Saturday, 22 October 2016

The Klondyke Mill

I spotted the Klondyke mill recently, while climbing  to Clogwyn y Fuwch, showing a visiting explorer around. Despite this being my third time up there, I hadn't noticed the mill before- now it seemed pretty obvious, you could see the ruined structures, the buddle pits and the working area from high up on the crags. I quickly stuck a bright yellow mental post-it note onto the inside of my cranium. "Check out the Klondyke Mill" where it quickly became covered with other notes, such as "need more coffee" and "check my Flickr notifications"....

Looking down from Clogwyn-y-Fuwch...the processing floor is the area without vegetation while the mill is slightly to the right.
So it was, that Petra and I were bumbling along in our ancient truck, on the tiny unmarked road beside Llyn Geirionydd towards Llanrhychwyn. It's an area not unblessed with industrial remains, including the aforementioned Clogwyn y Fuwch mine high on Mynydd Deulyn. At this point, the post-it note inexplicably revealed itself. Agreement was quickly reached and we abandoned the truck at a very rakish angle on the verge. A proper waymarked trail goes from the shore of the lake towards the Mill, pretty much along the tramway formation. This was a bit of a let-down, but it saved the usual bushwhacking and disagreements about the way we should be going. I always propose the arrow-straightest route, whereas I have a suspicion Petra actually quite likes a path, even if that turns out to be a sheep track and a half-mile detour sometimes...

We passed the intriguing remains of the Bryn Cenhadon mine, with quite a lot of spoil tipped. What we explored went on as a glorified opencut for a few hundred feet, the vein disappearing underground via an inaccessible adit. A nice site, worthy of further exploration by SRT. The spoil seemed to sparkle, perhaps from mica or quartz, I don't know. I can confirm though, that it is not a Manganese mine (the OS first edition is marked thus) and looks pretty much like a lead operation. The vein must have been almost at surface.

The path/tramway then starts to run above the gorge until the mill comes into sight. Those Trefriw Trails people would rather you didn't visit the mill, but we made our way off the path down the slippery steep side of the hill. Best to do this in fine weather, by the way! It's possible to make out some vestigial remains of the aerial cableway supports and other sketchy, stone supports as you reach the level of the mill. By now I was sporting several muddy patches where I had fallen, but it didn't matter, we were at the mill. Or were we?

Petra crosses the plank...
A dodgy looking plank crossed the stream here, the only access from this side of the valley. Now, I am fine with heights such as the ladders and deadly drops at Dinorwig, but I didn't fancy this slippery plank one bit... until Petra shamed me by padding balletically across while I was dithering. I had to follow, although more like an agoraphobic Smurf than a ballet dancer...

There is access from the Llyn Crafnant road to the mill, but we haven't tried it- always seems to be choked with cars when we have been that way. So the plank of death is my recommended route, just don't sue me. The mill is a listed building and the site has various paper protections placed upon it, which in reality means that it is allowed to fall to bits with no maintenance or care except for the placing of warning signs hither and thither. There isn't the money or the enthusiasm to conserve the site, but I'm OK with that, I don't want some lead-mine theme park spoiling my abandonment vibe.
There's still enough here for the knowledgeable to interpret and the spoil heaps are impressive in themselves, as is the signature lead mining characteristic of no vegetation. Interesting this...when slate mines are landscaped, you can always tell because the grass grows a sickly yellow/green for decades afterwards. Unless you are the good burghers of Blaenau, who coated the newly-landscaped Glan-y-Don tip with tons of chicken poo for the royal visit in the seventies. Wun puckered wun's nose, I imagine.

Now, the bit you have been waiting for, that tasty scandal. In an age when swindling folk was something of an art form, the Klondyke mine scam was fairly typical, but the perpetrator was caught by the amateur detective skills of Charles Holmes, proprietor of the nearby Parc mine, who claimed he unearthed the scam. Or he could have been sweeping a competitor out of the way. I can do no better than to paraphrase the Wikipedia article here, as it is repeated elsewhere on the web and comes from good sources. This is a sop to recent correspondents who claim bitterly that I am wrong to give links off the site for information, and that they find clicking those links to be onerous. 

Aspinall's Klondyke Scam

"In 1918 Joseph Aspinall, a man with mining credentials, but formerly an undischarged bankrupt (1912) who had served time in jail for failing to disclose this in 1917, formed the Crafnant and Devon Mining Syndicate Ltd, having purchased the lease from the Trefriw Mining Company. (This payment, incidentally, was not ever made!) In 1920 the Mining Journal of 6 May 1920 carried an article stating that this company had acquired the Trefriw silver-lead mines, where it had struck a rich lode – containing 70oz of silver per ton – in the former prospecting level. The mill machinery was described as being modern and in full working order, with a turbine easily capable of dressing 1500 tons a week. By 1920, however, Aspinall was in prison for running a scam.
In brief, Aspinall made absurd claims as to the potential and output of the mine, and employed many local men to carry it out. His scheme involved the use of the mill building and of the adjacent mine entrance, which in fact contained only a couple of prospecting tunnels of no great length, and where no minerals had been found. Aspinall would entertain prospective shareholders from London, paying for their first-class train fare and accommodation, and take them to see the mine and the mill. On approaching the mine, he would give a friendly hoot on his car horn, which was, in fact, a signal for his "workers" to act their roles. The entrance tunnel to the mine had previously been cleaned, and some 20 tons of lead concentrates (shipped from Devon) were glued to the walls, giving a sparkling appearance. Aspinall had also purchased locally galena concentrates for which he would pay 50% above the ordinary market price. This was he said, for use in a new secret process, but was in fact used to provide some evidence of mined ore. Men guarded the entrance to the tunnel, and others ran around, giving an impression of great activity. In Klondyke mill itself, much of the equipment (a stone breaker and a few jigs) was of virtually no use at all, but Aspinall installed a shaking table, then erected a launder from the stonebreaker to the head of the table. Together with a couple of other pieces of equipment, it all looked the part and made a convincing noise.
Holmes, whose suspicions were aroused by a number of factors, notified Scotland Yard, and Aspinall was eventually sentenced to 22 months in prison for having deceptively obtained some £166,000 from his victims. He subsequently moved to France, where he attempted a similar scam, but was sentenced to 5 years in jail. In 1927 he received another 4 years in jail for an oilfield scam."

The Factoids:

Originally known by the far less exotic-sounding name of the Geirionydd Mill, this complex was built in 1899 to process the lead from the New Pandora Lead Mine. The mine was variously known as the Willoughby Lead Mine (1889), Welsh Foxdale Lead Mine (1900), and New Pandora Lead Mine (1913). An impressive tramway was built the 2.8 kilometers from mine to mill, utilising an aerial ropeway to take ore down from the tramway to the mill which was at the valley floor (itself quite a bit higher than Trefriw, the nearest village.)
Sadly, like many similar ventures, the mill never turned a profit, legally or otherwise.

Further reading:

J Bennett & R.W.Vernon (1995). Mines of the Gwydyr Forest, part 6. Gwydyr Mines Publications.

Coflein  (off-site link)

Wikipedia article 

More photos:

The tramway towards the mill.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Penrhyn Gwyn

An explore made in poor weather during March 2016.

Dolgellau is one of my favourite has the most wonderful vernacular architecture and many of the fine structures would make great subjects for models. I wonder if the look of the town is due to prosperity associated with the many gold mines locally, back in the mid C19?  
Sitting in one of Dolgellau's coffee shops, Petra was idly scanning the OS landranger and muttered that she had found a mine. I spluttered on my cappucino and grabbed the map. Enough of this loitering, I had forgotten that we were explorers!  I seemed to remember reading about the place, that the adit was gated, but it looked like it might be worth an afternoon mooch.  It was a bit of a dreich day, but why not, it was only a couple of miles away to the south, along a minor road.

 As it turned out, the mine is at the foot of a route to Cadair Idris. The path up to the farm is a delight, lined by beautiful trees and Tumblr-esque views ..I say this because a nice couple were coming down the track and taking a selfie to Instagram, or snapchat...whatever it was. At this point, we were incognito, posing as rubbernecks of the Cadair Idris variety, despite being festooned with torches, tripods, hard hats and wellies. They might have seen through our disguise.
Shortly after a ford, where the track to the peak turns right, we slinked off towards the mine and our natural environment. I remember thinking that re-acquainting myself with old Idris' chair would be wonderful, but we had more pressing business today.

It wasn't long before the ruins of the mill came into view. It's a hotch-potch of a structure and looks as if it has been built over several periods, then partly fallen down. There's very little in the way of waste, unless the farmer has taken this away for farm use. The incline ramps up four levels from here and it is quite an impressive feature. It's possible to reach all the quarry from this.

We explored a tramway formation through some lovely woodland, where the line is revetted against a steep river valley. We passed a ruined and very picturesque weigh house before coming to the adit, which had been piped and gated. As I thought, but damned infuriating. Apparently, access is owned by a local authority in the midlands who use it for school trips.  However, the tramway continued on, becoming sketchier by the minute. In places, the formation had fallen away, but belay points had been installed, presumably by said local authority, for the use of students. We came to a lovely dell, where the infant river wound around a spur amid magical sylvan splendour. Petra carried on over/through the stream and then pointed at something out of sight...her delighted expression told me that here was an adit, at least.

It didn't go very far, but it was interesting. A trial, perhaps...and no sign of slate. There were a few nice spiders, although not as many as in the adit at Ty'n y Bryn. I tried to take a photo, but they kept scurrying away. There is a rise at the end of the adit, but at the time I thought it was impassable. Only later did I find out from a friend that it can be squeezed up and leads to the pit. I can't see how this could be a viable entry into the pit for the quarry, as it debouches out into the river and is a bit too low down- perhaps they were waiting for the level of the pit to meet them? Darn, now we will have to go back.

After exploring the adit, and feeling that honour was satisfied to some extent, we explored the rest of the quarry. The next level up has a collapsed adit, the chambers of which may connect underground with the gated opening on the lower level. There was also the remains of a fine forge structure.

Up one more level and there are some large spoil tips and a run of ruinous structures which could be workshops or offices, as there are fireplaces in evidence. Not walliau, anyway. The remains of the main haulage incline are here.

 There's also what appears to be an incline down into the pit, which is choked with large trees and impossible to photograph meaningfully in the fading light. Judging by the remains of a leat, the incline might have been water powered, or there might have been other machinery on site.

 The highest level seems to be the oldest working, nothing much to see except for the fine views to Cadair Idris, feeling close enough to touch at the top level. I would have liked more time to explore the pit, as I had a feeling that an adit or a tunnel would have opened out in there and connected with the underground workings, but it looked like a rope job and as usual we had not come prepared.
Despite not gaining access to the underground workings (yet...) the site is a very interesting one and considering it's age, closing around the late 1880's, there's still a lot to see and muse over. Those who possess the miner's eye of faith will find much to observe and note. Richards notes that the output of the quarry was never very high, despite the large amount of waste. Nearer the farm he mentions a waterwheel pit and office, which somehow we missed! Another trip will hopefully be made to solve these niggling questions...permissions also need to be sought from the access folk as well.  It always seems thus, that we return from a sortie with more questions than answers, but that's how it should be.  And yes, we did take a selfie. Petra looked lovely as always... but I look like an old "fortyniner"- so the photo is out of the question!

Saturday, 24 September 2016

A Close Shave

I know what you're thinking. It's about Dinorwig, so he'll have almost fallen over one of those vertiginous drops in the Garret sinc, or rolled down the C incline like a fleecy log in a flume. Ah, sorry to disappoint you, I'm still alive and typing - although there's time, it might happen yet.

No, this is a shave of a different kind.

So...Dinorwig.  I was confident that Petra and I would be impressed by the vast Australia Mill, the Compressor House, or the Caban with it's old coats and boots. How could we not be, after the anticipation engendered by all those wonderful photographs on the web. They didn't disappoint- and seeing them in the raw slate was so much more vivid and intriguing.
And yet...I found myself becoming attached to a couple of places that seemed to have a definite atmosphere about them; something hard to quantify, but that chimed with me. Places that were overlooked and little documented by the folk who love the place.

One such is the little drumhouse a couple of levels above Australia; I think we are talking about the Panws to Lernion incline, a straightforward Drum installation, although as always, I am open to advice on this from wiser heads than mine.

The point of this ramble is that the place is an isolated one, 1,800 feet above the valley. The ruined drumhouse is in the last throes of vertical life and will soon slowly sink to one side; gracefully, I imagine. It looks beautiful. Yes, I know, I have a strange idea of that concept since I like my landscapes punctuated by quarries and tips, but trust me, I trained as an artist you know.
And there we were, soaking up the atmosphere on an unusually sunny day hereabouts, not a soul to be seen anywhere. Petra was in the ruins, taking photographs. I was standing outside, gazing across the valley to Snowdon.

Then it happened. A curious sound, like the whoosh of an arrow. I felt something on my cheek and was very briefly aware of a shape; then it was gone and I saw a Sparrow Hawk come out of the crimp and soar upwards at fantastic speed. It took me a few moments to realise what had happened and, as the hawk flew off, a lovely little skylark emerged from the drum and quietly flitted away, seemingly unpeturbed by it's brush with death.

Grazed by the arrow of a hawk...they say that an accipiter's brain can percieve time more slowly, that it can plan it's incredible moves in detail, rather like a program to predict and compensate for the inherent instability of a fighter jet. It saw that lark, did a hawk-type risk assessment in split seconds and plotted a course through the steel spiders of the Drumhouse. It only made a tiny error, and caught me so gently as it flew down. One way or another- that was a close shave.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Dinorwig- Slates in the Mist

I can't say what had been stopping us from exploring Dinorwig before now. We'd always been aware of the place, but somehow felt it couldn't be as good as everyone said...and it had all been photographed and documented, there were no fresh angles, so heck, why bother?
Of course, we were so wrong. After three visits, I have a huge list of things I want to investigate, study and understand about the place; it may actually take quite a while.
Our first foray took us up to Marchlyn and over the hill, courtesy of the Hydro road. You come upon the quarry suddenly this way, after a tough walk uphill for a mile or so. I will never forget the view as the A7 incline Drumhouse appeared through the mist and all the galleries opened up below us. So this was it!

The A7 Drumhouse

Did I mention the weather? This place has it in abundance. What I thought would be unpromising conditions for photography turned out to be the perfect set-up, if you don't mind waiting for the sun to break through occasionally...and if you appreciate very cloudy skies. I don't go along with that old saying about there being no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing- that would be tempting fate at Dinorwig, but I got the feeling that the rare clear blue sky days are not appropriate for recording the place.

We mooched around on Lernion level for a long while, taking in the views and trying to imagine how the mountain looked before all the extraction happened, trying to see the negative space. There were all sorts of things going on down there, little shelters,  inclines, round huts, rusty took a while, looking closely at the photos afterwards to begin to appreciate everything. It was a Bank Holiday weekend, the first time we visited; not the best way to see the place. There were folk on some of the galleries, bellowing and shouting meaninglessly  as some people do when confronted by  bigger things than themselves. Some young adults were chucking things off another level while climbers enjoyed the slate walls as a set of problems to be overcome-thankfully not being strafed by occasional missiles. Yes, this is why we hadn't visited, we thought. All the people.

Upper Penrhydd loco shed and caban
 We left it a couple of days and decided that we had to go back. But on a weekday, the place was almost deserted and took on a completely different feel, one of brooding and of silence, punctuated by the cawing of Ravens rather than the yells of morons. We became aware of another aspect of the place and it's character, including an increasing  consciousness of the poor souls who worked here in all weathers, for very little reward.
Our weather was again just the same. This time we explored level Swallow and it's tunnel onto a gallery, went down another level to Tophet and Abysinnia and had a good look at the compressor house. Everything has been relentlessly explored, picked over, grafitti'd, examined and photographed, but it didn't spoil the sense of wonder we felt.

Roller Taylor, Trwnc Incline
Most features have a name at Dinorwig. Sometimes two names, as the climbers have taken many parts of the place and made it their own, giving evocative names to features. There's "Mordor", for instance, and "Lost World" to name but two. Fitting the proper names to features can be very difficult and is a study in itself, which is perhaps why the climbers have extemporised. I like that the place is many things to many people. Most who arrive here fall in love with it, for whatever reason. Even the folk the climbers call the "Tutters", who walk past on the narrow, fenced confines of the footpath, admire the place. Petra and I love it for the sculptural qualities of the galleries, for the dystopian perspectives of its ruined incline houses, and for the way that  generations of ordinary (albeit highly skilled) men have carved out a hole in the mountain, achieving  grandeur and stature far beyond that of their rapacious and unprincipled employers*.

The quarry will still be here for generations yet, a memorial to the men who worked in all weathers, outside on the rock. 

Sinc Braich, or "The Lost World" pays your money and you takes your choice :-)

A note about the pay of the workers
The working rock face in the galleries ranged between 53 and 86 feet in height. It was divided into 'bargains' i.e. working areas up to 18 feet wide each quarried by one half of each bargain gang of 6 or 8 men. The other half processed the quarried rock into finished slate. These working areas were termed 'bargeinion' (bargains) because a price had to be negotiated monthly with the 'stiward gosod' - the bargain setter. If the team made a good bonus the previous month, then the setter reduced the poundage the following month. In the hey day of the industry, the quality of the bargain allocated to a gang often depended on its religious and political affiliations. The members were paid a basic weekly salary which was topped up by the monthly bonus paid according to the number of slates produced based on the poundage agreed at the beginning of the month. However, each team had to pay for the powder and tools used, e.g. holes drilled by the foot (6d a foot in 1940), use of dressing machine (2s 2d), pay for ropes, pay the blacksmith for sharpening tools, labourers for moving waste, hospital money etc. All these ate into the bonus.
It was not unknown for men to have slaved for a month and come home not only without a bonus but actually owing money to the company. This was in an age when the Hon. W.W. Vivian, the then, general manager was left a cool £70,000 in his employers' will.
I am indebted to Eric Jones for the above information, his Geograph photographs of Dinorwig are a fund of knowledge.

Further Reading

Jones, R. Merfyn. 1981. The North Wales quarrymen, 1874-1922 Studies in Welsh history 4. University of Wales Press. ISBN 0-7083-0776-0

Carrington D.C. and Rushworth T.F. (1972). Slates to Velinheli: The Railways and Tramways of Dinorwic Slate Quarries, Maid Marian Locomotive Fund.

Douglas C. Carrington  Delving in Dinorwig  Llygad Gwalch Cyf, Llanrwst
ISBN: 9780863812859

Reg Chambers Jones  Dinorwic: The Llanberis Slate Quarry, 1780-1969  Bridge Books  ISBN-10: 1844940330

James I. C. Boyd  Narrow Gauge Railways in North Caernarvonshire: The Dinorwic Quarries, Great Orme Tramway and Other Rail Systems v. 3 Oakwood Press   ISBN-10: 0853613281

Dave Sallery's feature on Dinorwig within his excellent Welsh Slate industry site here

The Compressor House, Australia level.

The deserted Mill at Australia

Sunday, 10 July 2016

A Blast from the Past: Dol-y-Clochydd

A little while ago, a friend mentioned to me about an ancient blast furnace near Ganllwyd. This gentleman is a very knowledgeable and precise fellow, not given to flights of fancy, so I felt that I had to go and look.  I couldn't imagine a blast furnace in such a beautiful spot; my mind would insist on conjuring up images of the old John Summers works in Shotton, or the furnaces at Port Talbot. What I found surprised me.
The story starts back in the first half of the C16, when it is known that a bloomery was sited at the Dol-y-Clochydd site. What is a bloomery?  It is the site of a small-scale iron furnace, where iron ore is heated and reduced to form iron-rich slag. This slag or "bloom" is heated  then reduced again by hammering the waste, or gangue, away repeatedly until finally a reasonably pure iron bar (wrought iron) is produced. There are still many impurities such as phosphorus, nickel and arsenic which are partly reduced to the iron, leading to some interesting alloys. One thing all this heating needs, though,  is a great deal of fuel. Charcoal.
Enter the first notable player in our story, Hugh Nanney, whose increasing status in 1586 as Sherrif of Meirioneth allowed him to acquire a great deal of land, including some of the lands belonging to Cymer Abbey. Dol-y-Clochydd was situated in one of these parcels and he wasted little time in leasing the furnace off to a couple of English fellows,  John Smith and William Dale . The deal was sweetened by including " all the trees on Penrhos Common, a low hill to the north, adjoining the said iron mill’ Here's a thing- you might be wondering why there was all this iron activity here, of all places- perhaps there were deposits of iron ore? After all, there were a number of other bloomeries operating at the same time in Coed y Brenin.  There were iron deposits on the slopes of Cadair Idris, and further up the mawddach valley, but, no...the crucial factor was the availability of timber in large stands of trees. Oak, that is, not the monotonous Sitka that pervades the area today. In a post-Elizabethan England where most handy timber had been used to build ships, resources were scattered in less convenient places, such as the upper Mawddach valley, although that still isn't quite all the story, as we shall see.
So, our Englishmen lost no time in cutting down a great deal of timber to make charcoal However, Hugh Nanney was either unscrupulous or careless, as it quickly came to the attention of the Crown that these woodlands were being decimated, and they sent a deputation to Nanney to serve a notice of theft on him- it turned out that the trees on Penrhos common belonged to them! The hapless Nanney was fined £1200 and sentenced to two years in the Fleet prison; it couldn't have been a comfortable billet. The fine was later reduced to £800 after the quality of the wood was was decided that Nanney's tenants had taken 10,000 oaks at a cost of 3 shillings each, but a carpenter, brought to give evidence by John Smith, claimed that many of the oaks were unsuitable, and that the wood was difficult to extract from the steep hillsides.
Nanney didn't seem to be ruined by his spell at her majesty's pleasure, because soon afterwards, he was back on the scene. In 1596, he is brokering a deal to convert the site at Dol-y-Clochydd into a blast furnace, bringing William Grosvenor on the scene as a financial backer. By this time, Smith and Dale had taken out a new 21 year lease on the site. Sadly the new furnace only had a short life and it is reported to have been blown out by 1604, although this may have been because of a scarcity of wood to use as fuel- certainly, nobody would be thinking of taking timber from Penrhos common....
Coming back again to the question of why these men had developed the furnace in such an out-of the way spot; granted, the wood was a factor. But Nanney was a something of an entrepreneur, and despite his new status as an ex-jailbird, had many influential friends at court.  For instance, he was patronised by Sir James Croft, formerly Lord Deputy of Ireland and Comptroller of the Royal Household under Elizabeth. The aforementioned William Grosvenor, one of the backers of the project, had forges and warehouses in Chester, for the supply of arms for use in Ireland- so perhaps Nanney was making use of what was available to him locally at the time and using his contacts to find a market for his iron. What happened to Nanney, Smith and Dale afterwards is probably an interesting story, but for now, let's take a look at the site as it is today.

The furnace lies near the bank of the Mawddach at the foot of a very steep slope, which has probably contributed to it's survival, as it is difficult to access the place with agricultural machinery. We stopped our truck at the side of the road while I squinted down to the river banks, not quite knowing what to look for. Then, I saw it. Nothing more than a low, squarish mound, but undoubtedly something worthy of investigation.  We scrambled and stumbled down, slipping and then sinking ankle deep in mud, but soon we were at close quarters with a furnace that was last blown in 1604. I was quite excited to finally see this, after reading about it beforehand. It was excavated by a team of archaeologists in the 1980's, firstly by a group from Plas Tan-y-Bwlch who found evidence of "glassy blast furnace slag in the riverbank" and latterly by Peter Crew who has made a definitive study of the subject, referenced at the end.

There are the feint remains of a loading bank, or charging platform. The wood posts at each corner are obviously relatively new, but mark the king posts which would have supported a wooden structure around the furnace. The blowing arch can just be made out, with its sandstone lintel, while the lining of the furnace shows signs of sandstone blocks, vitrified by the intense heat. It is certainly a lesson in industrial archaeology brought to life with the help of a little imagination. Grass has grown over all the excavations, but in the 80's, signs of a casting floor were found and evidence of a water powered bellows. Today there are remains at the top of the bank of a stone built ore hopper where iron ore and bloomery slag would be offloaded from the road and sent down a chute to the furnace. It's not hard to imagine the activity and smoke here back in the very early C17.

I would like to apologise for the poor quality of the photos, it was a very dull and drizzly early spring day when we visited and no amount of C21 technology can quite make up for the lack of sunlight!

By the way, Dol-y-Clochydd means "the Sexton's Meadow".

Dol-y-Clochydd blast furnace, grid reference SH 734 220

P. Crew and M. Williams. "Early iron production in north-west Wales". In Medieval Iron in Society II. Stockholm: Jernkontorets Forskning H39, 1985, 20-30

"Ironworking in Merioneth from  prehistory to the 18th century" 
by Peter Crew   Plas Tan-y-Bwlch

Coflein link 

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.
 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

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Pen y Ffridd or Llanrhychwyn Slate Mine

Pen-y-Fridd has to be one of the most enchanting mines that I have ever visited. The daylit chambers open out into the woods near Trefriw at SH776612 and in some ways, feel a little like Clogwyn-y-Fuwch, but on a smaller, more intimate scale. A series of openings follow the vein along a dolerite sill, but the adjoining walls are worked away, so that only the pillars remain to hold the roof up.  It's a wonder that the whole place hasn't collapsed before now, but the result is a cathedral-like space, quiet and eerie in the woodlands.

We first visited a few years ago, but In a silly moment, I accidentally deleted all my photographs before I could process them. Petra and I have been meaning to come back for a long time...finally, this spring, we made it. Nothing much seems to have changed. You can still park in a lay-by along from the footpath entrance that leads to the mine, walking along through a farm and shortly afterwards taking the right fork up a steepish path that leads to the workings. This felt like hard going for me as I was carrying my excessively heavy tripod and underground kit, but the wonderful woodland setting made up for the discomfort.

It is an old mine. The first record of it is in 1786, when Pen y Ffridd slates were known to have been exported from Conwy. The slate is black and quite heavy with pyrites, liable to rust and crumble when exposed on a roof, but nevertheless, the mine kept up a good trade and between 1824 and 1840 it mainained an output of over 1000 tons a year. Output carried on spasmodically until it was last worked in 1865.

Walking up to the mine, you are aware of the tips on the left, so overgrown with trees and vegetation now as to be barely recognisable, looking more like river spurs or ridges. There may or may not be an incline, there certainly is a little bridge at one point. The records are coy about whether there were any tramways here, perhaps this was too early...we certainly didn't see any evidence of rails. Output seems to have been processed outside, with no signs of walliau or a mill, although the smithy is marked on the 1899 map. The smithy is a magical place and I spent some time trying to photograph it, although the encroaching trees nearly defeated me.

Getting in to the mine is a struggle, involving clambering over fallen timber and dense undergrowth. The path is well fenced off, too, being a public right of way, so barbed wire has to be negotiated. It's all worth it, though as the place really is breathtakingly beautiful. It is, as Williams and Lewis* say, an "eerie and mysterious place".

This time, we walked up to the top of the workings and found some scratchings and remains of workings on the highest level. I doubt whether this would have been a powder store as I wonder whether powder was used at all- I suspect the slate was hammered and crowbarred away from the gangue rock.

There are also run-in hints of lead mines in the vicinity, quite subtle and only seen with the mine explorer's eye of faith...a tip here, a depression there. It does add up to a picture of the place being very busy at the end of the C18. A new road was built in 1824 by Robert Hughes to take produce to the quay at Trefriw and there are some references to slate workers sawing blocks and splitting slabs on the quayside for onward distribution down the River Conwy.

"Gwydir Slate Quarries, Williams and Lewis, Gwasg Dwyfor, ISBN 0 9512373 5 7

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