Sunday, 9 February 2014

The Mysteries of Pen y Bryn

Pen-y-Bryn Upper Mill, with the Nantlle Ridge in the distance.

The Dorothea Files: No. 8

Pen y Bryn is a lovely old site, north of the main pit at Dorothea. It rambles for a mile and a half up the hillside, squeezing itself between two mighty neighbours, Cilgwyn to the north and Pen yr Orsedd to the east.
All old quarries are something of a mystery, but this one is rather special. At the southern, lower end it has a range of buildings that date from the C17th,  a fine early 17th farm house and the remains of a C19th mill and steam engine house. There are at least two visible pits on the lower level, both worked out and tipped over, but still frighteningly deep. Over the years of silence at the quarry, nature has enthusiastically re-interpreted the place, doing a fine job. The lens of history is further clouded by the long period of activity here, from 1770 right up until the 1960's, with a good few fallow periods in between. Later developments, such as tipping and a new access road to Gallt-y-Fedw have confused things on the ground.

On the upper levels, in the shadow of Cilgwyn, there is another very deep pit and a long, swooping incline back down to the Nantlle railway. There are mysteries up here, too. But, first, let's have a look at the lower workings...

The C17 farmhouse that gives the quarry it's name.

The lower structures have an air of romantic decline. At dusk, when we often find ourselves still wandering around trying to record the place, it can feel a little like a film set for a victorian ghost story.

There's a row of very old cottages, photo above which pre-date the quarry. They have ancient beams, planed to shape with rough hand tools and the walls are made from igneous rock. The few slates remaining are of a considerable size, (probably Duchesses*) and I imagine they replaced smaller, "moss" slates quarried from outcrops by the builders back in the 1600's. Richards suggests that the cottages were used by the quarry as barracks accommodation from the 1830's.

Here we see the beams from inside the cottages, which are now sadly falling in to disrepair very rapidly. The walls show evidence of much re-modelling but obviously, the original layout was that of a "crog loft" - headroom must have been pretty minimal. Later, internal alterations are built using slate waste blocks. Note the length of light tramway rail poking out from the wall!

One of two fine arched windows in the row photo above. The view out from these structures is magnificent, even if the interior accommodation was sparse.
The farmyard is shared with the remains of a substantial slate mill...

Until fairly recently, the mill contained the remains of a vertical steam engine and other artefacts. Sadly, most quarry companies give scant regard to the archaeological significance of what they have and Roberts of Ffestiniog were no different in this regard- the engine was sold for scrap when the quarry was re-worked by them in the 1960's. Now the mill contains an impressive selection of old rusty bedsteads, the elders of a mighty clan who have scattered themselves all over this site and neighbouring Gallt y Fedw. I imagine they make handy and economical fencing and gates.

One of the lower pits, above, which was partially infilled with slate waste from the neighbouring Gallt-y-Fedw quarry. This was taken from the west side of the pit. The path to the higher workings goes up the opposite side.
Walking along the side of the pit, various workings and structures appear beside the track. Most are very difficult to explain, even with reference to the 1889, 1900 and 1960's 1:25,000 Ordnance maps of this area. For instance, we puzzled over this, below. Was it a feature for an aqueduct, a blondin base...or what? A depression cutting under the track lies parallel with it and is marked on the 1889 map as disused, perhaps when the pit was abandoned for workings further up the hill.

A large housing for a waterwheel also comes into view along the track to the upper workings. There has obviously been a system of leats for power, pre-steam engine days. Five minutes more walking uphill leads to the top mill, where the mysteries start to gather. Reading the late Dr. Gwynfor Pierce Jones's excellent book, "Chwarelyddiaeth Dyffryn Nantlle" I get the impression that the upper quarry was a later expansion...but it could be my Welsh, which isn't great. However, I think he suggests that there was unsuccessful effort to develop the highest land at Pen y Bryn as a new quarry in 1923. There had been a pit and a mill here certainly since 1889, although a glance at the satellite view will show how much it has grown since then. The enterprise failed due to the cost of removing overburden and of removing rock from the pit and it closed in 1932, although further attempts to work it were made in 1949-51, and in 1963, but to no avail.

What has been left is a very deep pit, a long incline down to the Nantlle railway, the remains of a fine mill and a smithy. Several adits lead into the pit from below. The top one is open, but leads to a ledge over 100 feet above the bottom of the pit. Other adits and drainage tunnels lead off the long incline, but according to the maps, these were out of use by the 1900's. The lowest adit is a very long one and ends in a collapse after half a mile.
This is a mystery. If it led into the pit, where would the rocks be processed? Surely they wouldn't be dragged all the way up the pitches of the long incline to the mill. Pen-y-Bryn was taken over in 1832 by Dorothea, but it seems unlikely that produce would be hauled to the Dorothea mill from here. Because of it's elevation, this tunnel must have been a late enterprise; I can only think in order to access the pit floor...although another mystery is the lack of exploration spoil from the tunnel, unless it was tipped into nearby Twll Mawr.

This is the top level, above looking across to Pen-yr-Orsedd through a breach in the tip tramway embankment.  Below, a view from the crimp of the top incline looking down on the tip and smithy. The mill itself contains few clues as to how it was powered, but the remains of a very large bore pipe suggests perhaps a water turbine- although just where the water came from is yet another mystery. There's no obvious water on the site.

Below is a shot of the mill, with the incline down to the Nantlle Railway going off at the far end. Nearer to the camera, the smithy sits in a confused area of rubble, while the incline to the pit rises to the right. A tunnel to the pit drives into the slope from the nearest side of the pit incline.

Finally, a couple of underground shots to round off the post. Scroll down past the factoids to see them. There's still a great deal to be learnt about this quarry, and I will update when I find out more. Perhaps when my Welsh language skills improve!

Some factoids:

* A duchess slate is 24" x 12".

A feature of the Dyffryn Nantlle style of quarrying was that exhausted pits would be tipped over and filled in. There are remains of pits here and there while others simply don't exist any more...this becomes apparent when studying the old OS maps and surveys. Pen-y-Bryn incorporated Cae Cilgwyn, Herbert's Quarry, Twll Penybryn, Cloddfa Lon, Dew's Quarry, Hen Dwll, Twll Balast, Twl Mawr, David's Quarry, Middle Quarry, New Pen y Bryn, Owen's Quarry and Twll Ismaliod.  Some were absorbed into ever expanding neighbouring pits, as at Twll Mawr, others just disappeared under thousands of tons of waste.

Pen y Bryn was an early adopter (1830) of the Chain Inclines which were so prevalent at Dorothea before the advent of the Henderson Patent ropeways.

Looking out to the pit from the top adit.

The long lower tunnel, here strengthened by some walling. The course of the tunnel runs very close to the walls of Twll Mawr on the one side and an old infilled pit on the right hand side. This tunnel ends in a collapse and has a generally fragile feel to it...we didn't spend long in here!


Anonymous said...

Very interesting and lovely photography. A beautiful site to explore. That last tunnel really does look a bit dodgy.

Iain Robinson said...

Thank you very much, Alex, I'm glad you enjoyed the post. That lower tunnel is a bit of a mystery...and dodgy! Not as bad as the tunnels at a recently visited mine, which were "talking" to us...we got out of there quickly, too, although nothing has happened...yet!

Anonymous said...

As a woodworker it is humbling to see those hand cut beams lasting so long. We recently replaced some furniture of a customer who was very pleased that that the older stuff had lasted fourty years. Much of what we make isn't intended to last for half that.

Thanks for the map, by the way. it helps make sense of the images from Google Earth

Iain Robinson said...

Thanks, Andy. I am glad you found the maps useful. I guess the wood was oak, it was still very solid, although I guess it ould have been replaced in the 1800's ...still a heck of a long time for timber to last. It also seems to last well underground despite the constant moisture. Wonderful stuff, wood!

DD said...

Another excellent post, Iain. Fantastic work!

Iain Robinson said...

Thank you very much, David. I am enjoying your photos on your web site and Flickr.

Unknown said...

Many thanks for the blog. Some[many!], wonderful photos, investigation & research. I hope you don't mind, I shared a link to the blog on my facebook page .

Iain Robinson said...

Thanks, Nick-glad you enjoy the blog. Dyffryn Nantlle is one of my favourite places. I "liked" your facebook page :-)

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