Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Red dragon, green hills - the story of the gold mine that never was.

Situated at the head of a breathtakingly lovely cwm, the Red Dragon mine was many things to many folk. It had been started in 1852 as a lead mining venture, but within a year, promoters were singing the praises of a "black mineral", probably manganese, that they claimed was "in inexhaustible supply". Then, before the  hapless subscribers had time to reconsider, they found themselves being harangued for yet more money as apparently, gold had been found within the black mineral. Yes, they were all going to make their fortunes. Expensive, victorian state-of-the-art machinery was dragged up the cwm and installed at the processing works outside the adit. The mine was worked for gold from 1854 until presumed closure in 1856. The Red Dragon appears in the Mining Journal for that year, but after that, it drops off the radar. Other sources claim that the mine was a pyrite mine...a tangled tale which we hoped to solve by having a closer look for clues at  the mine

Our day started by walking up the very minor road towards the head of the valley. A well laid hedge hid the cwm at first, then as we turned a corner some impressive cliffs came into view. The near vertical wall of Craig Maesglase,  a waterfall cascading down it's face. Our route then turned off the farm road, past a small monument to Hugh Jones, a hymnist and teacher who had spent his youth in this valley. Petra translated the Welsh for me:
"Not far from Ty'n y Braich on this road stood Murddyn Maesglasau, home of Hugh Jones the hymnist, 1749-1825."
Although "glas"  would normally mean blue, in this context "Maesglasau" reads as a "green place", which certainly seems right- although Petra is open to suggestions as to a more accurate translation. As far as subsequent research goes, Maesglasau must have stood near to where the present farmhouse, named after the cliffs at the end of the cwm,  now stands. It's a bit of a visual disaster in such a beautiful valley, a 1960's block of a house, surrounded by an ugly collection of concrete structures. I can forgive the farmer, however, since the standards of his land and animal husbandry were extremely high. Although I'm not sure Hugh Jones would be singing hymns about what had been built near the place he grew up in.

Our very enjoyable walk along the old mine road to the head of the valley was punctuated by the sight of several Red Kites and a Buzzard, being strafed by some irate Ravens. Petra tried to video them; a very difficult thing- we now have new respect for those TV wildlife film crews.
A run in adit lay at the side of the track, the remains of the Maes Glas Bach mine - the spoil heap was completely grown over, and occupied by a bit of farm machinery. Hard to say what was mined, but the quantity of spoil indicated a trial at best.

Then, the Red Dragon mine came into view, reached over a stile and some very boggy land. Bwlch Siglen means "The pass or notch of the bog", so fair enough. The mine sits within the slightly elevated ground of the bwlch. There were ruined buildings and evidence of several excavations. We stopped for lunch inside the mine office -a fine spot - I wondered if the manager would have had time or humour to appreciate the view - he was probably too busy trying to find something under the hill that would make the shareholders happy. Meanwhile, a tree grew out of the fireplace, the falling leaves making the light shimmer inside the ruins.

 We had a look at the remains of the machinery in the processing works. There was a large waterwheel house, with a leat running from a dam slightly higher up the hill. Inside were the remains of the bases for "Perkes' Gold Reduction and Amalgamating machine", a mighty contraption where the auriferous material was mixed with mercury to extract the gold - but as this extract from the British Mining Journal of 1860 shows, it could not have been a success, even if gold had been found at the Red Dragon. This  refers to experience in a North Devon mine, but with the same design of machine:
"... Perkes' machine (was) a cast iron pan, six feet diameter and three feet six inch high, in which five heavy cast iron cones revolved, worked by a central vertical shaft. Numerous working trials were made ...... one upon 50 tons of auriferous gossan. The time occupied in reduction and amalgamation was four weeks of day and night work, and the final results were a loss, by disintegration, of 50 per cent of the mercury employed, and a ultimate yield of 1½ ounces of gold, or 14 grains per ton of ore. Every attempt to extract gold from North Devon ores remuneratively by this machine proved a failure". 
Not encouraging, especially as the old miners hadn't even found gold here. It was to be the 19th century equivalent of "spin". The initial prospectus  issued by the promoters suggested that a "Champion Lode" of  lead ore had been found; goodness knows how they then U turned and persuaded the backers to part with the cash for an expensive and relatively untried machine like Perkes'!

Back in the 21st century, we entered the adit, which had been cleared by the Welsh Mines Society. (Thank you, gentlemen!)  It was still wet and full of ochre, but at least it was lower than the tidemark on the walls, which would have been neck-deep. It ran straight for some distance, although there appeared to have been an attempt to chase a manganese lode almost immediately on the right, inbye. Fabulous mineral decorations graced the walls as we walked further into the hill. There was evidence of iron and sulphur on the walls, with copper staining, while gypsum crystals sparkled in the light from our torches.

Eventually, we came to a crosscut, timbered each side. It appeared to run on a lode where the roof was of unstable rock. Neither of us felt it safe to explore this, especially as Ian Adams* had warned in his video about H2S gas from the sulphuric puddles on the floor here.  There seemed to be plentiful manganese ore and sulphur occuring here; but perhaps the manganese was not of sufficient quality to be worth exploiting. There was also plenty of iron pyrites, judging by the acidic orange mud and dark red gour pools on the floor. There was a false floor above us; I dearly wanted to have a look, but I felt that even to brush against the timbers here would bring the roof down. Being a fully paid up member of the yellow belly club, I contented myself with a couple of photos. Further in, there had been a collapse, blocking the way. The calcite deposits on the ends of the buried pit props showing that this had happened a considerable number of years before.

Outside, it seemed warm after the chill of the adit. We washed our kit in the stream, Petra laughing at how I always manage to get so mucky while she, as always,  had emerged in pristine condition. A search of the tip didn't reveal any clues, the gangue rock showing none of the usual evidence of pyrites, quartz or galena.

The temptation to climb to Creigiau Garn-wddog above us proved too much and we struggled up, the views opening out as I puffed and panted like an vintage steam engine. I quietly celebrated that everyone else makes a bee-line for Snowdon, the Ogwen valley or whatever...the usual beauty spot suspects. It leaves these magical, perfect places for the rest of us to enjoy, unmolested - we certainly didn't see another person all day. As a final coup, Petra then proved her legendary mine finding abilities by spotting the run-in entrance to the Bwlch Siglen mine, almost on the ridge. Now that must have been a wild spot to work, and one heck of a walk to the office, even if the views were superb!

Looking down on that wonderful cwm, I understand why Hugh Jones' thoughts turned to wonder on the meaning of life.We try to make sense of it all by wandering and enjoying the landscape, taking photos and hunting for mines. We're singing from the same sheet, I guess.

The mine can be made out in the lower middle of the photo.
 As so often is the case, we're indebted to Ian Adams and Weston Holmes for their super videos of the mine, which set us off on our travels. Ian's is here and Weston's here.

Mindat data page on the Red Dragon

Entry about the mine in Merioneth Manganese, Dave Linton's excellent web site.

Biography of Hugh Jones


Anonymous said...

Some wonderful colours underground there, Iain.

Iain Robinson said...

Cheers, Graham!

weston said...

very nice pictures if im right the harrows that are on the side of the track on the way to the mine is actually on top of a spoil heap the adit has long since collapsed and has trees growing from it but if you stand back you can see the shape.the mine last time we went had a very pungent bag egg smell in one of the cross cut adits,the one to the left i think....but what an an area it is very very peacful

Iain Robinson said...

Cheers, Wez. Yes, it is a superb valley, you're right. We wouldn't have gone there if it wasn't for your film, so big thumbs up for that, too!

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