Saturday, 8 June 2013

Hollow Mountain- the Chambers of Minllyn

Last time we visited Minllyn, near Dinas Mawddwy, we'd been unable to get in the main workings due to the depth of water in the main adit. A couple of years later, after a dry spell, we ventured back to see if it might be possible. This time, the water was only a couple of feet deep at the low entrance, so with wetsocks and waterproofs on, we crawled into the darkness. The pit that contains the access adit is probably an untopped chamber, as it is reached itself by a wet corbelled tunnel. Above the slit of an entrance, a sheer rock face towers 150 feet vertically and above that is another pit carved into the slope of the mountain.

The adit contains a famous (among mine explorers) abandoned wagon which seems a little more the worse for wear than in other photographs I have seen. It makes a good subject, though - and Petra spent some time crafting her compositions, while I forged on into the mine, unable to contain my excitement.

Outside in the sunlight it had been a balmy twenty degrees, but here in the adit, the mine was exhaling chilly air, sending a shiver down my back. All around were the strange noises of dripping water.  More distant was the low, menacing boom of water in a chamber some way off down the passage. After a short while, a junction loomed ahead like the branches from some enormous creature's windpipe. I stood, waiting for Petra to catch up, listening to the sounds from a chamber ahead.

We walked into the chamber, gasping at the height, which tested the lighting capabilities of our 1000 lumens torches, normally a match for car headlamps. The air was clean, but full of moisture and our breath sent skeins of evaporation above us. Petra walked on and the sound of slate under her feet reminded me of the noises in a large cathedral, the sound flattened by the size of the void we were in. I couldn't imagine how men could have carved out this chamber, using only chisels, hammers and black powder. Later in the mine, we were to see evidence of other methods, but given the sheer volume of rock extracted, it must have taken men's lifetimes to do this, lifetimes spent in the darkness, winning the reluctantly yielded spoils of an unforgiving, dark and dangerous world.

We walked on into another chamber where a massive wood and iron crane had fallen into a subterranean lake, caused by the workings below having flooded. The tidemark on the walls was a constant reminder of how high the water reaches in the mine; I found myself hoping that it wasn't going to rain. The lake was clear, making it possible to see the jib of the crane as it disappeared down into the depths. Behind us, an old boiler, presumably for the crane, rusted quietly on a ledge. I couldn't help noticing a massive jagged hole in the chamber wall to another level above. The wall between the chambers looked rather thin here, making me wonder if pillar robbing had taken place.
There seemed to be no order to the mining here, unlike in the workings of Blaenau Ffestiniog, where extraction always follows a set pattern. Here, chambers and passages ran every which way without, it seemed to us, any planning or thought. We carried on into another large chamber, where a winch sat abandoned, it's cogs and wheels looking like an overgrown pocket watch mechanism. High above, holes in the walls and ledges carved out of the rock hundreds of feet above in the blackness betrayed access from higher, lost levels. We carried on until the passageways ended in a curious blind drive, stacked with deads.
Retracing our steps, we came back to the first chamber and headed off in the opposite direction, to encounter a couple of smaller chambers, then finally, the largest one. A vast vertical wall of rock speared upwards to the roof on one side, with what looked like a rent in a gigantic curtain. It took me a few moments to realise that this was the adjoining wall to the next, furthest chamber, pared down to wafer thickness. Elsewhere in the chamber, which must have been one of the last ones worked, was evidence of pillar robbing, where good slate left to hold up the roof is removed, rather than incur the expense of opening up new slate deposits. A dangerous and much frowned upon practice, as the inevitable result is a collapse.

In the last chamber, we saw the interesting signs of the use of a channelling machine. This was an invention brought in during the late 1870's, a machine that cut a deep groove in rock, accomplished by a group of reciprocating chisel-pointed bars, repeatedly striking a series of heavy blows. It would be operated by steam or compressed air while the machine carrying the mechanism travelled back and forth on a track. Waste was considered to be kept to a minimum using this equipment, but it's use underground was, as far as I know, limited to only a few mines. Penarth, near Corwen, was another user. I can only imagine the fearful noise this must have set up in the huge chamber, with it's already weakened supporting walls.

A hole in one of the critically thin dividing walls.
 After a while, hunger began to gnaw in your scribe's stomach and I realised that we had been underground for over four hours. Reluctantly, we walked back through the chilly breezes and freezing water of the entrance adit to retrieve our rucksacks, hidden at the entrance, to sit in the warm sunshine. It was such a contrast to the velvet blackness and cold of the mine.
We had hoped to explore more of the upper adits, but these will have to wait for another day. For now, the comfort of the warm sunshine, the view down to Dinas and the song of a blackbird nearby was enough.

The fallen crane jib. This would have been the portion that connected to the base of the machine.
A ventilation shaft from above in one of the smaller chambers.


Anonymous said...

What a wonderful relic that winch is!

Iain Robinson said...

Thanks, Graham!

Anonymous said...

Thanks again for sharing your experiences.

I wonder if the people making the money from all this toil ever visited these places, even once. Did they experience the ear-destroying noise of the channeling machine, or even stand to one side and experience what it was like for the miners to work in those conditions, and maybe stop to think that for miners, this was life, day in, and day out?

Probably not.

I won't ask if the investors/owners ever tried lifting any of the spoil because I'm sure they'd think that was beneath them.

Iain Robinson said...

Thanks, Andy. I doubt it, too. I certainly don't think that many of them considered the men, not the big owners anyway, like Lord Penrhyn and Newborough. Others, like William Turner, who owned the lease on Diffwys, (Blaenau Ffestiniog) was an ex-miner himself, so was perhaps a marginally better employer.

Another less-than salubrious fact about some of the major players was that their hands were red from the blood of slaves, from whom they had made the money to buy the slate quarries in the first place. I don't think those guys were big on empathy!

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