Thursday, 27 October 2016


Anyone who has looked at Snowdon on Google earth will be aware of Glanrafon; it shows up as a surreal cookie cutter hole, punched in the landscape. Well, Snowdonia is peppered with all manner of mines, most fenced and gated off to deter the curious- so it's no surprise this little corner has it's share of slate and mineral mines. Unlike some places, at Glanrafon there isn't much to see immediately, and the pit is a way off the footpath- only keen students of holes would make the extra walk to see it. There's also a curious trick of the terrain that the pit isn't particularly visible from the valley, although it's a different matter from higher up!

We started from the path which leaves the A4085 at Rhydd Ddu, heading for the Snowdon Ranger track. This was in the very early spring, and there was a bitter wind, but even so, we encountered a good few walkers. The allure of Snowdon seems eternal.  One of the advantages of this approach to Snowdon is the proximity of the Welsh Highland Railway, and we saw a couple of trains. I was hoping to photograph them from the Glanrafon tips, but we just couldn't get away from our work early enough that day. The track meanders over boggy ground, past ruined sheep fanks and on through the tips. At this point we left it to go and look at that hole.

It's not that deep compared to some of the sincs in Dinorwig or Dorothea, but makes an impressive spectacle nonetheless. There are several galleries and the inevitable buttress made of igneous gangue rock that was no use to the rockmen. There is a tunnel to a subsidiary pit and various closed off levels accessed from run-in lower tunnels. This is the thing about Glanrafon, though...while we know that it opened in October 1875 and closed in 1915 (yes, only forty years to make that pit!) it was picked over for another fifty-odd years by a number of syndicates and lone foragers who systematically removed anything resembling workable slate. Similarly anything metal suffered a similar fate. So most of the mills and structures were dismantled rock by rock and split into marketable slates.

The remains of the barracks, which have survived because they were built with igneous rock, not slate!
 It is possible to make out the site of the mills and the barracks, plus the formation of the inclines. Of the engine houses that drove the Nantlle-style chain inclines there is no trace- and there are other features which were mystifying at the time, but crystallised in the light of further knowledge. There is no sign of the five loco sheds, pump houses or evidence of the deep tunnels to the pit that the ordnance survey 1889 sheet shows...but I didn't quarter the site entirely and would be delighted to be proved wrong on that score.

The Mills area
But I'm racing ahead here. One of the crucial factors in the viability of the quarry was the proximity of the Welsh Highland Railway, or as it was known then, the North Wales Narrow Gauge Railway. Trouble was, that had stalled at Snowdon Ranger. The insurmountable obstacle was the Afon Treweunydd, ironically, carrying run off water from Glanrafon's own water wheels. The railway had run out of funds and of ideas. The quarry decided to act and loaned one of it's own engineers. According to Bill Rear, noted railway historian, the girders for the 90 foot span were bolted together end-to-end and slid over the gorge.  When the first girder was in place and secure, the second was unbolted from it (it had acted as a counterbalance until the first girder had been fixed in place) and then slid over the top and gently rolled into position alongside. The railway was still on it's beam ends, however, and the quarry partners had to contribute funds in the form of 80 6% shares in the railway so that construction could proceed again. They also financed the signalling on the final section, but stipulating a guarantee that quarrymens trains would be run in return for the favour.
It paid off, as the first years of the quarry were remarkable. Rents were exceeded in five years and the royalty rate was £225 to the estate by 1884.

Waterwheel pit, with Mynydd Mawr in the background
 The landlord was Ashetton-Smith, who held the land from the Crown. A less than glorious figure, not unfamiliar to students of slate quarries, he was to obstruct the profitability of the quarry throughout it's life. In fairness to him, he would be thinking about his own quarries (notably Dinorwig), and didn't want this upstart operation to take away his own source of wealth. In one of the many lease revision documents over the years of the quarry, it stipulated that Glanrafon was not to recruit men from the catchment area of Dinorwig (although since Dinorwig recruited men from Anglesey, that would seem rather unreasonable).

Unidentified structures near to the pit.
 Sadly, after gradual development which saw control pass entirely to John Owen, a Caernarfon ship owner and timber merchant, the rock began to decline. The quarry had never produced much in the way of first quality slate, but  had made very profitable quantities of other grades. However, the desperate hunt for new rock was now on. In 1901, John Owen  died, and his son lost no time in offloading the whole operation. Shares in the quarry had passed to him on the death of his father, while on the sale of the concern, he gave his two daughters over 3,000 shares each. Incredibly for such a lame duck enterprise, Owen secured £25,000 for the quarry, a sum that must have seemed astronomical at the time.

Evidence of latter-day overburden stripping
 It was sold to a Scottish concern, headed by Robert Alexander Murray, acting for a syndicate of Scots businessmen. The new owners set to with a will, but this was to be a short Indian Summer for the quarry. Even with an experienced and wise manager in the form of the redoubtable J.R. Lindsay, ex-manager of Aberfolyle in charge, things quickly turned sour. In the meantime, Owen's daughters had been quietly offloading their shares in the company to anyone daft enough to buy them. (Including some to the quarry's own directors!) The Scottish company spent a lot of time and money testing the ground on either side of the quarry, but to no avail...the slate deposits here must have been a one-off, as Gwynfor Pierce Jones put it, "het silk a throwsus melfared", a silk hat with fustian trousers! So it was, that after a brief death agony, the quarry was wound up in 1916, although it had actually ceased operation in 1915.  Ironically, one of the directors was an ironfounder who was later charged with "realising" the company's assets in a creative way...

The cutting made by Owen and Iorwerth Thomas
But this was not to be the end of the story. Now begins the era of the "hoggia'r domen" , the tip boys. Their lease was for making slate from the tips, but not from the buildings or from the pit. (Although, the buildings did eventually succumb, as we have seen.) This period lasted until 1925, when the name Cadwalladr Humphries turns up. Readers of this blog might remember that he was one of the people who made a killing with the Lyn y Gadair quarry land. He now tried his hand at working the tips and set up some aerial cable runs. He seemed to do fairly well until the fifties, when two brothers, Owen and Iorwerth Thomas of Dyffryn Nantlle, took over.

Their incumbency is marked by scenes reminiscent of the Chuckle Brothers; at first things were little more than hand-to-mouth...slates were sent down the half-mile incline to the railway track bed without the benefit of telegraphic communication to the lower banksman, and in misty weather it was impossible to see the foot of the incline. Many a wagon went hurtling away, a harbinger of the RAF jets who would later fly low through the valley!

The brothers decided to procure a pony and cart from an associate in Nantlle, but unfortunately, this ancient animal died before it could do any work- the journey over the pass from Dyffryn Nantlle proved too much for the poor beast. Attempts were made to use caterpillar dozers and dumpers on the tips, but this was impractical and too expensive for a shoe string operation. The boys went back to carting slates in wheelbarrows and using  an ex-army Jeep for transport to and from the quarry. Eventually, they settled on ex-army Morris four wheel drive vehicles to move product to the road below.

Remains of the half-mile long lower incline to the Welsh Highland Railway
In time, the Thomases became bold enough to start burrowing into the tips where good rock slabs could be found, and made a rock cutting which, when I first visited the site, I could find no explanation for. Apparently, this was dug out by hand, using pick axes and shovels! Finally, the temptation proved too much for the boys and they started on a good chimney of rock; although the lease forbade this, it was excellent slate- one wonders why Lindsay didn't spot this? Aware of what Pierce Jones calls the "timetable of officialdom", the caper went on undetected, with the result that their slate merchants in Manchester wanted to put money in and provide machinery! It began to seem too good to be true...and it was. An unexploded mortar was found on site while an inspector was making a visit, and officialdom shut the operation down for good. At least what little was left of the archaeology was safe now, and the site slumbers on, decaying gently in the harsh Snowdonian winters.

Much resort has been made here to the late Prof. Gwynfor Pierce Jones and Alun John Richards' "Cwm Gwyrfai" , a seminal work and recommended to the student of slate quarries of any hue.  I am most grateful for the information contained therein. ISBN: 0-86381-897-8 2004.

The books by James I. C. Boyd, notably" Narrow Gauge Railways of South Caernarfonshire Vol 2, The Welsh Highland Railway". (Oakwood Press 1989) ISBN; 085361-383-4

"Gazeteer of Slate Quarrying in Wales" Alun John Richards, Llygad Gwalch 2007, ISBN: 1-84524-074-X  This is the Vade Mecum, and has details on every site of significance in Wales.


Anonymous said...

Great stuff! Some lovely photographs there, Iain.

Iain Robinson said...

Thanks very much, Graham, glad you enjoyed the post :-)

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