Monday, 20 January 2014

The Dorothea Files 3: Rusting away in Blaen y Cae ...

Or, Gentlemen prefer Blondins...

We resumed our study of the Nantlle Vale quarries this week, with a look at Blaen-y-Cae quarry. It's reached by climbing a bramble-infested pair of inclines from Talysarn, once the route of the John Robinson Tramway on it's way to join the 3'6" gauge Nantlle Railway. Nowadays though, it's mainly used by sheep, whose tracks we gratefully used to scramble up.

Once above the Talysarn pit, the country becomes a little wilder and views open out towards the Nantlle ridge and Snowdon in the distance. Not much remains on the levels above Talysarn except the drum houses and some ruined structures, barely recognisable among the gorse scrub that infests this part of the valley. A lonely chimney loomed from within a thicket of birch, oak and blackthorn...when I had hacked my way inside I was none the wiser, as there were no clues within the ruin. The 1889 OS map shows a mill at this spot, so perhaps this was the chimney for a steam plant, or possibly a forge. On the next level there seemed to have been a great many walliau, where the slate was roughly split and trimmed by craftsmen. A curious feature that we had not seen elsewhere was a series of sunken passages, rather like WW1 trenches, walled with slate. It felt a little like a Welsh version of Skara Brae. Trimming waste was everywhere.

I knew that there was something special on the highest level, below the Cilgwyn tips and as we climbed up I began to recognise features from the map and from photographs on the web. Despite my mine senses, Petra spotted it first. The remains of a "Henderson's patent Blondin Winder", almost engulfed by thorn bush but nevertheless, instantly recognisable by those who spend too much time poring over old quarry photographs. I guess most folk reading this will know how the Blondin apparatus is synonymous with the Welsh slate industry...or is it?

The Blondin Winder, looking east towards Gallt y Fedw.

Basically, a Blondin is a series of wires strung from pylons on either side of a pit. Along these wires runs a wheeled carriage, or as it was known in some welsh quarries, a ceffyl (horse). This was pulled between the two pylons, running on static wires. From the carriage descended another block arrangement which allowed a load to be lifted or dropped remotely by the operator, which is where our "Henderson patent Blondin Winder" comes in. An ideal arrangement for situations where there was a deep pit and no access from a hillside.

Despite what some folk will claim, the Blondin didn't originate from Wales, it was the idea of one John Fyffe, lessee of Kemnay Granite quarry in Aberdeenshire. He approached a local engineering firm, John M. Henderson & Company, of the King’s Engineering Works, Aberdeen, to manufacture the apparatus from his specifications. Here, historical accounts vary, as Henderson then claimed the invention as his own, built the first one in 1873 and took out a patent, No. 4196 of 1896, a machine for “Lifting and Transmitting Heavy Bodies”. The first Blondins installed at Pen yr Orsedd were of this particular pattern; the quarry was an very early adopter of the design, but not before Kemnay and Rubislaw granite quarries in Aberdeenshire.

What of the name?  They were named after the famous French tight-rope walker Charles Blondin (real name Jean Francois Gravelet, 1824-97). Blondin was famed for crossing Niagara Falls on a tightrope, pushing a wheelbarrow loaded with a stove. He stopped half way across, cooked an omelette on the stove and lowered it to passengers on the "Maid of the Mist" below. Not quite Welsh slate quarry practice, but certainly interesting.

Meanwhile, back at Blaen y Cae, we thoroughly examined the winder and thought about trimming back some of the herbage around it to get a better photo...but it seemed wrong. Personally, I rather prefer things to be left alone in their discussion with nature. We were followed along a revetted tramway towards Gallt y Fedw quarry by several desultory sheep, seemingly unimpressed by Blondins of any kind, but intrigued by our appearance. At the end of the tramway, a fallen Blondin tower lay on it's side, the impressively thick legs still in fairly good shape. The steel rope, however, had rusted to a lovely filigree pattern in places and looked rather fine, in both senses of the word. 

The Blondin Tower, with Mynydd Drws-y-Coed behind under threatening skies.

A stroll further along to the nose of the big tip revealed another tower, in much worse condition, no doubt because of the exposed location. I noted that we were directly above the tunnel mentioned in my last post about Dorothea. The sheer volume of material on the tip was no surprise when we looked over the lip of the twll, gulping at the drop. It was dry apart from a green pool in the deepest part, where a waterfall fell from the edge. A couple of stranded adits opened out high on the working face.

The Blondin pulleys at the nose of the tip, looking towards Mynydd Mawr and Y Garn

Looking down towards the Dorothea pit and across the valley to Nantlle Vale and Gwernor Quarries.

Meanwhile, the light was fading and the weather closing in. A cold wind blew from the east and I thought about those craftsmen working in the waliau in all weathers. No wonder they had dug those trenches. Back home, in the warmth of my studio, I thought about the winders. They were steam powered, yet there was no sign of an engine house on the level we were on, or even a shelter for the operator. I fell to studying more maps, trying to find an answer. I suppose coal came up the inclines, and shelters were corrugated iron or wood...perhaps. More research needed.

Blaen y Cae factoids:

The quarry was started in the 1830's and was eventually taken over by Tal y Sarn. At it's peak, forty men were employed, producing 800 tons a year. It closed in the 1930's. (source: Gazetteer of Slate Quarrying in Wales, A. J. Richards.)


Anonymous said...

"Gentlemen prefer Blondins" - excellent! And some lovely photographs, too.

You know me with my penchant for rusty relics, I'll need to add this one to my list...

Iain Robinson said...

Thank you, Graham. Yes, it's a fabulous place, with a lot to explore and research. I thought you would like the winder!

Anonymous said...

Fascinating and great photography. The sunken passages were especially intriguing. Wonder what their purpose was.

Iain Robinson said...

Thank you, Alex. Yes, I am still wondering about those passages...rather like zig-zag dugouts to evade enemy fire, or probably in this case, the wind. I am sure the riddle will be solved, eventually! Glad you enjoyed the photos.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if there are such completely abandoned items in remoter corners of Germany?

A quarry about 25km away used to have a very long aerial ropeway that delivered stone to a railway. The remains of the quarry are visible 25 kilometres away in our kitchen, but the ropeway is now long gone.

Will have to keep my eyes open to see if there are other remains nearby.

Iain Robinson said...

Thanks, Andy. Yes, I guess there must be...there are often photos of abandoned installations of one sort and another in Germany on the Urbex forums...and sometimes you have to look very hard to find these artefacts...they survive because they are well hidden.

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