Thursday, 3 February 2011

A Walk in the Black Forest

More like the black, boggy forest, this Welsh mirkwood sits atop the head of Cwm Teigl, just inside the Snowdonia national park. It was planted back in the sixties, when government grants were handed out like sweeties to anyone who wanted to plant conifers, no thought being given to what problems they might cause later on down the years.
Not that planting trees is an entirely bad idea, of course. Just closely planted spruce, two feet apart...not good. These days the Forestry Commission adopts a generally careful and sensitive approach to the management and planting of it's land. However, they've as good as admitted that they can't harvest this particular forest as it wouldn't be economic. If the forthcoming government sale of the Forestry Commission goes ahead, it is not clear what will happen to sites like Rhiwbach. Public access may well be denied and undoubtedly, even more archaeology will be lost in the name of corporate “growth”. With any luck, the land will remain unsold and the trees will die and thin out naturally.

Looking south, into the sun, from Fridd Quarry
Our own skirmish with the serried sitkas occurred recently when we were examining the interesting remains of Fridd quarry, behind Carreg-y-Fran, at the head of the Cwm. It's an old site, probably the oldest quarry up on the plateau here. Earliest records show work going on in 1813. The large pit, near to the Rhiwbach tramway was well known to us, but Petra saw some more buildings near the forest that looked intriguing. Further mooching around revealed a delightful, round powder house, a filled-in shaft and a tip with two perplexing buildings.

The mystery buildings

The trackway going off to Cwm Teigl
A well-built track led off south, towards Cwm teigl, promptly dropping down an incline that was almost completely obstructed by trees. We managed partway down, but the fallen timber marshalled itself into an impassable incline-block. I began to wish my swiss army knife had a chain saw attachment. We did trace the trackway as it emerged from the forest, joining the road at the top of the Cwm, but by then we both felt like French soldiers at Agincourt. Stabbed by countless arrows in the form of spruce branches that had whipped, slapped and jabbed us at every step. We repaired off home, to study maps, process photos and apply salve to our many wounds.

The impassable incline down to Cwm Teigl
Our next foray to the forest was because Petra thought, after looking on Google Earth, that there might be an area of collapsed chamberage to the south west of the Rhiwbach New Pit. Rhiwbach is skirted on it's south side by the forest, which comes improperly close on several occasions. Like fools, we followed the national parks carefully hewn pathway through the forest from the south, on the route of Sarn Helen. Foolish, because the word morass doesn't even come close to describing it, even on the day we chose. Despite the temperature being well below zero, the ice perpetually broke under us, swamping our boots with freezing primordial ooze. However, as is usual on these missions, Petra will not be deflected from her objective by a little freezing mud, and at the appropriate co-ordinates, she announced that we had to follow a heading through the trees.

The view through the trees, over the New Vein Quarry Pit
These trees are fairly mature and probably about seventy feet high, but haven't ever been brashed, so navigating between them was akin to trying to push through a crowd of giant angry hedgehogs. After some time and a modicum of creative language, we reached the New Vein Pit of Rhiwbach, it's flooded surface showing cerulean blue against the trunks of the trees. So perhaps the collapse didn't exist, nor did we find the shaft that we had read about, although the forestry people probably filled that in.

We were just about to make our way resignedly down to the pit itself when I spotted a different kind of light in the trees, farther over in the woods to the south west of our heading. I ran up the slope between some more irate hedgehogs and took a sharp intake of breath at what I saw.

View from under the collapse
It was as if a wide circle of ground had simply dropped into a hole, about sixty yards across. I'm not going to try and describe it, but hopefully the photos give the impression. Even more exciting, the western end of the collapse shows what is probably the remains of an adit. On the day we chose, there was a sheet of ice all the way down to the adit...not having crampons, we decided to wait for better weather. I've looked very carefully at Griff-Rees-Jones's book on Rhiwbach, and studied the plans of the New Vein workings. As far as I can tell, this collapse is of chamber 3 of floor 2. The adit may lead into chamber 4, floor 2. Floor 3, lower, is flooded, being on the same level as the lake. However, my thoughts are complicated by some photographs in the book showing floor 1...there's no floor 1 marked on the plan (1903). So we'll have to wait until we can find out for ourselves.

Rather pleased, we scrambled out of the collapsed pit and made our way to the ruined engine house at the top of the lake for a spot of lunch. Now, I always think that no matter how well you know a place, there's always more to discover, and quarries are no exception. So I was happily munching my customary doorstep and trying to imagine the Fowler 12hp portable engine which, in the 1870's, was housed just where I was sitting, when my gaze was attracted to three large rocks with strange markings on them. I walked over and was delighted with what I saw- for these were the fabled Rhiwbach rock cannons, something I had read about but had never seen. In fact, I had supposed they were lost, so this was another turn up.

Rock cannons are, basically, a large firework, used to provide large explosions and pyrotechnics for special occasions such as the visit of posh folk to the quarry, or notable local events.

The holes were hand-drilled into the rock, filled with black powder and then packed with crushed rock. Each hole was linked by a shallow groove, often curved to lengthen the interval between bangs. Black powder was then laid in the groove and covered with powdered stone to keep it in place.

The holes are typically an inch in diameter and five inches deep. Modern experiments have shown that a small amount of black powder in the hole with a powder-filled goose feather quill as a fuse, and the whole held in place by powdered slate, can produce spectacular sounds and visual effects.

We decided to skirt round the forest on the way back, for some reason. That was when I made the last discovery. I should have known about this, but Rhiwbach is such a large site, and so much is hidden by tips...well, that's my excuse. There were some pillars that looked like launder supports going downhill from the eastern edge of the tips, and we followed them northwards for a while to see what might turn up. At first, I thought the wall might be a tip bastion, but as we came nearer it was obviously a waterwheel pit. I then remembered reading that the levels of the New Vein mine were drained by a waterwheel working flat-rods, so there was the answer. As we struggled wearily over the hill beside the trees on our way to the bwlch and Cwm Teigl, we saw the remains of a dam in the woods, in all probability the source of the water for the wheel.

The Lovely powder house at Fridd
While walking back I reflected that the forestry people do have planning consent within their lease to build a 15 foot wide haulage road from the minor Cwm Teigl road to extract the wood, on the course of an old drove road that we were vaguely trying to follow. However, it also stipulates in their lease agreement that the land has to be “made good” afterwards, so hopefully that clause and the ever dismal price of spruce lumber will discourage them from further wanton vandalism on this wonderful site. Their successors, “MegaTreeCorp”, or however they are going to style themselves, may have different ideas. How they will manage the site is a matter for some concern. We only need to look over the Cwm to Manod quarry, perhaps, for the answer to that question.


Anonymous said...

Another interesting report with lovely photos, Iain!

And don't fret over the future of the forest - I am sure all that FC land will make very nice inheritance-tax-exempt parcels for the likes of those whom the rock cannons would formerly have honoured ;-)

Iain Robinson said...

Thanks! Yes, I think you are right. The forest will be the outward manifestation of political and fiscal greed, unchanging and thick as thieves.

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