Well, we finally made it to Nyth-y-Gigfran. It's not a wonderfully exciting mine. There are no cathedral sized chambers or wonderful decorations and you don't need to cross any terrifying bridges or take an inflatable ferry over some unfathomable black underground lake.
And yet....there are many features that make it rather special; that set it apart from other local mines.
The location, of course, is pretty spectacular. The only viable route to the mine is from Cwmorthin, climbing up through the shattered remains of that quarry on to the bwlch above, then down towards the old levels of Holland's Cesail workings. From here, you see the back of Craig Nyth-y-Gigfran (the rock of the raven's nest) a feature so often glimpsed from the Blaenau road, towering hundreds of feet above like a rocky rhino horn. It's almost as if you are catching the crag unawares, glimpsing it from an unusual angle like this.
Descending down onto floor eleven of the Oakley workings you could almost miss the entrance, as slate rubble has been bulldozed against it, necessitating a shimmy down into the tunnel. The first things that greet the explorer are a couple of strange trestle type confections, made of wood, with slate and plaster coverings. The remains of some stage sets put here for the filming of the 1995 clunker “First Knight”, starring Sean Connery and Richard Gere. You can spot the first chamber of the mine with these “butresses” in the film. To be honest, it looks more interesting in real life.
This is actually an Oakeley tunnel, once part of the 1970's “cap lamp” tour of the Gloddfa Ganol mine, as it was then known. Later, the concern was taken over by McAlpines. The Oakeley quarry had to close in April 2010 because of massive cracks appearing on the surface, the result of underground subsidence. Today, tip reclamation is the name of the game, yet again under the auspices of a different company. The big pit and the galleries of the old workings lie silent. It's a tragedy that so many local jobs were lost with the closure of the Oakeley, not to mention the continuity of a site that was once at the centre of the industry. But here, on the quiet upper levels of Cesail, we are at least spared the unseemly picking over of dead bones as is happening on the other side of the valley.
The tunnel carries on for a hundred yards until it meets the old workings of the Nyth-y-Gigfran mine. This was actually driven from the cliff face, the produce being taken to the Ffestiniog railway by a steep incline. This incline can still be seen today, although it's not possible to gain access this way- unless you are an experienced (and fearless) climber. After walking through the tunnel, ignoring side passages for now, daylight can be seen. First, a fine chamber worked out to bank, then another short tunnel. This opens out to a view which could literally blow your socks off.
A narrow platform soars above level 5 of Oakeley, then below that, the town of Blaenau Ffestiniog, looking like a very well made model railway. As if to re-inforce the impression, Merddyn Emrys chuffed past down below, whistling for Glan-y-Pwll crossing. Incidentally, the mine was originally known as the Glan-y-Pwll mine. I don't know why it's now known by the rather more romantic name, but it wears it well. Only ravens would care to hang out here for long.
A precarious, fragile ledge carries on along the rock face towards the incline head, revealing a couple more adits along the way. The level is dangerous and unstable, and I wouldn't recommend it, although the remains are very interesting.
Back in the mine, we explored the Oakeley tunnels. Surveyors marks abound on the roofs and there are a couple of fine little chambers. It makes a very enjoyable mooch and appears to be very stable, unlike some of the other old Oakeley floors which are de-laminating rapidly.
Once out into the old open workings again, we carefully picked our way along level 11. It felt very much like a scene from Lord of the Rings and I almost expected a Nazgul to come and pick me off, although the reality would have been a very irate security guard on a quad bike, as we are just off public access land here. It's definitely not a place to lark around in, as the rock is dangerous and unstable...but beautiful, haunting and broodingly atmospheric. Who needs flooded chambers and “bridges of death”?
Grid reference SH689462.
The mine dates from 1860, when two adits were driven from the rock ledge on the side of the Craig. The tunnel connection with the Oakeley is a later development. The mill is thought to have been near to the present Ffestiniog works on the quarry side of the railway.
Surveyors marks are points in the roof, usually drilled, filled with a plug of wood and then a metal “spad” inserted which held a wire or a piece of string to the roof. The other end of the string would have a plumb bob. Sightings could then be taken from one line to the other. Often seen with a number and a painted circle, occasionally a triangle.