Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Tramway Across the Moors

Moel Penamnen in the background, near the Cwt-y-Bugail junction
 The Rhiwbach tramway. A long-discarded thread, laid carefully over the moors above Blaenau Ffestiniog, linking some fascinating and lonely industrial ruins. During the week, the tramway's empty cuttings echo only to the calls of curlew, raven and buzzard. Only at the weekend might a rambler or two be seen, striding across the moors towards Moel Penamnen, or perhaps a mountain biker in search of some adventurous terrain.
A cutting on the tramway in February.
To explore the tramway, the easiest route starts with a drive up lonely Cwm Teigl, creeping under the beetling crags of Carreg-y-Fran and steeply round the road to Manod Quarry, still a working concern. There are few passing places on this road and it is well to remember where they are, as quarry trucks come down the hill at breakneck speed and don't give way as a rule. Parking is available at Welsh Slate's Manod Quarry car park, outside the gates. From here, a track goes over a cattle grid, heading north east towards the moors. It's not a footpath or a right of way, but in all the scores of times we've been this way, there's never been a problem.

The views on a good day are great, over towards the Arenigs to the south and to Drum quarry a little nearer. The track starts high - on the 450 metre contour;so  the views should be good!
After a short walk, the deep pit of Fridd comes into view on the right. A very old quarry, opened by at least 1818. Sadly, in 1834, two men walking back from Penmachno to Ffestiniog in the dark missed their way and fell to their deaths in this pit, which must have been deeper than it seems now. It's a spooky place, with a waterlogged and unstable adit in the base of the pit. The track rises up above the old route of the tramway here, past a curious derelict TV booster station. To the left, the old course of the tramway can be made out as it describes an elaborate dog's leg to lose height.

Inside the Fridd Pit.

 Descending back to the tramway, a branch goes to the right, south east to the Rhiwbach quarry. I won't describe the place just now, but suffice to say that it is well worth looking down the engine house incline towards Penmachno. It's at least a day's explore, before even thinking about going underground. Before the incline head, more workings from the Fridd quarry appear to the right. An opened chamber in a small pit and a collapsed adit. This is the pit known as "Gatty's" after the lessee of Blaen-y-Cwm at that time. Over the tramway from the pit are the tips of the first mill, started around 1870.
Gatty's pit, with Petra perching on a rock.

Inside the pit at Blaen-y-Cwm in winter. Yes, those are icicles.
Looking down the Blaen-y-Cwm incline to the mill.
 Meanwhile, the tramway carries on roughly northwards past an even bigger pit: Blaen-y-Cwm. Untopped from a previous underground operation, an impressive incline climbs out of the twll, known as "Watson's incline". There is a tunnel in the pit which connects to the mill further north. It is accesible, but very wet. Further lovely views open up to the east as the tramway continues to the head of the Blaen-y-Cwm exit incline and sheave pillar. An adit goes off west of the tramway here, and can be followed underground for 60 yards. This was Watson's trial, a desperate bid for usable rock in 1893-1903. Some bridge rail lies outside.
The line of the tramway seen from the slopes of Manod Mawr. Blaen-y-Cwm pit is in the middle right, with the Engine House crimp middle distance centre. In the left distance is the mighty Rhiwbach quarry.
 Below, the main mill lies in ruins, with the vestiges of an old portable steam engine lying beside the north wall. The mill is well worth a look and has a low-level waste tramway to the east wall and an imposing wheel pit. There are other adits and shafts on this site, but I'll mention those in another post.
Looking towards Cwt-y-Bugail in the distance

Ever since the summit of the trackway near the TV booster station, the impressive tips of Cwt-y-Bugail have been dominating the skyline to the north. The tramway approaches the branch to this quarry past an old ruined barracks, built about 1869 and mostly collapsed now. The branch veers off to the right, eastwards into the mill area of this once busy quarry. Again, a day at least should be set aside for exploration. We've visited it very many times and have still not explored everything. It's a weatherbeaten site, and was often cut off during the winter for months at a time.

Towards Blaenau Ffestiniog, with Llyn Bowydd.

After the junction, the main tramway turns sharply west towards Blaenau Ffestiniog. Wonderful views open up of Moel Penamnen to the north, Snowdon to the north west, and the Moelwyns towards the south west. Of course, the bulk of Manod Mawr has been in constant attendance all the way along the tramway and depending on the time of day, the change in direction results in a welcome brightness from the west. There's a small mineral mine, probably for lead on the slopes of Manod here. The Newborough mine, opened in 1818. There's an interesting spoil tip and rudimentary anvils for cobbing the ore beside a flooded shaft.

The Newborough Mine
 Now, the tramway winds through cuttings and along a causeway past Llyn Bowydd, dammed to provide water for Maenofferen quarry to the south west. A leat runs along beside the tramway until the imposing incline head of the Rhiwbach number 3 incline. Here, at the crimp of no.3, the story must end for now. Llechwedd, the current owners of the site, are engaged in untopping the David Jones quarry below, very close to the mills of the Maenofferen. Just now, in October 2011, work is still continuing.

Looking down to Maenofferen from the No.3 incline crimp.
 The mills below are the subject of a preservation bid, and form part of a world heritage site application for the slate industry locally. Fingers crossed. Much is happening in the quarries above Blaenau; areas are being set aside for a world-class downhill mountain biking course, other trails are being built and in the town, an ambitious regeneration scheme is set to take off. Meanwhile, the old workings at Votty are still being picked over for good slate, tips are being reclaimed for hardcore, and Llechwedd energetically looks for new and different ways to provide much needed local jobs. It's great. It's a huge contrast, though,  to the way the old tramway meanders high up on the moors, with only the birds and the sheep for company.

Further reading: "Slate Quarry Album" by Gordon and Ann Hatherill,
Roy Link Publications, ISBN 978-0-9538763-8-9
with a chapter on the Rhiwbach tramway

Dave Sallery's excellent article on the tramway here


Map References:
Start of the tramway at Manod  SH73263 45602
Fridd Pitt SH73442 45853
Blaen-y-Cwm Mill  SH73360 46282
Cwt-y-Bugail Junction SH73169 46728
Rhiwbach No.3 incline crimp SH71520 46951


weston said...

great pics and of coarse the b/w ones are my favourite ones, and also you a fact machine,take care both ......wez

Petra said...

Thank you, Wez :) Happy exploring!

Anonymous said...

More interesting stuff, Iain! Looks like there is enough to explore there to keep one busy for a long time.

The abandoned booster station looks rather intriguing.

I like the mood that you have caught in 'Towards Blaenau Ffestiniog, with Llyn Bowydd'.

Petra said...

Hi Graham, Iain's away at the mo'so I'm tending the blog. So... 'thank you, Graham!' on behalf of Iain :)

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