Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Gallt-y-Fedw Slate Quarry- more Nantlle magic.

Gallt-y-Fedw means "The Birch Hill". How things change -the predominant vegetation these days seems to be various satanic strains of bramble, gorse and bracken. Oddly, around the mill area, a variety of Cotoneaster has grown over the structures, cloaking them in dark green. At least the stuff isn't prickly, and it makes a change from being tripped up by mischievious bramble tendrils...

The remains of this quarry, known variously as the Alexandria, Victoria and Y Foel, lies to the north of the Dorothea pit, just below the mighty tips of Cilgwyn. It's an interesting place, but what old slate quarry isn't? For me, it's charm lies in the atmosphere, the views over to the Nantlle Ridge and the curious mixture of buildings, some of which date from the earliest days of the quarry.

The crumbling much longer?

As you walk past the Dorothea pit, the massive bastion walls of Gallt-y-Fedw are a constant presence, beetling above on the left. A couple of old inclines bisect the bastions as they come down to the tramway level, but ascending by this means would be dangerous. Better to take the 1960's haul road through Pen-y-Bryn and watch the views of Y Garn and Mynydd Mawr gradually open up towards Drws-y-Coed, to the east.
Once at mill level, which is really a man-made plateau of thousands of tons of slate waste (hence the bastions) a clutter of buildings comes into sight. It's a confusing place, constructed at odd angles and juxtaposed in a random manner. I could only think that things were added to and reconstructed over time. Engine and machine mounting bolts bristle atop mighty slate plinths while a boiler house and a machine house sit in a slightly elevated position. All that remains of the mill itself is a large and imposing end gable wall. We've been visiting this site for a few months, and on our last visit, I confidently expected to find that the wall had been blown down by the terrific February gales that swept through. But no, it was still there. It must be made of stern stuff.

An impressive incline formation comes down through the site from Cilgwyn, swooping to join the Nantlle Railway below. There doesn't seem to have been a connection from Gallt-y-Fedw on very early maps, the quarry using an incline which goes steeply down to the tunnel behind Plas Talysarn . The Cilgwyn incline is crossed, however, by a much later tip tramway heading east where the old Pen-y-Bryn twll was used for rubbish. Records show tramways here from 1857-1901 and in two differing gauges, 2' and the Nantlle gauge of 3'6". Perhaps the more southerly incline used this gauge from the mill at first, then a new incline was constructed beside the mill, which dropped over the Nantlle tramway and then joined it near to the side of the Dorothea pit. The 1912 Ordnance map shows the tramway was still an extensive system at that date.

The quarry pit on a rather dreich January afternoon

The main quarry pit is to the west of the mill and describes a shallow arc. It is tipped into and there are the remains of many walliau and also machine houses on the bastions. Richards* states that material was raised by a steam engine, probably powering chain inclines. As many as six saw tables were sited up here. I wondered if much of the output was slab, there were some particularly fine big chunks lying about. The pit is not so deep as others here, probably only 150'. It contains a drainage adit with a curious step and launder along it's course- apparently the tunnel was driven from both ends and there was a slight miscalculation when the two bores joined!
The official figures show yearly tonnages for the quarry in the hundreds, with between ten or twelve men employed-  yet the mill was a large one; the 1912 map shows a big footprint and the mill can be seen in the background as an imposing structure on many photographs of the area in the 1900's. The quarry was acquired by Dorothea in 1933, but was never worked further.

While on the pit level I really ought to mention the office, which has a wonderful patterned slate roof, now hanging on for the inevitable collapse. It might be good for a few years yet, given the bravura performance of the mill gable wall... There's also a length of fish-belly rail here, impossible to photograph with any meaning unfortunately, so you will have to take my word for it. *Richards waxes about the "Fine Privy structure" near the office, which I noticed, but privies aren't really my thing so I didn't take a photo. Uphill from here is a small and enterable drainage adit, probably from the older, original workings. There's also a strange round structure in the woods, about 30 metres in diameter. It looks like a holding pond for water, perhaps. Nearby are a couple of very overgrown buildings, possibly a smithy, so perhaps the round structure was connected to that.
"In a tight spot!"
On one of our visits, we climbed through the gorse and bramble on the old Cilgwyn incline and found the intermediate drumhouse high above the site. Hacking through the undergrowth, we eventually descended back by the old quarry, past a lovely little powder house. This part of the quarry is more-or-less jungle, but the discoveries are delightful. I have no idea what had happened here, in a little smithy structure...

Taken with hardly any available light and hand held!
It often seems to be later in the day when we arrive at Gallt-y-Fedw, after having wandered around Pen-y-Bryn, or having been talking with local people (gently "grilling" them for information). One such told me that the engine here at the pit was a De Winton and that there was a locomotive working along the mill level. I can't find any reference in the records of that. These are memories passed down from fathers in the nineteen thirties to sons who are now in their eighties and can't be totally relied upon, sadly...yet they are precious, and illuminate the place for me. My natural reticence prevents me from fully exploring all the stories about this place, of which I am sure there still some to be discovered. Perhaps it is part of the magic. On our latest visit, I was content just to appreciate the wintry sunset, bathing the Nantlle ridge a pale magenta, while listening to the birds and thinking how lucky we were to be in this spot.


Richards, Alun John (2001). The Slate Railways of Wales. Llanwrst, Wales: Gwasg Carreg Gwalch. ISBN 0-86381-689-4.

*Richards, Alun John: Gazetteer of the Welsh Slate Industry Published by Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, Wales, 1991  ISBN 10: 0863811965

Boyd, James I.C. (1990) [1972]. Narrow Gauge Railways in North Caernarvonshire, Volume 1: The West. Headington, Oxford: The Oakwood Press. ISBN 0-85361-273-0.

Jean Lindsay.: A History of the North Wales Slate Industry , David & Charles, Newton Abbot, 1974.

RCAHMW Collection ref: C480586, 7.

The intermediate drum house on the Cilgwyn incline above Gallt-y-fedw.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting, Iain. And lovely photography too.

Iain Robinson said...

Thank you, Graham, glad you enjoyed it.

Anonymous said...

Now that's what I call a pot plant. Perhaps it was bought as a Bonsai but got out of hand...

When dorothea bought the pit, was that what we would now call a 'Hostile Takeover' to reduce local competition, or was it another reason? It seems odd they invested enough to buy the place, then didn't bother to get a return.

Iain Robinson said...

Thanks, Andy. I'm not sure why Dorothea took over. I have photographs of the quarry pit in the sixties when contractors tried to make a go of it for Dorothea, but very little slate worth having came out. I think it probably arose from the thought that there might be good rock that would be easier to extract than from Dorothea pit which by now (the sixties) was becoming very deep indeed.

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