Sunday, 20 November 2011

(Some) of the mines of Cwm Nantcol

Distant Y Llethr from the slopes of Foel Wen
 It's not often that we venture near any tourist spots, or follow well-trodden routes. But Petra had found some interesting mines at the head of Cwm Nantcol, the popular gateway to the Rhinogs. So I looked on Dave Linton's excellent "Merioneth Manganese" site (see sidebar). The way the excavations looked from Google Earth suggested a manganese working and sure enough, it was listed on Dave's site with an intriguing description and what looked like some small but fascinating underground features.


Foel Wen from the cwm road. The manganese mines rake up diagonally, following the trend of the strata.
We drove up the cwm on an off-season Sunday, through the fascinating little hamlet of Pentre Gwynfryn. Everywhere was deserted. Eventually, following the signs for the cwm road, we emerged on to a high plateau, with the mighty bulwarks of Rhinog Fawr and Rhinog Fach looming in front of us. Our objective, Foel Wen, appeared as an outlier, as if not quite invited to the party. Nevertheless, even from a couple of miles away, it looked as if it had a few interesting tales to tell. There were some tell-tale bluish tips on the side of the hill, notched between lines of strata.


We were able to park near an old school and chapel at SH62322622. It was a lovely walk towards the crossing of the Afon Nantcol, through a couple of imposing 17th century farms. The stones that made their walls looked to have been won from the river bed, or perhaps from glacial till- they were all impressively rounded. I always think that building with round stones is so much more difficult than with slate or some other cleavable rock. An honourable mention must also go to the dry stone wall builders of this cwm, a superb example ran along beside us for the couple of miles to Pont Cerrig, topped off and infilled with slaty rock.

Pig Sty at Cilcychwyn farm, with a nice wall ornament
Perhaps because of the weather, which was still and hazy, the cwm had a dreamlike quality; no cars passed us and indeed, we didn't see another soul until almost the end of our day. Most of the houses seemed to be used as holiday homes and lay stupidly empty, apart from Hendre Waelod, which had the smallest windows I have ever seen on a building, perhaps to keep out the winds which course down the valley in winter.

Marks on the rock echo the field boundaries far below.
 We struck up off the road at SH63392618 using the public right-of-way. A steep climb took us to the first of several open cuts, typical of manganese mines in this area. We sat and had lunch, savouring the view as well as the sarnies - we were looking over a glacially ravaged sill of dolerite, scrape marks covering the surface like an old wooden school desk.


It was here that we went a little wrong. We had Dave's excellent plan with us and a printout from Google Earth, but somehow we managed to miss a few choice bits of the site. Even when you've quartered the area on Google, the reality is still a bit of a shock; and I'm glad, too, otherwise there'd be no point. This part of the mountain was the site of the Cilcychwyn mine, a concern which seems only to have been in operation for a couple of years in 1890-91. Several opencuts run up the hill, with the occasional blind drive. What we didn't know was that there was an interesting adit below us which we managed to miss completely, along with other significant chunks of mine.

One of the fenced-off  Foel Wen Mine adits along the tramway.
 We carried on up the mountain, passing a large flock of mountain goats. Eventually, the adits of Foel Wen mine came into view. Or rather, the tall fences erected around them. These unwelcome additions to the scene are new, put there because of the closeness of the footpath and the farmer wanting to keep his sheep out of harm's way. Not that it stopped him (or her) chucking a dead sheep down one of the adits. The pong was weapons grade. We walked up to the top of the Foel Wen sett, looking down on the incline, which appears to have been unfinished. All along these workings there were two levels of well-made tramway revetments and some ruined buildings, notably a smithy. Obviously here, activity was over a much longer period- according to the "Merioneth Manganese" site, 1835-1892.

Fences (about six feet high) around another adit. Tramway continues over a bridge. The bridge hole is, of course, blocked.
I was pretty hacked off about the closing up of what were really rather innocuous adits, it seemed to be a sign of the nanny state again, an echo of the criticism we often get from people who think we're "mad" for wanting to explore places like this. Petra eyed up one of the six foot high fences as we walked back and decided to climb up for the hell of it. To both our surprise, she was able to get in. I now have to make a "mine ninja" badge for her...needless to say, I followed in quick time. The adit was beautiful, with a column of stacked deads in the centre. I had read that it was a condition of the lease that deads had to be disposed of within the mine, so here was the evidence.

Inside the adit, with the sunset light streaming in the entrance.


By this time it was becoming late, so we descended back to the valley, honour appeased by the conquest of one adit, at least. Only when we walked back and looked again at where we'd been did Petra say "I'm sure we didn't see those adits up there... oh dear. Another look at Google earth confirmed it, we'll have to go back. So long as it's out of season!

Fenced off adits from the tramway.
Barn at Hendre Waelod

A double entrance
Caban in one of the opencuts.
A Hobbit-hole. Yes, we did go in...
Rubbish in a flooded part of the adit.
The incline

13 comments:

geotopoi said...

'Marks on the rock echo the field boundaries far below' - that is an interesting shot. At first glance it looks like an aerial view of a patchwork of fields way down below. But then the sight of the impossibly out-of-proportion sheep jars one back into reality.

Iain Robinson said...

Thanks very much, Graham. There was a sheep right in the middle, but she'd moved off in time for me to take the shot. The sun was a little too bright for good photography, so this was a lucky shot.

katiescamerablog said...

I love these old stone buildings and walls. Amazing photos, Iain. Glad Petra climbed that fence too. :) Amazing things to see where you live.

Iain Robinson said...

Thank you, Katie. Very pleased that you like the photos! I guess these things will still be around when we're gone, but we both feel an urgency about recording them...one external drive full of photos later...

Mark A said...

I particularly like your 'lunchtime view' too. The two barn pictures are beautiful as well. I love the textures in the walls, and there are some impressive boulders therein. They must represent a great deal of effort and skill in the construction. The roofs seem modern(ish). I wonder what the original roofing material was? Was thatch ever used in this part of Wales, or would some form of rustic small slates have been more likely? My meager references are not much help!

Iain Robinson said...

Thank you very much, Mark. I agree, that must have been a heck of a job building those barn walls. That's an interesting question you pose about the roofs. I think you are right, according to my "Illustrated Handbook of Vernacular Architecture", (RW Brunskill) "There seems little doubt that in the majority of roofs covered with slates in Welsh country districts, the material is a replacement for an earlier covering of thatch."
The rather nice stone coping at the gables, however, puts this thought into some doubt...it doesn't look like an addition. Perhaps, as you say, it could have been covered with "moss slates", roughly split, small hand cut slates from local outcrops. A very nice little mystery!

Mark A said...

Rightly or wrongly, I have always associated the raised coping on gables with stone built structures of a particular age; typically but not exclusively 17th C, and not necessarily structures that might have originally been tiled or slated. That is a common association here in south Warwickshire at any rate.

If you Google images of thatched roofs, there are recent images of stone vernacular architecture in western Ireland with raised gable coping and thatch. What is considered 'traditional' thatch in England had to overhang all the walls to keep the water out, because walls were often earth (clay or cob), or timber frames infilled with wattle and daub.

Interestingly, I have just found a picture in Shire Album 105, Clay and Cob Buildings, of a Northamptonshire farmhouse with stone gables with raised coping, cob walls, and thatch....

OK, I'll hang up the anorak now!

Iain Robinson said...

That's very interesting, Mark. So the gables don't neccesarily preclude thatch. Certainly there would be no danger of the walls being washed away on the buildings in Cwm Nantcol! The buildings were fairly near to more fertile valley land, where straw thatch might be available, although they could just as well have used more coarse materials, I guess. Thanks for solving the riddle!

weston said...

brilliant. lovely pictures and all the autumn colours coming through now,also looks like a trip for us in the future.....keep scouting :-)

Petra said...

Thanks, Wez :)

workbike said...

You make me homesick sometimes when I look at your blog.

I guess what I miss is wilderness like this. It's not that we have less of it: there are miles of beautiful, hardly damaged forest and hills. It's just that wherever you go in Germany there's another city a bit further on, eventually, whereas in the UK and especially Wales, there's a feeling that you leave the cities behind.

And then I go and look at the news in the UK and decide that staying here isn't such a bad idea. Maybe one day...

workbike said...

I don't miss the nannying either.

Iain Robinson said...

Thanks, Andy. I think, on balance, you are probably better off over there. It gets ever harder to survive financially here and there's a feeling of disorientation when you are subject to a government that you despise and didn't elect. One of the government's latest stated policies is to cap all disused mine adits and shafts, a little initiative that hopefully will be derailed due to lack of funds. Can we have Angela for PM too? I know she's not exactly New Labour, but anything would be better than Flashman right now...lol!

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