Tuesday, 3 May 2011

After the Gold Rush

Although we're more accustomed to exploring slate and lead mines, just lately we've taken advantage of the very dry weather to take a look at something a little different. Gold mines. Normally shielded from the world by deep peaty bogs and miles of miry moor, these reticent places have been on our list of “most wanted” for some time, although neither of us had the chutzpah to bog-bump our way out to them.

There's a mine there somewhere!
Until last week, that was, when the moor grass on the hills crackled underfoot, heat battering back from the rocks that jutted out from shrinking sphagnum. Not that the mines were in any way dry when we finally reached them, but they were a little less flooded. Gold mining is a rather damp business.
Although it was like a hot tinderbox on the day we set out, it was also very windy. In the distance we could see the hills ablaze to the west of Porthmadog, a pall of smoke scudding quickly over the surrounding hills. After a chat to the friendly farmer, who warned us about some cows with calves in one of the fields, we walked up the road towards the moors.

Our route passed under a dinky accomodation bridge on the old, much lamented Bala to Blaenau Ffestiniog railway line. The moor began above the old line and the wind doubled in intensity. One advantage of this soon became evident when we noticed a bird of prey struggling to stay upright on a fencepost. It couldn't hear us because we were down wind, so we were able to walk within a few yards of it before the game was up and it shot off sideways, carried by a gust of welsh mistral. It was a big, graceful creature. I tried to take a photo, but as usual I hadn't got the camera set properly and then the stupid autofocus wouldn't settle. I shouted at the little camera “It's a bloody bird, get on with it!” but all I got was a solitary wisp of cloud in focus and a blasted blurred bird. Anyhow, Petra reckoned it was a female Hen Harrier, and subsequent viewing of a Iolo Hughes video proved her right. We felt very fortunate to have seen it.

Doubled up like a couple of Breughel figures against the breeze, we made our slow and lumbering way to the mine. On the way, we passed some Roman Practice works. What men those Romans must have been. A day's marching and then dig a fort after tea. The shape of the fort was just discernable from the ground, but is much more evident on Google earth. I wondered out loud about the perils of being a roman with pesky tribesmen around to give you trouble, but as Petra pointed out, if you could march all day and then dig a fort, the odd band of tribesmen would be despatched quick smart.

Trawsfynydd from the mine...and those pesky pylons.
We passed a sad, ruined farmstead in a stand of roaring trees. The house was tumbled and scattered but, oddly, the privy remained above a small stream. The roof was made from a couple of fine slabs of slate, probably from the nearby Braich Ddu quarry. Several gateposts were similarly from quality slate. Must have cost quite a bit back in the 1860's. We turned off the rough track and headed up towards Moel Croesau. We followed a fell line of pylons, the wind thrumming through the tracery of their legs like a squadron of bombers overhead, their cables strung out sideways. I kept thinking about the Wellington bomber that crashed here one cloudy night during the second world war, only two of it's crew surviving. Maybe it was just us, the hill or the wind, but we both imagined the electricity from the metal monsters was sapping our strength- it was certainly good to get away from them when we reached the mine.

It had been a difficult walk, even without the mire. Some areas were still very boggy, even after a couple of weeks of drought, so heaven knows what this moorland is like normally. But the mine was wonderful. I've not mentioned the location, although there are enough clues in this article, because the mine itself is a dangerous one and shouldn't be attempted without the requisite equipment, which includes safety ropes and plenty of lighting. It's also a very long walk from anywhere.
A large Quartz boulder sparkling with pyrites, Petra's size 6 for scale.
The remains on the surface are fascinating in themselves, though, particularly the tips, which are full of pyrites, quartz crystals and blobs of galena in the rock. Shards of mica sparkle from the tips among the iron rich sediment and arsenopyrites. Yes, that's right, arsenic. Rather unhealthy. The average life expectancy of a miner in the mineral extraction industry in the 1860's was 40, a combination of the hard, wet working conditions, the poisonous minerals encountered and the truly terrible diet.

A stream runs through the site and in the bed of the stream there are remains of water driven hammers, or stamps, weathered and displaced by the winter rages of the water. The ore bearing rocks would be crushed as they came out of the mine and the resulting silt separated for gold. I don't know whether they then panned for it, by running the silt into troughs as in the Klondyke or whether there was some more mechanical processing going on. At this mine, we're talking about a period starting in the 1840's (shades of the ol' forty-niners...) through sporadic extraction up to the nineteen thirties. There's a barracks above the site, where men lodged during the week- although we were perplexed at the lack of chimneys... perhaps they used iron stoves?

The barracks above the mine.
Further up the hill there was a double-walled powder store.

Underground, as I've already hinted, things were wet and rather slimy. The main adit passed a strongroom with the door blown off, apparently by people who imagined there would be stacks of gold kept there after closure. Fools! A damp adit runs into the hill and is intersected with crosscuts. Walking along one, we heard a strange rumbling sound, which gradually became fainter. I later learned that the stream runs about ten feet above the crosscut at this point, and in the winter can be heard as a deafening roar in the tunnel. Not reassuring. At the working face of the mine several passages, raises, shafts and stopes intersect in a jumble of chaotic rock. It was the habit of the old miners to stack “deads” or waste rock behind wooden fences, rather than have to transport them to the surface. Several of the supports had given way, and those that remained looked a little unsafe to say the least. There are dangerous shafts going down, flooded with clear water. It's quite frightening to look at a set of rails heading down into watery blackness. Especially when you notice that the floor you are standing on is a wooden one over goodness knows what kind of a drop.

The rails descending. The orange gloop is caused by the pyrites
 reacting with air to form acid mine discharge.

We had a mine plan with us, (thank you, AditNow) so were able to navigate our way confidently around and eventually emerged into the daylight again. We'd forgotten about the wind, which assailed us as soon as we clambered from the mouth of the tunnel. It was a fascinating mine, one I would visit again. There were some interesting minerals and copious amounts of strangely alluring, deeply toxic outpourings of bright slime. Some shiny things, too. Pyrites, or fool's gold outcropped in veins on the surface among quartz. It's not really fool's gold, though, because the presence of the brassy crystals told the old prospectors that gold would probably be found. We weren't too bothered about the gold. We'd seen a beautiful site with some fascinating remains, the sun was shining and this was Wales. A little less gwynt* would have been good, but you can't have everything, can you?

If you'd like to find out more about Welsh Gold I can do no better than send you to this site, where the occurrence and distribution of the gold and mines is detailed:  Wales Underground

Here's a link to an article about Gwynfynydd mine, a modern operation near Dolgellau: Welsh Gold.

*gwynt : Welsh for wind!

The way out, a 30 degree long crawl through a partly collapsed shaft.

Yummy iron and sulphuric mine discharge forming snotites on the roof.
No, that's not gold on the floor!


Chameleon said...

Excellent story! Enjoyed it very much.

Iain Robinson said...

Thank you! Very glad you enjoyed it.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating stuff (as usual!). Keep up the good work, Iain.

Iain Robinson said...

Thanks very much, Graham.

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