|I'm standing at the lower pitch of the incline, middle distance in this shot...giving a sense of the vast scale of this place.|
The vast, dark chambers of Penarth slate mine lie atop a knee punishing climb, high above Llydiart-y-Parc in the Vale of Llangollen. On wet days, the spoil heaps sparkle on the petticoats of the Berwyns , as the land rises up towards Pen-y-Grog. The quarry pit and remains of mill and tip suggest that the workings must have been extensive, yet on the surface all but one of the adits are collapsed or sealed.
This time round, we climbed up the remains of the steep incline from the road -perhaps not the wisest route, as lungs and leg muscles screamed for quarter. The rucksacs had never seemed heavier; inside were all manner of lamps, camera gear, batteries and, not least, lunch. There was also the attendant anxiety of the farmer, as we were trespassing on this route, but we had chosen it in preference to walking the gauntlet of the farm dogs on the footpath.
As it turned out, it was as well we did come this way. We passed one of the side pounds for the incline, originally like small holding dams, but now a boggy morass. Petra’s keen eyes spotted something…we thought at first it must be a dead sheep in the bog, but no, it was moving almost imperceptibly. We approached as close as we could and soon realised that we would have to try and somehow extricate the poor animal. Mine explorers aren’t fazed by mud, even if it is stinking of sheep poo, so we waded in and managed to get our arms under the poor girl, who was very weak. We set her on the bank and manoeuvred her so that she might sit up, then retreated to try and clean ourselves. Sheep are notorious for just dropping dead at the slightest trauma, but this one, a year-old ewe, looked as if she might have reserves of strength.
We thought we’d seen the farmer leave the farm earlier, and neither of us fancied the lengthy detour round to the farmhouse, let alone face the hell-dogs, so we trudged up to the mine, hoping the sheep would recover. We left a fragrant waft of sheepy pong as we went.
We were glad to see the quarry pit and scrambled down through the collapsed chamber, into the shattered remains of the adit that leads underground. The mine was tidier this time, all the vodka bottles and tea lights had been cleared up…thank you, whoever that was. We followed the winding tunnels and chambers, each becoming ever higher and more impressive, until we reached the vast underground space where an incline climbs to another level. Somehow, I had forgotten that the mine went much further than this, although Petra had remembered. I had sealed my mental map of the place with the Moria-like chamber we were in.
We set to the work of making photographs, when we saw lights, far off across the chamber. Presently, a couple of explorers came over and introduced themselves. They had been exploring the furthest chambers of the East Vein, which excited my curiosity considerably. Chris, one of the adventurers, produced a map. Squinting over my varifocals, I immediately realised that the few hours left before night fell above ground were not going to do the mine justice. Petra smiled patiently at me. She, of course, had known all along.
After a pleasant chat, our new friends moved down to one of the lower levels via a precipitous spoil heap, but before descending, unexpectedly presented us with one of their laminated maps of the mine. I was delighted with this very kind gift, then chuckled. It was a “Zelda” moment. Here we were in the great dark halls of the underworld… I almost expected a voice to say “you have unlocked a map! Go to the next level!” (tinkling music).
Armed with this invaluable oracle, we found our way through the labyrinthine reaches of the mine until forced to turn back by the ridiculously fast passage of time. The chambers in the East Vein are very high and notable for the massive pillars supporting the roof. The roof itself is very uniform, being curiously marked as if it were the surface of a beach; which I guess it must have been in some unimaginably distant past. Even more so than Wrysgan, this place felt like the great secret halls of the underworld, carved out by a tough and proud race of men. I know that the reality was rather more mundane, although I find the industrial aspect equally fascinating too…but the feeling of awe in the black-roofed chambers was wonderful. We avoided the last chamber, knowing from the underground forums that bad air lurks within…in any case, some lurid graffiti on the pillar left one in no doubt.
We reluctantly began the descent down to the road, negotiating the 1 in 3 top pitch of the incline on our backsides and using the tripods as deluxe walking poles. Upon reaching the pasture land again I was pleased to spot the farmer, although I can’t say he looked delighted to see us. However, when I mentioned the sheep, he thawed slightly, the dark celtic brows raised and he thanked us. It seems our underground friends had warned him to go and look for the unfortunate creature. He kindly directed us on an an easier route down to our waiting car, letting us know that the sheep would probably be alright, thanks to our muddy ministrations. We stumped off happily down the hill under the keen gaze of his collie, who I suspect would rather have rounded us up into a handy pen somewhere.
|The incline looms in the distance...|
|An underground tip tramway. Roof supporting pillar in the background.|
|A view down to a lower level.|
|The roof looms about fifty feet above in this shot.|
|The roof above the entrance to one of the long, high East vein chambers.|