Sunday, 5 June 2011

The Lost Chambers of Rhiwbach

One day last winter, we got lost in the woods. When we did eventually find what we were looking for, it was too dangerous to explore...because everything was covered with an inch of ice. You can't win sometimes. So, we vowed to come back in the summer and have a look again.
What was it, you ask, this fascinating thing?
Well, the way I saw it first, as I struggled through the trees like a low-rent Indiana Jones, it looked like the ground had suddenly opened up and exposed a sizeable bit of slate mine. Like lifting a big rock and seeing the signs of life underneath. Except that the rock had been put back again, in bits. I don't know whether this all happened with an almighty whomp/boom one dark night, or perhaps bits just gave way one after the other, slow motion style, witnessed only by terrified woodland birds.  I couldn't help but notice a hint of an adit in the dark recesses of the cavern exposed by the collapse.

The scene in February...

And now in summer!

Fast forward to this summer. We didn't bother with the woods this time. The collapse was on the edge of the New Vein Quarry at Rhiwbach, and only required a little determined scrambling and a minor sprinkling of spruce assault to find again. From the lovely lake at New Vein, a beautiful winding tip run crosses what used to be the pit. Only the topmost citadels of the tip remain, but if there was a Valhalla for mine explorers, this would be the water feature. It means that you can walk over the pit to the South face, where there is a tidy, low adit. Blocked.

The blocked adit to the lost chambers.
This was the top entrance to a system of chambers on three levels that ran from the pit in a south westerly direction. The second and third lower floors were flooded by the we walked through the pit, the noise of dripping from an overhanging sill of marl testified to this. It really was a lovely spot. The calls of birds echoed through the woods; chiffchaffs, chaffinches, stonechats, wheatears -and Petra thinks she heard a siskin, too. I just sat on a big chunk of slate and took it all in.
Our little studio is very stuffy and noisy in the summer- so this oasis was appreciated. Deeply.

Our reverie was halted, eventually, by the thought that we still had that collapse to investigate, above the pit. Scrambling up,  were both relieved to find that there had been no more falls in the chamber, and everything looked reasonably safe as we climbed down. A couple more trees had tumbled into the hole, but no ice this time. We made our way carefully into the overhanging defile at the north end of the collapse, hard hats on and lamps at the ready. It seemed like this area was part of a chamber where the roof had managed to stay intact. It towered about 75 feet above our heads as we cautiously made our way to the back, where an adit loomed.

This looked to be a continuation of the adit from the pit, back at the quarry. It went on both ways, but was blocked towards the quarry end. It was open towards the mine, or “inbye” as the old miners used to say. It didn't look inviting. The floor of the passage was covered in bright orange, gloopy mine sludge, caused by the oxidisation of pyrites in the rock. We blomped on, the roof becoming lower, until a wide chamber opened out. In the wild shadows caused by our torches, it looked very unhealthy. There was a ledge around the side I was standing on, covered in the orange goo, but below was a pool of mud about forty feet across. For some reason I suspected that it was very deep and rather dangerous. Being a coward at heart, I retreated to the safety of the previous chamber after firing off some photos, much in the way that as a boy I would shout at the school bully ...once my Dad had arrived to pick me up from school. The bully always got me the next day- let's hope the mud doesn't.

We spent the rest of the day mooching around the other fascinating remains at Rhiwbach, busy gathering materials for another project, enjoying the sunshine and the birdsong. It was good to be topsides and we had finished what we started, that freezing February day. Now we've got the rest of the place to record on film.

New Vein Quarry factoids

The chambers we explored were on level 1, the original level of the old quarry, probably driven in the early 1840's and abandoned in the 1870's. There was a vertical roofing shaft in the second chamber, probably driven before the chamber to find out whether slate was lying under the marl here. So these chambers have been abandoned for 140 years!

This was the second earliest quarry at Rhiwbach, called the "New Vein" because the slate was different from elsewhere in the quarry. Later workings (Cwm End, developed in the 1860's) exploited the North Vein. The earliest workings are in the "Old Quarry" near the winding house and incline, which date from the 1830's.

The main quarry at Rhiwbach closed in 1953.

The old maps and plans of the quarry are very confusing, but one plan dated 1903 gives the small tunnel at level 1 as being driven by a Richard Lewis. I can't find any other information about him other than he was a miner from Penmachno.

The definitive source for information about Rhiwbach is the out-of-print book by Griff Jones, a noted historian from Blaenau Ffestiniog. Entitled "Rhiwbach Slate Quarry, it's history and development"  ISBN 0-9533692-2-6. I was lucky enough to find my copy on Ebay.

The quarry is at SH 740462, but you'll have to find the collapsed chambers for yourself!

The web is full of information and misinformation about the quarry, but the excellent Penmorfa site of Dave Sallery is a very reliable source, as are the photo archives of AditNow.
Here's a little film Petra and I made about the New Vein...


Anonymous said...

Another interesting trip report, Iain. Great shot of the Damoclean icicles!

Iain Robinson said...

Thanks, Graham!

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