Tuesday, 16 November 2010

The Prince of Wales Quarry

Walking back towards the quarry on the old tramway.
The tips are all on the left, while the working faces can be seen on the right.
 The Prince of Wales Slate Quarry sits among splendid scenery at the head of Cwm Pennant, in North Wales. It’s not an easy walk, whichever way you decide to approach it, but on a good day the views are simply magical- well worth wet boots and sore knees from the steep ascent.

We’d tried to reach the quarry a while ago from Cwm Pennant. I’m not sure what it is about the Cwm, but I find the upper reaches to be rather opressive, even though the scenery ticks all the boxes for attractiveness. The mountains start to crowd in on each side and, on the early spring day we chose, massive dark clouds glowered at us from their craggy fastnesses. Not a good sign. When we made it to the end of the Cwm, it seemed that the heavens were about to open but we sloshed through knee deep bog towards the Prince of Wales mill, trying to find the course of the tramway that would lead us to the dryer ground. After half an hour, the clouds came down for a much closer look at us. Retreat seemed the best, indeed, the only option, given that we hadn’t packed scuba gear. Very frustrating, as there are several interesting sites nearby. The incline of the Dolgarth, or Dol-ifan-Gethin quarry beckoned in the mist across from where we had parked the car but it was too wet and slippy to try and explore even this minor enterprise at the head of the Cwm.

A year later, I was idly tracing the route of the Gorseddau tramway on Google Earth, back to the Pont-y-Pandy mill and on, via Braich-y-Bib, to Cwm Pennant. As my mouse reached the end of Cwm Pennant I had a twinge in my poor old knees, remembering the soaking we’d had, and speculated about a new assault on the quarry in it’s mountain fastness. At this, Petra fired up Google maps on her computer and very quickly announced a new plan.


The Fabulous view of Snowdon from the bwlch between Nant Colwyn and Cwm Pennant.
 We were to start from the forestry car park at Pont Cae’r Gors, alongside the Welsh Highland Railway. A railway. Always a plus point, as far as I’m concerned. We wouldn’t touch Cwm Pennant at all, but attack the quarry by stealth and come upon it, all unsuspecting, from the bwlch above.

It was a good plan. The first couple of miles up to the bwlch are easy ones on forest roads. Much as I hate the forestry people and their habit of obliterating surface archaeology of all kinds, I have to admit that it was pleasant walking along, listening to the few birds that can survive in the dense, unnaturally planted conifer woods. I know, these days things are done more sensitively, but I still havent forgiven them for what they did to Catherine and Jane Consols, or Bryn Eglwys. Pretty soon, we reached a point where the satellite printout suggested that a track went up through dense trees towards a pass on the ridge above. It didn’t look promising, but I soon became excited when we encountered a pile of slate waste and the beloved “Danger, Deep Mine, keep out!” sign which always lifts my spirits. Not the Prince, of course, but one of the small trial quarries associated with the abortive Bwlch-y-Delior enterprise in the 1860’s. The quarry looked interesting with a deepish twll and I earmarked it for future study. Much of the slate waste had been used to surface the paths hereabouts, indicating that the route we were on might be the correct one.

After five minutes of uphill walking, we emerged from the trees and were able to see views again. The path sloped steeply upwards through recently felled timber, opening up a spectacular vista towards Snowdon. Down below, a deep toned whistle echoed off the hills as a train rolled towards Caernarfon, seeming like a tiny dark line under a cloud of steam from this height. The weather was magnificent and as we climbed higher, a fabulous vista stretched out, from the Moelwyns in the south east to Cefn Ddu in the north. Despite the temptation to keep looking back, we forged on until the ground became level and the first signs of Cwm Pennant were seen.


Petra walking along the tip tramway above Cwm Pennant.
 Crossing a stile, the quarry slowly revealed itself as we walked down. The waste tramway from the top level tempted us, so instead of losing height and descending into the quarry, we walked along and thus had a view of the whole enterprise. The tip tramway skirts round the bluff nose of Bwylch-y-ddwy elor, giving spectacular views of the cwm below, stretching away to the sea. Across the cwm, the magnificent bulk of Mynedd tal-y-mignedd and the Nantlle ridge towered above the hanging valley of Cwm Dwyfor and it’s crazily optimistic copper mine, now a shattered pile of frost ravaged rocks and depressions in the ground. In the strong light, it was possible to pick out the route of the tramway leading to the Prince of Wales mill, then branching off again towards an incline to the Dwyfor mine. Sad to think that, although it was connected to the sea by an extravagantly built railway, the entire output of the Dwyfor mine, 34.5 tons, could be put on to one small train. Below us, Dolgarth lay in the sunshine, so different to the last time we had been here. As we walked back towards the quarry, the sun hit Moel Lefn, throwing the four levels below and their twlls into sharp relief. It was a superbly romantic view, with a hidden hanging valley folding in between the craggy tops towards Moel r Ogof. Somewhere in that fascinating jumble of rock was a cave, reputed to be used by Owain Glyndwr, but actually the remains of an old trial working for asbestos. Probably a classic example of Victorian tourist marketing- unneccesary really, since the scenery here is positively Turneresque.




 Of course, the Prince of Wales quarry was no exception to the rule in these parts, being a colossal failure and a triumph of “geology over optimism”. It was promoted by the eccentric Huddart’s of Bryncir, of whom it was said that “They poured money into holes in the ground and called it mining.” It was a stylish failure if nothing else; the quarry had obviously been run on a very organised basis. There was no evidence of the chaos on the surface that one so often sees in mines elsewhere.The quarry was abandoned in 1886, after only 13 years of operation, although there were sporadic attempts later at re-opening-perhaps it's something in the water round here that causes wild optimism.

The level one twll, with the blind adit driven into the rock face.
A spruce tree grows amusingly out of the grating covering a shaft to the lower level.
 We followed a path through the main quarry to access the various levels, all of which are fascinating. . The rock from here was never of any great quality and there is very little evidence of good quality slate anywhere on the site, but the twlls are impressive. On the second level, huge slabs of low-grade slate have been left lying about, obviously uneconomic to move any further. What struck me was that the infrastructure of the quarry was so well built. The main incline is a dry stone masterpiece and is still substantially intact, although the wooden bridges spanning each level have long since rotted away. There are waliau, still with huge slabs of slate on the roofs, barracks and weigh houses, all in amazing condition given the time that has elapsed since abandonment.

The central incline, with large slabs lying uselessly about.
 On level one there is a spectacular twll with an adit driven into the rock face. Sadly, this ended after thirty feet or so. It seems that the adits were driven to manhandle large slabs by tramway, rather than using inclines. On the level area outside, a shaft is grated over which leads to a tramway driven through, again for the movement of slate to the mill. It must have been topped by some sort of crane arrangement while in operation.

Temptation...
On the next level down, level two, another adit drove into the rock face. This led through to a small chamber with an unprotected shaft dropping deeply to the level below. All the levels have this kind of arrangement with shafts connected to an adit from the level below. Sadly, the lower ones are flooded and are impossible to explore.

The chamber, with the shaft dropping down.
Walking down from the incline, the tramway runs level past the dam built to power machinery at the mill. It’s possible to see that at some point a start has been made on raising the dam wall, although it didn’t get very far before abandonment. The incline head leading down to the small mill in Cwm Trwsgl is impressive, but as we descended I was aware of that feeling again, of the valley closing in around me. Below was the small slab mill and the manager’s house, slowly being swallowed up by vegetation.

Looking down from level 2 towards the incline leading to the mill in Cwm Trysgl.
Cwm Pennant runs further below, towards the sea.

It was a fascinating and spectacular day’s outing, all the more so for having good weather and marvellous views. Although it might be easier, given a pair of wellingtons, to approach the quarry from Cwm Pennant, I would approach it again from the Snowdon side. The added time spent walking up and down was worth it for the views and the sense of contrast as we left Nant Colwyn and descended into Cwm Pennant.


While we were exploring the quarry, this Raven kept an eye on us,
occasionally talking to his or her mate in the valley below.


Resources:
The late Ben Fisher's site about the Gorseddau Tramway, with a section on the Prince of Wales Quarry here.
Dave Sallery's superb description of the quarry on his site here



2 comments:

geotopoi said...

Another very interesting report!

Regarding Glyndwr's cave, the information I've seen has it that the trial mine was for asbestos. There was certainly some gungy grey stuff oozing from its walls.

Anyway, there are some photos of both the trial mine and the cave here:

http://geotopoi.wordpress.com/?s=Ogof+Owain+Glyndwr

Iain Robinson said...

Thanks, Graham. I had seen your excellent post on the cave a while ago and somehow got Asbestos mixed up with aluminium! Thanks for the link, I went back for another look.

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