Tuesday, 17 May 2011

A Wild Walk to Graig Ddu

Lefl Dwr Oer and Graig Ddu from Diffwys. Manod Mawr is shrouded in mist.
 The shattered remains of Graig Ddu quarry lie up on the western flanks of Manod Mawr, almost engulfed by tipping from Welsh Slate's Manod quarry. It's a stiff walk from the valley road through Congl-y-Wal, but well worth the effort. The views are fantastic, even if you choose an evening without the apocalyptic weather that we had when we ventured up!
We started near to Hughes' transport depot, where a back lane leads to the foot of the no.1 incline. It's a popular stroll for locals, so the path is pretty well beaten. The inclines, all three of them, were built in 1865 to enable produce to be brought down to the then 2 foot gauge Ffestiniog and Blaenau Railway. Later, this was taken over by the GWR (in 1883) and broadened to standard gauge, so the trucks from the quarry were piggy-backed to Blaenau for re-loading onto normal wagons.

A rusty wreck by the incline. Probably not a Car Gwyllt.
The first incline rises up inexorably at a steady gradient. The town of Manod and the Moelwyns gradually spread out below as you climb, while to the north, the mighty tips of Diffwys dominate the skyline. It's possible to make out the engine house chimney of Diffwys floor 6 mill, the earliest in the area, poking above the tips.
The incline that we were climbing had quite a claim to fame. It's hard to envisage it now, but back in the heyday of the place, workers would descend the inclines at speed, riding on contraptions known as “Car Gwyllt” -wild cars, a characteristic welsh understatement.

This frightening item of personal transport consisted of a board, about 8 in. by 2 ft., supported in front by a small double-flanged wheel and at the back by a flat iron casting with guiding flanges. Fixed to the middle of the board, and at right angles to it, was a long iron bar with a double bend near the end, terminating in a roller which rested on the right-hand rail of the left-hand track. The seat of the car would be placed on the left hand rail of the right hand track.
Every quarry worker who came from Graig Ddu had one of these cars, made by the quarry blacksmith in his spare time. It must have represented a significant source of extra income for the man. At four o'clock, the men would ride down the incline en-masse, usually led by their appointed “captain”, one of the senior miners. It must have been quite a sight, some two hundred men descending at forty miles an hour down the mountain. The aim was to try and catch the Crosville omnibuses that stopped at the end of the incline, at the Great Western goods yard. If the men were late, of course, the speed might be significantly higher...

The first incline, with Congl-y-Wal below and the Moelwynion in the distance.

Only one woman was known to regularly use the “Wild Car”. Kate Griffiths, schoolmistress of Rhiwbach quarry school. She would be crewled up the inclines in the morning, walking from Craig Ddu through to Bwlch-y-Slaters and on to the Rhiwbach tramway, descending the incline there on foot to her schoolhouse at the quarry village. I have an image of a Mary Poppins figure complete with hat and brolly, speeding down the mountain towards Manod with considerable dignity. Unlike the only other woman known to have used the incline in that way. A local story tells of the wife of a quarryman using a wild car to descend after leaving her husband his lunch. I can't vouch for it's veracity, but apparently all went well until the final incline when she attained such a speed that the rudimentary brake wouldn't work and she hurtled towards a goods wagon. The poor woman had the sense to put her legs out in front of her and bounced off the wagon, being thrown fifteen feet in the air. Shocked men working in the yard described her aerial progress, petticoats akimbo, as being “like a rainbow”. Happily, she survived with only cuts and bruises...and an aversion to quarry inclines.
Photo right: Item Ref GTJ18025, Meirionydd Archives, Gwynedd Archives service ref ZS/45/23
Near the top of the first incline is a strange granite “erratic” rock left after the last ice age. It looms over the tramway like an Easter Island head. The second incline runs past the scattered remains of workings, almost completely cleared. There are some traces of wheelpits and bases for engines. The incline reaches the top end of this mill level, known as Lefl Dwr Oer, which was established in the 1880's because of a lack of water for power at the upper level. It was worked again fairly recently by local men in the 1960's, and an excavator from here was donated to the Slate Quarry Museum in Llanberis. There are ponds here, once used to provide power for the mill, which had over 30 saw tables at the peak of production. Sadly, there's hardly anything left on site now apart from some rusty car wrecks and the vestigial wheel pits.

An old wooden bridge left at Lefl Dwr Oer
The final incline rises towards the Manod itself in an uncompromising straight line. The weather was beginning to look a little frisky when we ascended, but in an intrepid frame of mind, we carried on. Well, we had our new Gelert all-weather jackets, what could go wrong? We were rewarded at the summit by a fascinating Drum House with curtain walls, presumably to screen the men from the snell winds that careen round this part of the mountain. There was also a 1930's drainage adit from the main underground workings, almost buried by recent tipping. I turned to look at the Moelwyns and was slightly perturbed to find a selection of weather approaching with malice. Although this was late April, the weather's main attack consisted of massive hailstones, applied with a helping of force six westerly, stinging the face and hands. We ran for the drainage adit and weathered out the squall, which lasted for twenty minutes. When we emerged, all was covered in rapidly melting little white balls.

In for some weather...
Apparently there is a fine keyhole underground powder store on this level, but the icy carronade made me lose interest in the archaeology for a while. It was becoming dark, so we had to descend, half wishing for a couple of wild cars to hurtle down on, back to the warmth of the Vale of Ffestiniog and a cup of hot tea!

 Huw Jenkins' excellent article about the Car Gwyllt here on his super Vale of Ffestiniog site

A fascinating account of the Car Gwyllt by MJT Lewis here

The Drum House at the top of the final incline.

Looking out from the drainage adit
The Moelwynion towers above Llyn Ystradau from Graig Ddu. Blaenau sparkles on the right.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting, Iain!

I like the comparison of the 'then' and 'now' photos of the granite 'moai', and the shot out from the adit is wonderful.

I remember seeing this Pathé clip about the ceir gwyllt a while back (took me some time to refind it!) - http://www.britishpathe.com/record.php?id=9115

Iain Robinson said...

Thanks very much, Graham. That video clip is fascinating...and hilarious- the commentary and background music are wonderful! Thanks for the link.

Anonymous said...

No worries, Iain. Here's another one you might find interesting, if you haven't already seen it:


Gotta love those documentaries - these things always make me think of Harry Enfield's spoof vintage newsreels.

Iain Robinson said...

Brilliant, poignant, too. "A century ahead and no doubt they will still be working these quarries, and in the same way..."

Love the way they are all wearing sports jackets and pullovers. No hi-viz jackets for those guys! Agree, too with your comment about the Harry and Paul newsreels! Thanks very much for the link.

sam said...

My great grandfather Wil(liam) Richard Hughes worked at these slate mines during the 1930s. He may very possibly have been filmed during the making of the 1935 'Y Chwarelwr' documentary. My nain (his daughter Laura) and her sisters were warned to beware when the hooter sounded at 4 o'clock and never to come down the mountain on the tracks for fear of the ceir gwyllt!

sam said...

Stunning pics by the way :)

sam said...

Sorry to keep posting :/ Just to say the second photo of the rusty wreck was definitely not a car gwyllt! As can be seen in the third photo and as described in the text - the ceir gwyllt were tiny! It looks like the men are just sitting on the tracks on their behinds which is practically what thay were doing! Some links to more clips, pics and text etc for anyone that's interested.











Iain Robinson said...

Sam, thank you for your comments and links which are very much appreciated. It is wonderful to hear from someone with a family connection to the quarry. Every time I go underground or stand in a quarry round here I am in awe of the sheer toughness and bravery of the guys that worked in these places.
I certainly wish I could have seen all those guys coming down the incline on their Ceir gwyllt...what a sight!
Oh, I probably was a little too wry on that photo, I really was making a wee joke there...honest!
Thanks again for your comments, they are really appreciated and I'm glad you took the time.

Iain Robinson said...

Sam, thanks are also due for drawing my attention to the document in the first link, which I didn't know was on Mine-Explorer. It's a fascinating account and brings life to somewhere I am very fond of. Superb!

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