Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Diffwys: Mother of Blaenau Ffestiniog Slate

Gwyn Thomas, former national poet and Blaenau Ffestiniog's least-known export, wrote of  the mountains of waste surrounding the town;  rubble that “gnarled the hands of generations, “ hewn from “Hollow caverns, in the hush between the mountains”.

Walking the hills or even just strolling along the main street of the town today, no-one could be unaware of the traces of history still written large on the landscape. A history, though,  that is fading slowly from the place, as old miners die and the winter frost shatters the faces of the grass covered twlls.
Now the quarries, save for one rather energetic one, are tourist destinations or places where the slate tips are recycled  into hard core for roads. Nothing wrong in that; the old miners probably smile from their cloudy crags to see the town still working the slate to turn a coin. I'm pleased that some of the quarries still cut a shape, even if some slate simply goes as inert filler for epoxy resins, or highly expensive kitchen work tops.

Early this year, we took a walk up to the place that began it all here... Diffwys: The mother quarry. Started because a miner, Methusalem Jones, of Nantlle, dreamt one night in 1760 of a place where the slate came to the surface. He walked for miles and found the spot, high above the valley of the Bowydd. There was no Blaenau then, only a few scattered farmsteads.It must have been a dour job, high on the slopes of Moel Diffwys, opening up what we know now as the Hen Gwaith, or “Old Workings”.
 The quarry grew until, in 1800 it was bought for £1000  by one William Turner and his partners, the Cassons. Diffwys went on to dominate the slate trade in the area, it's rivals only overtaking it in the 1870's. A new town had grown, too- providing homes and facilities for the thousands of men employed; from miners, rockmen, and rubblers through to blacksmiths, engine drivers and clerks.

 The tips of Diffwys, seen from the little road that comes up from Manod, are still gigantic.There's a quarryman's path that runs up the hill and as we approached, the vast piles of slate beetled darkly above us. It was a steep path. You have to wonder at the stamina of the men, that they would walk two miles or so up this path and then put in an arduous eight hour day before walking down again. No sooner did we climb past one vast tip, when another rose up before us, crowned with teetering citadels. Below, the town grew smaller while, above us, we could see the brooding hulk of Manod Mawr. It looked like a grey skirted fortress from this side, where the heart has been spewed out of that mountain by modern opencast quarrying. 

The tips of the Manod quarry above a weigh house from floor 3 twll.

Manod Mawr under cloud as we walked up the miner's track. The glints in the middle distance are from the Graig Ddu quarry's Lefl Dwr Oer mill area.

At the foot of an incline, we switched back and up again along a shattered  tramway, clinging to the side of a loose tip. I stumbled, dislodging a chunk of sawn slate which slid down, encouraging others to take up the chase. Eventually, the five or six pieces stopped; but I was intrigued by the noise they made, like china cups breaking. I'd been told that the sound was a familiar one in the town many years ago, when all around, waste was being flung off those vertiginous citadels of rock to smash down the sides.

 Our tramway led on to a large, flat plateau.  And here, looking moody and magnificent, were the remains of the Diffwys Floor 6 Steam Mill. It seemed to me to be a haunted place; even though the sun was shining and the air full of larks. We picked our way about the remains, in awe of the atmosphere. The chimney still stood, along with an impressive spread of other structures.  Eventually we made our way to a winding house, with the rusty remains of a spider for a winding drum.
The view here made me catch my breath. There was a drop down into what had once been the Votty quarry. A new road had been driven by Llechwedd towards where the Tuxford Incline should have been. This area had always looked chaotic, even in the 1890's photos that I've seen.  But now, there was no sign of the tunnels, that once loomed like a honeycomb, leading down into the mine. All that remained was a gigantic post box slit amid a sea of fresh rubble. Obviously, some major untopping had taken place here. In a way, I was glad I hadn't known the incline before this latest mischief, because I would have been all the more upset to see this.

Mine abuse...look away if you're easily shocked.

The massively re-inforced drumhouse on floor 5.

Which is why we wander around, photographing everything in these old mines and quarries... some day soon, this is going to happen again. We can't blame the quarry company for destroying the archaeology (although I do) because as I'm often told, it's local jobs for local people.
We could see Maenofferen over the other side of the valley. There's a moratorium on that place just now. Plans are afoot to save the fine mill there, and I earnestly hope it happens. In the meantime, Llechwedd are untopping the old David Jones quarry, moving inexorably towards the back vein incline, one of the most interesting relics left in this part of Blaenau.

The scene at David Jones and  Maenofferen, with Diffwys above. The Maenofferen mill to the right. This view is taken from the Rhiwbach tramway incline looking towards Diffwys.

A gigantic packwall in one of the twlls on floor 7 of Diffwys
Walking uphill from floor 6 and the mill, we entered another shattered, chaotic landscape where the quarry  had been re-worked and untopped back in the eighties. It was a fascinating scene, like a set from an old Dr Who programme. I half expected Cybermen to come marching out of one of the pits. Everywhere you looked, there were half-destroyed or jumbled features, as if the landscape was telling a story but the words  were in several different places, or missing altogether. It was a compelling, exciting scene, with mystery and jeapoardy everywhere. I suspect that there are only two or three people left who can begin to explain the scene in it's complexity here, and I hope one of them is writing a book about it.

A gigantic boulder in an underground chamber, held from falling by a rusty chain.
After searching for some time, we found a couple of adits; fragile and compromised, yet with a special atmosphere. Certainly not places for the inexperienced or ill-equipped to wander into.

We'd spent most of the day in the confusion of the untopped pits. So, it was a relief to walk up to the earliest workings, high above the mine. These were a series of very old, run-in adits with moss encrusted tips, looking down on the chaos below. Curlews burbled and cried in the still air as we sat and feasted on the view. Here, the scene was much easier to interpret, with clear tip runs and weigh-house remains. There were some later workings here too, but again, these had simply been abandoned, not untopped.

Looking across to Blaenau from the floor 5 tips. Bwlch-y-Gwynt (the pass of the winds) and the town lie in front of the Moelwyns, while in the distance, the modern mill at Oakeley can be seen. Tip reclamation goes on at the Maenofferen tip on the upper right, the new quarry road leads to Llechwedd.

All around us lay a magnificent arena of hills and mountains, from the badlands to the north, where the Rhiwbach tramway ran, round to the distant Moelwyns and then the Manods. It's hard to imagine a finer place to be on a warm day, looking for clues on the inscrutable face of this ancient quarry.

The magical twll of the new floor 3 workings, further up the hill. The adit leads to an unguarded vertical shaft- exploration not recommended without proper gear.

The Factoids:

Gwyn Thomas was born in Tan-y-Grisiau....Wiki page here about him. The excerpt in this article is from his poem "Blaenau, y Bobol Ardal Blaenau Ffestiniog" from his collection "Pasio Heibio" published by Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, 2000.

By the early 1820's, Diffwys was producing 6000 tons of slate a year. It was abandoned in the 1890's, but was re-opened in 1920, remaining open until the mid 1950's.  Untopping work was carried out in the 1980's by Llechwedd.

The floor 6 steam mill was the first integrated mill in the area, starting production in 1861. It was later electrified in the 1920's.


Anonymous said...

Interesting observations on the sounds of falling slate, Iain. I have to say I rather like the rumbling crunching and crackling noise that follows a detonation when they are blasting over the valley at Penrhyn.

Like the atmospheric monochrome shot looking down on the town!

Iain Robinson said...

Thanks very much, Graham. Our detonations at Manod are a little disappointing. Minutes of hooters going off, then a puny crack and slight rumble. The quarry is much more enclosed, though, which contains the sound.

Thought you'd like the mono Manod shot!

hefhoover said...

Hi Iain, I thought I'd pop in to say "hello", miss you two on Flickr :-(
What a cracking shot this Manod one is, couldn't think of a more appropriate view, complete with obligatory sheep.
Take care, Hef :-)

Petra said...

Hi Hef it's Petra here, lovely to hear from you! Iain's away for a week so I am tending the blog for him :) I'll pass on your 'hello'. Sorry we deserted the good ship Flickr. There's never enough time time to do all the things we want to do though.
Luv to you, boyo!

Jochen said...

Here's "Umschauen" of Flickr, just stopping by to also say that I miss Iain on Flickr. Fortunately I managed to find this blog. Great Wales photos as always. All the best to the two of you! Jochen

Petra said...

That's really nice of you Jochen! :) When Iain gets back I'll tell him. Best wishes to you too!

Iain Robinson said...

@Hefhoover and Jochen- thanks for your comments, it's very nice to hear from you again! I miss Flickr...but there just aren't enough hours in the day and something had to give :-)

All the best to you both and happy photting!

Jonna said...

Hello Iain,

We are a couple from Finland that plan to visit Diffwys quarry and especially the big ruin. Do you remember how long it took to walk up there and was the road very steep?

We appreciate anything you can tell us.

Best regards,
Johanna and Daniel Järnström

Iain Robinson said...

Hi Johanna and Daniel, thanks for looking in at the blog.

Your best starting point is the path at SH70794582, at the end of the little road from Bethania, the B470. Punch that co-ord in to "Streetmap" and you should see where I mean. The path takes you up the side of the tips and you can go all the way up, or branch off halfway to floor six where the mill is. It took us about 30 mins to get up to floor six, the path is steep and rough and slippery in wet weather. If you are going all the way to the top, give yourselves about 45 mins unless you are super-fit! Please be very careful and don't venture into the adits unless you are experienced in this kind of thing. Have a great time and please let us see how you got on!

Jonna said...

Hi Iain,

Thank you so much for your comments! I have one more question, though. Because we a definitely far from super-fit, we were looking at the road up from Lord st, there is a gate, do you think it's allowed to use that road? It should take us to the mill, right? Takes longer of course, but we have all day! :)

Best regards,

Iain Robinson said...

No problem! The Lord Street route will take you up into the quarries and you won't get into trouble for using that route. Use the route that goes into Diffwys on the right...don't go straight up the Lord's incline as that will take you up towards Llechwedd.
Off Lord Street and up the right hand incline, you will then have to climb the inclines on the other side of the valley to reach will take you longer, but it is do-able. Just be careful that you don't stray onto Maenofferen as they are blasting there at the moment and are twitchy about people being around.
I'm not really very fit myself, but I would still recommend the route I suggested first...but either way you will have a great explore!

Loretta said...

Hello; I found your blog by looking for Blaenau on Pinterest. Your photos are stunningly beautiful! We plan to visit Blaenau in May of this year. My paternal Grandpa was born here and moved to Canada in 1910. His father worked in the quarry mining slate, but I don't know which exact quarry. Thank you for the gorgeous shots.

Iain Robinson said...

Thank you, Loretta, you are very kind. I hope you find out more...there are motorised quarry tours now to the top of the workings at Diffwys. Glad you enjoyed the photos.

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