It was another bitterly cold day above Y Fron as we set out towards the Alexandra Quarry. We took a road that wound up towards a smaller quarry, Bryn-y-ferram, as we had spotted something fascinating and rusty on the tips. I thought it might be the water tank that is mentioned in the Slate Gazetteer. We hadn't been walking long before meeting an elderly gentleman who looked just like an old quarry man from the thirties, being dragged along by a brace of Jack Russells. Imagine Petra's surprise when her greeting to him in Welsh was met with a very posh, home counties "Beautiful morning"... never judge a book by it's cover!
We had a mooch around Bryn-y-Ferram, which is a small pit working and, like all the quarries in this area, breathtaking views are fitted as standard. The main mill area was sadly obliterated by tip reclamation and the rusty thing we'd spotted turned out to be a very large sieve for sorting the sizes of reclaimed rock. It made some interesting photographs, anyway. The surviving tips themselves were very impressive and the views from them, of course, were priceless.
A while ago, I was taken to task by a Welsh speaker for saying that Maenofferen came from "the rock of the mass" and was told that the name was simply a corruption of the word "farm". So here, Bryn-y-ferram would mean "the hill of the farm", which seemed logical to an ignorant fellow like me. Except that none other than that doyen of historians from Dyffryn Nantlle, the late Dr Gwynfor Pierce Jones, thought otherwise when it came to this place. He said:
"The end part of the name is a corruption of 'offeren' as found in the Ffestiniog 'Maen-offeren', referring to the mass and possibly to do with the recalcitrant Catholics hiding from Protestant persecution in the 16th century." (1) Just saying...
Further up the hill from the working area were two pits and their run-in tunnels. There is a hillock here which is composed of sand and gravel, perhaps some kind of morraine left by the retreat of the glaciers. At the very top of the quarry, with the Alexandra workings in sight, we came upon another set of tips. Between the two tip runs are the ruins of a number of structures and what looked to be a water wheel pit...possibly the first farm on the hill and perhaps where the catholics took refuge in the C16th. There's a fine weigh house and we were both quick to exploit the photographic possibilities against Mynydd Mawr and the snow-clad bulk of Snowdon, seemingly touchable in the cool air.
A short walk over grass took us to the complex of ruined buildings belonging to Alexandra quarry. These structures date from the later days at the quarry and are mainly concerned with generating electricity and winding the blondins which were stationed on this side of the pit. The tips are extensive and each finger runs for a hundred yards or more. I was surprised to see the long rake of Betws-y-Garmon iron mine across the valley, making me realise where we were. At times like this I am reminded that Snowdonia is really quite a small place, so many good things crammed into a few hundred square miles of quality, unlike the highlands of Scotland, which seem to go on forever. After spotting the tenth Munro one can't help but be a little blasé.
While photo-ing happily away in the ruins, Petra and I became aware of a mighty growling, becoming increasingly louder. It was as if two enormous dragons were battling in the pit below. I looked over the edge and saw four trails bikes and a couple of quad bikes roaring over the berms and tracks. So much for the site of special scientific interest, then. I don't mind them cutting about over this place, I just wish they were a little quieter, but then I guess the noise is part of the fun. Perhaps I am becoming an old fart, but I haven't taken a subscription out for the Radio Times yet.
We descended towards where the Alexandra mill area had been, now flattened. It's walls were used for making slates and all the machinery was taken by the scrap man. Later, the quarry was amalgamated with Moel Tryfan and much equipment was taken away to be used elsewhere, while the pit was used for dumping Tryfan waste.
The wonderful tramway still remains, winding downhill from the pit towards the Bryngwyn drumhead, where it connected to the Welsh Highland Railway via the Bryngwyn branch. The trackbed is owned by the Ffestiniog/Welsh Highland Railway, who have co-operated with local bodies to allow a permissive path over the length of the branch, to be covered soon on this blog!
It was getting late in the day, but we decided to head on down the quarry branch towards the incline, and I'm glad we did. The route is spectacular, perhaps not in the same league as the Rhosydd tramway, but the views towards Caernarfon and Anglesey that open out are very fine. After a while, a line of tips marks the start of the now run-in tunnel, "Lefel Fawr", engineered by Spooner to provide access to level 5 of the Alexandra pit. This would have come out at Alexandra just below the present water level. There were several floors below this eventually...I am not sure I understand why the Lefel fawr wasn't used to extract spoil/product instead of the longer tramway from the mills, perhaps the logistics were more difficult. At any rate, it must have drained the quarry, as there is now a Welsh Water pumping station at the tunnel mouth. After the remains of the tunnel, the line takes a left through some smallholdings, losing height via a fine switchback curve. At this point darkness was beginning to fall and I wasn't quite sure where we were. There were huge tips to our left which I thought might be the Moel Tryfan tips, but equally, they could be the Braich workings as I had left the map somewhere in Alexandra.
With considerable bluff, I announced that the steep track to our left was the Tryfan exit incline and we wearily strode up. I was very glad when a digger appeared out of the gloom and we realised we were indeed at the old Moel Tryfan mills level. Phew!
Thankfully, it was all downhill from here to the car, which was at Y Fron. The walk had been a series of fascinating contrasts, from the bleak Snowdonian grandeur of Mynydd Mawr and the quarry plateau, to the "alpine" tramway and latterly, the line of the trackbed through cluttered and charmingly untidy smallholdings. It felt like we had walked a considerable distance because of the contrasts, when in reality it had only been a round trip of about four miles. That is definitely one of the wonders of Snowdonia!
(1) "Cwm Gwrfai, the Quarries of the North Wales Narrow Gauge and Welsh Highland Railways" by Gwynfor Pierce Jones and Alun John Richards, Gwasg Garreg Gwalch, ISBN: 0-86381-897-8