Monday, 25 October 2010

Clogwyn-y-Fuwch quarry

Petra was poring over Google Earth again. Always on the alert these days for signs of mining or quarrying activity, she had spotted something near Llyn Crafnant in the Conwy valley that looked interesting. More than that, I thought, when I looked at the screen. It showed what could be five huge black caverns on the side of a hill, and the real giveaway, some spoil tips! Photos popped up from the screen calling the place “Clogwyn-y-Fuwch” and labelling with “old mine”.
The next hour or so was filled with the sounds of turning pages, as mining history books were riffled, maps rustled and mouse buttons clicked. “AditNow” and “Mine Explorer” sites were themselves mined brutally for information. A picture was beginning to emerge of somewhere well worth exploring.

We headed off the next morning and drove up through Trefriw on the Llyn Crafnant road. It was pretty busy for a single track road, but this was a Sunday and the Llyn is a favourite morning stroll for the crimplene trouser brigade, so we were dodging their highly polished cars pretty much the whole way up. There’s a handy car park at the Llyn, which looked as busy as Tesco’s, but in much nicer surroundings. It’s good to see people out enjoying the countryside and we did eventually find a place to park.

Luckily for us, our track headed north east, up and away from the car park- and in an unpopular direction- so that in a minute or so we were away from the smell of fabric conditioner. Pretty soon the forestry road did a hairpin right turn, but we knew to carry straight on and in a few moments we were looking at a lovely little tunnel, nestling in boscage. Inside, the tunnel was dry stone lined, curving towards the roof. A cut and cover sort of thing then, not an adit. It curved in the middle and became very dark, but once round the corner, a point of green light could be seen. It opened up into a green, fern flanked gully which led into a large chamber cut into the side of the hill. Probably over a hundred feet tall and wide, the chamber was littered with rock spoil on one side, while on the other a group of small huts or “waliau” nestled under the slate vein, itself hacked away to within an inch of extinction. When our eyes accustomed to the gloom, we could see that the vein was red, not the blue grey of our own Blaenau quarries. I’d not seen huts in a chamber before, either, or one of this width. Very interesting. After taking photos, we made out of the chamber along what might have been a tramway past some ruined buildings.

Lunch was taken at this point, accompanied by a Raven cronking at us from high up on the cliffs above. Now, while Petra has a very fine singing voice, she also does an uncanny impersonation of a Raven. With customary avian charm, she managed to coax our black feathered friend to take to the sky and reply to her “cronks”. I asked her afterwards what she was saying and she told me that she’d offered the bird some of my chocolate Hob Nobs. I made sure that part of the deal didn’t go ahead. He or she wheeled above us, occasionally hunkering into a dart shape and building up a huge speed before flattening out again noncholantly.

Waliau inside the level one chamber.
 Here was where we discovered one of the drawbacks of Google Earth. From the printout that Petra had made of the satellite photo, I’d expected to find a flat area of tips and a line of chambers running underneath a hill. In fairness, the OS Landranger 1/50k was pretty coy about the whole thing, too. The reality was that the chambers rose up in a long line on a 1 in 5 gradient and that the tips sloped with them. It was impossible to tell this from the satellite photo. I sensed a feeling of dismay from Petra as she eyed the route that we would have to take. There had been an incline up the tips, but this was shattered and strewn with slate waste and infested with birch saplings on the lower pitches. I said little, knowing that Petra wanted badly to see the other chambers, but that she would be fighting with her fear of heights. I mentioned that we didn’t need to go any further, that we could see the nearby Klondyke lead mine, for instance, but I knew from the look that she gave me. She was going to do it.

The incline, from our lunch stop.
 It was a formidable pitch, that first one to the drumhouse. Petra decided to lead on the slippy waste and fines while I followed a little later. Every step brought the risk of a slip and a tumble down the steep slope. Here and there patches of heather grew and we took advantage of them as hand holds. By the time the shattered drumhouse was reached, the poor girl was at the limit of her endurance, but as feisty as ever. It was indeed very exposed here; we’d started off high above the valley floor, but from the red drumhouse ramparts it looked very high. More chocolate was administered, along with a hug. There was another chamber here, but disappointingly it was blind and had suffered a recent fall, the ground littered with low-grade, friable slate. However, whilst gazing around, Petra saw the warning sign:”Danger: Keep Out! Deep Mines”. It was tacked to a birch tree clinging on to the incline above. Like a red rag to a bull, I saw the look in her eyes and she made off up the next pitch. In fairness, it wasn’t as bad as the first, although still very steep, tiring and dangerous.

The next drumhouse was amid a complex of ruined huts, mostly waliau. On the right, the red, mineral stained opening of the level 2 adit beckoned. In contrast to her trepidation over the incline, Petra strode ahead into the adit, which was wet for a few yards then dried out nicely. Underfoot, we could still see the tell-tale signs of long-rotted tramway sleepers. We scanned the walls and floors for any sign of danger as we went, but after fifty yards or so my torch failed. Left standing in the utter blackness of the tunnel as Petra walked on ahead was a frightening experience. As always in these occasions, the blackness was a shade darker than the earl of hell’s waistcoat and totally disorienting. The tunnel had curved and she and her light were hidden from me. I couldn’t shout to her (rule no.1 of mine exploring: don’t shout!) Thankfully, after a minute or so, she came back. More than enough time for me to have a word with my own particular demons.

Inside the adit, showing the mineral rich rock.
Deciding that it was dangerous to carry on with only one functioning torch, we retreated back out into the daylight again, vowing to return with weapons grade illumination. I’ve since found out that there is a chamber at the end of the adit, illuminated from above, so we’ll be back.

We looked around the fascinating huts on the level for a while and took some photos of the fabulous view. Every now and then Petra eyed the incline again. She seemed to have gathered her forces after exploring the adit, and was keen to climb higher, to the next level- for once, not a cliche.

We were so very glad that we did. At first it seemed like there were just more waliau and piles of slate waste, so I suggested forging on upwards, forgetting that for waliau and slate waste to be there, so must the source of the slate. On Petra’s insistence, we followed the tramway formation further towards the cliffs. And there it was, a grin of a hole, partly filled in with debris, but very clamberable into. Once inside, we both exclaimed under our breath. It was a huge chamber at least a hundred feet high and as wide again. It seemed to go for a long way back into the mountain, where a ghostly illumination beckoned.

That's Petra in the next chamber, behind the arch.

Petra went on towards the light while I took photos of the waliau inside the first chamber, and of the supporting walls- no pillars here as in Blaenau Ffestiniog, but great dry stone walls, with the slate vein arching above. I heard her whisper “Never mind taking bloody photos, come and see this!” Following her, a huge arch of slate came into view; a long, over-reaching arm of rock beetling above us, illuminated by an opening high up in the roof. All around in here was the tintinabulation of a myriad droplets of water hitting the floor, and yet the chamber was relatively dry. The water must be going somewhere, but where? We noted a slot in the side wall, underneath the slate vein. On shining the torch down it seemed to link up with the chamber coming off the adit below us, and must have been cut in order to tip waste down from this chamber to the one below.

To the left as we delved deeper into the chambers were the crazy ruins of an incline, leading out to the source of the light above. Ahead was what looked like a huge, gloomy hallway with one wall sloping at twenty degrees towards us; the slate vein again. The walls were smeared with iron oxide leaching and signs of other minerals present in abundance as the light in the chamber slowly became dimmer. We made our way slowly and carefully out again, taking photos and marvelling at this cathedral of slate and the men who had made it. There didn’t seem to be any sign of jwmpwr lines or shot blast holes, so it looks like this whole chamber was hewn out the hard way.

The final pitch of incline beckoned. It was still steep and dangerous, but Petra was keen to carry on up, and who was I to try and dissuade her? The view from the final drum house was vertiginous, to say the least, but another large opening in the mountain took our attention away from the view. It led into an unseen level of the previous chamber, hidden by the steep slope and the blinding light from above. It was like being in the minstrel’s gallery of a gigantic hall and I will never forget the light and the shadows on the rock. I wondered if those miners ever stood back and wondered what they were making in the heart of the mountain and perhaps, if Tolkien had ever been here for this, surely, was enough inspiration for the mines of Moria.

After wondering at the scene and taking the inevitable photos, we climbed up the remains of the incline to the light. More of a rock scramble than a climb and one that we both enjoyed, since the exposure was only a hundred feet or so rather than the massive drop outside and proper handholds were plentiful- much more satisfactory than handfulls of heather!

Petra stands at the opening to the topmost chamber.
 Time and available light was beginning to be a concern now and we scouted for a way down that didn’t involve the dreaded descent of the incline. Petra spotted a way that skirted the tips in a southerly direction, and after putting her through all that climbing I would have been churlish not to agree. In the end it was much easier than the incline. Someone had been that way before us and had flattened the bracken down nicely, although I still managed to be tripped by an uncharitable bramble and ended up with a facefull of bracken and my backside dunked in a cool mountain stream, amid ribald laughter from Petra.

We eventually emerged from the hillside onto a path going from Llyn Geirionydd to Llyn Crafnant. By now my legs were aching and I had a soggy backside. Petra was tired, but uncomplaining and kept me going by reminding me that there was a picnic bar in my rucksack. We had met no-one during the exploration of the quarry, and only met two people on this track, which led past the lower mine buildings. One was an elderly, stern lady with a lovely collie who seemed frightened of me. At that point I didn’t realise that I looked as if I’d been mud wrestling with King Kong. A very pleasant couple passed us, equipped with the long walking poles that everyone has these days and a fashionable, pastel selection of walking togs, making me feel like an itinerant hawker of rags. They left behind them a heady mixture of strong perfume and fabric conditioner and I wondered why the lovely smells of the woodland and the earth had to be spoiled by these unnatural odours.

The lower slate dressing area on level one.
 On our return to the car park, most of the cars had left, in preparation for Sunday dinner no doubt. A family were happily having a noisy picnic on one of the tables and several other folk were standing around aimlessly but contentedly smoking. I felt so lucky to have seen what we had, and to have a partner in crime who is as daft about exploring as I am.

Clogwyn-y-Fuwch: The factoids.

The name means “Crags of the cow”, I don’t know how the cow got there!

It seems that this quarry has greater significance than first thought. The features that struck me as being unusual, such as the dry stone walling, the slate arching, the waliau inside the chambers and indeed the red slate, are all Cumbrian features and are not found elsewhere. Obviously, the red slate is just a co-incidence, but the features are explained by the quarry having been worked by a team of Cumbrian miners in the early part of the 19th century.

Even more interesting: the man in charge, one William Turner (1766-1853) had worked at Walna Scar Quarries in Cumbria before coming to the area in 1799. After taking the lease and working Clogwyn-y-Fuwch he moved to Blaenau Ffestiniog, and with his brother Thomas and a William Casson he bought the lease on Diphwys, then a farm above Blaenau Ffestiniog, and developed it into the hugely successful quarry later known as Diffwys Casson. This was the first major slate undertaking in Blaenau Ffestiniog, so it could be said that Clogwyn-y-Fuwch was the cradle of the industry in this corner of Wales.

The dry stone arching of the adit and of the cut and cover tunnel is known as “Matt-Spedding” tunnelling, although I have been unable to find out anything more about this!

Pipistrelle bats live in the chambers. They are secretive creatures and hide in crevices rather than hang from the roof, so are not easily seen.

The mountain the quarry plunders is Mynydd Deulin (Mountain of the two lakes) and is 400 metres (1,312 ft) high.

Very brave indeed!


Anonymous said...

Very interesting write up, Iain.

Not long ago I walked to Llyn Crafnant from Capel Curig and was mildly surprised to find a tea garden half way along the lake. But as you mention, I guess the lake is quite popular with a certain type of clientele.

By the way, have you ever thought of getting a dynamo head torch? I got a pretty inexpensive Silver Point one from Amazon a while ago and have been very pleased with it. The LED lamp is very bright and you can fully charge it by USB. In an emergency you can also hand crank it to recharge the battery.

Iain Robinson said...

Thank you, Graham.
I've not been along the Llyn, but am not surprised by the presence of a tea room- somebody saw a good business opportunity there!

I looked up the head torch on Amazon and it looks very good indeed.. we'll get one each and then there's always a back up. Thanks very much for the tip. All my mine exploring colleagues wear lamps costing hundreds of pounds, not really an option on an artist/writer's salary!!

Tarboat said...

Looks an interesting place for a mooch. You had me fooled with the description of heading north-west from the car park, especially as the track runs north-east. ;-)

Iain Robinson said...

Hmm...sorry about that! Changed now.

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