Saturday, 26 February 2011

Wrysgan- the Hole in the Hill

It's very difficult for me to drive safely through the Vale of Ffestiniog, particularly when the road climbs towards Blaenau. Because, while I'm steering the mighty muddlermobile I'm also scanning the mountain slopes, left and right, taking in the archaeology....industrial, that is. Mines. Tips. Quarries and tramways- all leave their telltale impression on the land.

Lately, I've been squinting at that hole in the hill above Tan-y-Grisiau, whilst keeping my other eye out for those pesky speed vans...(and other mine enthusiasts). High up near the top of Bryn Elltyd, prefaced by a mighty long incline running arrow-straight up the mountain, the hole seemed to be voicing a long, silent note. I wondered what might be found on the other side. To be honest, it had been occupying my attention every time I drove up here for years.

The incline runs up Bryn Elltyd, seen here from the A496 lay by before Tan-y-Grisiau.
I'd read about the vast chambers of the mine, as I flipped through the photos on Mine-Explorer and AditNow web sites. I knew a little about the tunnel and incline after reading a couple of books; but it's all meaningless until you have been there and seen for yourself.
Despite living a few minutes drive from the car park at Cwmorthin, Petra and I have kept away until now, thinking that the place would be chock full of climbers and mine explorers. I suppose we’re quite shy, preferring the solitude of the badlands, or the small, interesting mines where few people visit since they are neither spectacular nor easily accessible.

Well, we weren’t disappointed. Two large school parties were getting a pep talk as we arrived, while several climbers were examining their ropes and jangling chandeliers of kit around their waists. This area obviously provides a lot of enjoyment and inspiration for folks, many of whom had come from quite a distance. I did try to be curmudgeonly, resenting all these people on our patch, but I failed. We managed to slip in between the two large parties of teenagers, listening to their teachers ahead of us, explaining the landscape. I’ll confess now, I learnt more than a couple of things as I eavesdropped. I also found myself wishing I’d had such patient and knowledgeable teachers back in the distant days when I’d been at school.

The Cwmorthin barracks and tips, from the miner's track to Wrysgan.

The path to Wrysgan wound through the slate memorial garden, built on the site of Cwmorthin Cross slate mill. The curious place is overshadowed by an unwisely planted grove of hideous spruce trees, as if hanging around on the corner, looking for trouble. The path soon broke out into the open and a hard climb followed up a miner’s track, between some formidable tips. It was worth the effort as the views opened up spectacularly while we climbed, giving a good excuse to stop and admire the scene as we desperately caught our breath. It’s hard to believe that when the mine was opened in 1830 this path was used by laden Mules, taking finished slates down to the Vale. There was a loading platform at the lower part of the climb (Cei Mulod), but little remained of the later balanced incline down to Cwmorthin, built in 1850.

The Memorial Garden, from the Wrysgan Tips

I’d looked on Google earth and studied the OS; I was even carrying an underground map of the mine with me, but the site is in such a narrow, confined space and on such a steep gradient, that the scene at the first adit wasn’t quite what I expected. There are always a few surprises and delights to be had, even at the most innocuous locations...but this certainly wasn’t one of those. A shattered drumhouse led upwards above an incline, beside it was a fine set of slate steps. All around was rock and tipped slate, while to our backs across the cwm, the enormous Cwmorthin tips sprawled

The adit looked unpromising, a ruined weigh-house standing sentinel beside a hole in the rock, sprouting a small tree above it. We kitted up in the weigh house, while around us various parties did the same. The air buzzed with motivational speeches from the leaders, about how we all have fears, to take one step at a time, to place all of the boot on the rock...not to look directly at anyone because of the cap lamp... We let one party in before us. I had my mine map, but I let the leaders take the teenagers in and we followed at a discreet distance.
It wasn’t like our normal adventures, where a real sense of fear, wonder and curiosity hits you as you go underground...the other folk, and the ever-present smell of fabric conditioner sanitized it for me. Yet, I was glad of them...Wrysgan is the biggest mine we’ve been in and I don’t know if I’d have had the confidence to go as far without their reassuring presence. Despite the school parties wandering through, it’s not particularly safe. The mine is fairly unstable and has a habit of dropping huge truck-sized blocks from the roof of the enormous chambers. The lowest adit was a wet tunnel, coming to a small (for Wrysgan) dry chamber, where we marvelled at the way the miners had worked the rock so high above us, held only by a chain and a lot of faith. Another tunnel led on to a large chamber, a really big one this time, towering over a hundred feet above us. The guys ahead were climbing up a vast slate tip within the chamber, whose roof was supported by an inadequate looking column of slate. We decided to let them go, the party behind us didn’t seem to be too near. It would be good to have the place to ourselves, for a few moments at least.

When the echoes of the front party died down (and I really wished they hadn’t made so much noise, the roof looked very fragile!) we savoured the quiet of this underground cathedral and the smell of damp slate. Petra suggested turning our lights off. I didn’t feel so queasy about this since this was the first outing for a new toy I’d bought, a torch that rivalled my car's full beam headlamps for lumens. I knew that I could switch it back on at any second if the panic started to rise. I suppose it’s a very primitive fear, that of the dark. Some mines seem to be evil, from the moment you enter; I guess I’m unconsciously picking up messages from my brain telling me that the roof is about to give. Chwarel Llew Twrog terrifies me. Others, like Brynglas, seem benign...comfortable even. Of course, I am also a fully paid up member of the yellow-belly club.

Yellow hat, anyway! The Muddler looks out onto another chamber.

There were still some feint vestiges of the lights from the caplamps ahead, casting wild shadows above as we stood in silence. Sometimes, I mused, you can have too much light underground. The lights grew dimmer. Finally, we were in complete darkness. I stood, just holding back the fear, hands rigid by my side, fists clenched. Why do I put myself through this? I've no idea. Then we heard an enormous "boom". I was glad our lamps were off, because I must have jumped about six feet. Petra said she heard another bump, but I'm pretty sure that was just me landing again. Someone above must have dislodged a big chunk of slate from the tip, and it had fallen, the resulting noise amplified by the vast chamber. Some of those chunks of slate are deceptively large, the size of a family car. I was silently glad that it had stopped, and not slid down to us. Just then, we heard the party behind and switched our lights back on, wanting to forge ahead before we had to wait for them to ascend the tip. We walked on up the tip, nonchalantly. Frightened? No, of course not. Where the hell did that boulder land, though...

It was an uncomfortable climb, leading to a chamber easily the equal of the previous one. We decided, looking at our mine map, to explore another chamber, off the recommended route, for some peace and quiet. While the others climbed yet another tip, we walked along a level, through a fine tunnel and into what seemed to be a dumping place for vast, house-sized boulders. I shone my new torch at full beam and only just picked out the walls at the other side of the chamber, while the roof soared a hundred feet above...with house-shaped holes in it, where the boulders had fallen from. The sense of jeapoardy and foolishness at being here was immense, but it was awesome in scale and remains my best memory of underground at Wrysgan. You had a sense of the madness of mining like this, of the unrelenting nature of the rock and the perils and hardships that the miners themselves must have endured.

Acting as the steady voice of reason, Petra suggested that we made our way back and that we should perhaps explore some of the less popular adits further up the hill. The mine was beginning to feel like Snowdon on a summer saturday, but with hard hats and headlamps. We’d also wanted to see the mill and the incline, so I readily agreed. In any case I was beginning to be spooked by the collapsed chamber, if I was honest. As we exited, I caught sight of a notice on the wall, to the effect that surveyors had condemned this chamber and that the approved route went elsewhere. Fair enough! I began to notice these signs on the wall in other places as we retraced our steps. It’s very good that the place is kept under observation, and I suppose we have the school parties to thank for the adits continuing to be open, unlike at other mines on the Moelwyn. It does take something away, but I guess that’s a small price to pay when this is such a fantastic mine...and why shouldn’t others have the experience, too?

The ruined building below is the weigh house beside the first adit.
Out in the open again, we climbed the steps and the incline to the next level, exploring the various adits as we went. There was a great deal to look at on the ground; the mill proving particularly fascinating. It was a large place, with relics of machinery lying here and there, including an impressive wheel pit and the remains of an underground tailrace from the wheel, which could be heard burbling away under our feet. The mill seems to date from 1865 and according to Alun John Richards* had 18 saws, 20 dressers and 2 planers, so it must have been a busy place.

The Mill, with the Cwmorthin tips across the cwm, and the Manod Mawr quarry in the distance,
above Congl-y-Wal and Manod.
The entrance to the main exit incline lies a little way away from the mill, on an uncharacteristically flat plateau of rock. Walking towards it, the light shone on the tunnel roof as it descended steeply away, a most unusual sight. Machinery lay around and between the walls of the drumhouse, a large cast wheel, some cylinders from a compound steam engine and what looked like a lorry engine. We walked carefully up to the crimp and gazed down the tunnel, the Stwlan Dam road visible in the lower tunnel mouth. So this was what lay at the other side of that hole! The bore was driven in 1872, boldly and at an uncompromising, confident angle through the rock, for the incline to swoop to a direct connection with the Ffestiniog Railway. It was severed later by the dam road in the 1950’s, but the course can still be easily traced. Although the incline is very steep at the top, it flattened out towards the FR connection and sometimes trucks had to be helped along.

In the very throat of the beast!
After a mooch around the mill, we carried on climbing to the top levels of the mine. It was blessedly quiet up here, and the views were spectacular. To the North East, the Manods brooded, flanked by their skirts of slate waste. It was possible to pick out the Maenofferen Mill building and the new destruction above, wrought by Llechwedd’s recent untopping. To the south, the old course of the Ffestiniog Railway was revealed, water in Llyn Ystradau being lower than usual. The vista stretched as far as the Rhinogs and the towers of Trawsfynydd.

A rather lovely dam sat improbably at this level, with a saddle shaped wall holding the water back. It was never enough, unfortunately, and many different types of power were tried to run the mill and the inclines. There was even a steam engine underground in 1890, with a fan ventilation system, possibly exiting at one of the highest adits. Perhaps the saddest remains are those of the manager’s Lea Francis car engine, which was cannibalised to run an external incline, bringing slate to the mill.

The Manods and Diffwys, Votty and Maenofferen tips from the reservoir. You can also just pick out
the Craig Ddu inclines and mill tips on the flanks of Manod Mawr.
 The highest workings here are the earliest, dating from when the mine was started in the 1830’s. The topmost adit was flooded, but it’s tip was composed mainly of country rock. It might have been a ventilation tunnel, it is marked so on a survey plan from the 1980’s. The next adit down led into a series of delightful daylight chambers, each looking into a lower chamber on the level below. There was much evidence of occupation by sheep; it must be a pleasant haven for them in winter.

Another lower adit had succumbed to a massive roof fall. It was possible to climb around the boulders to see another huge chamber, but it didn’t look like a very wise move.

We took a final walk along to the nose of the lower level tips. Above us was a crazy tramway which clung on to a ledge, packwalls of slate being supported by rails. A bridge had collapsed and the route appeared to go nowhere; perhaps it was an attempt to gain more tipping space. While these tips were at the lowest level of the mine, they still gave a Raven’s eye view of the cwm below, and a very unusual glimpse of the Cwmorthin barracks. A helicopter roared below us in Cwmorthin, hovering back and forth, perhaps on a training mission.

The crazy tramway...note the rails holding the rocks in place!!

We rejoined the path back down to the car park, slotting in between returning school parties. They were tired and subdued, with much to think about. The teachers followed to the rear of each party, chatting about staff members and holidays. Nearer the car park we saw a teacher earnestly reassuring a teenage boy who was standing close to her, crestfallen. “You didn’t let me down. Sometimes it’s braver to admit that you are frightened and ask for help. You didn’t let me down...”

Wrysgan didn’t let us down, either. It was every bit as impressive as we’d been led to believe and well worth the effort. The mill levels were hugely fascinating, and seemed to be less popular with the parties of explorers. I can recommend the place, if you don’t mind some company on your adventures.

Wrysgan Factoids:

The mine was opened in 1830 and closed in 1950.

The Mines’peak production was in 1903 when it output 3,000 tones of slate, and employed over 100 men.

At the peak of production, the mine operated on 8 floors.

In 1890, a 50hp producer gas engine was installed at the mill.

In the 1920’s, the mill and the inclines were electrified. By this point, the company was so impecunious that at times, when a run of empty wagons had to be raised up the haulage incline from the Vale, the motor from the mill was borrowed to run the incline drum.

“Gazeteer of Slate Quarrying in Wales”, Alun John Richards, Llygad Gwalch 2007, ISBN 1-84524-074-5

Remains of the Welsh Slate Industry: Wrysgan

AditNow web site


Anonymous said...

Fascinating account, Iain, with lovely accompanying photos.

That incline certainly looks brutal.

Iain Robinson said...

Thanks, Graham. I can't believe some people have actually climbed up to the mine this way!

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