Thursday, 26 May 2011
Cwmystwyth: Scenes from a Spaghetti Western.
Even on a wet day, Cwmystwyth looks like a set from one of those classic Clint Eastwood films. Probably the most appropriate one would be “For a Few Dollars More”, as this site has been exploited for minerals since 1500BC, being raked over and tunnelled into for copper, lead and zinc. Many people have worked here in apalling conditions for very little pay, dying unnaturally early and ignominiously. The walls of the barracks bear the marks of fire and, if the old stories are to be believed, have seen a great deal of violence, drunkenness and rape over many years of mining.
It's a strangely shattered and desolate landscape, radically altered by the practice of “hushing”, the large scale release of water over the ore bearing beds, to dislodge and sort the minerals. Orange tips cloak the sides of the valley, while adits pock-mark the upper slopes. Lower down, the evocative ruins of buildings lie slowly deteriorating. The valley sides are scored by long leats dug for the hushing process, while above, wild ravines lead to more deadly-looking shafts and defiles. It is a very romantic landscape, created in the most unromantic way possible.
It's perhaps appropriate that Chalcopyrites, the substance that gives much of this area it's mineral wealth, is abundant in the Mexican cordillera as well as in Spain, Italy and, of course, Parys Mountain on Anglesey. The situation in this valley somehow makes it all the more fascinating.
It's been the scene of recent conflict, too. When we stopped here to climb the sides of the valley looking for adits to explore, we found that every single one had been barred. A few years ago there had been some destruction here with one or two of the locked gates being pulled off by irate mine-explorers. A heated debate smouldered in several of the online underground forums. There was even an attempt by a well-known explorer to buy the whole site and open it up again for conservation and exploration. Given the problems that the mine has had, with massive acid mine discharge having to be expensively prevented from flowing into the river, it was a brave move. An enterprise sadly doomed to failure. So the adits remain gated for now, although anyone wanting to see what the mine looks like underground only needs to root around for a while in the excellent AditNow or Mine Explorer sites.
We had a great day wandering around the site. The initial disappointment at not being able to go underground was outweighed by the drama of the place and of course, if I'd taken the trouble to do a little research, I'd have known about the access issues. But no amount of reading would have prepared me for how impressive the site was, or how I would find myself whistling Emilio Morricone melodies for days afterwards.
The historical evidence for mining at Cwmystwyth begins with the opencast workings at the top of Copper Lode on Copa Hill, to the south of Kingside Lode. This area has provided dates of approximately 1500BC. The modern recorded history begins about 1500AD with the Mines Royal and the Company of Mine Adventurers.
In the 1850's, the mine was producing over 1,000 tons of galena (lead ore) each year.
During the 1860's a determined search for new ore reserves led to the mine reaching it's lowest level at 54 fathoms.
Despite new investment and the construction of extensive tramways and mill buildings, the price of zinc ore fell in the nineteen twenties, resulting in the mine's closure in 1921.
A gold disc about the size of a milk bottle top was discovered in 2002 below the bronze age copper mine on Copa Hill. Called the Banc Ty'nddôl sun-disc, it is a small, decorated, gold ornament , most likely part of a funerary garment. It is thought to be more than 4,000 years old, which makes it the earliest gold artifact found in Wales.
In the early 1990's, there was a potentially catastrophic breakthrough into an adit containing thousands of gallons of built up, heavily polluted mine water. This web site has the fascinating details of how a catastrophe was averted and of how owning the mine would be a constant worry!
The site is owned by the crown and is designated a site of special scientific interest.