Wednesday, 15 January 2014

The Dorothea Files 2: Tunnels, Pyramids and Tramways.

Lest the long-suffering readers of this blog should think I have given myself completely over to bucolic melancholia, I thought I might present some observations made while wandering around the bosky edges of the mighty Dorothea quarry pit, in Dyffryn Nantlle.

We spent our latest visit following a complicated network of 2 foot gauge tramways around the workings; some very permanent, with massively revetted or buttressed formations, others more temporary, changing course from month to month as the quarry developed.  The tramway skirting the north west side of the pit snakes behind the folly-like remains of Talysarn Hall, protected by high walls of waste slate or through rock blasted cuttings. We passed the foot of an old incline (closed around the early 1900's) from Gallt-y-Fedw quarry, high above.

The Gallt-y-Fedw incline going up to top left...this one really needs the industrial archaeologist's "eye of faith" to spot, but you can make out the steps at the edge of the incline underneath the tree on the left of centre.

Here there was a kickback junction, with the route leading back south westwards into a tunnel.  A tunnel! Of course, we explored, stumbling over the trackbed. The tunnel turned out to be arched with slate, a thing of beauty, with thousands of straw stalactites hanging from the roof. Here, I have the usual confession to make; I was so busy getting the exposure and light balance on-point that I forgot to focus the camera. I have many beautifully exposed but blurred shots of inside the tunnel...perhaps I can persuade Petra to give me one of her excellent shots to show you how it was.

Me...forgetting to focus.

The tunnel ends in a collapse...or was it? I have the 1889 and 1906 maps of the quarry- while the tunnel is marked on the earlier edition, it has gone from the later one and the tips at the southern end have increased by a significant amount. I reckon the tramway simply got in the way and, in true Dorothea style, it was abandoned and it's line moved nearer to the hall. I wonder if the tunnel had been built in the first place to avoid close disturbance to Talysarn Hall, but with the death of the owner in 1905, it didn't matter any more.

Petra stands at the portal of another tunnel, of almost "standard gauge" proportions.

There are many kickback junctions around the quarry, probably to cope with differing levels. As we moved round the northern edge and towards the eastern Pyramid, we encountered another with an almost main line formation. Oh, yes, the Pyramids. There are two on the site and they're probably the first thing anyone visiting notices, once they have eyeballed the old Cornish-style pumping house. (I will cover that in another post soon.) They were built from slate waste and elevated above the pit so that rubbish could be hauled up and out by chain inclines and tipped behind.

This was one problem with the Nantlle model of slate quarrying; as the slate lay in a flat valley bottom, the waste had to be put somewhere other than the pit. In the early days, there were a number of competing operations and rubbish was disposed of in a haphazard manner, without any thought to what would happen if the land under the tip were needed. Hence the shuffling of the village, tramway, road and river as the waste situation became ever more tense. Later on, redundant pits were purchased and used for tipping, but by then it was too late and much valuable rock lay out of bounds, under thousands of tons of waste rock.

The pyramids are impressive things, with the inevitable tramways diving underneath them and surrounded by the remains of old buildings and cabans. There are some worrying cracks and erosions in the structures, but I am assured by a local that they have been like that since the eighties...all the same, I was wary as I climbed up the incline to the top of the east pyramid. By then, after five hours wandering about the place, the light was failing, but Petra spotted the marks made by a winding drum on the rock of one of the machine houses at the top. The view into the pit was sobering; somehow so much more frightening now it has been claimed by dark, cold water. I thought of the divers who have lost their lives here and realised that if I couldn't remember to focus the camera under pressure in a tunnel, I wouldn't be much use 40 metres down in a diving suit. By all accounts, the pit is 100 metres deep. How I wish for a Tardis, to go back to the fifties and see it as it was.

View from the nose of the pyramid. The other one is on the furthest edge of the quarry, with the Cornish Pumping Engine House to the right.

Today, all around, the remains were softened and made mysterious by the encroachment of nature, inexorably taking over again. From my eyrie on the pyramid, I could see the old inn beside the road down to the pit, with a couple of trees growing through the roof ...and the walls of Talysarn Hall through a jumbled tracery of branches. It's an utterly wonderful place, heavily used as a walking spot by local folk.

 Yet there have been several plans by developers to batter the place into shape as a "World Class Holiday Resort" or just a massive tip reclamation scheme. One such scheme lies before the county planners this week. So it's never too soon to have a look at this beautiful place and soak up the strange, haunted atmosphere before some clodding fool of a developer spoils it all for a little financial gain. Yes, I know, the whole place is here because of developers of one sort or another...but now, nature has changed it and while her work slowly advances, there is a point of grace to savour. There is some comfort in the thought that the shoddy empires built in the name of growth and development will all fall to the hand of nature in their turn, and none will be appreciated as much as this place is.

Tunnel under the pyramid

Recommended reading about Dorothea:
"Dyffryn Nantlle, a landscape of neglect" by Alan Carr  ISBN 0 9529244 1 2

Dave Sallery's superb web site, with pages on Dorothea click here.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting!

BTW, I especially like your final shot. Nice framing and repeated archway motif, and of course the lovely gleam on the wet slate slabs. Top job!

Iain Robinson said...

Thank you, was very dull weather when I took these, so I am pleased that you enjoyed them.

Anonymous said...

I was trying to work out why these places look beautiful but recent industrial sites look so awful, sometimes before they are closed. I can only think it is because places like Dorothea were built using local materials so they 'fit' into the landscape.
The workmanship needed to make these simple materials into bridges and pyramids is breathtaking.

Iain Robinson said...

I think you are right, the ruins have aged gracefully because they were built out of honest materials, not plastic powder coated steel and various cheap extruded alloy sections. Of course, materials and labour were cheap when Dorothea was being built.

Anonymous said...

Love the photo of the kickback junction. There is the feel of a dank green mystery to it with the tunnel entrance.

Iain Robinson said...

Thanks, Alex...that is spot on - "dank green mystery" sums the place up very well. That tunnel had a sting in the tail...there was a tiny side passage which went off north near the end...Petra got through and took more photos, but I got stuck due to too many pies, I suspect. Oh, the indignity!

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