Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Craig y Penmaen Copper Mine

In the Opencut
Earlier this year, we spent a lot of time exploring the area East of the A470 near Bronaber.  It seems at first to be a beautiful, but uninteresting slice of Wales until you begin to scratch the surface. Then, as always, fascinating things begin to emerge.
We were mine-hunting, of course- and uncovered a few gems, which hopefully will appear here soon. We also discovered that the area had enjoyed a very different life from the role of  holiday village that it mostly assumes nowadays. What we thought had been quarry buildings soon revealed themselves to have a rather more warlike aspect, helped by the notices here and there, warning walkers to keep to the path if they valued their limbs.  All this was, of course, in the past...Bronaber camp itself is well documented and was at it's peak in the two world wars, closing in the late fifties, when it had a brief period of glory housing the workers for the nuclear power station at Trawsfynydd. It's an interesting subject, and I may return to it sometime.

So, we weren't thinking much about unexploded bombs when we set off, up an unsurfaced track into one of the wilder corners of this area.  But, after a while, we noticed a burnt out area near the track , covered with slag.  For some crazy reason,  I thought it might be the site of a bloomery, although why, up here miles away from nowhere, I don't know. Once I had recovered from this aberration and started thinking sensibly, another, equally bizarre conclusion was the only one that seemed plausible. There was a fair quantity of molten steel which had melted into the ground and assumed the shape of the soil beneath it. Picking these rusted  pieces of steel up I noticed how very heavy they were...the only metal  this heavy, apart from lead, was some manganese steel I had tried to pick up at the shipyard, many moons ago. Scattered around were lumps of molten material like furnace slag, interspersed with hundreds of fuse bodies, shell cases, washers and other less obvious bits and pieces. I can only assume that an explosion had taken place, perhaps a large quantity of ordnance had gone off, and the resultant white heat of the concentrated blaze had vitrified the rock and melted the steel of the containers. Just a theory, of course, and if anyone knows otherwise, please let me know! I can only imagine the cost to the taxpayer of all that ordnance going bang, although I guess they were going to shoot it anyway. The other mystery is that the site was still bare of grass, presumably since the fifties?

The Dol Gain Copper Trial.
Suitably mystified, we continued on our way...and this was where more confusion began.  We were looking for a copper mine on the side of Craig y Penmaen, an outlier of Mynydd Bach. According to the Ordnance survey there were several excavations on the west side and Jeremy Wilkinson's excellent and normally infallible gazetteer notes them too. Looking on Google earth turned up a mine, but ...not in the right place. Looking back on the 1891 OS gave the same result as the gazetteer. Then, there was another mine which Petra spotted as we were stumping along, the Dol Gain Copper Mine, although the maps do have this one in the right place. The three mystery mines on the map are the Craig Penmaen East, West and South mines, although we couldn't find West and South.

Looking out from the Opencut
We eventually made it to what I assume is the East mine, to find a fine entrance opencut, a set of steps from a stile having been pressed into service to access the main adit. It's a lovely spot and the bosky entrance disguises the size of the excavation. Once in the mine, the drive goes along for a while and then twists to meet a roofing shaft. Above us we could see a  false floor, wooden boards straining with the weight of deads from above. It looked precarious and dangerous, so we didn't linger underneath it. Further investigation outside revealed a large stoped area on the hillside above, full of deads. None of this was on the OS maps, either historic or modern. A bit of a mystery, as the OS are usually so accurate. We had a good look around and there was no sign of the other mines marked...I wonder if an overlay had slipped back in 1891 when the cartographer had gone to lunch and he didn't notice it upon his return? The mine was nicely decorated with copper staining and fairly dry, although I don't think anyone without "miners eyes" would notice it. For us, the chalcopyrites in the wall gave the game away, as the adit is not visible from the trackway.

Copper leaching from the walls of the adit.

Petra's photo of filamentous fungus growing on a dead moth in the mine. https://mydododied.tumblr.com/
 We doubled back down the track, which is a bridleway, I should mention- to where Petra had spotted the other adit. It was a climb back to the foot of Craig y Penmaen and over a wall, then into a dip. The adit was a fine one, although entering was a huge disappointment as it turned out to be only a trial. Curiously, it drove both North and South immediately after the portal, similar to the Afon Gamallt mine.
The trek back to the road was wonderful, the views across to the Moelwyns in the distance the stuff of postcards and amateur watercolours. If only James Dickson Innes had come a little further West from the Arenigs and painted here. Skylarks were singing, too- and Petra noted the odd fact that when they are climbing, the song goes up...when they are descending the song goes down...
One last thing occurred to me as we walked back. Surely if ammunition had exploded, there would be a crater, and a wider area of damage? I am mystified!

Update 15/10/16:
It has come to light that the burnt area where explosives/cordite were thought to have been burned was cordite from Croesor, which was taken by Cooks/ICI to dispose of. The source mentions "A site on the old firing range behind Bronaber". This was in 1971.  source: AditNow forum

Keith O'Brien's collection of old photographs of the military camp here

Petra's Tumblr


Anonymous said...

Another interesting report, Iain.

When you started describing the site with the solidified molten metal this brought back memories of exploring aircraft crash sites (I do sometimes miss getting out into the wilderness).

Love Petra's shot of the fungus!

Iain Robinson said...

Thanks very much, Graham. I did wonder if it was an aircraft crash site for a minute, but there was no alloy or aluminium around, only heavy steel. I am sorry that because of the injury you can't range so far these days, I miss your more adventurous posts- although your photography is, as always, a joy.
Yeah, Petra's shot of the fungus...scooped me completely, just as I predicted :-)

Paul B. said...

I should imagine that aircraft wrecks in the Welsh hills are pretty well documented, here in the Peaks there are a number of books on the subject. I have a couple, bought after finding the remains of a Superfortress on Bleaklow. My initial impression was that it would have been a very lonely place to die.
Perhaps the pile of molten metal was from some kind of anti-tank bomb or incendiary device, tested on a redundant vehicle?
Anyway, great shots as usual. It must be hard whittling down to a few photos to publish,the great thing about digital cameras is the ability to snap away without worrying about film and developing costs.

Iain Robinson said...

Thanks very much, Paul. I agree, having seen a couple of crash sites in the Arenigs...what a horrible, lonely way to go.
I did wonder whether this was the result of some incendiary device, and yes, that's a good idea that it might have been tested on a vehicle...the heat was intense enough to make the steel molten at any rate.
Thanks for the comments about my photos, you are right, it's hard choosing which ones to use and in fact I forgot one :-) Digital cameras are wonderful, I wish they had been invented 50 years ago :-)

Anonymous said...

It looks like Gandalf could come wandering out of there.

Thanks for the beautiful images. I shell have to stop reading this blog because it makes me homesick...

Iain Robinson said...

Thanks Andy! I'm glad you enjoyed the images, although sorry it makes you homesick :-(

Anonymous said...

Great stuff - like the mystery of the molten metal and, yes, Petra's fungus photo.

Iain Robinson said...

Thanks very much, Alex!

Anonymous said...

There is some interesting stuff to be found in that area. Several decades ago Chris Battye & myself made found the upper entrance to Gwyn-fynydd gold mine and made our down and eventually out through the adit by the river.

Thinking about the lumps of melted steel you & Petra found. A couple of possibilities could be:
(a) the spot was used to dispose of unwanted cordite charges - these are packed in cotton bags and will just burn at very high temperature. Any nearby iron and steel would probably melt
(b) the chemical constituents of white flares were disposed of. e.g aluminium powder and iron oxide (aka Thermite)the resulting product would be a puddle of iron.

Please keep your reports coming.


Iain Robinson said...

Geoff, thanks very much indeed for those interesting comments. I envy you the Gwynfynydd trip, I wish I had done that. You can't these days as the parks authority are on high alert for any ochre coming out of the mine. It's still a fascinating spot, though.

I think there's traction with either of your theories...the cordite one seems especially plausible. On the other hand, the white flares would explain the slag, but not the very heavy steel remains...but I am sure you are on the right track :-)
I have a little list of reports that I will produce soon, so yes, I will keep them coming, and thanks again for your theories, which are pretty much spot-on I suspect.

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