fierce inclines. At the top, the modern quarry masters have wrought great mischief, opening up old chambers with explosives and huge machinery. They want the valuable slate supporting pillars, but they leave a chaotic and broken landscape, obliterating the archaeology and pushing the scars of their roads into the heart of the old mines. These are then left gaping, their gap-toothed mouths open to the sky. Elsewhere, the tips are being reclaimed, an activity which at least leaves some order behind it.
Looking down on Bowydd from the tramway. One more incline to go.
The old tramway follows level contours for a while, past the dead bones of Maenofferen, picked over by the quarry masters and the local thieves, both looking for whatever they can sell, at any price. Another steep incline awaits, followed by a walk along the Rhiwbach tramway, up past the gaunt ruins of the drumhouse and on another half a mile towards the quarry.
In the distance, a long line of slate tips encircle a dark ridge under low clouds. Stunted, roofless stone sheds lean against the weather, while on the skyline, dark gashes topped with the bare knuckles of winding houses betray deep quarry holes. Flooded cuttings and tadpole filled stretches of tramway must be crossed, then a junction. An intriguing track leads left towards the quarry, under looming slate tips and into the mystery and jeaopardy that is Cwt-y-Bugail.
The ruined slate finishing sheds at the entrance tell few stories these days, their door openings walled up by the farmers, roof timbers split and rotten, slates plundered. In the middle of the mill, a vast timber roof support has fallen among slate rubble. It holds a bracket for the overhead line shafting, the wood preserved by generations of men oiling the bearings. The beam is still black with it. Never mind all this. Follow the road up into the South Twll, past inclines partly covered by vast boulders, and wonder just how these blocks were manouvred here like this. A steep cutting beckons and then the South Twll opens up, a chaotic scene of slate debris, rock and gloom. Successive generations of quarrymen have stripped the rock face, then overlaid the area with waste, leaving a broken, scarred scene that is difficult to interpret. In the north west of the twll a deep chamber has been opened out. Up to the right, a mad, dangerous track has been carved into the quarry face. Perhaps it had once been a tunnel, exposed when the lid was lifted off the chamber below. It would be incredibly dangerous to follow it now.
There’s an adit at the base of the pit, overlaid with thousands of tons of slate, all laid drystone fashion. A track disappears into the low, black hole. The beam above the portal sags, beginning to yield to the ominous weight above it. Originally, it was part of the tramway out to the mill. To the left, a huge gash in the rock has been made. It’s impossible to gauge from this vantage point how deep it is, but it is very dark, without any visible means of access.
A hundred yards further along to the north end of the twll, a low tunnel burrows in the rock face. After a few damp yards, it curves into the daylight again, and you are faced by the strangeness of the North Twll.
The North Twll
You are now on a ledge, probably the remains of a level, which falls into the main pit. To the left is the chaos of another chamber, robbed of it’s roof, titanic blocks of slate lying every which way. Above, another adit has been uncovered, showing black against the rock.
There are many relics lying about, scattered like the toys of a wayward child. An old Fordson tractor, reduced to the main castings. Several lorry and car engines. Axles, turntables, pressure vessels and winding gear, rusted and feral. The rails are still here, under the grass. They lead up to a large chamber, like a pharaoh’s tomb. It must be fifty feet high, at least. The wall to the left is covered with jwmpr marks, the whole way up. You can only wonder at the effort this must have cost, underground, in the pitch blackness. It’s possible, with care, to descend into the floor of the chamber, where the working face, soars at 35 degrees above your head, slick with a bright orange mineral cocktail of iron and copper weeping from the rock. Rusted bolts and wires hang from the ceiling where the miners secured themselves in the dark as they chipped away, day after day. To the left and right, a low, crosscut adit goes into the hill. It is flooded with orange water. From somewhere in the tunnel, there is a “tink, tink”...water, dripping from the roof, the elements cruelly imitating those poor miners who toiled here for generations.
Back in the light, at the south end of the twll, another adit leads out. It’s a low, curving tunnel hewn out of the rock. Soon, a pinpoint of light can be seen ahead. Just before the opening, the tunnel splits backwards into two. You keep on ahead, towards the light and the tunnel opens out at the base of the large hole in the south twll seen earlier. Ahead is the mouth of that little adit, sitting under thousands of tons of slate waste. To the left, a chamber opens downwards as far as the eye and flashlights can see, in a vertiginous arc of rock. It’s not easy to make out what went on here. The chamber was untopped, judging by all the shattered rock lying about, but there must have been some sort of haulage system to win slate from the chamber below.
Old rails, still in place in the linking adit.
The overall effect is one of huge mischief, as if something has been destroyed here for the sheer hell of it. Danger and intrigue lurk in the shadows all around in equal measures; the atmosphere is strange, claustrophobic and unsettling. It wouldn’t be wise to explore the low adit, with it’s cracked beam under all that slate. It would be tempting fate, just that one time too many. Best to retrace steps back into the tunnel. You can take the left fork, if you have torches and the proper experience and equipment. There are a host of dangers to greet the unwary explorer in a mine; if you have any doubts, stay with them at the tunnel mouth. You are already over 200 feet below the top of the hill, and this tunnel is sloping steadily downwards. It was cold in the chamber, but from the mouth of this forked tunnel comes a chill breath of damp air. It is an upcast flow, probably coming from another entrance on the other side of the hill. This is hewn into stable rock, and twists, driving round a winze leading down into a lower working.
Underground, looking towards a winze leading to lower workings
It’s possible, once you are back out into the North Twll, to climb out using the old, steep incline. It’s a relentless climb and very hard on the leg muscles, but when you make it to the shattered incline winding house at the top, the view is spectacular. The Moelwyn range, Snowdon and Moel Penamnen lie above the horizon; on a rare, clear day it feels like you can touch them. There was a very old Aveling traction engine boiler here, at one time used as the incline engine, until it was "rescued" in a Laurel and Hardy-esque caper a few years ago.
I’m happy that we have known the place during it’s last quiet years, before nature takes complete possession again, or before man destroys what is left with forestry or worse still, the rapacious destruction of modern quarrying techniques. I just hope there’s no money in either, so that Cwt-y-Bugail can sleep on, undisturbed except for folk like ourselves, carefully looking and wondering at the spectacle of it all.