Saturday, 5 November 2011

Penarth 2: In the eye of the beholder..

An idyllic view. Taken from the top level of Penarth quarry, looking north towards Moel Truan.
I was reading a fine blog recently about rambling in Snowdonia.  It was well written and illustrated with great photos, but I was shocked when the writer described Cwmorthin as a hideously scarred landscape, violated by quarrying. I decided not to comment, feeling that the writer was entitled to her opinion. But it made me think that we who love these places precisely because of their shattered, ransacked beauty are rather in the minority.  Ironically, the Quarry at Penarth presides over a valley of great charm, one of those classically rural, mellow rolling landscapes, certainly my idea of idyllic. For me though, it would be bland without the tips on the horizon, suggesting that the landscape had a hint of worldly experience and knowledge. The old, disused trackbed that winds towards Corwen adds another dimension, too, but more about that later.

After our last visit to Penarth Quarry, we'd found out a great deal more about the place. A first visit always sharpens the appetite for more knowledge, yet Penarth  still remains a mysterious and elusive quarry to interpret. Records are few, so I had to tell myself to chill a little, and reconcile to the fact that we'll never know. Petra has a better handle on this, working with the shapes and forms of the quarry, interpreting them as an artist.

Cutting to the chase, this time we knew better than to have to run the gauntlet of snarling dogs on the track through the farm. Instead, we struck up the incline where it meets the road.  Here, the incline actually ran under the road - it's just possible to imagine the mill here next to the railway, which was worked between 1865 and 1890. Nowadays, the stream which has occupied the incline is culverted, an echo of it's former use.
One of the lovely Blonde d'Aquitaine cows at Penarth.
 Care is needed with the gate into the field here, as it only just closes. Thinking back to my days on the farm, I wouldn't have slept at night thinking that my stock were protected from a main road only by a poorly closing gate. The cattle are very fine, well-looked after beasts, too. So if you go up the incline from here, please try and shut the gate really firmly.

Looking up the incline towards the quarry.

The steel incline rope, emerging from the grass on the incline.

I can't write words to do justice to how beautiful the woods looked when we walked up in the autumnal sunshine. I'll just have to say "magical" and hope the photos do their job. The incline formation rises under the trees like a prehistoric barrow; here and there the old incline cable could be seen where the cows had disturbed the ground. I was mystified by what looked like canal-like side pounds to the side of the incline- later I found out that the mill at the old railway siding was water powered, so these must have been to capture water for the wheels. There's no trace down there of anything like that, though, but then that site is much disturbed and altered.

Emerging above the tree line, Petra spotted an old mine trolley, left by the foot of a tree where it had tumbled down. Someone had placed the broken wheel on top. I always like it when explorers leave something like this; I know they have probably disturbed the object, but it strikes me as unselfish. It's saying "look at this" and we probably wouldn't have seen it otherwise. Like the clay pipe resting on the wall of an adit, or the miners jam jars for drinking tea from;  someone had flagged them up for others to see.

After a taxing climb, the foot of the tips were reached. The incline carries on inexorably to a slate-built incline head. The slate here is rather friable and degrades easily;  so the walls were curiously soft-looking, as if they had been painted over with slate coloured artex. After taking a few shots, I climbed up to where I had read that the remains of a Denbigh-style sheave were to be found- I wasn't disappointed. A long, remote handle ran from the sheave to the crimp, where the operator would have visibility. There was also some kind of apparatus with a sprag-like mechanism, presumably for arresting trucks on the incline.

We struck along a level going east and came to the site of the new mill, opened in 1896. This was an extensive affair, with evidence of machine-bases and engine houses.  Some lattice girders are all that remain of a horizontal, reciprocating gang shot saw; concrete bases seem to indicate where the motor was housed for this. According to Richards* this was driven by a 12hp Blackstone engine, later replaced by a producer gas engine. There's a kind of buried reservoir nearby which might be something to do with this. The slate making up the structures is relatively unweathered, confirming the more recent nature of the mill.

There's a curious structure that looks like an incline drumhouse, but it has the remains of a belt-wheel. It could be a winder from a shaft, or some kind of engine house. There's a blanked off adit nearby which according to Richards*  was to supply water…for what? One of the mill buildings has a line of shaft-pillars, with weathered graffiti, and a curious "crazy paving" feature which we couldn't fathom. The more you find out, the less you know!

 A whistle echoed over the valley. I looked down to see a plume of steam from a train on the Llangollen Railway. It was a strange feeling, as if sixty or so years had dropped away and we were in some sort of time warp, slightly spoilt by the lumbering progress of a giant orange B&Q truck on the valley road below. I watched the train for a while, as if at a model railway show, lost in the perfect miniature scenery.

The top level of the quarry.

After a couple of hours exploring the remains, we moved on further up the quarry. There's a much older incline which runs up the side of the pit. At the foot of the incline, there’s a lovely arch over a tip run, decayed to the point where only the key stones remain. The drumhouses and the walliau here are almost completely weathered down into pyramids of black soil, in a scene reminiscent of a surreal japanese garden. The ground is covered with larch needles from the trees that are fast populating the old spoil heaps. With the feeling of ancient abandonment and the views across the valley in the late afternoon sunshine, it was an other-worldly place.  To our left, the pit loomed below, terraces emerging from long-lost adits.  A sparrowhawk was patrolling as we walked round, alarm calls echoing from blackbirds and finches.

We’d left it too late to explore further underground this time. I wasn’t too upset- it means we have an excuse to come back again to this wonderful place. As we walked back along the busy main road to the car, We noticed that the railway are moving on with ballasting the trackbed towards Carrog. When the railway returns, it will be a shot in the arm for the little town, which is an interesting and friendly place. I reflected on how railways always seem to fit in to the landscape, and yet roads don’t, except in the most carefully planned schemes. Perhaps it all depends on your point of view.

*Alun John Richards, “A Gazetteer of Welsh Slate”  Gwasg Carreg Gwalch ISBN:

The remains of the 2-gang shot saw.

One of the side pounds for the waterwheel at the bottom of the incline.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful stuff! Looks like there are quite a few interesting artefacts there.

I know what you mean about the frustration of not being able to find out about the history of a place. I seem to find myself spending long hours trying to research various locations. Perhaps Petra's attitude is a healthier one!

Your mention of the dichotomy in opinion regarding post-industrial landscapes made me go back and look up a passage from Poucher's 'The Welsh Peaks' that I remembered from reading his notes on the 'Moelwyns from Croesor' route.

Here we go:

"Unhappily the northern slopes of Moelwyn Mawr are spoilt by unsightly and now disused quarry workings, and of the many possible routes to the peak this ascent is chosen because it does not disclose them until the summit cairn is attained."

Each to his own.

I suppose.

Iain Robinson said...

Thanks, Graham. Yes, Poucher's attitude seems a little exclusive, especially as Wanwright loved the old slate mines in the Lake District, and considered that they added something to the landscape. Not sure what either of them would have thought about the wind turbines, though! Quite a few are visible from Penarth, where they add an element of movement and drama to the view, but I'm not really sure what I think about themn at the moment, apart from their green credentials.

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