Monday, 24 January 2011

On the Drum Beat

Manod Mawr and Carreg-y-Fran from the B4391
The B4391 from Llan Ffestiniog is one of my favourite roads. It's a very scenic route, winding high above Cwm Cynfal, passing over the Migneint and on to the grandeur of Cwm Prysor and Bala. However, much as I love the scenery, that's not my chief reason for liking the road. The fact is, it enables quick access from Llan Ffestiniog to several of my favourite quarries and mines.

Without doubt, Drum quarry is one of the stars on this route. It lies reticently along a track utilised later for a waterworks, and parking for one car by the gate is just possible at SH723423. Park considerately here, as Welsh Water vehicles are sometimes very large and their drivers don't tend to take prisoners!

Our trip was made on a beautifully sunny, but bitterly cold January day. The first thing we saw as we got out of the car was a Red Kite, wheeling above us. Petra had illustrated a book about the bird, so she knew what she was looking at before I did. It was great to see it, eyeballing us. I tried to get a few photos of it, but my camera didn't want to focus.

The road led up to a mysterious building, obviously something to do with water purification. However, set into the wall was an interesting replica of an ancient stone. It had a Latin inscription, which in English reads: “Cantiorix lies here. He was a citizen of Venedos. Cousin of Maglos, the magistrate.” Maglos must have been a big noise in Venedos, for Cantiorix to want to make sure everybody hereabouts knew that he was a relative. This is a copy of a 5th or 6th century gravestone, presumably first found here, which can now be seen in Penmachno church.*

Back to the track, which carried on uphill, skirting the flanks of Craig-y-Garreg-lwyd. (Cliffs of the grey rocks). It's almost like a tramway formation, certainly well made enough, although perhaps a little too steep. To our left, a dolerite dyke rose above the cwm. This was the site of a small iron age hillfort, excavated in 1979-85.

Bryn-y-Castell Hill Fort
As we climbed the track, the layout of the hill fort became more apparent. Excavations at the site uncovered valuable evidence of iron smelting, within the fort and in a round hut. Some of the outer walls have been reconstructed, but archaeologists believe that snail-shaped roundhouses on the site were the iron smelting area and working smithy. Certainly there were several depressions in the side of the mound that look like very early attempts to win iron bearing rock. Other buildings on the top of the mound are marked by cobbling and the former wooden stake walls are now indicated by upright stones. The ancient Roman Road, Sarn Helen, runs along the side of Bryn-y-Castell here, making sense perhaps of Cantiorix's gravestone. Was he on his way south, back to the balmy sunshine of Rome? We'll never know.

Manod Mawr
On the day that we walked up, the view across to the Moelwyns was superb, the air clear and the sky blue. We came to a junction in the track, one arm going down towards the lower levels of the quarry. The other track climbed ever higher and looked to us to be the most attractive option. The way twisted and turned as it followed the contours of Craig-y-Garreg-lwyd. Magnificent views opened up ahead of the mighty Manod Mawr, or in Welsh, “Big Snowdrift”, his back ravaged by the modern slate quarry. As we walked, the noise of the quarry machinery carried across over the three or four miles from Cwm Teigl. I wondered how noisy Drum quarry would have been in it's heyday. We turned a corner, out of the sun and the air immediately became several degrees colder. The ground here was white with thick frost; obviously this side of the mountain has little sunshine in the winter months. A huge rock fall faced us, with gigantic boulders lying above the track. Whether this was due to man-made activity or natural, it was hard to guess. It was impressive and eerie, as if elemental forces had been playing with the vast boulders, throwing them and shattering the plutonic rock into jagged shapes.

The Quarry Incline

Into the sunshine briefly as the track climbed another shoulder, then the massive incline from the top quarry levels came into view. The quarry here was first opened in the 1860's as little more than scratchings on the hillside, but was later deepened into pits and developed underground. This could have been because of the opening of the narrow gauge Ffestiniog and Blaenau railway, which gave a cheaper way of carrying the produce to the sea. The F&B was later widened to become the Blaenau to Bala line of the GWR, but that was a few years into the future when Drum quarry was being worked.

The South Pit Mill, complete with Red Kite.

There are two open pits, the North and the South. Ruined buildings abound; the first we encountered was the South pit mill, situated at the mouth of a collapsed tunnel leading from the pit. I wondered if this had originally been a wholly underground feature, as when I looked into the pit from above, the tunnel seems to have been opened out and has then subsequently collapsed into a vertiginous defile....the classic signs of untopping. The South pit itself has suffered some extensive recent rock falls, obliterating the adits that Alun John Richards describes in his Gazeteer of Welsh Slate Quarries. We were a little disappointed, as we had come tooled up for some subterranean wanderings. Above the South Pit Mill was a lovely little weigh house, leading to a trident-shaped tip run. It's hard to tell whether or how rubbish was up hauled out of the pit here, but it was fascinating to look and speculate. Within the pit, a fine horse of slate is showing through the dolerite; but whether this had been exposed by recent rock falls or not, again it was hard to tell. There are no further records for the site after 1884, so it looks as if the quarry didn't survive the slump after that date.

The South Pit from the summit.
The North pit was slightly smaller, with a rather evil atmosphere, probably due to the beetling rock faces surrounding it. The pit seems to have been infilled with slate rubbish at some point, but very fine tramway formations could still be made out, running from the lip of the pit to some superb tips. The age of these can be gauged in part by the way that they are being re-colonised by grass and lichens. This typically takes at least a hundred years in an exposed location like this. Once inside the pit, we discovered a frightening looking defile that led encouragingly downwards, obviously an incline to chambering below. However, after a few yards it became apparent that the workings were full of water. Two adits opened onto the west facing wall of the pit, and we climbed carefully over to them. The first was a fine little trial, beautifully worked up to the vein, but not exploited for some reason. It seemed wonderfully cosy in there, compared to the freezing conditions outside. Another adit opened out above, but the rock face was too icy to climb, and a return visit will have to be made.

The North Pit incline tunnel
We decided to climb to the summit of Moel Drum, above the pits, to try and have an overview of the quarry. As we climbed, a raven was soaring above us, softly croaking to it's mate somewhere, warning that humans were about. It struck me that the cry isn't at all hoarse, rather it's a rich, low burbling, deceptively so as the sound carries a long way in the high crags hereabouts. Once at the summit, the wind was ferocious and bitterly cold. I should have known, but at least we managed a couple of shots from the top.

The remains of the South Pit from below.
Thoroughly frozen, we retreated to the warmth of the lower slopes. There are many workings connected to the quarry on the lower levels of the hill. Mostly, the adits are collapsed, but there are still interesting structures and fine tip runs with bastions to explore. We left, vowing to return in the summer, when a more relaxed study of the site can be made. Hopefully, my feet will have thawed out by then, too!

The Weigh House from the South Pit
While looking at the photographs in the warmth of our little studio, Petra zoomed in to one of the shots. She'd noticed a fenced-off adit on the hillside in the distance towards Llyn Gamallt. This could, perhaps, be the much-vaunted remains of the Afon Gamallt copper mine. We shall see!

*Since writing this, further research reveals that Cantiorix's stone is probably the earliest surviving mention of the name Gwynedd. Gwynedd covered part of the territory of the Ordovices, but tradition traced the kingdom's foundation to Cunedda, who migrated with his sons and followers from what is now southern Scotland. The name Gwynedd is probably derived from Brythonic Ueneda and is akin to Goidelic (ancestor of Irish) Fenia (which gives fiana, "war-band" in Old Irish - e.g. Finn and his warriors). Thus the probable meaning is "Land of the Hosts" or "Land of the Warrior Bands". The territory was called Venedotia in Latin. It is sometimes suggested that Gwynedd is a mutated form of Cunedda, thus the Kingdom of Cunedda, but there is no etymological basis for this. Scholars, however, seem agreed that this stone does indeed refer to the region, and that this fellow Cantiorix was a citizen and his cousin a magistrate in the 5th Century, suggesting that Roman institutions survived in this part of Wales for some time after the legions departed.


Graham said...

Some very nice shots there, Iain.

Iain Robinson said...

Thanks very much, Graham, glad you enjoyed it.

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