Sunday, 14 April 2013

A blustery walk to Braich Ddu

The Roman remains at Tomen-y-Mur, that strange, molar-like shape that rises above the plateau near Trawsfynydd, are overlaid with later developments; from the warlords who made this their headquarters, some time during the dark ages and of course, those other visitors, the Normans.

At the eastern end of the site are the remains of an amphitheatre, built by the Romans to keep the troops at the garrison fit and amused. From the air, the various features are easy to interpret, but while I was studying the Google Earth view I couldn't help but notice another feature, one that cuts brutally across the eastern corner of the site with no regard for history. It didn't take long to realise that I was looking at the remains of a tramway. Following it in a south-easterly direction, it strides cross-country with the conviction that only Victorian capitalism could show, having scant regard for Roman or any other remains.

Slabs at the side of the tramway, looking towards Tomen-y-Mur beyond the trees.
As my long-suffering readers are aware, while I have been known to express a passing interest in things Roman and Historical, these are as small beer to the fascination that a mine or quarry might hold upon my attention. So it was that we strode out from the Tomen-y-Mur car park at SH707389 on a grey and blustery April day. Being out of season, we were surprised to note two very expensive and ostentatious cars parked extremely closely together, their motors running quietly. Perhaps I have been watching too many American TV programmes, but I immediately assumed that they were drug dealers and encouraged Petra not to look at them while we made our exit on foot towards the mine. Who needs drugs, when you have the Welsh landscape?

A slab bridge on the tramway
There's a farm road that runs towards the quarry and we took that. It's a public right of way, except for motor bikes and off-roaders and seems to be used only by the quarry. Yes, the quarry is still in operation, as we found to our surprise a little later. Although my photographs make the place seem like some sort of dystopian relic, it is actually a very beautiful plateau, overlooked by the shapely flanks of Mynydd Maentwrog and Graig Wen (556m). The quarry, to my eyes at least, simply adds fascination and drama. Despite the rather opressive weather, with dark clouds looming like a counsel of war overhead, skylarks were singing and a skein of geese passed, flying low. In the distance, the Rhinogs presided over a view of Llyn Trawsfynydd while the brutal blocks of the nuclear power station spread their pylon footsoldiers to infiltrate the landscape with wires. Looking back towards Tomen-y-Mur it seemed that whatever angle I looked, the tump appeared to have a pylon sitting on top of it in a comical effect of perspective.

Waliau below the modern pit.
Nearer the quarry, it was apparent that much exploitation had taken place, tip runs spreading from several levels as we approached. There are remains of a large barracks to the west of the tramway, which now strides on an embankment made of slate waste. A bridge has been made here over a tramway branch to a lower working, using a spectacularly large slab of very fine slate. There are no rails or signs of sleepers; but then, this area would have been quite handy for the scrap man. In any case, I would expect the waggons would have been horse-hauled to the road, it is doubtful if steam would have been used, although the tramway was apparently built in response to the opening of the GWR Bala-Blaenau line in 1883, and may have incorporated inclines in the proposed route. Nearer the modern quarry operation, a ruined mill lay almost submerged by slate waste. On closer inspection, a water wheel pit could be seen, presumably powering the Hunter saw that was thought to have been used here.

The lower workings were obviously of some age as the waste was well covered in lichen. There appear to have been two lower adits, now obliterated by later working. Further away, down the hill, another opencut leading to an adit is disappearing back to nature. There are ruined structures all over the site, some of which may have been launder supports, others weigh houses; it's difficult to tell.

The modern quarry pit seems to be yielding some very good quality slate. From a recce of the hillside above the pit , it seems that untopping has taken place, exposing some chambering and a low adit which must have originated somewhere close to the access road, now lost. From a distance, the rock strata in the pit makes an interesting study.

The quarry was the last to use the Afon Dwyryd to transport the finished slate to Porthmadog, up to 1868 according to Richards*. The produce of the quarry, a fine grained Cambrian series slate, can be noted in the landscape around Trawsfynydd and Gellilydan, with many fields having extensive runs of slab fences. Small scale working started again in the 1980's and seems to have been stepped up by the present owners, John Roberts of Ffestiniog.

I wanted to try and find the remains of a couple of dams and some more workings on the hillsides above the pit, but Graig Wen had donned his full war gear and was threatening us with hostilities of a very damp nature. Suffice to say that the area will reward further study by those who appreciate old industrial remains, and for the energetic, the road past the quarry carries on for a good few miles towards Bwlch-y-Llu, the now gated gold mine above Cwm Prysor.

* Gazeteer of Slate Quarrying in Wales, Alun John Richards, 2007, ISBN  1-84524-074-X

The barracks, looking towards the modern pit.

A view of the tramway and barracks from one of the older pit workings. Tomen-y-Mur is on the right distant horizon.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting! Love your first shot of the excavator - nice perspective and composition, with just a hint of menace and foreboding.

Iain Robinson said...

Thanks, Graham. I do love those Tonka toys!

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