Sunday, 13 May 2012

Llanfair Slate Caverns

We'd been wondering about this place for some years, as we often caught sight of the tips high above the A496 coast road, just south of Harlech.
 It looked interesting, but then again, it was a tourist mine, wasn't it? We're more used to exploring mines in the pitch darkness, with the added thrill of whatever unknown jeaopardy waits just round the next turn of the adit. (Usually, it has to be admitted, nothing more than a few sheep bones or a tunnel full of sticky mud.)

Yet, we found ourselves driving up the winding track to the Llanfair mine with that familiar sense of excitement,  catching sight of a blind trial on the way up, then seeing the various tell-tale signs of slate mining- the levels of a tip tramway...what looked like a weigh house and the remains of a processing area. We parked at the top and admired the view towards the Afon Artro and the broad sweep of Cardigan Bay. In the blue haze, the Lleyn's distant arm pointed out to sea. So much of my childhood was spent building sandcastles along the bay here that I felt a rush of nostalgic warmth, helped by the sunshine and sounds of the birds in the woods behind. It's at times like this that I wouldn't want to be anywhere else in the world.  Actually, make that all the time.

Petra walks along the bosky opencut into the adit.

I wasn't really expecting much from the mine. We walked into the shop to buy tickets, noting that it was more interesting than some tourist mine shops we've seen, having a selection of crystals and rocks as well as the usual touristy stuff. The gypsum crystals were rather nice, a familiar sight in the wild on some of our mine explores. The owner greeted us cheerfully and gave us our hard hats and a torch, pointing the way to the entrance adit. It felt strange, not wearing my usual mine lid and I fumbled for the caplamp that wasn't there.

The entrance adit  leads into the first large daylit chamber which is rather spectacular. Not quite Clogwyn-y-Fuwch, but a darned sight easier to get to. It was rather fine having the occasional light in the adit, too. I joked to Petra that all our mines should have electric light fitted as standard, but in fairness, the Llanfair owners have got it excatly right here. Just enough light, yet parts gloomy enough to give you that thrill of exploring somewhere a little bit scary. Kids must love it.

Once inside the Cathedral chamber, as the interpretative sign informed us, we were at the top level of the mine, where slate was hauled up from the levels below by an incline. We could see the remains of the crimp and the winding house bastions; also a concrete machine base which must have supported a later internal combustion winder. The chamber gave a good feeling of being in a typical slate mine, and there was a Greaves slate trimming machine and a board with old tools and slate sizes, an interesting talking point. The customary tramway waggon sat in the middle of the chamber, but provided a nice focal point for photos.

There were other chambers to explore on this level, giving views down to the lower levels. Thankfully, there were no light shows or tailor's dummies dressed as old slate miners. Just an occasional information board with snippets of facts, enough to raise even your world-weary scribe's eyebrow in fascination a couple of times. For instance,  young lads, upon entering apprenticeship here would have their noses scratched by one of the men, using a sharp chunk of  recently cut slate. If the boy cried, he was considered not old enough for the years of dangerous, gloomy toil ahead. I'd have been out of there like a shot, as I have quite a large nose.

We descended the steps down what used to be the incline with Petra reminding me of the scene in "First Knight", a film with Sean Connery and Ben Cross, which was made here and in our local Nyth-y-Gigfran mine in Blaenau.The excellent BBC drama with Trevor Eve about wartime Manod's art treasures was also filmed here. It couldn't, of course, be made at the real Manod because they've blown the roofs off the chambers in there. Anyway, the lower levels were more interesting somehow, more removed from the daylight and we both enjoyed the connecting adits between the chambers, or is that just too mine-nerdy? There was the remains of a caban and an old rubbish waggon, plus a chamber where the miners had discovered a face in the rock. It is quite spooky, especially with the way that the chambers are lit. There was a barred off adit going further, and we pined at the bars like terriers, wanting to explore further.

We must have spent nearly an hour underground and enjoyed it immensely, partly due to the way that the mine hasn't been over-lit or unduly "interpreted". The staff were very friendly and Rob, the owner, answered my many questions with considerable patience. Of course, there's more to the mine; the visitor only sees 50% as the rest is flooded- there's a tantalising view down a flooded incline on the lower level, but the parts open to the public are remarkably dry.

In short, yes, it's well worth exploring. A really fine location above the bay and a tastefully preserved reminder of the harsh working lives of our forebears. I can also recommend the walnut cake in the cafe, too.

The Factoids:
In 1873, a small group of local men prospected the slate outcrops on the hillside above Llanfair. The slate was angled at thirty degrees, and realising the potential, a rental was arranged with the landowner, and work began. Two Canadians and two Cornishmen were drafted in, presumably for their expertise in mining techniques.
The mine actually goes down five floors, exploiting a fine band of Cambrian series slate. It closed during the 1870's slump, but re-opened again at the turn of the century.
Produce was originally carted to a quay on the Afon Artro near Pensarn, but latterly a siding was laid in on the Cambrian Railway Coast line below. The mine closed for good before the First World War.

In World War 2, the mine was used as an explosives store. 

(Thanks to Barney and AditNow for some of the historical information.)


Anonymous said...

Great stuff Iain. It all looks rather nicely done... although I'm more of a carrot cake type of person ;-)

Iain Robinson said...

Any cake will do for me, Graham, especially at a mine, but the walnut was fine. I often joke that it would be nice to have a cafe right outside a mine, and here it was!

Anonymous said...

I prefer my museums without mannequins as well: especially a place like that as it would scare the crap out of children to see shadowy figures in the gloom.

We we don't have many mines around here to explore, although there was a salt mine museum in Bavaria where the entrance is a slide to the lower levely. I don't know how you get out again though.

Iain Robinson said...

Thanks for your comment, Andy. I've never been down a salt mine, that sounds most interesting. I don't know whether the ones in Cheshire are open, will have to investigate.

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